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Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon

by Nicole Brossard/Translated from the French by Susanne de LotbiniFre-Harwood
237 pages,
ISBN: 155245150X


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by David Ingham

I can't imagine anyone reading this review who doesn't know of Nicole Brossard's work. She is, after all, a celebrated poet, novelist, feminist, and theorist, author of over thirty books, winner of two Governor General's Awards and the Prix Athanase-David, among other distinctions. Still, knowing of her work isn't the same as knowing her work; though much has been translated into English, I fear that too few anglophones have grappled with her writing.
"Grappled"? Yes, Brossard makes demands of the reader (what great writer doesn't?). As with much modern poetry, words, images, sentences fly off, making tenuous and momentary connections unrelated to the seeming direction of the narrative: this is prose that communicates without being entirely comprehended¨what Gertrude Stein (to whom there are both oblique and direct references) would call an escape from "protective language." Self-consciously calling into question its own ontological status, the text presents a collide-oscope of past and present, life and death and grief, presence and absence (and absent presences), fiction and drama, silence and solitude, art and reality, genre and gender, ruins and ruminations, history and herstory, in language that whirls and jars and explodes into transcendent insights and tantalizing culs-de-sac.
The book (even though its cover calls it "a novel", the term is too confining) consists of many short, discrete sections, each of which focuses on one (or more) of the four main female characters: an unnamed first-person narrator (whom other characters¨and a sort of nber-narrator¨actually call "the narrator", nearly numb with unresolved grief at her mother's death; Carla Carlson, a Saskatchewan novelist who meets regularly with the narrator to discuss Carla's most recent, unfinished novel; Simone Lambert, a colleague of the narrator's, awash with tender and bittersweet memories of the happiness and passion she shared with her now-dead lover, Alice Dumont; and Axelle Carnavale, a young genetics researcher who is also Simone's grand-daughter.
Initially at least, these are four solitudes, and much of the narrative consists of wide- ranging internal monologues, especially for the narrator and Simone. But the meetings between Carla and the narrator quickly move into dialogues (often with a sense of dual monologues) that centre on Carla's novel, the differences between (and interpenetration of) fiction and reality, and much else. These dialogues are first rendered in narrative, but soon appear in the text as if they were lines from a play, anticipating the fourth chapter, which is inscribed explicitly as eight scenes in a play script where all four play themselves, and then play other characters, specifically characters from "The Death of Descartes", which is also the focus of Carla's novel. First it is a story Carla remembers her mother enacting, then a story that Carla remembers re-enacting, then actual dialogue as from a play in English, and finally a set scene where the lines are in Latin: a play- within-a-play-within an (ultimately problematic) narrative. The figure of the Cardinal, however, played by Simone, is fused in Carla's mind with the figure of Pope Innocent X in Francis Bacon's painting who in turn merges with Carla's father. The blurring of lines between media and genres and genders and characters continues after the set scene when "Carla" has a speech and the next speech is given by "Cardinal/Carla."
If "novel" is too limiting a word, then so is "plot". Not much "happens" externally; much of what little narrative arc there is concerns a planned meeting between Simone and Axelle. (Lorraine, Simone's daughter and Axelle's mother, simply walked out on both of them when Axelle was a child¨her absence unites them, though Simone and Axelle have not seen each other for fifteen years.) Like much else in the book, this "event" at once occupies the level of the book's literal "reality" and also emblemises (like a fractal) much of the rest of the narrative: the arrangement of the meeting proceeds by fits and starts, by departures and postponements and re-arrangements, by not concluding. When a definite time and place are finally agreed on, the sudden death of a male colleague of Simone's causes her to miss it. As if to show the bones of narrative necessity poking through the flesh of text, however, Brossard arranges to have Simone and Axelle¨as well as the narrator and Carla¨come together in (of course) the Hotel Clarendon. But Axelle and Simone don't immediately recognize one another; instead there is a gradual dawning of awareness as they learn each other's names and occupations, but there's no moment of recognition: "when will they realize?" yields to "when did they realize it?" Brossard neatly underscores this theme with a stage direction: "Simone turns to Axelle and whispers something inaudible to the audience." This would most likely be frustrating if actually performed in front of a real audience, but this is text, and as text it beautifully communicates the incompleteness of communication, the failure to understand fully, the interpretive gaps that exist between people, between reality and our comprehension of it¨and between texts and readers.
Even "narrative arc" is misleading: it would be closer to the truth to describe the narrative as a series of recursive spirals. The characters return again and again to their obsessions (the death of the narrator's mother, Simone's memories of her dead lover, "The Death of Descartes"), but always with a sense of advancing, not merely returning¨a quality which (among others) I've tried to give a suggestion of in the structure of this review. If the text rejects the stasis of genre or "plot", it even more strenuously resists being pinned down by "setting". Ostensibly, the book is set in Quebec City, in particular the Hotel Clarendon, where Carla has come as always to finish her novel, where Carla and the narrator meet regularly in the bar, and where all four characters finally come together. Simone, formerly a field archaeologist, is the curator of Quebec's Museum of Civilization, where the narrator works writing explanatory notes for the objects on display (in much the same way as the characters strive to make sense of the fragments and ruins of their personal pasts¨and the reader tries to make sense of the textual fragments that constitute the book). History is everywhere, from the Plains of Abraham to the ruins of Petra, but the focus is less on masculine history¨battles and names and dates and events¨than on what objects from the past reveal about everyday experience, especially that of women: "It makes no sense to have been born in this godforsaken place without water or electricity but loaded with tradition and religion, which put the noose around our neck. It makes no sense that my life be shrivelled up stupid because of men's weakness for violence and their learned contempt for us."
