by Betty Bednarski
Jacques Ferron's last book, though polemical, is filled less with anger than sadness at the contemplation of loss
At the time of Jacques Ferron's death in 1985 no major new book by him had been published in Quebec for many years The silence was troubling and eloquent in the case of a writer whose voice had been resonant throughout the 1960s and '70s. The old books -the fantastical novels, the essays, and the comes, by now living classics --were consistently reprinted, but there was nothing from the present, nothing to indicate that the great work could be continued or renewed.
Most readers knew that Ferron was going through a period of painful personal crisis and that he had effectively withdrawn from public life. But he had not given up writing, end before he died he had prepared a collection of texts that now have been published under the title La Conference inachevee. They are, for the most part, short pieces. Fifteen are stories - contes or historiettes - originally published in periodicals, and there is a long autobiographical essay on the subject of madness, segments of which had been printed in the late '70s and early '80s in L'Information medicale et paramedicale, where over the years some of Ferron's finest writing had fast appeared. Together they comprise s literary testament that in Quebec has been hailed as "un texte sacre" --- a sacred text.
Inachevee - unfinished. The title of the collection, which is Ferron's own (as is the ordering of the individual parts), contains an admission of incompleteness. It implies a project unrealized, a literary work whose ambitions for itself have remained. This, toward the end of his life, is how Ferron had came to regard the whole of his work. But in the latest book one text in particular the walls of a mental hospital - represents the impossibility of realizing a specific dream.
The dream for Ferron in the last 10 years or so of his life was to create a work on, madness and literary creation that would express all of his intuitions and perceptions, a great book, a kind of culmination, a coming together of thoughts and themes that had found their way with increasing obstinacy into almost everything he had written. The 70 pages of "Le pas de Gamelin" - final but unfinished - bear witness to the virtuality of that other book which had at once haunted and eluded him.
Gamelin is another name for Saint Jean-deDieu hospital, where, in 1970 and 1971, Ferron, a general practitioner, ministered to the mentally ill, often defying medical orthodoxy and the institutional authority he was answerable to. He recounts successes and failures with humility and humanity and a profound respect for the patients - all women whose individual stories he has told. In the presence of the most abject cases he reaffirms human dignity, denouncing psychiatry's brutal assaults on minds and bodies and, in a broader sense, the institutionalization of medicine and the ensuing degradation of modem woman and man.
Ii is recognizably Ferron the polemicist whiting here. But while there is sharpness of focus and unflinching condemnation, there is none of the violence so apparent in the celebrated written "skirmishes" of the 1960s and early '70s. There is anger but, above all, sadness - sadness at his own failure to do more to help - and one wonders in the end if Perron is not hardest of all on himself. "Le pas de Gamelin," for all its disquieting revelations, is a gentle, humble and infinitely compassionate text. And it is moving in a way the purely polemical writings can never be. It is not just a system that is being called into question here, but Perron himself, the doctor, the writer . . . the lifetime's work.
The incompleteness suggested by Ferron's title no doubt signals his regret. But it does not rule out continuation. If all is not said, it may still be said presumably by someone else. We know that Ferron saw his work not as a purely individual endeavour but as part of an ongoing process of collective creation. By 1980 he had abandoned all hope of writing the great book of his ambition, announcing humbly but confidently that other writers younger than he would come along and fulfil his dream. But for him that dream was political as well as literary, and his ambitions as a writer were bound up inevitably with his aspirations for his unfinished country.
On the eve of the Quebec referendum, in a short but powerful text titled L'Alias du "Non" et du neant, Ferron had equated the denial of collective identity (le "Non'' with the collapse of all meaning (le neant). The no vote, he implied, would usher in the reign of nothingness. Later, in preparing his last manuscript, he would consider several titles. One of those suggested and subsequently rejected was Contes du pays perdu. In 1962, le pays incertain or uncertain country, now le pays perdu - a country lost.
In one of the most beautiful pieces in the book, "Lea deux lys," Perron confronts the two lilies of his childhood: the white one, rare, delicate and sweetly perfumed, with its biblical and patriotic connotations; the orange one, hardy and prolific, symbol of a persistent domination. The white lily, tended lovingly by his mother before her premature death, has lived on in his mind with the memory of her - the focus of all his hopes for his country.
The winters are long and the frosts deep. Of the two lilies, only hers is miraculous. And faith may waver and one of these years my mother's life in me away fail to bloom again. I will die then a second time ....Could it be that I have lived uselessly in an obsession for a country that was lost? O Lord, if it be so, I say to you now, let the Devil take me.
Another title considered at the manuscript stage was Conies d'adieu. The three possible titles translate three preocupations, separate but related. Nothing could sum up more eloquently than they do the spirit that has presided over the writing of Ferron's book: La Conference inachevee, the notion of a project incomplete; the adieu, his personal farewell, his own bowing out of a life he senses will soon be over; the pays perdu, the bitter realization that he will not live to see his country free. If there is something open, something less irrevocable about the title of Ferron's choice, with its stress on the virtual and allowances for continuation, the texts that make up this book are nevertheless all tinged with despair. They are teats written in the shadow of death, and they have, without exception, taken shape in a mind grown accustomed to the contemplation of loss.