Haunted Iconoclast—Hubert Aquin
by Harold Hoefle
Hubert Aquin saw life as a Formula One course where a well-chosen wall—not the checkered flag—was the goal. Gordon Sheppard, friend and self-appointed biographer of the Quebecois writer; becomes in HA! the post-race commentator on Aquin’s wild ride, a forty-seven-year careen that ends when, on 15 March 1977, he hoists his (dead) father’s .12 gauge shotgun up and into his mouth, then pulls the trigger. Is a crash a crash if it is willed, planned, and called by one’s beloved “a success”? Maybe, as Sheppard opines, it is a victory unlike any other.
Sheppard has crafted a book—called a novel by his publisher—as protean as the life and death he examines. HA!, at 864 pages, consistently surprises. You are not holding a book you must endure; rather, reading, you feel engaged. The shape-changing book mirrors Aquin himself. Sheppard shepherds you through a series of mostly-real interviews (mainly with Aquin’s partner of twelve years, Andrée Yanacopoulo, but also with other family members, friends, his first wife, his housekeeper, his secretary) spliced into various forms: images (Blake, Goya, Michelangelo, et al); excerpts from the writings of Aquin and bygone literary giants (with the appearance of same at his fantastical wake); manically referential SOUNDSCAPES (“A gurney wheeling wonky mmmmmm down an empty corridor… Sotto voce float the intertwined strains of Bach’s Art of the Fugue… The resulting sonic puzzle should do for the ear what the anamorphic image in Holbein the Younger’s painting The Ambassadors does for the CinemaScoped eye… “); maps; newspaper clippings; envelopes enclosing facsimiles of actual correspondence; French phrases; suicide statistics and theories; musical scores—altogether HA! is a multi-media pastiche, a polyphonic rush of voices. Incredibly, it echoes clearly the frenetic life of Aquin. Sheppard shows you how this writer’s life—perhaps all closely examined lives—rejects facile labelling.
Reading HA!, you become transfixed by Aquin’s complexity. He would lecture his great love, Andrée, on the importance of fidelity, then have an affair. In 1971, after booking a hotel under the name of one of his fictional-character suicides, Aquin tried to kill himself. Once he drove pell-mell through Montreal with a friend and stopped only for green lights. Often he arranged meetings with people and did not show up. In his role as literary director of Les Éditions La Presse, his work ethic, according to his secretary, exhausted his colleagues, yet he regularly indulged in long boozy lunches. He once told a friend he (Aquin) thought he was Quebec. Who, then, was Aquin, what was he doing or trying to do, how did he become this mercurial man, and why did he want to kill himself?
Sheppard sleuths his way to theories, hypotheses, and, in the process, reveals to his reader much about the post-war Quebec male’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis Quebec women; some recent Quebec intellectual history (specifically, separatist thought circa 1960-1980); the mesh of art and life; suicide itself; and fate.
Upon hearing that Juliet has died, Romeo cries out: “Then I defy you, stars!” The stars themselves seemed defiantly aligned against Aquin at his birth: October 24th, 1929, the day Wall Street crashed and ignited the Great Depression. Aquin, born and raised in the Parc Lafontaine area of Montreal, would, according to his own account, be raped on a street close to home when he was “five or six.” His father worked as a sporting-goods store manager; a job where, according to the twenty-something Hubert, he was exploited as cheap labour and never had a chance to enjoy life—in his last years he was an alcoholic, eating his clothes. Later, as an adult, Hubert would also drink heavily, and take pills; according to a friend, Aquin “lived like an alchemist, treating his body like a laboratory.” Aquin seemed always to need sensory stimulation-something had to be happening to him, or he had to make something happen: on paper or in life. Boredom corroded him. Adolescent Hubert would stroll through cemeteries with a friend after dark, while the adult Aquin would, while travelling through terrorist-plagued Italy in the early 70s, shout at a passing train, “La bomba! La bomba!” and delight in the stricken looks of those who heard him. All this time, though, Aquin set aside time to write—and write well. Short stories, four novels, plays, a book of essays; he won numerous prizes, including a 1968 Governor General’s Award for Trou de mémoire (translated as Blackout). Aquin refused the award, believing it came from a state oppressing Quebec.