But since the book's focus is on individual consciousness, it ranges geographically from Saskatchewan to Sweden and temporally across centuries, seeking meaning, truth, solace¨learning "how to distinguish between true knowledge and the danger of half- baked learning rotting in the interstices of lucidity," but finding more questions than answers: "Once we've understood that the idea of progress is a handy way of eliminating the smell of shit without eliminating the odiousness of pain and death, how can we claim to adequately reflect on the meaning of life?"
While it is tempting to see the novel as set in the minds of the characters, the "real" setting is the text itself¨the inscription of what passes through those consciousnesses. The text frequently becomes acutely conscious of its existence as text, as artifact, as something inscribed: in addition to direct references to "the narrator" (who appears in both first and third person, and cannot know the things narrated in the early sections on Simone and Axelle), the text frequently comments on its own use of punctuation. Even more striking, it reproduces a de-contextualised fragment, a typewritten page the narrator finds inserted into a book on a seemingly unrelated topic, and which she inserts at four other points in the book. In a passage that reflects much of the texture of the book's prose, Brossard has the narrator comment on the passage before its first insertion: "Some days the meaning of the page seems obvious, on others it wavers like a conversation by the seashore where syllables are drowned out and pronouns merge with the noise of wind and surf. Today I memorized the page. Now it's part of me and can surge into my thoughts at any time." At other points there are parenthetical italicized notes; sometimes they seem like an author's notes at the time of writing, indicating something to be fleshed out or developed later¨"she invites us in for a drink. (description of living room)"¨or an author's notes while editing a text, or to indicate an ellipsis during a re-inscription: "He says, 'I'm a dog' (in Swedish in the text)." Other italicised portions of the narrative are clearly stage directions, anticipating the narrative shift into actual play-script¨which in itself calls into question the nature of the "reality" being depicted (and who depicts it). Moreover, the textual complexity increases when it is revealed that the narrator has recorded the conversations she has had with Carla and later transcribed them as the text we read. Yet another complication arises during the "playscript" chapter. The stage directions note that "typewritten pages are taped to the wall"; the reader presumes these are from Carla's novel, but when Axelle reads one of them, it turns out to be a passage from an earlier interior monologue involving only the narrator. Then comes "Chapter Five". Earlier the narrator says, "I don't want to enter the fifth chapter of Carla's novel," but chapter five is clearly inscribed by the narrator, and even refers to Carla as "a character".
Everything merges and whirls. The boundaries between author and narrator and character and actress, between "reality" and "text", destabilise; the effect is vertiginous.
Notes
The last section of the book is entitled "Some Notes Found in the Room at the Hotel Clarendon", and appears to be a series of notes written by the narrator (for example, "Make Carla say that she sometimes ponders what she calls heavy identity . . ."). That I make use of the same device is not intended to be self-flattering imitation or emulation, but for illustration and [to be honest] convenience.
Translation (f. L trans [across] + latus [ppl. of ferre, to carry]). The near-impossibility of translating puns and word-play, of which the book contains a good deal. The loss of multiple meanings. Example: "All hotel rooms have angles. Dead angles such as closets, the bathroom door . . . . Living angles: windows, mirrors . . ." "Dead angles" is an exact translation of "angles morts" in the French original and captures the book's themes of aliveness and death, but "angles morts" is also the French term used to refer to the "blind spots" of a car's driver¨all the characters have gaping blind spots.
Further note on translation: in the final iteration of "The Death of Descartes", the characters speak Latin¨difficult Latin, full of deponent verbs, unfamiliar tenses and syntax. An appendix makes it all clear, translating all the lines, and is prefaced with the comment, "Please note that the Latin was intentionally not translated into classical Latin but rather into the vernacular Latin that could have been spoken by educated Europeans of the time." Which narrator "translated" (superscribed?) the Latin? Which narrator wrote (postscribed?) the prefatory note?
Work into review: Tenses shift between sections, within sections, even within sentences. Example: "Yesterday, I had the day off: after two years of hard work in QuTbec City, I finally decide to visit the Martello tower." Why? Because the narrative present is really only always the present of consciousness: remembering what has happened pulls it into the mind's "now", the "now" of writing.
Carla's long speech near the end: "Over the years, I purchased Our Lady of the Flowers by (Carla signals with her hand that we need to guess the authors' names) BBBB, To the Lighthouse by BBBB," and so on for a whole page. Some are easy (Woolf for the second); some are harder (Genet for the first). It's a game. And so as not to frustrate, the answers are in the appendix. But there's trickery. The names of the authors constitute a long-list of mostly contemporary greats¨ones that a truly well-read individual would know. (Shamefaced apology for not knowing more.) But wait¨it really is a game. Many titles are emphatically not the best-known works of these authors. Benito Cereno is a much tougher clue to Herman Melville than (say) Moby Dick. Similarly, does Pylon spring to mind with the name William Faulkner (or vice versa)? (Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard is in the list too.) Furthermore, in the French original the titles are numbered; there appear to be 59 of them. But it's a trick: the numbering is 1-5, then begins again at 1 and goes to 59, so there are 64 in all. Why?
* * *

End review with well-turned comment on the book as a whole, the certainty that devotees of Brossard will not be disappointed, and the hope that those less familiar with her work will avail themselves of the opportunity to savour this remarkable book as an entrTe into the oeuvre of a dizzyingly accomplished writer.
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