Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hébert's secrets

In the introduction to my collection of Anne Hébert's later novels, Mavis Gallant writes:

The French author Marguerie Yourcenar believed it was impossible to write anything about women, because their lives were so full of secrets. A woman's life, she said, was like one of those old-fashioned sewing machines with a multitude of small drawers meant to hold thread and buttons and miniature scissors. Every drawer contains a different secret. Yourcenar said nothing about men and secrets or about artists in general or writer in particular of the profound split between life imagined and lives lived.

This seemed to me an odd way to introduce this book, until it dawned on me that Gallant did not mean to comment on or critique Hébert's characters; rather she was relating what she knew of the character of Hébert herself. Indeed, there is a dearth of information about Hébert on the internets, even while she is one of Canada's, and Quebec's in particular, most acclaimed writers.

I persist in wondering how this idea of secrets might apply to Hébert's characters. Broadly, her female characters fall into two categories: domesticated and wild. Occasionally sliding along the spectrum. These women may be complicated, but they seem to me ultimately knowable. I wonder if this is a talent of Hébert's that she writes them this way, or the virtue of being a woman that allows me to read them this way.

The men (or boys), on the other hand, primarily driven by these women, for good or ill, remain unfathomably opaque to me. There must be more to their motivation than women (whether as objects of desire, forces to escape, mothers or wives)? Is this a weakness in Hébert's ability to draw male characters, a deliberate comment on how she perceives them, or a failing in my reading?

And I am severely disappointed that Gallant did not address this difference in the treatment of the secrets of and the problem of truly knowing male and female characters, as well as the extent to which the characters are able to truly know each other, in her prefatory remarks.

I did make an effort to read one of Hébert's novellas ("Est-ce que je te dérange?") in French. It was tough going, and I ended up reading it almost side by side with its English translation. As with the other works I've read, the story in English reads with deceptive simplicity. The poetry of the mood, the rhythm of the language, calls for a precision of vocabulary, tense, syntax that is more challenging than I expected (this is true also of the English versions, on closer inspection).

That makes 4 novellas in this collection plus an earlier one that I've read. By far my favourite is The Burden of Dreams, which I mentioned previously. I may yet venture to read more some day.

Mood is everything, with a languorous intensity.

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