It’s a cliché that the nuances of a written work can be lost in translation; what’s distressing in Canada is how many worthy works are lost without it. New English-language editions of story collections by two contemporary French-Canadian authors show those of us who reside outside la belle province what we’ve been missing. They also suggest that, as is often the case, the so-called “two solitudes” of our national culture are secret sharers: while the tales spun by Lise Gauvin and Samuel Archibald take place in Montreal and Saguenay, respectively, their themes of big-city isolation and small-town madness would fit snugly into any survey of Anglo-Canadian literature past or present.
Gauvin is the more established writer. A literary critic at Le Devoir in Montreal, she’s best known for her 1989 novel, Letters from an Other, an epistolary work documenting the correspondence between two young women caught up in discussions of feminism and modernity. The stories in Fugitives – first published in French by Les éditions du Boréal in 1991 – indicate that Gauvin is a writer who likes to play with form. A few of the selections compress entire narrative worlds into a single page, while the lengthiest piece, “T as in Tropics,” explores the group vacation of two married couples and their friends, all of whom are referred to only by a single initial – “D is the newcomer to the group” – a manoeuvre that at once depersonalizes the characters and heightens the sense of mystery surrounding their increasingly incestuous activities.
Elsewhere, Gauvin stages interior monologues and transcribes telephone conversations; her go-to move is to put herself inside the heads of anxious, hyper-articulate adults whose consciousness opens a window onto the activities of others. Gauvin writes a lot about eavesdropping, and she does so with the dexterity and familiarity of a trained spy. Several of the episodes here feel reported – by both characters and author – rather than imagined. There’s a terseness to Gauvin’s prose that feels like something more than a byproduct of Jonathan Kaplansky’s translation; the sentences have the clipped, precise quality of items being crossed off a checklist. At times, the judgmental, matter-of-fact tone can feel stifling, but Gauvin also seems willing to turn the microscope on herself: in the funniest selection, “Postman,” the author recalls an encounter with a letter carrier who leaves with a copy of one of her manuscripts then gets himself reassigned to a different route a few weeks later. There’s just enough distance and ambiguity here to make the reader wonder if the story is an autobiographical sketch.
The same play between omniscience and remembrance figures into Arvida, published to great critical acclaim in 2011 and now translated (by Donald Winkler) as part of Biblioasis’s ongoing International Translation Series. Where Gauvin’s subject seems to be the disconnection endemic to everyday life – a theme that was forward-thinking in the pre-Internet era of 1991, though it feels dated now – Archibald’s interest is in how the past imposes itself on the present, both in the intimate form of family histories and against the larger backdrop of a community that exists slightly out of time. Arvida is set in a town that was designed as part of an (American) industrial upswing yet has increasingly come to feel like a relic to the people living there.
Archibald’s stories are mostly fixed in place, but not in time – there are vignettes set in the 1970s and in the aftermath of 9/11 – although, tellingly, temporal signifiers are kept to a minimum. “There are no thieves in Arvida” begins the opening selection, in which the narrator relates his dad’s youthful indiscretions as a way of approaching the man his father became later in his life. The idea of thievery inflects most of what follows, and even when Archibald seems to be dabbling in genre – the deep-woods thrillerisms of “Cryptozoology,” with its elusive feline antagonist, or the campfire-story shivers of “A Mirror in the Mirror” – he retains a tone of basic moral inquiry.
Determining the exact dramaturgy of Arvida’s narrative universe can be challenging, and certain character types and situations recur like musical leitmotifs (including sexually victimized women, whose experiences are rendered vividly without crossing the line into exploitation). What’s fascinating is the sense of people haunted by a place instead of the other way around. By beginning and ending the book with references to Proust, Archibald risks over-determining his artistic motives, but he writes so eloquently about the double-edged nature of memory – of remembering as a gift and a curse – that he earns his allusions.
The highest compliment I can pay Arvida is to say that its eponymous town and certain of its inhabitants have taken up what seems to be a permanent space in my own memory; this is writing as an act of psychic transference, and as such things go, it’s eerily effective.