It's fair to say that readers in English Canada didn't know much about the Alberta-born writer Nancy Huston until they came across a provocative article last fall, either in Harper's
(depending on which world you frequent), about the advantages and disadvantages of being beautiful and intelligent. "I'm beautiful," the article begins, and as yet no-one has stepped up to dispute that claim.
In French Canada, readers knew little about Huston until the fall of 1993, when she won the Governor General's Award for a novel called Cantique des plaines. The jury's choice was attacked by Quebec nationalists in the publishing business because the book's author, an anglaise, could not be a real québécoise. Needless to say, they couldn't exactly put it that way, so instead they claimed that the novel was not really written in French.
Huston is a creature of controversy who's tired of the easy classifications controversy can lend itself to. She is a woman of ideas who has suffered from over-exposure to, and belief in, literary theory. She exudes a bewitching sensuality, though her language and work are often highly abstract. Though she is not as often mentioned as that other famous Canadian-writer-living-in-Paris, Mavis Gallant, she contains all the ambivalences and paradoxes of the writer in self-imposed exile.
Oh, and as for that charge that Cantique des plaines was not written in French-well, it was. But it was also written in English, and called Plainsong.
That's a lot of activity and controversy from a woman who claims to have no identity, and to come from no place. As for the identity called "writer", according to her, being a writer is no identity at all; it's just a trade.
Nancy Huston has situated herself in the uncomfortable zone between languages and continents. Born forty-three years ago in Calgary, the landscape elegiacally described in Plainsong, hers was a childhood of suitcases. In her parents' nine-year marriage, the family moved eighteen times. Not surprisingly, her mother, a clinical psychologist, found all this too exacting, and she decided to move, too-on her own, leaving Nancy and her two siblings. Her father, a mathematician and physicist, married again and Nancy ended up in Germany with her stepmother, speaking German.
Huston explored the theme of maternal abandonment in La virevolte (not published in English, but available in French from the Montreal publisher Leméac), a novel whose point of departure is a woman leaving her family to dedicate herself full-time to her career and life as a dancer. The book exacts revenge of a kind: the dancer and delinquent mother ends up with a pair of crippled knees and can only choreograph, but not dance, her creations, while the loving but uninspiring husband she left behind marries her ex-best-friend. It would be tempting to see a younger version of Nancy in the rather brattish younger daughter of the novel, who has the knack of asking the kind of questions and making the kind of comments that children are supposed to keep to themselves.
Along with Plainsong, La virevolte investigates the conundrum of creation and procreation. "Everything goes back to my parents' marriage, I suppose," Huston says, "and to the question of why my mother had to leave." Are we approaching writing-as-therapy here? She laughs in a predatory way, as if she had expected the question. "Oh, no! Writing isn't therapy because therapy wants you to get better. Books don't solve anything; all they do is scratch at the wound. But they can protect you from suicide."
Following her parents' lead, Huston embarked on a vagabond youth, putting on one identity after another like suits of ill-fitting clothes. She studied theatre in New York. She frequented the Borscht Belt resorts with her Jewish boyfriend. She was a hippie in New Hampshire. She had E. L. Doctorow as a writing mentor. She worked as a secretary. "That's when I really turned suicidal," she recalls, "when I realized I'd make a very good secretary." The whole time, of course, she was staring at a white sheet of paper, wanting to write.
So it was a small step for her to cross the Atlantic and establish herself in France. There, too, she tried on a variety of disguises, and found them all only a temporary fit. "In Paris, I became a French Marxist revolutionary," she says, amused by that mask. She sat in on seminars given by the monsters of psycho-literary theory at the time: Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, who left her with a paralysing knowledge of how the novel works, and instilled in her the belief in the supremacy of literary theory over literary creation.
In Paris, she discovered something else: the liberating effect of a foreign language. Nancy Huston isn't the first woman who ever discovered emancipation in a foreign culture, but she did go about it with her own characteristic kind of serious intent and intellectual application. For her, English was the language of Calgary, a place she has called "insipid" innumerable times (and to which she has since returned in her fiction and her real life). French, on the other hand, was new. It allowed her to write. It was original, it was musical. It was the language of play and, most importantly, a language that was not her mother tongue, the tongue of the mother who abandoned her. Not only was it a language; it was a perfect disguise, one that finally fit.
Word-play and the idea that theory is practice dovetailed with the reigning feminism of France in the 1970s. "We thought, somehow, that women were closer to the signifiant," Huston recalls, reflecting the mix of political and linguistic theory that is still all the rage in France. "That's what feminist writers like Hélène Cixous taught." Not surprisingly, her first books in French were works of theory-though she would eventually have to unlearn her hard-won theories about literature and language in order to become a novelist.
