Gordon Sheppard

Writer, Photographer, Filmmaker

Haunted Iconoclast—Hubert Aquin, Books in Canada, 2004

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.”

Books in Canada
March 2004

Attempting to explain a suicide, The Gazette, 2003


Attempting to explain a suicide

A Self-Murder Mystery

By Gordon Sheppard
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 865 pages, $39.95


Very few books, even ones as strange and multi-layered as Gordon Sheppard’s inquiry into the death of Quebec writer Hubert Aquin, come with their own suicide notes. But after Page 696 in this one, the brave reader comes to an envelope glued onto a blank page. The envelope is not sealed: an invitation. Inside, written on two pages of a canary-yellow pad, there is the facsimile of the suicide note Aquin left for his wife Andrée on March 16, 1977, just before he drove to the grounds of the Villa Maria convent school to blow his brains out with a sawed-off shotgun.

This is clearly no ordinary book.

Though the form is extraordinary the subject of suicide has haunted human beings since they first began reflecting on their own existence – from the very beginning. Albert Camus stated that suicide is the central question of human existence, and the Greeks of the classical age made it one of their preoccupations, as well. There is no proof that cavemen contemplated the possibility but I’m willing to bet they did.

The subject is obviously an obsession for Montrealer Gordon Sheppard, who’s known as a filmmaker and photographer as well as a writer. He and Aquin became friends in the year preceding Aquin’s death, and after Aquin committed self-murder, Sheppard embarked on an existential investigation about why such a gifted man would do such a thing. The inquiry was obviously a long and winding road, culminating in the publication of this book.

Hubert Aquin is hardly a familiar name these days, even among the literary set, though he (or his ghost) did stage a brief comeback last summer when his baffling novel Next Episode was chosen as CBC’s “Canada Reads” winner. But his novels from the early 1970s are masterpieces of innovation and violence, especially Hamlet’s Twin, written partly in prose form, partly as a screenplay

The lines between life and art were more blurred than usual in Aquin’s case, for he was a man who used the politics of the day to express his personal disturbances, a man who had been contemplating suicide, or so we learn in this book, since the day he was born. His reputation as a literary meteor, a cult figure, will definitely be enhanced by Sheppard’s recreation of his character

McGill-Queen’s University Press is to be congratulated for surrendering to Sheppard’s obsession. The man has produced the wildest scrapbook I have ever seen in Canadian letters. Besides a suicide note, it features postcards, photographs, reproductions of classical artworks dealing with the subject, a diagram of Dante’s visit to Hell (suicides get the second ring of the seventh circle), musical scores, movie posters, maps – you name it. More than a book, it’s a collage. But Sheppard is no mere collector. He’s a painstaking researcher and has a love for the subject that moves him to be absolutely faithful to every detail and possibility. The end result is not just a portrait of Aquin and an inquiry into self-murder, but a full-body X-ray of Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, which gives us clues as to why we are the way we are today.

Through hundreds of pages of interviews with everyone from Aquin’s widow to his cleaning lady Sheppard gets at some questions that French Quebec usually prefers to avoid. He quite pointedly wonders why Quebec males are so weak, and what the conservative teachings of the Catholic church have done to relations between men and women, and whether we as a society have really freed ourselves from the old ghosts of religious domination. He talks to some big minds along the way, most notably Jacques Godbout and a writer named Koré Lagrenade (that smells like a pseudonym to me).

Many of the interviews in this book date back to the year or two after Aquin’s death, when people were more daring and less conformist in their thought.

Sheppard addresses the question of Quebec nationhood, and its relation to Aquin, who was a through-and-through separatist. Did he kill himself because Quebec could not realize itself as an independent country? Hardly – the PQ had just won the 1976 elections, and was seemingly poised for some big moves. On the other hand, Aquin felt betrayed by prominent members of the independence movement – does the name Yves Michaud ring any bells? Apparently Michaud and friends did not want to have someone as mercurial as Aquin around, and of course I can’t blame them.

Much has been made about the role of Andree Yanacopoulo, Aquin’s second wife, in his death. Even the back cover of this book trumpets, “With his wife’s consent… Hubert Aquin blew his brains out on the grounds of a Montreal convent school.” Consent? That’s not quite true. If we believe her, and I do, she pleaded and cajoled and argued with him not to take that route, but in the end, she had no way of stopping a man bent on self-destruction. Her description of their last night in bed is heart-breaking.

After nearly 900 pages of inquiry, his suicide remains a mystery, as it must. Aquin felt betrayed by his friends and employer, rejected by his sons from a previous marriage, and at the end of his creative powers. But those things are just excuses that the mystery uses. Mental illness is a cruel master, and in the end, it won out over Hubert Aquin. As a reader, I’m just glad that Gordon Sheppard is still here to share his magnificent obsession.
David Homel, a Montreal writer, recently published The Speaking Cure, which has been nominated for this year’s Quebec Writers’ Federation prize for fiction.

The Gazette
Montreal, Saturday, November 1, 2003

Between The Pages, The New Canadian Magazine, 2004


Geeta Nadkarni

If you have ever contemplated taking your own life or have known someone who has, read this book. You will be forever changed.

“Life is a movie, death is a photograph.”
-Susan Sontag

HA! is one of those rare books that defies description. It manages to be a novel, a scrapbook, a film (complete with delightful soundscapes), a documentary and an epitaph. HA! describes the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Hubert Aquin, one of Quebec’s most celebrated literary figures.

Soundscape: The jingle-jangle of a phaeton at full trot segues to ‘Desafinado’ softly sung by Astrud Gilberto on a car radio-which suddenly goes dead… Silence… Female voices intoning Nonce prayers in French are followed by what sounds like a backfire… second silence… Broken by the relentless yip-yap yip-yap of a high strung dog… a third silence… interrupted by the chirp jabber of birds and harping schoolgirls-trrrwit-ohmondieu!!!-trrrwitHowgross!!!trrrwit-Quelhorreur!!!…

On March 13, 1977, Aquin drove to the grounds of the Villa Maria convent school in Montreal and blew his face off with a sawed-off shotgun. Why did he use his (dead) father’s shotgun? Why did he choose to use his passport as the means of identification? Why did he have exactly 99 cents on his person? You’ll just have to read the book.

