30 August 2014

Jacques Poulin: Le Vieux Chagrin (1989)

Le Vieux Chagrin (VC) being a novel by Jacques Poulin, there are a number of prominent similarities between Volkswagen Blues (VB) and Tournée d'automne (TA), the other books of his I've read: a forty-year-old writer who drives a Volkswagen (Jack in VB and – as a minor character – Jack in TA); Ernest Hemingway (VB and to a lesser extent TA); cats (VB and TA), the past (VB and TA); search (VB), etc.

The principal cat in Le Vieux Chagrin is the narrator's pet Chagrin, the Mr. Blue of the eponymous translation title, who frequently appears in the book (sometimes with other cats), but has no part in the central story.

The narrator is staying in his childhood home by the Saint-Laurent river and becomes interested, to the point of obsession, in a woman on the coast who has arrived in a sailing boat and seems to be partly dwelling in a nearby cave, where she is reading One Thousand and One Nights and has insccribed the name 'Marie K' on the flyleaf, leading the narrator (occasionally called Jim) to call her Marika.

Leaving messages for the woman to call on him brings the character Bungalow into the story, although she has no information about her: Bungalow has left her husband to set up a kind of refuge for women in nearby Québec city. Through Bungalow the teenaged la Petite, a victim of (unstated) abuse by her step-father, comes into the story, and she often stays at Jim's house, loving the cats and other animals that frequent the area.

The writer's main influence is Hemingway, although he's suffering from writer's block with his love story: he incorporates (by factual distortion) people he's known in his life into the story, although he feels that he hasn't loved anyone, including the wife he's divorced from.

Jim comes to realise, or at least to imagine, that he's in love with Marika and decides to visit the cave again. But the sailing boat has gone, her possessions (including the book) have gone, and he knows he will never see her again. In fact, he seriously wonders if she ever existed, and wonders if she wasn't simply a projection of his female self.

This relates to the narrator (a former teacher) speaking to la Petite about Hemingway's story title 'Big Two-Hearted River', and he asks her what 'two-hearted' can mean. As an example, she tells her a story from A. E. Hotchner's Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir (1955), in which Hemingway told of a white owl he shot, but which only had a wounded wing: he nursed the animal, fed it, brought it back to health and tamed and befriended it. From this story, la Petite comes to see the masculine and the feminine sides of Hemingway.

The narrator towards the end states that he has never mentioned to anyone his 'naive ambition', his 'enormous and ridiculous' secret of creating through literature a new world without war or other violence, no competition or hostility to others, everything working towards the service of love. Well, I can understand why he keeps his vision a secret, but at least his actions show his intentions, and his last action of adopting la Petite (whose search for her parents has been somewhat negative) is evidence of it: it's not official, he just writes it, signs it and puts it in an envelope. La Petite seals it and stores it away, watched both by the emotionally moved man – and the cats.

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