"My English was something abstract, and for that matter, so was my French-no wonder I was attracted to the non-physical, language-based novel," she says. The return to English in Plainsong was a return to the novel of place, to the more traditional novels that resurrects the past, to a kind of writing that stood in stark opposition to the intellectualized prose of the Paris circles headed up by literature professors who hate novels and the people who commit them. The challenge of Plainsong was to take a place that she had often accused of being soulless and banal, and set a book there. To reinvest Alberta with a sense of place, to reinvent it, she travelled there with her husband and two children, a journey described in the last third of her most recent collection of essays, Désirs et réalités (Leméac).
There is a certain kind of perverse logic in the fact that, in English, in Canada, Plainsong went virtually nowhere (whereas her famous article on beauty earned her invitations to appear on Toronto TV-invitations she refused). Her great return to the English language and to English Canada was a non-event. "It was as if the prodigal son had come home and his father said to him, `Go fuck yourself.' I, of course, had imagined something quite different. We're not supposed to feel resentful about people not reading our books, but I did feel stymied." The manuscript was turned down by a number of publishing houses in the States, and she spent two years waiting for a positive response for the English edition. Discouraged by the reception, Huston wrote the whole book again, in French this time, a process that gave birth to Cantique des plaines, which was finally picked up by Actes Sud in Paris and Leméac in Montreal.
"There were a number of factors behind my choice to write in English after nine books in French. One of them was a paralysing illness I suffered from at the time, in which it became literally impossible to move my legs. Obviously, at a time like that, you begin to think about the idea of roots. As well, I have Haïtian friends who are ferociously attached to their country, and I wanted to try and understand what that might feel like. I put everything I know and more than I knew about Western Canada into that book." In the process, she discovered the thrill of working in a new language: her mother tongue.
The publication of Plainsong was a source of frustration for her, and it is true that the book, despite its Alberta setting, does have a definite European feel; it communicates the sense of someone who has been away from her language for a long time. Perhaps the novel was a kind of language therapy, a slow reconquest of the mother tongue.
In French, the novel was much more successful, both in Quebec and France. The perverse gods of publishing who had snubbed Plainsong embraced Cantique des plaines. The book was more than a succès de scandale because of the Governor General's Award dust-up; it was a commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. Which may prove that it was not yet an English book, but a French one.
Plainsong is part of a several-book meditation on exile and rootlessness and what that does to your creativity. This extended meditation, which still continues, includes an essay on Romain Gary, also known as Émile Ajar, another notorious identity-switcher. Gary was born in Russia in 1914, lived in Poland and France and the United States, spoke Yiddish, wrote in French, and culminated his journey in suicide. Huston's essay on him, Le tombeau de Romain Gary, asks the question, "When do we know we're speaking with our own voice?" All writers face that question, of course, whether they travel and establish themselves in foreign places, or stay at home. But the bilingual, expatriate writer experiences that issue more intensely.
For all the status and exoticism involved in bilingualism and the foreign life, Huston is too intelligent not to see it as a disease of a kind. A sense of loss underpins the entire enterprise of the quest for identity through travel and linguistic displacement. In her new manuscript, Instruments de ténèbres (or "instruments of darkness"-the reference is to the witches of Macbeth), she has tried to thematize the problem. She reports on her own confusion: writing the book in alternating chapters between English and French, for example, a process bound to produce strange results. "It's an illness," she says in her quiet voice, in an accent that dares you to guess where it comes from, "and it makes me very.angoissée"-an example of the language transit she is prone to.
English and French push and shove against each other within the same sentence, and within Huston's family life as well (albeit in a much gentler way). Her husband, the writer and professor Tzvetan Todorov, was born in Bulgaria just as World War II was beginning; he speaks English, but his working language is French. Their apartment in the Bastille district of Paris shelters two wanderers and their children in comfortable fashion, and their lives seem to illustrate that creation and procreation can cohabit successfully.
She is lucid enough to know that the category of "exile" or "identity-searcher" can be a means the media use to classify a writer. For the unaware or less talented or more commercially minded artist, the category can become a stock-in-trade that quickly turns dreary and self-limiting. "I'm scared of becoming too much of a phenomenon; all the interviews are about the language aspect." To her credit, Huston does not intend to fall into a trap of anyone's making. "All that attention just makes me feel like taking a long break from the whole issue-maybe I'll go to India!"
