Friday, August 08, 2008

The burden of books

I've been antsy this week, for numerous reasons, and having trouble settling on something to read.

I've been reading Rilke this summer — his correspondence with Louis Andreas-Salomé — but the intensity of the emotion and poetry therein I am unable to support for more than a dozen or so pages at a time. I am taking time to digest it, and I fear the time to articulate what it is fomenting within me will be longer still.

But I needed something to read in the métro yesterday, and given the week I've been having, Rilke would not make an easy companion. In addition, I needed to find reading material for our upcoming stay at the cottage.

It is almost unfortunate that I pulled Anne Hébert ("Collected Later Novels") from the stack. I was immediately drawn in and finished the first of the collection, The Burden of Dreams, by far the longest of the lot, a solid third of the book, before we've even left town.

It's last year's visit to Kamouraska that inspired me to look up Anne Hébert in the first place. I haven't made it to that novel yet (Kamouraska), but I sense almost any of her work would be a fitting read on our impending journey from the big city through small-town Quebec and into the wilderness.

This morning I resorted to rereading Héloïse, the only work of hers I'd ever read and years ago, in the métro (and what better place! Summary: Bernard glimpses Héloïse, a kind of other-wordly anachronism, in the métro, becomes obsessed with her, yet marries the woman he no longer loves), so as not to deplete my vacation reading material, and to inform my current reading in light of that haunting story.

At lunch I went to the library to pick out an Anne Hébert novel in French. The simplicity of the language in English translation leads me to believe that the original French may lie within my grasp.

The writing style reminds me of Michael Ondaatje. The poetry of the language, to paint a mood, spare but precise. The way the story skips through time.

The protagonists in Héloïse and The Burden of Dreams, Bernard and Julien respectively, are both poets, romantics, their very being swept up in an idea. Julien in particular loses himself in music (I'm listening to Mozart and Schubert today on Hébert's suggestion. How is it that she should write of them in the same breath, while I should have in my possession a CD featuring works by just the two of them?) and literature.

He reads poems and novels. He is transported to a world without limits, one where strange sensations and astonishing characters abound. A second existence doubles the little life he leads as ideal employee and well-behaved lover.


Julien crosses the ocean: "Following in Baudelaire's footsteps he tastes the spleen of Paris..." (Baudelaire has shadowed my own summer in various ways...)

She insisted on paying for her ticket and now she has taken a seat next to him, on the threadbare velvet bench. Their two profiles stand out, somewhat solemn and overlapping slightly, like royal profiles on a postage stamp. He keeps brushing against her with his knee and shoulder. The music absorbs them and exempts them from any movement, any word. Their deepest complicity comes from their twofold living warmth, perceived through their garments that touch each other in the muggy darkness of the concert hall.

Her hand, burning hot, somewhat limp and relaxed among the folds of her skirt, the smooth cold ring on the fourth finger. Julien has brushed against that hand, has felt the hard ring under his fingers. From that moment on, he became less attentive to the concert, as if irritated by a sudden dissonance, shocked by a false note that reverberates and echoes all through the hall.

Several times she has looked at her watch and now, barely seated across the table from him on the terrace of a café, she announces that friends are expecting her, that she promised them long ago . . .

Julien says:

"That ring you're wearing?"

But the ring is no longer on her finger, for she dropped it into her bag as soon as the concert was over. Her hands are perfectly bare now, long and smooth. She shrugs.

"I wore it for the concert, that's all. Afterwards it's too much trouble, I have no need of jewellery, since I'm sober and austere by nature — and divorced into the bargain."

She speaks quickly. Seems anxious to provide whatever information he may request.

"What are your friends like?"

"Young, happy, a little crazy. I have lots of fun with them."

"And with me?"

"With you? It's rather the opposite. Aside from your eccentricities, which intrigue me, I wonder what it is about you I find amusing. Unless your dear bewildered face secretly makes me swoon?"

Everything she says is murmured very softly, in a sweet voice filled with laughter and tender irony.

He has only a little time to be with her. At any moment she may disappear, taken up by her hidden life. And then Julien's loneliness in Paris risks becoming very great. He questions her like a judge who persists in trying to compromise someone who is slipping away. How long has she been divorced? Does she play a musical instrument?

"I play the piano sometimes."

She become impatient, leans across the table towards him.

"You spoil everything with your questions. I am the way I am, just as you see me here, across from you, only passing through, with no past or future."

She rises, both hands pressed against the table.

"My name is Camille Jouve. I'm thirty years old. My double life is none of your business. Imagine whatever you want."


For the moment I think Hébert is wrong to invest this emotional complexity in such youthful characters. Young love may be tragic, but her stories are marked by an awareness of tragedy, altogether more tragic, that her characters do not see, that can be seen only in retrospect and maturity. That is, these young people are not wholly genuine; they are clearly stamped with a future that looks back on them. Or maybe it's only age that allows me to read it this way.

The burden of books, the problem with losing yourself in books, as Hébert's protagonists have done, as I have done, is that eventually the poetry of books spills out into real life, can no longer be contained.
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