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