I discovered Nicole Brossard through the book ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance Donaldson-Evans. Brossard’s ‘Baroque at Dawn’ was one of the books featured there. I found the description of the book interesting. Unfortunately, the English translation of the book was out of print and used copies were difficult to come by. So I did some research on other books by Nicole Brossard. I liked the plot outline of ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’. I got a used copy and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
Before I tell you what I think about the book, a few words on the author and the edition of the book I read. The first passage below is going to be a long rant. Pardon me for that.
Nicole Brossard is French Canadian. When one thinks about Canadian literature and Canadian writers, the name which comes to the top of one’s mind is Margaret Atwood. And then probably L.M.Montgomery, Alice Munro, and Carol Shields. And maybe Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Mistry. I also think about the Spalding mother-daughter duo, Linda and Esta, David Gilmour and Miriam Towes. (This list of names says more about my own ignorance of Canadian literature than anything else. Canadian literature is alive and kicking, rich and thriving. Me on the other hand – I need to read more and learn more.) Of course, the one thing common between all these writers is that they write in English. And so one normally assumes that Canadian writers write in English. One conveniently forgets that Canada has one province – Quebec – where the first language is French. Or atleast I do. When I discovered that Nicole Brossard was French Canadian and she wrote in French, I was quite excited. I have never heard of a French Canadian writer before, leave alone read one. So I was looking forward to reading one of her books very much. While pondering on Nicole Brossard’s background, I also wondered about something. I wondered what kind of literary prizes a French Canadian author can aspire to and win. Eventhough Canada is part of the Commonwealth, a French Canadian author is not eligible for prizes like the Booker, the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, the James Tait Black memorial prize and other similar prizes because her / his books will be in French. Someone like Nicole Brossard won’t be eligible for the Orange prize because that is given only to women writers writing in English, irrespective of their nationality. I wondered whether a French Canadian writer would be eligible for the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, the Prix Medicis, the Prix Renaudot and the like. I suspect all these prizes are awarded only to French citizens. This made me think of a larger issue – that a writer, who produces great works of literature, might not be known outside her immediate environment because she is not eligible for many of these international literary prizes. It is a real shame, isn’t it? Nicole Brossard has been writing for nearly fifty years (yeah, that is right! It is forty eight years to be precise – she published her first book in 1965), and I don’t know anyone who has read her books. And most of her books are not easily available in English. Which is a shame because she writes quite beautifully (more on this later). She deserves a wider readership.
Now on the edition of the book that I read. It is an English translation made in 2005. (The original French book came out in 2001). It is a beautifully produced edition. The paper is thick with horizontal stripes (it can be seen only when you notice it carefully – do you know what this kind of paper is called?). The fragrance of the paper is like that of a new book. The used copy I read came from a library which had given it away. Why would a library give it away? Did no one want to read the book? (The book looks practically unread). The good news though is that if the library hadn’t given it away I wouldn’t have been able to get the book. So that was good for me. Atleast one good thing came out of it.
Now on the actual book. ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’ is made up of six parts. The first part which runs for nearly half of the book follows the lives of four different women. One of them is an unnamed narrator who works in a museum. She talks about her life and about her feelings for her mother whom she lost sometime back. The narrator also talks about a writer she meets regularly at the bar called Carla Carlson. Carla always comes to Quebec city (where the story is set) to finish the current novel she is working on. The narrator and Carla have long conversations at the bar while they discuss about their lives – the narrator talks about her mother and about her work while Carla talks about her father and about her novel. The other two characters whose lives the book follows are Simone and Axelle. Simone is the director of the museum in which the narrator works while Axelle is Simone’s grand daughter. Simone’s daughter Lorraine leaves her home and city many years back when Axelle was a child and so Simone and Axelle haven’t met for many years. Both of them somehow get in touch and plan to meet at a restaurant for dinner. The second part of the book goes for around ten ages in which Simone is walking around in her museum admiring different art objects when she receives shocking news. The third part is structured as a play and is set in a bar where the four characters meet, two of them – the narrator and Carla – by design and the other two by coincidence. The fourth part takes the story to Carla’s room and the story continues as a play and reaches its conclusion. The fifth part contains ‘Chapter Five’ of the book that Carla is working on. The sixth part has notes which are found in the room at the Hotel Clarendon. There is an appendix after that which has the English translation of a Latin scene in the fourth part of the book and a list of books that Carla mentions in that part.
When we look at the plot, the story told in ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’ seems simple enough. There are four women whose lives the book tracks and whose lives come together in some interesting way. Maybe there are a few surprises in the end. (I am especially intrigued by the identity of the narrator.). Though this is an important part of the book, this is not the whole book. The book is also about a few other things. Interesting things. The book is almost Joycean in its experimental structure. In one of the initial chapters, the unnamed narrator talks about James Joyce and how he refused to use quotation marks in dialogues. Then in one of the next chapters we see a dialogue where there are no quotation marks. This is the beginning of the Joycean game. Later in the book, something interesting happens. Though the narrative is linear, in the third and fourth parts the story is structured as a play – clearly inspired by Joyce. Towards the end of the fourth part, the four characters of the story get transformed into four characters in the novel that Carla is writing which is based on the life of the French philosopher Descartes. And that scene is enacted in Latin. When that scene gets over, the four characters get back to their normal selves. But one of the characters, Carla the novelist, speaks in two voices – as herself and as the Cardinal in the novel on Descartes. The fifth part which is ‘Chapter Five’ of Carla’s novel, doesn’t read like Carla’s novel at all. It reads like a piece written by the narrator because of what it says and some of the clues that the author gives. When I read again this passage from the early part of the book (told by the narrator), after finishing ‘Chapter Five’ I saw things in a totally different light.
