Gord said HA!
BY CHRISTOPHER WIEBE
When Hubert Aquin (1929-1977) killed himself on the grounds of the convent Villa Maria in Montreal, he left behind arguably the finest body of literary work produced in Quebec in the 20th century and an intellectually vital life that yoked Quebec nationalism and literary discovery. No less astonishing, perhaps, is the monumental fiction/biography HA!: A Self-Murder Mystery (McGill-Queen’s) that Montreal filmmaker and writer Gordon Sheppard has made out of the texts and memories Aquin left behind in a quest to understand his suicide. The result is a sprawling 870-page book that overwhelms every description, a book without equal in Canadian literature.
Completed between 1977 and 1999, the core of HA! consists of transcripts of dozens of interviews that Sheppard conducted with Aquin’s family, co-workers and friends from various periods of his life. It’s also a compendium of tantalizing ephemera, including maps, photographs, newspaper articles, extracts from the National Assembly, scribbled diary notes and police sketches, potted descriptions of nationalist organisations like the RIN and FLQ, summaries of events such as the 1837 Rebellion and a facsimile reproduction of Aquin’s suicide letter. The reader, as one might guess, is inundated with information of varying magnitude: we find out, for instance, that Aquin had exactly 99 cents in his pocket when he died, and that the young woman who discovered Aquin’s body was walking her dog Mandy, named after the Barry Manilow song.
The central “source” in Sheppard’s text, without whom the book would have been severely compromised, is Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin’s partner for 12 years. A psychologist specializing in suicide, she has a sophisticated emotional literacy and an almost frightening capacity to remember and assess in great detail memories that are unimaginably painful. Yanacopoulo collaborated with Sheppard on a 1985 book about Aquin’s suicide, Signé Hubert Aquin, which was constructed in much the same manner as HA! though, at 350 pages, less than half the size. Another important contributor is McGill literature professor Jean Ethier-Blais, who believes Aquin left behind a tragically incomplete legacy: “By committing suicide he misfired — he missed out on his final ‘becoming’ as a writer…. He tried everything, and he didn’t go to the end of anything.”
It is clear from the interviews that Aquin was an exceptionally gregarious person with a galvanic personality and sense of humour — encounters with him clung like burrs in people’s memories. He was also very moody and needy, and intimacy could quickly lead to accusations of betrayal. Aquin talked of suicide throughout his life with many people. “I die, therefore I am” was his motto. HA! circles around the many possible reasons for his suicide, particularly his unemployment, a bad case of writer’s block, his “rejection” by the Quebec Independence movement and his broken relationship with his ex-wife and the custodial loss of his two sons.
In his exploration of Aquin, Sheppard takes us inside the Quebec intelligentsia of the 1960s and ’70s, a world driven by political and artistic revolution. “He always had the gift for saying things that shouldn’t have been said,” says poet/politician Gerald Godin. “He pushed society to the wall…. In that sense, one can say that he was unbearable and impossible and irreplaceable.” When they theorize about his life and work, Aquin’s friends constantly draw parallels between him and Quebec: one becomes a metaphor for the other. Aquin wrote his metafictional first novel, Prochain Épisode (1965), about a revolutionary writing about his attempt to kill an elusive spy while in a psychiatric institution awaiting trial as a terrorist Neige Noire (1974), his last novel, is a haunting work of intimidating complexity that combines the screenplay form, sadoeroticism and a Hamlet intertext. He saw the Canada Council as a colonial tool and in 1969 became the first Canadian to refuse a Governor General’s Award.
One of the most astonishing elements of HA! is the way the biographical “evidence” feels unmediated, forcing the reader to sort the materials into the pro-found and inane, and make sense of them. This brings the reader “into” the text like an Aquin novel. In so doing, HA! confronts the reader with their own insatiable hunger to know, raising the question of at what point voyeurism shades into an assault on the integrity of another person. Of course, HA! is mediated by the questions Sheppard asks and, less obviously, by the way he “edits” the book like a documentary filmmaker, cross-cutting between one opinion and another. Midway into the book, Sheppard makes the story of his obsession with Aquin dear, so we begin to understand the biographical subject and his pursuer side by side. Like A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography (1934), Sheppard shows us that a biography is always infused — consciously or not — with the life of the person who wrote it.
Using a brilliant experimental form, Sheppard brings Aquin to throbbing and pulsing life in a way no conventional biography could. As writer Jacques Godbout so aptly put it: “I think you can take all the clues and do as [Aquin] did to produce his books…. You rearrange all the clues. That’s why his death seems to me to have been a success: you can make a thousand exegeses of it.”
January 29-February 4, 2004