Anne Hébert’s complex and poetic novels feature women who love too much. They are at the edge of madness and nightmare, their memories of the past suffocating the present. And yet they are also women in revolt.
Anne Hébert was born 100 years ago, and died in the year 2000, an icon in Quebec and beyond, honoured by awards from around the world. Her writing is stunning. But don’t read Anne Hébert unless you’re also prepared for death and tragedy.
The 1970 novel Kamouraska is her masterpiece (you’ll find a translation into English, by Norman Shapiro and dated 2000, filed in Adult Fiction on Lennoxville Library shelves, an Adopt-A-Book gift of Eda Tarlo).
The book is set in the mid-1800s, and (very) loosely based on a real event. On New Year’s Eve in 1839, a man is murdered.
Hébert offers the story of the dead man’s wife, Elisabeth. She married at 16 and comes to despise her husband, while doting on him in public: “Inside, her hidden heart. The underside of all that sweetness. Violent counterpart. Your delicate face, Elisabeth d’Aulnières. Film of angel skin laid over your loathing. Thin as can be.”
Following hubby’s death, she remarries, and after many years together her second groom is on his own deathbed. He fears her.
In the meantime, she relives her earlier union. Did Elisabeth kill her first spouse? “There must be some mistake. You’re confusing me with someone else. I have the perfect alibi….”
Certainly there was an affair, with a man first drawn to protect her from her husband’s violence, but soon there is more (“His absence, more than I can bear. I’m going to die”).
Kamouraska is one of the many writings to be considered at an international conference looking at Hébert’s work and scheduled for June 7 to 9 at the Université de Sherbooke (check out Usherbrooke.ca/centreanne-hebert/ for more info; you can find more Hébert novels in the Lennoxville Library’s French Fiction section, too). There will also be a related show at the U de S art gallery up until August 7 (entry is free, and the gallery’s open from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday).
If the full-length Kamouraska seems too daunting, try Hébert’s short work, Am I Disturbing You? It’s just under 100 pages and explores many of Hébert’s favoured themes (the novella is translated into English by Sheila Fischman, 1998/1999, also filed in Adult Fiction at the Lennoxville Library). The naïve youngster Delphine has been seduced by a travelling salesman, and is determined to steal him away from his wife. She stalks him from Quebec to Paris.
The narrator is the emotionally stunted Edouard, who befriends this lost soul out of pity and fascination, and is always listening to Delphine talk, talk, talk: “She is alone before me, as I am alone before her. She extracts her life from between her ribs, a little at a time. I respond with the brutality of the deaf, who hear nothing and who measure neither voice nor speech.”
He later asks himself, “Shall I take advantage of her anger, rub myself against it like a match, and blaze in turn from a strong and violent life?”
The gothic elements of Hébert’s writing find full haunting in Children Of The Black Sabbath (translated by Carol Dunlop-Hébert, 1975/1977, filed in Adult Fiction).
Julie is a novice in a 1940s-era Catholic nunnery, possessed by the devil (“You are of sound mind and body. It’s your soul that is sick, dangerously sick,” Mother Superior rules). Julie’s parents were Satanists, and the novel is filled with Latin liturgy, inverted, and the multiple horrors of her youth.
Hébert claws into the suffocating blankets insulating Quebec society, family, the church, and women’s lives.
“The doctor leaves the convent, conscious of having escaped from great danger…. [he must] keep her from doing harm, render her powerless, shut her dirty yellow eyes for the duration of a good anesthesia; hold her life and death in my hands, open her belly and sew it back up at will, throw in the garbage all this obscene paraphernalia (ovaries and womb), serving no earthly purpose.”
As with Julie, her brother also tries to escape the evil of their conjoined childhood. But she cannot forget.
— Eleanor Brown, May 27, 2016