Aquin’s suicide provoked a great deal of shock, horror, despair and admiration all over Quebec. Among the shocked was Gordon Sheppard, a filmmaker and fellow writer, who had come to know Aquin in the year before his death. A single question haunted him: Why would a man, who, by his own admission considered himself to be a symbol—a manifestation even—of Quebec; a colourful, vital genius, take his own life?

Sheppard then embarked on an investigation into this “selfmurder” that lasted 26 years and brought us this book. It examines many things—Aquin’s life, the French-Canadian male psyche, the separatist movement, the psychology of suicide and much more. Whatever your attitude toward suicide may be, rest assured HA! will make you see the act in a whole new light. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The book contains interviews with Aquin’s closest circle—his wife, ex-wife, lovers, colleagues and friends—as well as fictional testimonies from his influences (Dante, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes and Flaubert, to name but a few). There are poems, excerpts from Aquin’s own writings, songs, paintings, photographs, notes, letters, film posters—all woven together to form a snapshot of Quebec as it was in the 60s and 70s—as Aquin knew and lived it.

To this end, Sheppard has been incredibly successful. He provides, at the beginning of the book, a few brief notes for the uninitiated reader. You need know nothing about Quebec or the separatist movement before opening its pages. By the time you leave, however, you will have received something of an education.

It is to his credit that, in presenting such a vast body of facts, he manages to neither take foreknowledge for granted nor bore the familiar reader. His passion for his subject boggles the mind—he chases down the most (seemingly) insignificant details and includes them without cluttering his text. If you find yourself wondering about something as you read a “witness” testimony, rest assured that he will answer the question.

HA! is a lot of things—indeed, it is primarily an investigation of the facts and circumstances leading up to Aquin’s “self-murder.” It is a love story—of a tortured genius and his soulmate, his country, his literature. On page 698, there’s an envelope that contains a facsimile of Aquin’s farewell note to his partner of 12 years, AndréeYanacopoulo. On yellow paper, in blue ink, it says:

…Between us, there was a pact; each of us is the master of his life and, provided there’s an advance notice of 24 to 48 hours, each is free to commit suicide without the other obstructing his choice. I thank you for respecting this agreement…

That Yanacopoulo knew ahead of time that Aquin planned on killing himself, and that she didn’t stop him, created a huge scandal at the time. Among other things, HA! takes a look at Yanacopoulo’s dilemma—how do you stop someone who is determined to take his own life and who has “known” that he would from the time he was born?

Sheppard views Aquin’s suicide in a somewhat mythological light (a view mirrored by Aquin himself and many of his contemporaries)—suicide as a final work of art. And so there are mythological and historical references to other suicides—those that Aquin read and talked about—those that perhaps inspired his own.

Aquin was a study in contradictions—tortured and dark and destructive, and yet passionate and fun-loving. Everybody interviewed for the book seems to paint a slightly different picture of him. Readers are forced to constantly reassess their opinion of Aquin and realign their loyalties. And that’s perhaps the most beautiful thing about HA! The way, after all the facts are digested, and all the possible motives mulled over, it leaves the mystery a mystery. The way it doesn’t try to wrap things up neatly and tell readers what to believe.

HA! is a truly incredible book. You are unlikely to find many that will even come close to it. Hats off to Sheppard, for the passion and immense patience that he displayed in completing this project, and for finding a publisher who saw and agreed to support his grand vision. HA! A Self-Murder Mystery is an epic in both scope and presentation—a fitting homage to the man who lived (and died) larger than life.
The New Canadian Magazine
September 2004

“He had his beautiful suicide” – National Post, 2004

He had his beautiful suicide

Hefty tome looks at the extraordinary life of Hubert Aquin and his Montreal


Why doesn’t our prize-infested world offer an award for the quirkiest, thickest, most infuriating book of the year? It’s the one prize Gordon Sheppard would surely win for HA! A Self-Murder Mystery (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 870 pages, $39.95).

HA! concerns the death of Hubert Aquin (1929-1977), the avant-garde novelist, whose suicide was a trauma for intellectual Quebec. At a glance it resembles other longish academic books, but the content is far from ordinary. It’s a biographical stew more dossier than narrative, crammed with interviews, leuers, photos and maps.

It sounds like a recipe for literary disaster but turns out to be the strangely enlivening story of a chronic depressive and at the same time a sympathetic treatise on suicide that inadvertently provides excellent reasons for staying alive (one reason: eventually you get to read about grotesque culture heroes like Aquin).

Sheppard spent more than two decades studying that famous death, interviewing everyone from Aquin’s intimate women friends (naturally, each of them thought she was the one who understood him) to his cleaning lady. Perhaps few will read this ungainly tome, but those who do are unlikely to regret it. I began it almost on a whim and found myself incapable of stopping.

Sheppard takes us deep into an exotic world, now mainly forgotten even by those who lived it, where romantic nationalism became a generation’s mad obsession, where poets and singers were suddenly society’s heroes, and where otherwise sensible Montrealers spoke of revolution as if it were likely to happen at any minute.

Aquin, who was drunk on revolution when not drunk on alcohol, was close to that world’s centre. At times, in fact, he seemed to be the centre, particularly when critics called him both the greatest Quebec writer of the day and the most potent figure in Quebec culture. He was a handsome intellectual with a genius for recasting his daily existence as melodrama. “It is my life that will turn out to have been my super-masterpiece;” he declared. Somehow he transmuted the petty failures of his work into an approximation of tragedy.

He taught a little hut didn’t like it. He was a Radio-Canada and National Film Board producer who found the work unsatisfying. He yearned for a career in business, dreamt of being a banker, even tried being a stockbroker. He nursed fantasies of driving in the Grand Prix. He lost hisjob with a book publishing company owned by Power Corporation, mainly because he publicly accused his boss, Roger Lemelin, of being a colonialist Though Aquin’s luck was never good (when a newspaper hired him as editor, it folded three days later), he collaborated with misfortune. He sought rejection as if it were the Holy Grail. Some friends considered his entire working life a succession of suicides.

Money, of course, was always short. From time to time he dodged writs of seizure from his first wife, whose child-support payments he had trouble maintaining, and at his death he left his second wife $10,000 in debt. His books were more admired than read; in his last year the royalties from his four novels amounted to $1,698.34.

He was no more successful in another career choice – freedom fighter. In 1964 he announced he was going “underground” to promote a free Quebec through terrorist acts. (Do revolutionaries normally announce they are going underground? Listen, it was Quebec in the ’60s – what can I tell you?) Instead he spent four months in a psychiatric clinic. That was where he wrote his first novel, Prochain épisode (1965), about an imprisoned revolutionary.

Aquin scripted and starred in his own death. As with many suicides, it had out-of4own tryouts. In his own mind it ran in previews for many years: “Since the age of 15 I have not ceased wishing for a beautiful suicide.” He was compulsively literary, so naturally, when he made an early attempt to commit suicide in a room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, he registered under the name of one of his fictional protagonists, a character who commits suicide. Naturally he never paid the bill because no such person existed.

He often discussed the inevitability of his suicide with Andrée Yanacopoulo, the Tunisian-born doctor of Greek-French parentage who shared his last 12 years, became the mother of his third son and provides Sheppard’s best material. Hubert let Andrée know when he was about to shoot himself and after it happened she said she understood. His friend Gerald Godin, the poet and politician, wrote: “I think Hubert made a complete success of his suicide. Hubert’s only masterpiece is his suicide’

His first wife was less enthusiastic. She saw him as a selfish scoundrel who left her and their two boys penniless. “I can only speak ill of him;’ she said. It angered her that he killed himself outside the Villa Maria convent, the location of her happy schoolgirl memories. “It was no doubt a way for him to have his revenge”.

Sheppard loads on to the Aquin story his own sexual-political theories (he thinks the Conquest of 1759 emasculated the Quebec male, which in turn “led to the conquest of the Quebec male by the Quebec female”) and discusses his own problems with his mom. He lards his book with quotes from many historic figures and lists famous suicides, casually mixing the fictional with the historical, so that Sylvia Plath, Socrates and Kurt Cobain appear alongside Juliet and Emma Bovary. If Aquin speaks of science, Sheppard throws in photos of Francis Crick and James D. Watson. Sheppard also finds several occasions to mention the feature film he produced in 1975, Eliza’s Horoscope, which is seldom mentioned by anyone else.

Pasted into the book we find an envelope that contains Hubert’s last letter to Andrée, reproduced right down to the yellow lined paper he used. In another envelope there’s a reproduction of his last postcard to his son.

It all seems too much, a frantic waving for attention. And yet the core of the material, Aquin’s astonishing story and the still more astonishing Montreal of the 1970s, come through clearly and unforgettably. Despite himself, despite his taste for self-display, Sheppard has made an exceptional book. His description of a moment in history has become in itself a bizarre literary event.
National Post
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

“Hubert Aquin’s last laugh” – The Globe and Mail, 2003

Hubert Aquin’s last laugh

A Self-Murder Mystery

By Gordon Sheppard
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 865 pages, $39.95


This monumental book about the great Quebecois novelist and separatist Hubert Aquin has been more than 20 years in the making. It comes to us in the same year that his first and most well-known novel, Prochain episode (Next Episode) has been chosen by the CBC’s Canada Reads panel as the book we should all be reading this year.

Gordon Sheppard is probably best known for his 1975 film, Eliza’s Horoscope. He was collaborating with Aquin on a project when Aquin took his own life in 1977. Sheppard has since been researching the writer’s life by interviewing everyone who knew him – relatives, lovers, co-workers, friends, even his cleaning lady – in an attempt to make sense of his suicide. HA! is the result. While billed as a novel, its form is more that of a documentary film; the title page states, “written and directed” by Sheppard.

This is no mere conceit, for by integrating the text with supporting materials, Sheppard has convincingly transposed cinematic techniques into his work. Before even the title page, by the use of a “soundscape” we’re introduced to the idea that this will be a multimedia experience. The sound dies out, and as we turn the leaf the first visual image appears – a close-up of St. Jean Baptiste giving us the finger. Only then do we get the credits.

This is a serious book, but it is playful. After taking us by steps through the suicide, Sheppard offers “clippings” from the press; different voices are presented in different typefaces; various photographs are inserted strategically, as in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, and serve to reinforce the documentary aspect of the material just when it seems most novelistic. Throughout, there are sidebars, illustrations, interpolations of other texts, brief musical scores. Most affecting are two facsimile reproductions: a postcard from Aquin to his son and two sheets of yellow, lined paper inscribed in blue ink in an envelope attached to the text. Aquin’s last letter to his wife.

Aquin was at the heart of Quebec public life throughout the ’60s and ’70s, a time when culture and politics were married. Many of the people interviewed here – Roger Lemelin, Gerald Godin, Camille Laurin – were names we saw in the newspapers and heard on the news, not just in connection with politics, but with literature and the arts.

This marks a striking and fundamental difference between artists and politicians in Quebec and in English Canada and underlines again why Quebec is distinct. Politicians not only paid lip service to culture, but participated in its creation, as journalists and poets. Artists were neither ashamed of public involvement nor chastised for attempting it. It also makes this book a revealing document of the personalities behind public affairs in a turbulent and seminal period of Quebec’s history.

But this aspect of the book also calls into question its designation as a novel, just as its designation as a novel casts doubt on the veracity of its contents. Can it serve both as an artistic expression based on Aquin’s life and as a sourcebook of Quebec and Canadian history? I believe so, for the following reasons.

First, it’s apparent that Sheppard’s interviews are not literary creations. Not because they’re enveloped with the trappings of journalistic integrity – notations of time, date and place of recording-but simply because so little attempt is made to shape them either as literary content or as documentary evidence. In fact, this is a fault: The book’s form is so loose that the contents are allowed free reign. Not every detail seems necessary. But Sheppard clearly shows his cinematic roots here. For make no mistake, this novel is carefully constructed. Its elements – primarily the interviews, but also excerpts from Aquin’s writings, reproductions of paintings, postcards and letters are not so much crafted as they are arranged. Directed, not created.

And then, Sheppard does not give us a biography. Included are only the parts necessary to build up an image of Aquin as a tragic, self-destructive, but not always sympathetic figure. Notably missing are Aquin’s early life, his relations with his parents and brothers, his student years in Quebec and Paris. Much is made by his friends and lovers of how Aquin spoke often and well of his mother, yet rarely of his father. We learn of his sorrow at being estranged from the two sons of his first marriage, but little of them as people or, indeed, of his first wife.

But we are given a portrait of the man Sheppard knew, made more complete than a simple memoir, by letting others give their own testimony. It’s striking how often Aquin speaks of suicide, how central it is in his novels; how drawn to him everyone seems to have felt, how forgiving of him they are – unless, in the end, they were betrayed. Every woman interviewed is convinced only she really knew Aquin, that only to her was he himself and faithful. Himself perhaps, but not faithful, it seems.

Finally, Aquin so strongly identified with Quebec that his personal story resonates with history. English Canadian society has struggled with its identity, yet never seemed to arrive at a consensus that would allow for a true Canadian patriotism. What did it mean to be Canadian? By contrast, the question in Quebec seemed to have an obvious answer. What did it mean to be Quebecois? It meant to be French, to be independent, to be engaged as a citizen in the collective.

Aquin began his career as a writer and producer for radio, television and the National Film Board. One of his projects was an Oedipus story; soon after, he “accidentally” lost his left eye. In 1963, he was vice-president of the Montreal chapter of Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN), a separatist group that was a precursor to both the FLQ and the Parti Quebecois. In 1964, he was jailed on weapons charges; while imprisoned he wrote Next Episode, a novel narrated by a jailed revolutionary. He was one of the creative producers behind the Quebec Pavilion at Expo ’67. He wrote three more novels, including Trou de Memoire (Blackout, 1968; for which he refused the Governor-General’s Award). All were short, hallucinatory, charged with reference to suicide and critically acclaimed. All are, sadly, currently unavailable in English.

Aquin abandoned his first wife and children for a married woman, Andrée Yanacopoulo, who became his lifelong companion and who figures prominently in HA!. In 1971, she foiled his first suicide attempt; when he awoke in hospital, he vilified her. Thereafter, they made a pact that should he decide again to end his life, she wouldn’t interfere. And she didn’t. This is really the unsolved mystery of the story. What are we to make of the woman who kissed Aquin goodbye knowing that he was on his way to blow his brains out? Who never insisted he seek psychiatric help? Who admits to deceiving the police in their investigation of the incident? Yet, she nurtured him and sustained him through years of depression, supported him when he was unable to do so himself, bore him a son, and continues to maintain his legacy and reputation.

HA! begins with Aquin’s suicide and ends, more or less, with his cremation. In between it ranges back and forth chronologically and geographically, between Quebec and Europe, between the private and the public man, between politics and art. What emerges in the end, as Sheppard actually states in the text, is a kind of Greek tragedy in a journey through hell. The image of Aquin that we are left with is complex: at once an emasculated man unable to conquer his own demons, a failed revolutionary, unemployed, alcoholic and a prescription drug abuser. At the same time, he was a liberated spirit and a great artist who strode forward with his single eye open onto eternity, finally having arranged everything in his life to culminate in one violent, transformative stroke.

Aquin was one of those writers whose life and work could be separated only with a scalpel, and, therefore, a great original. Paradoxically, these artists are of a type, and seem to crop up often in French literature: Sade, Lautreamont, Baudelalre, Rimbaud, Artaud; and in Quebec, Emile Nelligan and Aquin. Slightly mad, socially transgressive, alienated, they and their works often stand as turning points or launch pads of the new and the vital. Gordon Sheppard’s extravagant and cinematic collage novel is both these things. Here is a wealth of in-formation and anecdote. Some of it is scandalous, some of it is gruesome. It’s not scholarly, but it is telling, and it’s not so much entertaining as it is fascinating.

Michel Basilieres’s novel Black Bird features an FLQ terrorist named Hubert.

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 25, 2003

“HA! The mysterious Hubert Aquin” – Quill & Quire, 2003


Gordon Sheppard

The mysterious Hubert Aquin

Novelist explores the violent life and strange death of Canada Reads winner


In this age of diminishing media coverage for books, publishers can hardly count on publicity for most new releases, and a 900-page genre-bender about a long-dead Quebecois novelist would seem to have a particularly slim chance of notice.

But this May, McGill-Queen’s University Press got a major break for a book fitting precisely that description, when CBC Radio’s Canada Reads panel unexpectedly selected Next Episode, a controversial 1965 novel by Hubert Aquin, as its book of the year for 2003.

McGill-Queen’s immediately bumped up the release of a book about Aquin’s life and death, HA! A Self-Murder Mystery from 2004 to this fall, in order to capitalize on the coincidence. “Name recognition was not something we were ever counting on for this one,” says Aurèle Parisien, the book’s editor. “When it fell from the heavens, we knew we had to run with it.”

Billed as a novel, HA! is an intricate weave of fictionalized passages, actual interviews with people who knew Aquin, period newspaper clippings, excerpts from other literary works, and even famous paintings. Taken together, the various elements provide an encyclopedic look at Aquin’s life and mind ending up to his suicide in March 1977.

McGill-Queens is planning national advertising for HA! in both literary and mainstream media, although marketing manager Roy Ward hasn’t yet decided how best to use the Canada Reads connection. Ward is contemplating a media mailing campaign centering on author Gordon Sheppard, and a national reading tour is in the works.

Sheppard was a prominent media figure in the 1960s and ’70s. During that period, he made The Most, a documentary on Hugh Hefner, and Eliza’s Horoscope, a feature film starring Tommy Lee Jones. He met Aquin in 1976, and the two men worked together briefly on a film script. But Aquin broke off their collaboration after a few months, shortly before he killed himself.

Shocked by his friend’s sudden demise, Sheppard found himself desperate to understand the reasons. He began conducting interviews with everyone he could find who had known Aquin — from his wife to his media bosses to his house-cleaner. “At that point, I didn’t even know what I was trying to accomplish,” says the author, in the energetic staccato of an elder beat poet. “I just wanted to get the stuff down — to understand and preserve the story.”

Aquin, whose life and death read like pure fiction, began his career as a Revolutionary Quebec separatist. He wrote Next Episode while in jail for weapons charges, was immediately hailed as a major talent, and went on to produce three more novels before his death. A scandal broke when it emerged that his wife, Andrée Yanacopoulo, had been aware of his suicide plans and hadn’t tried to prevent them.

The controversial Yanacopoulo soon became a key collaborator in Sheppard’s research, providing documents, explaining her view of the events, and conducting interviews alongside Sheppard. In 1985, the two published a book in French, Signé Hubert Aquin, which outlined the dramatic story of Aquin’s decline and fall.

But Sheppard was already thinking about another, even more ambitious, project based on his research. “I’d been reading Joyce and Dante, who’d both powerfully influenced Aquin, and I began to see their work as an impetus for going deeper. 1 felt that if I kept going long enough, I could arrive at a very large work about the nature of being an artist, about the human condition.” Yanacopoulo gave her blessing to the new project, provided it was written in English, so as not to compete with the earlier work.

Structurally, the book takes its cues from its subject, who was both a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and a pessimist about the future of the traditional novel. “Hubert had the notion that books were finished, and that the audiovisual was taking over — that’s why he wrote his last book in the form of a scenario,” says Sheppard. “His ideas inspired me to work towards a new kind of book that takes account of the audiovisual revolution of the last century. We need a new paradigm of what books look like, so we can recognize ourselves in them.”

Even calling such a book a novel only the second that McGill-Queen’s has published in its history, following Robert Finley’s The Accidental Indies in 2000 — was a rough decision. Says Sheppard, “People I spoke to about the book early on, especially Americans, would say, ‘I’ve never heard of [Aquin],’ as if that meant that he wasn’t worthy of their attention. But if the book is a novel, then the question for readers becomes, is this a good story well told?” From the marketer’s perspective, Roy Ward agrees. “You have to call it something, so booksellers know where to put it on their shelves, he says. “And writers and readers of fiction tend to be more open to experimentation to the melding of factual and fictional dements.”

Whatever the label, the book is clearly not standard scholarly press fare (even if, as Parisien points out, it satisfies the McGill-Queen’s mandate of publishing books on Quebec history and culture). Indeed, it was something of a fluke that HA! came to the press at all. Initially taken on by Barry Callaghan’s Exile Editions, the project stalled when Exile’s operations were interrupted by a major fire at Callaghan’s house.

Then Sheppard was diagnosed with cancer, which began to spread rapidly. “In ’96, when I was first diagnosed, my one concern was that the book was not yet there,” he says. Determined to find a publisher for the work he was now furiously revising, he contacted Parisien — because the McGill-Queen’s offices happen to be down the street from his house.

In doing so, says Parisien, “he’d stumbled, completely by fluke, on an anglophone editor at an anglophone press who was half-French Canadian, and an Aquin aficionado.” Then followed another bit of good fortune, when a private donor offered to fund publication of the book, which wasn’t eligible for the grants the press relies on for standard scholarly books.

Now that HA! is on the verge of release, Sheppard is bracing for potential criticism. A definitive work about a separatist author written in English, by an anglophone, seems bound to ruffle feathers. Moreover, for the people who knew Aquin and figured in his traumatic last days, the book has the potential to open old wounds.

Sheppard says he’s agonized over this issue over the years. He points out that more than a quarter-century has passed since Aquin’s death, and that most people will have come to terms with the suicide and moved on. But he’s not naive about the dark side of the largest artistic project of his life. “I realized I was playing with people’s lives, and that I couldn’t do that unless I was convinced that what I was doing was serious, important. That in the end it had better be a bloody good book.”

Quill & Quire
September 2003

“Final episode” – Quill & Quire, 2003

Final episode


HA! A Self-Murder Mystery
Gordon Sheppard; $39.95 cloth 0-7735-23456, 864 pp., 6 x 9, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Sept. Reviewed from unbound galleys

In this era of harsh commercial imperatives for publishing, there isn’t much room left for big risky novels, those encyclopedic monster-pieces like Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, works that try to capture modern life in all its luminous complexity. When such a book does make it to press these days, then, it’s a sign that the work was just too intriguing for the publisher to pass up, despite the commercial impediments.

This is indeed the case with Gordon Sheppard’s book, HA! A Self-Murder Mystery, an almost-900-page genre-busting beast and one of the most ambitious, and oddly compelling, Canadian works of literature I have read in a long time. The book is a novelistic treatment of the real life and death of Hubert Aquin, a Quebécois separatist intellectual and respected novelist of the 1960s and ’70s. (Coincidentally, Aquin’s first novel, Next Episode, was chosen this summer as CBC’s Canada Reads winner.)

Sheppard, himself a well-known writer, artist, and feature filmmaker of that era, befriended Aquin in 1976, a year before the latter took his own life, controversially with the consent of his wife, Andrée. In the wake of the tragedy, Sheppard began a long process of conducting interviews with more or less everyone who had known Aquin, hoping to gain some insight into what happened. In doing so, he was able to delve deep into a life stranger than fiction, a life of separatist terrorism and weapons charges, of wild binges and secret sexual intrigues, of artistic desperation and bouts of crushing depression.

As its subtitle suggests, HA! is structured like an old-fashioned detective story; with Sheppard casting himself as an existential Sherlock Holmes. The analogy is not accidental–Aquin often mentioned his debt to Conan Doyle and frequently incorporated elements of the thriller into his own experimental, highly literary novels. Transcripts of Sheppard’s interviews, cleaned up and rearranged, work in this context as witness testimonies, presented alongside other “evidence” in various forms: Truman Capote-esque dramatizations; reprinted period newspaper clippings; long quotations from Flaubert, Joyce, and Dante; and images from the likes of da Vinci and Goya.

The resulting literary stew, while anything but conventional, makes for oddly breezy reading–improbably enough, HA! is a page-turner. Sheppard’s background in film may be a factor here. He has a screenwriter’s flair for addictive storytelling, piling on the plot twists and carefully building the narrative to an explosive climax. And the way he moves from an interview to a passage of fiction, for instance, has the same effect as a quick cut in cinema, grabbing our attention and forcing us to consider events from a new and disorienting angle.

The images and quotations in HA! also work on a deeper level. Aquin, as a serious artist, lived as much in the imaginary world of art as he did in literal Montreal. Given this, the inclusion of artistic works that influenced him give us a powerful sense of the creative landscape in which he moved, helping us grasp the reasons for his often otherwise inexplicable actions.

One of Sheppard’s central techniques in HA! is to fridge the line between Aquin’s real life and the imaginative world of art. This is most chillingly apparent in the startling contention that Aquin’s suicide was his final creative work, executed (the disturbing pun is intended) in the only medium left to an artistic and cultural revolutionary in a counter-reformational place and time.

With such claims, Sheppard forces us to ask deep, frightening questions about the toll that art exacts on the artist (and on artists’ friends and families). Aquin’s case is extreme, of course, but HA! suggests that every artist is engaged in a potentially destructive struggle, encompassing everything from the difficulty of making enough money to survive to the psychological toll of strip-mining one’s own life and relationships for creative raw materials.

These observations reflect back, self-consciously I think, on the book itself and on its author. In choosing to turn his friend’s life and suicide into literature, Sheppard also takes enormous risks: that he will bring pain to Aquin’s surviving friends and family; that he won’t get the story right; that he will sensationalize or trivialize, and so on.

But the strategy pays off, in no small part because it forces us to think deeply about these crucial artistic and moral questions. HA! is a harrowing investigation of some of the most profound and troubling aspects of the human condition. Readers used to the folksy mainstream of CanLit may balk, but this is a brave and important work that richly deserves our attention and discussion.

Nicholas Dinka is a reviewer and writer in Toronto.

Quill & Quire
October 2003

“Requiem for a Suicidal Genius” – Literary Review of Canada, 2003

Requiem for a Suicidal Genius

A Toronto WASP writer’s magnificent obsession with Hubert Aquin revealed.


HA! A Self-Murder Mystery
Written and Directed by Gordon Sheppard

McGill-Queen’s University Press
870 pages, softcover
I5BN 0773523456


HA!. I’d buy the book for the title alone.

The title suggests surprise and recognition, laughter if you add another ha or two, suspicion and indignation. The author humorously reminds us that it can also stand as an acronym for Hawaiian Airlines. In Gordon Sheppard’s book, H.A. are also the initials of a famous Quebec writer, Hubert Aquin. The letters “h” and “a” are not, then, so much unclassifiable as they are multi-classifiable. Much like HA! itself.

The publisher calls HA! a novel, perhaps to broaden its appeal. If it is a novel, it is a novel in the same way that Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song is a novel: lots of fact and document mixed in with a literary narrative. If it is fiction, it is metafiction and non-fiction as well. If it is a novel, it is also biography, essay, interview and psychological study.

Mailer sometimes brands what he does as non-fictional novels. If Northrop Frye were alive, he would likely classify HA! as an “anatomy.” Sheppard writes an anatomy of suicide in the 21st century as Robert Burton wrote an anatomy of melancholy in the 17th and Frye himself wrote an anatomy of criticism in the 20th century.

In HA!, the book is made into a computer screen. HA! is hypertext. (Interestingly, Aquin once defined the self as “an intertext.”) You get to wander off into biographical sidebars, take cultural side trails, and go off the main narrative road when you need a picnic or a rest. The page is a stage on which Sheppard controls the actors’ exits and entrances. Much more interesting, say, than Emile Durkheim’s treatise on suicide, a tome many have heard of, but few have read.

In 1985 Sheppard, with co-writer Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin’s partner for twelve years, wrote a book on the suicide of Aquin. Written in French, the book was called Signé Hubert Aquin:Enquête sur le suicide d’un écrivain. The book consisted of 353 pages with cutout pieces of a photograph of Aquin, a long list of famous suicides in the preface, personal documents, photographs, postcards, letters and extensive interviews with those who knew Aquin.

Now in 2003, this time in English, Sheppard returns to Aquin’s suicide with more interviews, more photographs, more letters, more quotations from famous authors, more songs, more historical and biographical sidebars, and a slightly longer suicide list—Diane Arbus to Virginia Woolf. Sheppard even includes a soundscape for each chapter, something not provided in the earlier treatment of Aquin in French. In Chapter 4, “Preliminary Inquiries,” for instance, Sheppard proposes the theme from James Bond’s Goldfinger, Swiss yodelling, Polish polkas, Gilles Vigneault’s Gens du pays and Russian liturgical music as a suitable musical backdrop to leisurely motoring through his bookscape.

At 870 pages, HA! A Self-Murder Mystery, has more of everything than its earlier incarnation, but the central structure remains the same as Signé Hubert Aquin: the interview. A dialogue with the living about the dead. A McLuhanesque montage of word and image, of different fonts and typographical typefaces, a docudrama of which Sheppard calls himself both author and director.

The reader is the audience. In some ways, HA! is a work of theatre, a house of voices. It is also a movie theatre, a house of images. It is a re-screening of Rashomon in which the viewer gets to see a murder and hear conflicting stories about it. It is an adaptation of Citizen Kane in which a public autopsy is performed to determine the key word that unlocks a human heart. The book is a courtroom in which Sheppard is the defence lawyer—his job is to overcome the jury’s natural aversion to suicide—and we the readers become by turns witness, jury and judge. Or, to change the metaphor yet again: HA! is a crime site and we are called upon to be Sherlock Holmes.. We know whodunit, but we don’t know the causes and motives.

In his “Authorized comments,” Sheppard writes, “I cast the book in the form of an investigation because Hubert Aquin’s suicide is a self-murder mystery. Besides, I consider his suicide to be his last creative act, so in recounting the how and why of it I wanted to be true to his credo—which is that all stories are detective stories and should take their cue from Sherlock Holmes.”

For the most part, Sheppard asks the questions in the book, records the comments of Aquin’s friends and family, particularly Yanacopoulo, and occasionally riffs on the contribution by someone in Aquin’s circle. MM, Aquin’s lover, is asked why she was drawn to Aquin and the nature of her relationship with him. Aquin’s partner, Andrée, is asked the same general question and gets to read and comment on MM’s response. Sheppard the interrogator throughout the mystery murder interrogates, but is seldom interrogated. There is no cross-examination of the defence lawyer; Sherlock Holmes’s boss is not called to the witness stand.

Readers may find themselves asking: Why does this man Sheppard, by his own definition a WASP film maker and photographer from Toronto who has an ongoing love affair with the French language and a French-Canadian woman, have such a fascination (obsession?) with a separatist writer from Montreal? He wrote on Aquin’s life as early as 1969 for the Toronto Telegram in words as prophetically accurate of his death as his life:

What brought M. Aquin to violent revolt was not
simply a desire to establish an independent
French-speaking Quebec ... It was a passionate
love of women colliding with lack of the male
pride that can make true love possible.

According to HA!, Sheppard did not meet the Quebec author until 1976, a year before Aquin’s death. The meeting must have been fruitful and intense because Aquin agreed to work on a screenplay with Sheppard, a project he never completed. The story-thread had a son murder his mother. Aquin was not ready yet to play executioner to mom.

Sheppard tells us that he has third-stage prostate cancer in the book. His bad cells are not committing suicide as they should in order to let the good cells replace them. At times, the line between Aquin and Sheppard seems to blur. They are both, in André Malraux’s coinage, farfelus: dreamers with reckless self-abandon. Is Sheppard dying from the lack of cellular suicide as he writes this book about Aquin’s successful suicide? HA! celebrates such ironies.

At any rate, Aquin is a worthy subject for fascination or even obsession. Anyone who has read his Next Episode, chosen by Canada Reads on the CBC as the novel the country ought to read in 2003, or his intellectually savvy essays such as “The Cultural Fatigue of French Canada,” written in response to Pierre Ttudeau’s Federalism and the French-Canadians, will testify to Aquin’s lucidity and stylistic inventiveness. In a style Le Monde called “lucidly delirious” and “wilftully discontinuous,” Aquin rises to the level of Nabokov’s torqued and inventive speech. And that’s one of the problems with HA!

Sheppard is nowhere as exciting in his sentences as Aquin is in his. There is no sentence in Sheppard that compares with the syntactical electricity of Aquin’s opening line in Next Episode: “Cuba sinks in flames in the middle of Lake Léman while I get to the bottom of things.” Even with a choirloft of voices, one voice in HA! sounds much the same as another. The interview format makes for monotone rather than polytone. When Sheppard includes lines or even short passages from Aquin’s novels, they stand out as extraordinary tongue-craft.

Style aside, at the heart of HA! is an inescapable question: why suicide? Why does a famous 47-year-old Quebec writer in reasonably good health, with a supportive partner and a young son, decide to kill himself? There are at least 14 possibilities that Sheppard considers and allows the reader-juror to adjudge.

  1. Aquin is tired. Tired of life, tired of himself, tired of his circumstances. His Dionysian self has dried up. “Should one live ‘dead’?” Aquin asks himself. “I have lived intensely, and now it is over,” he murmurs.
  2. He is over his head (out of his head?) in complicated relationships with women, particularly with his partner, Andrée, and his female friend MM. He is stuck. He can’t move forward to a new relationship because the memory of the old broken relationship with his ex-wife and the custodial loss of his two sons haunts him. He can’t go back because he’ has already tried suicide in 1971; he has written about it excessively in his novels, he has talked about it obsessively with Andrée, even involving her, an academic specialist in suicide, in the planning of it.
  3. He does not want to be his father; he wants to get out at the height of his fame rather than fall into inevitable decline.
  4. He is disappointed. The Parti Québécois wins the election. Lévesque does not call. Claude Morin, who gives Aquin hope of employment, does not deliver. Aquin doesn’t feel needed. He has been—at least in his own imagination—one of the fathers of independence, one of the early revolutionaries… The phone remains silent.
  5. He loses his job(s). First with Roger Lemelin as publishing director, then with Le Jour as editor-in-chief. He is forced to rely on his partner’s income.
  6. He never wanted to be born in the first place. This is a line of thought that hits the reader hardest. “If I had to do it all over again-personally I would choose not to be born, such is my pain.” It is an infrequently spoken, but powerfully asserted, refrain in the book. In Next Episode, Aquin writes: “Ever since I was fifteen years old, I haven’t stopped wishing for a beautiful suicide.”
  7. He wants to make “a perfect work of art.” This is Sheppard at his most Romantic and idealizing. The romancing of suicide. In the words of fellow nationalist and separatist, Pierre Bourgault: “his suicide was the normal conclusion of his literary works … his works are all about suicide. Instead of writing a book he committed suicide: it’s his last book.”
    (One of the pleasures of Sheppard’s narrative is that he does not push any particular motive to the exclusion of others. To some extent, he playfully deconstructs his own position: that Aquin’s suicide was for art’s sake. One of the boxed quotes, from Wilhelm Stekel, declaims, “Nobody kills himself unless he wants to kill another person or wishes another’s death.” Is it possible that in killing himself Aquin wanted spitefully to kill someone else? Al’ the ‘mothers of his life?)
  8. He has feelings of impotence. Perhaps not sexual impotence, but psychic impotence, personal impotence. Nothing he, does seems to get him anywhere. As Quebec writer Jacques Godbout summarizes, “he was in a hole… He had tried the life of a writer. He’d tried the life of a stockbroker, professor, filmmaker, administrator, literary director … I think his suicide was the only thing left for him to try.” Maybe Aquin lived the wrong life: “The life I’d like to have lived would have been to be rich, to own a Ferrari, to qualify as a Grand Prix driver… and then one day to disappear! like an angel.”
  9. He has epileptic fits from time to time, he is an alcoholic, he has homosexual tendencies. Is any one of these factors or a combination of them a contributor to suicide?
  10. Aquin claims he was raped as a child. Some wounds you just don’t recover from.
  11. The impossibility of repetition. He wants to relive the life he has led, but cannot. Curiously, MM is 36 when Aquin meets her; the same age Andrée was when he met her. MM, like Andrée, is a foreign professor; she, too, is married at the time and has three children. Coincidence?
  12. The general malaise in Quebec, a feeling of impotence, a feeling that Quebec can neither fully integrate itself into the rest of Canada nor fully separate from Canada, just as Aquin can neither fully integrate with his partner nor leave her for another woman. At times, Aquin does not seem to separate the collective from the individual, self from society, the personal from the political. As farfetched as the theory may sound, in Sheppard’s deft handling the theory is given a degree of plausibility. He writes (speaks):
    Since the Conquest... the French-Canadian male
    has felt "conquered" vis-à-vis other men ...
    humiliated vis-à-vis French-Canadian women ...
    who ... guaranteed the survival of the race by
    being domineering and fecund mothers ... To
    give themselves the impression of being the equal
    of all other men and thus of at last feeling at ease
    with their women ... many of the best and
    brightest French-Canadian males have pushed for
    political independence. Meanwhile, many of them
    have fled from, or forsaken, the French-Canadian
    women-mothers, and linked up with foreign-born

    Sheppard cites the cases of Aquin, humourist Yvon Deschamps and songwriter Gilles Vigneault, “pure” French every one, and each drawn to “foreign” women.
    He goes on: “It’s thus very coherent that he would say that his last thoughts would be of his mother … because in killing himself he was killing the Mother that had haunted and blighted his existence, the Mother as represented in the first instance by his own mother. And he killed himself in the gardens of the Villa Maria, the school of his first domineering wife-mother and the convent of the Mother of Christ.”
    Sheppard quotes George Bernard Shaw: “Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman.”

  13. He is afraid of having to abandon his son, Emmanuel, when Andrée knows the full extent of his shenanigans with MM. He has already lost two children in a previous marriage. He cannot countenance the possibility of losing a third child. Does he commit suicide “to save” his son?
  14. He feels there is no possibility of renewal. The screenplay with Sheppard is unfinished, the new novel he is writing has reached an impasse, he is financially dependent on Andrée. Renewal by love seems out of reach.
    Sheppard writes: “Now, certain artists who, like Hubert, are in love with love, don’t necessarily have to have a new relationship in order to renew themselves, but they may have a psycho-logical need to feel that it’s possible for them to have such a relationship. My view is that Hubert, deprived of that psychological possibility, felt incapable of renewing himself and of creating once again.”

HA! may not be everyone’s mug of beer. For some, the book will be too long, too demanding and too obsessive. For others, it may turn out to be a cult hit along the lines of Harold and Maude, a film that, among other things, spoofs the idea of suicide. Quite possibly the book will become—it has the size and reach—a kind of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for suicide: not easy to find in every bookshop, but a valuable treasure when discovered.

With all its flaws—irrelevant information about Aquin’s car, the unnecessary opening primer on Canadian history and geography, and the monotony of the interview format—HA! is the deepest and broadest probe into suicide, and the most thorough—going exhumation and interrogation of a dead body, that I have come across in my reading.

Sheppard has astonishing knowledge of and sensitivity to Quebec, particularly in the connection between gender politics and the drive for independence. He manages to make a dark subject light. He reveals the suicidal heart of a gifted literary figure. In HA! he has written a strange, quixotic work: brave, bold, extravagantly experimental. It deserves a place in Canadian letters.

Literary Review of Canada
October 2003

“Five That Will Outlast Us…” – Literary Review of Canada, 2004

The LRC reviewed 128 books in 2003. In this inaugural year-in-review feature, we want to draw attention to five of those books that we believe will have lasting significance. Some, like Fire and Ice by Michael Adams, have already made a considerable splash on the Canadian scene; others, like Gordon Sheppard’s HA!, we feel will have a quieter but no less profound impact. Naturally, our selections are evidence of the subjective nature of any attempt to pick the best of something. We certainly reviewed enough books in 2003—many superb by any standard—for you to choose the ones that will endure for you.

HA! A Self-Murder Mystery

Gordon Sheppard (McGill-Queen’s University Press)

Near the beginning of this nearly 900-page quest to understand the 1977 suicide of celebrated Quebecois writer Hubert Aquin, Gordon Sheppard asks Jean Ethier-Blais, “If one considers Aquin’s suicide as a work, what do you think is the best way to present the results of the investigation of his suicide … as a documentary, based on testimony like yours? Or as a fiction created from a transportation of the facts gathered in the testimonies?” Blais answers, “Oh, I think you have to do it as a documentary. Suicide is rather banal, and you would remove any interest it might have by making a fiction of it:’

HA! itself is anything but banal. Classified as a novel by its publishers, the strength of the narrative comes not from traditional fictional elements but rather from a cornucopia of treasures mined from carefully documented interviews, novel excerpts, paintings and photos, reproduced correspondence, originally created soundscapes and the odd stage direction. Sheppard, a friend and almost-collaborator of Aquin’s, spent more than 20 years crafting the elements from which he built this book. No one he interviews—partners, lovers, artists, writers, politicians—seems quite as needful of a definitive answer to the question of why as Sheppard himself does; for the most part, they seem to think either the answer is self-evident or the question itself is not the most relevant one.

Sheppard circles and circles, directing the action, building the crescendo of a non-linear structure, drawing parallels to art, literature, famous suicides, politics, history; he peels away layer after layer of truth so that the why expands to include not only an anatomy of suicide, but also an anatomy of the Quebecois separatist movement of the 1970S and, ultimately, an anatomy of an artist and man.

Literary Review of Canada
January/February 2004

“The most unique and impressive book” – John W. MacDonald

This is simply the most unique and impressive book I have ever come across. It weighs in at a whopping 1.6 Kg or 3 1/2lbs. After 6 straight days of reading I feel educated, voyeuristic, saddened and have a deeper insight into Quebec history and Aquin’s literary influences. The book, 26 years in the making, is the story of Hubert Aquin’s life and ultimate death. Sheppard explicitly depicts Aquin’s life and death as a work of art with respect to a long tradition of such in literature and film. Through quotes, musical interludes and interviews, Aquin’s last violent act was a work of art by a shattered man. His life, full of tragedy (self-inflicted or otherwise), love and loss, begat several classics in Quebec Literature, namely Prochain Episode. Sheppard’s book surely merits a wide audience as does the work of Aquin. Excellent value for the $$.

– John W. MacDonald, reader