Our every encounter disturbs the meaning of Carla’s novel. Refreshing it without her awareness. Even here in the bar at the Clarendon, in what Carla calls the mystery of a city that gives insight into the continent, her novel rips us out of history, out of the quiet temporality of bell towers and convents.
The sixth part which contains notes seems to be written by the author. But one of the scenes which it describes is the same scene which the narrator of the main novel is part of. It makes us wonder whether the author is the narrator of the novel and whether she is a part of the story. Then when we step back and think it comes to our mind that if the author is a part of the story and is the narrator in the story and the author meets Carla and has conversations with her and the ‘Chapter Five’ which Carla is supposed to have written seems to be written by the narrator and hence it seems to have been written by the author herself, we start wondering whether the narrator and Carla are the same person in actuality but separated into two characters in the narrative. And what about Simone and Axelle? When we start thinking more, our minds start spinning…
I liked the inventiveness that Nicole Brossard cunningly employs in the book but this inventiveness hit me only after I finished reading the book and started to think about it. The thing which I totally loved while reading the book was Brossard’s gorgeous prose. It was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose. As a sample, I will give below some of my favourite passages from the book.
While others march gaily toward madness in order to stay alive in a sterile world, I strive for preservation. I cling to objects, their descriptions, to the memory of landscapes lying fully drawn in the folds of things around me. Every moment requires me, my gaze or sensation. I become attached to objects. I don’t readily let go of days by banishing them to the blank book of memory. Certain words ignite me. I take the time to look around. Some mornings, I yield to the full-bodied pleasure of navigating among seconds. I then lose my voice. This doesn’t bother me. I take the opportunity to lend an ear to ambient life with an eagerness I never suspected. The idea of remaining calm doesn’t displease me. Some days I make sure everything is grey, like in November, or somber, for I like storms.
Some time ago, while looking for a book in the museum library, I came upon a typewriter page sticking out of a book about diamond cutting. Prompted by curiosity, I read the first lines. I read and reread. Ever since then, this page is always with me. I sometimes read it several times a day Its meaning varies, depending on whether I read it when I get up in the morning, in the afternoon when the sun floods my work table or when I get back from meeting Carla Carlson. I don’t think the page was part of a personal diary. Perhaps of a novel. 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. Whole or in parts, slowly infiltrating my everyday life.
When Mother died, I knew every feature of her face by heart. It’s crazy how we never look at faces when we’re speaking with people. As if, from not looking into the eyes too much or seeming not to want to insert ourselves into the other’s thoughts, we end up seeing nothing. Mother couldn’t defend herself. Her whole face was vulnerable to my worried gaze discovering the curve of her nose, of her eyebrows, eyelashes so short, wrinkles not as deep as I’d thought.
For a long time I believed it was good to let fiction into one’s life. That this would make it possible to reframe existence, to unfurl landscapes so stunning that afterwards one couldn’t help but love the most ordinary gestures and objects, for, once fiction had traversed them with its kaleidoscopic brilliance, everything comprising reality would shine with a thousand intriguing fires. Fiction was my foothold for touching light
Yesterday, Carla called me a passionate reader without knowing a thing about my reading habits. I think she meant I’m a passionate person and the word reader escaped her like a glass slips out of a hand. It’s true that reading is part of my life, that it brings me pleasure, but at the same time it burns me. From the inside. As if, encountering m nostalgia, it ignites an unbearable elation in me.
It took me a long time to understand that human beings could find pleasure in one another. I long believed that only necessary things like work, sexuality and providing aid in times of emergency, in times of great disaster and uncontrollable fear, were at the root of all conversations. I always felt I was living in the margins of friendships, which must, they say, be cultivated and maintained with precautions infinitely more subtle than those required for love. Just like the word agony was unknown to me, friendship is, in its essence, I believe, foreign to me. This I discover while talking with Fabrice and Carla. Increasingly, Fabrice is something like a friend. He has that anxiety that often makes men worried and bony yet philosophical. Fabrice transforms his anxiety into a generous tenderness. He knows how to distinguish between true knowledge and the danger of half-baked knowledge rotting in the interstices of lucidity.
What, in the end, is a life? What one has seen and told, what one avoids talking about or simply what one has invented and which has been lost over time, unbeknownst to us, very slowly just as one says a week has gone by already, the last day before your departure, three whole years of mad love, seven years of misery, a quarter of a century of war or a quarter of an hour spent waiting on a winter street corner for someone, something, that doesn’t come, that won’t come.
People think a ten-year old child is unable to think or to really want. Something. At that very moment, more than anything, I wanted my mother, her rough and busy gestures, her worried look, her blue eyes which, even when she was angry, always seemed soft. Looking in her eyes was like going to the movies. I always tried to do it as long as possible. Children rarely look into parents in the eye, but I always looked at my mother right in the eye. Eventually she’d laugh and say, ‘Hurry up and look at me, we’re leaving’. When I looked at her I felt like I was honouring her and getting closer to her dreams, to her real dreams.
To continue the rant from one of the earlier passages above, I just found two reviews of this book on the internet and both of them were in Canadian literary magazines (if you are interested, you can find them here and here.) There was just one review in Goodreads and the first line of it read – “I just can’t stand this book anymore.” Really? I am sad at all this.
I loved Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’. The inventive structure was quite interesting and intellectually engaging, but what I loved most was Brossard’s sublime and intoxicating prose. I want to read this book again, just for that. I know that it is early days yet and we are just in March, but I have a strong suspicion that Brossard’s book will be one of my top favourites this year.
Have you read ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’ or other books written by Nicole Brossard? What do you think about it?
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