4 August 2014

Anne Hébert: Les Fous de Bassan (1982)

Mathieu Galey, who is briefly quoted on the back cover of this edition, is quite correct when he states that the reader thinks of a northern version of William Faulkner in Anne Hébert's Les Fous de Bassan, where the sound and the fury are hidden deep within the language.

This novel is set in Québec, although not the Québec of French speakers but of a small essentially self-contained (and fictional) American community that originally escaped from the United States during the War of Independence.

The book is in six sections told by five voices: the Reverend Nicolas in 1982; Stevens Brown in letters to Michael (or Mic) Hotchkiss in 1936; the fifteen-year-old Nora Atkins up until her murder in 1936; Stevens's 'retarded' brother Percival (and a few others) in 1936; the seventeen-year-old Olivia, who died in 1936, and who now speaks as a ghost; and Stevens Brown to Hotchkiss again but this time in 1982.

The title Les Fous de Bassan might initially suggest madmen, and certainly there is more than a little madness in the main male characters here, but 'fou de Bassan' is French for the gannet seabird; although the French word doesn't have the same gluttonous overtones of the English word 'gannet', it is difficult to imagine that Hébert was unaware of this second English meaning and didn't intend an oblique reference to Stevens's sexual hunger.

Several critics have compared the book to a crime novel, and there are certainly aspects of this in here, which is in a sense like a jigsaw, or even an onion gradually unpeeling its constituent parts. From the cover of this edition, it at least appears quite obvious who the murderer of the girls in 1936 is, although one of the things which drives the reader on is the possibility that there may be some unreliable narrating.

Another key driver is the language itself, which is a kind of dreamlike poetry that fills the senses, and the readers themselves become 'fous de Bassan', diving in, feeding on it, and coming out of each experience open-mouthed.

In the end, it's the PS in the final letter to Mic that chills: that Stevens was acquitted because the court considered that a confession had been extorted from him.

ADDENDUM: This book is translated into English as The Shadow of the Wind, and it would be very good indeed if it went even a small way towards translating the atmosphere of Hébert's dazzling novel.

My other Hébert posts:

Anne Hébert in Québec city
Anne Hébert in Paris

No comments: