Gordon Sheppard

Writer, Photographer, Filmmaker

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