In his first novel, Prochain épisode, published in 1963—and last summer’s winner of the CBC’s Canada Reads competition—Aquin wrote: “I am the broken symbol of the Quebec revolution, but also its disordered reflection and its suicidal incarnation.” In the year the novel appeared, the then-married Aquin met and fell in love with the also-married Andrée Yanacopoulo; each left their respective spouses and children to be together. At the time Andrée, a medical doctor and Assistant professor at the Université de Montréal, was finishing a doctorate in sociology. She had proposed a thesis with the following precis: “The general idea is to determine to what extent suicide can reveal certain psycho-socio-cultural peculiarities of the French-Canadian personality.” Suicide, then, was never far from Aquin’s thought, art, and love.
Aquin’s new romantic partner was his intellectual equal, and a woman who, in her own words, “was fascinated by the sombre and tormented side [in] Hubert that I do not have at all—and that I consider I am lacking—just as he was fascinated by what I could bring him in the way of peace and security.” The reader comes upon this passage early in Sheppard’s work and thinks, ‘yes, opposites attract, and the mercurial Hubert wanted—knew he needed— a stabilizing influence in his life.’ But Sheppard’s investigation worries that belief and brings us other perspectives. Perhaps Aquin, consciously or not, chose Andrée because he knew she would aid him in his ultimate goal, a suicide he himself designed, a final work of art—one that; like all great works, would be non pareil; or; perhaps Andrée was incidental to Aquin’s animus. According to a friend, “There was something Dionysian about Hubert, a will to go beyond the normal, a considerable taste for the exaggerated, a desire to shatter; to explode.”
Sheppard plumbs the depth of Aquin’s depths: his relationship difficulties; his disappointment in the PQ after its November ’76 victory; his blurring of the line separating life and art, of the plodding what-you-see with what-you-can-project; and his despair over his unemployment. (In 1976-1977, his literary royalties totalled $1,698.34.) In August 1976, Aquin was fired from Les Éditions La Presse after just seventeen months. He was publicly promised an editor-in-chief’s position at the daily Le Jour newspaper, only to see the paper shut down, then become a weekly with a different editor. Also, after working on behalf of Quebec separatism for his entire adult life, when the PQ came to power Aquin expected, but did not receive, a position. For the last seven months of his life, Aquin was virtually unemployed. For a male of his generation, brought up to think he should financially provide for his family—in Aquin’s case, Andrée and their son Emmanuel—the daily reality of joblessness wore him down, and contributed to his increased pill-taking, drinking, insomnia, despair. While reading HA! you see fate weaving a shroud for Aquin. A writer-friend tells Sheppard: “For Hubert the suicide of extra-lucid people was the result of a profound cultural colonialization, in the sense that all [of these artists who killed themselves] had tried to push Quebec’s cultural awakening to its limits and had been obliged to admit defeat.” And this writer-friend goes on to tell Sheppard about Aquin’s fascination with sado-masochism, with homosexuality; about how he (the friend) knew only vaguely of Aquin’s “amorous pirouettes.”
So. Sex, art, death: where the shadows of these meet and blur; Aquin chose to live. In HA!, which Gordon Sheppard worked on for twenty-six years, he deftly explores that life. The book is a work of art, sui generis. One of Sheppard’s goals was to “de-tabloidize” the public’s perception of suicide—well) he did that for me, and much more. Some passages made me weep. I finished the book and felt tremendous respect for Aquin, his beloved Andrée, Sheppard himself. I thought, too, about the title of Aquin’s final, unfinished novel—Obombre, or Shadowcast—and the Friedrich Schelling line he chose for its epigraph: “The beginning is the beginning only at the end.”
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