She had to face the media's voracious appetite after the famous "beauty" article came out (it appeared in Salmagundi before Harper's and Brick). The piece was written in reaction to the session she spent at Harvard in the spring of 1994, teaching a seminar on French literature. "I realize I was in Cambridge, the very capital of puritanism," she says, "but what struck me was that people were afraid to look at each other. Because of political correctness in any semi-public situation, there was a numbness, there was no buzz between bodies on the street."
Oddly enough, she describes the article as "my farewell to beauty", putting the piece on a much more personal plane, which is where it undoubtedly belongs: "I decided to talk about it before it goes away." In the process, she shocked the establishment of sexual harassment officers by suggesting that sleeping with one's professors is a legitimate part of one's university education. "Perhaps I'll revise that point of view some day," she admits, "and put on PC glasses and discover how I was really being exploited." Her thirteen-year-old daughter, whom Huston, a proud mother, describes as being similarly beautiful and intelligent, will no doubt have to come to terms with the same issues in quite a different socio-sexual atmosphere.
The article is all the more surprising coming from a woman with solid feminist credentials in her past, but it's the puritanical element of feminism that troubles her. "Feminism has become horrible that way," she complains. "In the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, in the French women's movement, the women were beautiful and we dressed up for our meetings, for each other." In Désirs et réalités, she seems to suggest that we're now in a post-feminist age, but in conversation, she speaks differently. "That's what they think in France, in any case," she says. "You hear about how feminism is good only for the developing countries, where women need to be liberated. But the burning, vital issues are still there-religion, rape, prostitution, pornography, incest-and they're not going away."
But when it comes to writing, she intends to steer clear of what she calls "feminist fiction". She says, "I think people like Jane Smiley are really spoiling their fiction by injecting feminism into it." For Nancy Huston, literature as instruction is deadly, both as literature and as instruction.
As for the reactions to the beauty article (called "Dealing with What's Dealt" in Brick), you could have written a book about it. No doubt the novelist in her was a little jealous of the essayist. Despite her attack on American-style political correctness, much positive response came from the United States. In the Quebec version of Elle, it was fifty-fifty, Huston reports. "How come she gets to advertise for boyfriends?" some readers fumed. The piece even came out in Braille, raising fascinating questions about blindness and beauty.
Besides being a farewell to a younger, more attractive self (though those of us in the same age group as Huston would support the idea that beauty and youth are not wholly synonymous), the article is a plea for a certain way of being in the world. It's also a resounding slap in the face of the new puritanism now ruling the arts and culture and social intercourse in today's North America. And there's enough intelligence in and between the lines to make us see that beauty is not only an advantage; it's a burden as well.
"Dealing with What's Dealt" was a critique of social organization in North America, but that doesn't mean Huston is blind to how French society works. In a New Yorker article that appeared during last December's massive public sector strikes throughout the country, there was a light-hearted claim that it was worth enduring useless social chaos and moroseness in Paris because the fowl in the butcher shops was so tasty. Huston is excluded from that romanticism because she lives there. In fact, she's planning a similar assault on France, which should be as easy as hitting the broad side of a barn.
Like most expatriates, she lives around, but not necessarily with, the inhabitants of the country, and doesn't always admire the products of their culture (outside of red wine and goat cheese, of course). Her world is populated by wanderers like herself, as it would be anywhere. "I don't really live in France; I live in an imaginary country, and I don't have to put up with it very much." As a parent, her connection to society is made through the school system, which she knows well enough to see why there are no interesting French writers today: "The creativity is squelched out of the kids as they go along, and they learn that language is virtuosity, not self-expression. As for me, I don't think that words should call attention to themselves any more." Now that's a revolutionary statement to make in France!
As for her insistence that she has no identity, those claims can become a source of identity in themselves. The sense of rootlessness, born of family instability, is not exactly the same thing as an absence of identity. And what is identity, anyway? The effects of life's little accidents? The post-mortem shifting through one's experiences? The result of myth-making about the self? A gift, a curse, or just whatever you happen to be doing at the time? Such a cavalier attitude to dealing with the question is typical of people with strong senses of identity, Huston would reply.
Whatever the answer or answers to that question are, she knows where she stands. "I have hit upon the perfect inscription for my tombstone," she has written. "Once abroad, always abroad." l
David Homel is a Montreal-based novelist whose latest work is Sonya & Jack (HarperCollins). He is now spending the year in the land of goat cheese and red wine-and this interview was delayed by the aforementioned public sector strikes, because he could not get a train from the south.