||A Review of: The Whole Night Through
by Michael Harris
When Christiane Frenette first jumped from poetry to prose, she
landed between the two. And it was gorgeous. The result, La terre
ferme, won a 1998 Governor General's Award and informed her readership
that this was no one trick pony. It was a prose debut, a decidedly
poetic prose debut, which shook off the husk of genre. And now, so
does her second novel, The Whole Night Through.
Sylvia Plath's 1962 essay, "A Comparison", dithers on
that crooked intersection where Poetry and Prose cross: "If a
poem is concentrated, a closed fist," weighs Plath, "then
a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand."
"How I envy the novelist!" moans Plath at the start to
her essay. She even calls poetry "an evasion from the real
business of writing prose." But not Frenette. Her novels are
conspicuously poetic, and that is their highest achievement. Indeed
it would be hard to say what (if anything) Frenette would envy-an
embarrassment of stylistic riches is hers already.
Frenette's perennial theme of loss and loss's staggering weight,
its ridiculous longevity, is the motor for The Whole Night Through.
Jeanne, our young insomniac heroine, sits uselessly on a cabin's
porch, in the wilderness, watching a moose take hours to expire.
And, yes, she watches the whole night through.
But 200 pages of dead moose do not a ripping yarn make. Fortunately,
and perhaps predictably, we are treated to a series of flashbacks
as Jeanne contemplates the various deaths, losses, in her own life.
The metaphor is heavy-handed to be sure. It even veers dangerously
close to allegory territory (ohhh, her life is like the moose!) but
Can Lit is nothing if not a breeding ground for survivalist nature
Another thoroughbred bit of Canadiana is the gambit of French-English
translation. La nuit entire, thankfully, evades the better part of
translation's sterility in its English incarnation. The Whole Night
Through represents the work of the inestimably talented translator
Sheila Fischman, whose deft hand has played behind a myriad literary
curtains. Only a handful of translators could have been trusted
with Frenette's porcelain phrasing.
The novel's centrepiece, bookish, fragile Jeanne, is a translator
herself, a fitting profession for a taciturn woman incapable of
directly speaking her mind. A profession, too, that withers in the
vacuum of the backwoods: "Out of the loop, away from well-read
and cosmopolitan civilization, there's no salvation." The
landscape, dumb as Jeanne's conversations with her rage-consumed
husband Paul, makes no room for grace, let alone uppity career
Images, scenes from her rather neglected life, steadily add up with
discreet fervour toward an explanation of how and why Jeanne came
to this cabin, this moment, thismoose. Why is her son Jrme sleeping
in the village tonight? Where is that loser husband? Why is Jeanne
alone, chugging bourbon straight from the bottle and staring at a
collapsed moose as if death were a Reality TV show?
A series of sepia tableaux, stepping stones toward the present,
appear to our heroine "like stray bullets" as she watches
the moose expire. Death can take a long time. You have to think of
Frenette's nine "stray bullet" contain the bulk of The
Whole Night Through. We do check in periodically with the night in
question, we watch Jeanne move along the porch or station herself
on the darkening veranda. "The night can be long, she has
everything she needs: images, words-those that come so easily when
one's alone-the lightness that alcohol brings, the weight of the
smoke in her lungs. And anguish." But the present only exists
briefly in this narrative; Jeanne's existing spirit is only a pause,
a breath, in the novel of her own life.
In her respective emotional and environmental wildernesses, Jeanne
is charged with the task of cobbling together some meaning from
these stray bullets, each one shrill with bereavement. Still, beneath
the bald fact of human isolation (a fact that saturates the novel's
pages) there festers a far more intriguing problem: does Jeanne
want to be loved, at all? Does the moose care whether it dies
monitored, cared for? Frenette, unfortunately, spends more time
ruminating on loss's ephemera than dissecting its more intimate
Regardless, they are sad and laconic, these stray bullets-a team
of poems beaten down to prose.
This novel is a hybrid, to be sure. The calm expansiveness of a
novel buoys the reader along; yet Frenette is not interested in
pulling punches, either. Expect no docility. Frenette deals with a
poet's economy, knows the worth of words.
And of silence. The Whole Night Through repeatedly draws us back,
after each soap-opera episode from the past, to Jeanne on the
veranda, silent, alone, watching her dying moose (the French for
moose, lan, probably sounds less comical). Frenette insists on
reasserting over and again the calm disinterest of the world-toward
our dying lan, toward the sleepless Jeanne. Jeanne's memories, and
her life entire, cannot draw sympathy from the landscape.
"A clearing. Grass sparse, yellowIn the background, the edge
of the woods, clear as if cut with a knife. A dense barrier."
Frenette knows "it always begins with a landscape, a sound, a
face, an ache." The concrete, daily actions of people are
brought into relief by the horror of sublime wilderness. Can it be?
Are we still stuck on our fear of becoming bushed?
With this new bushed,' Frenette moves beyond the morose complaints
of Susanna Moodie, mind you. Frenette's new woman-in-the-woods has
a sharp sensibility, a post-modern removedness.
While Jeanne does yearn for sympathetic relationships, her longing
is so rarified, so painfully romanticized, that she is more rightly
labeled a misanthrope in lover's clothing. "If you go on
searching, you'll have to face up to the fact that proximity never
eradicates distance." That is Jeanne's horrible lesson. And
the heart of the novel's persistent ennui. At the exclusion of all
others, Jeanne loves a lost woman, Marianne. Now her mourning bleeds
forward whenever she reaches out.
The problem-how do we repair ourselves from love's first (cruel)
assault?-is unsolvable. The moose dies in the field on a moonless
night-"the only hitch: not to be able to make out the dark
mass in the clearing." But The Whole Night Through reminds us
of that confused pain and so Frenette must be applauded. The horrified
creature, dying against an unforgiving landscape, is a familiar
trope. But Frenette's exquisite style, her emotional intelligence,
is highly uncommon. She teaches us why that baggy old trope endures.
In the process, Frenette waits for her characters to lose their
skin-then pours salt over them. As in Terra Firma, Frenette's second
novel is populated with characters lost within themselves. A chorus
of solitudes presides, sad and unforgiving as the night sky she
chooses for her novel-long scrim.
While Plath and Frenette use different tactics in confronting the
beast Prose, they share a fondness for bleak sentiment. During the
novel's overture, Jeanne learns in class (only a few rows away from
her love, Marianne) that "in short, life boils down to a few
encounters." The narrowness of these parameters for life-the
notion, however true, that life is a bulb, not the earth around
it-becomes a frightening fixation as the pages turn.
Jeanne's worshipful relationship with Marianne is never consummated.
Perhaps that is why it lasts. Years after they part, "six
thousand, eight hundred and nine days separate them. Jeanne keeps
track" Give me dark alleys and bumps in the night any day.
"Jeanne keeps track" is true horror.
The Whole Night Through is a true achievement-poetic, sparse, just
aching with its sad intelligence.