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