Is an artist born, or rather, created by experience? From the moment in childhood when he is forced to take drastic action to defend his adoptive mother from a violent assault the only maternal figure that he has ever known it is evident that the life of Joseph Sully-Jacques is to be no ordinary life, and one marked by sorrow and adversity.
Unable to cope with or even recognize the residual effects of his trauma in adolescence, Joseph retreats into an increasingly abstract world, one in which he must confront what he calls his “visions.” And when he hears of the death of his natural mother, this brings to the surface memories he had hoped were buried deep within him, and precipitates the form of various crises to come, particularly as he discovers and makes use of the artistic abilities revealed to his family during his psychiatric evaluation.
After many more hardships, the young man does find meaning to the absurdities of life, ironically in the asylum, where he meets a virtuoso pianist whose condition prevents her from continuing to exercise her talents. They heal together through their mutual love, which will soon subsist upon nothing but memory and absence. During mournful years of raising his son alone, in his extensive adversaria, Joseph sets out to reconcile the contradictory themes in his life, including abandonment, madness, love, and death.
In spare, lucid prose, and in a style reminiscent of André Gide, Madeleine Gagnon invites the reader to experience the creation and development of an artist “in his own words” Joseph’s gelid journal entries that are to become emphatic poetic laments in a novel that chronicles the extreme destitution of Quebec in the years before World War Two and in abstract developing forms of artistic expression after years of uncertainty and loss.
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About the Author
Madeleine Gagnon has made a mark on Quebec literature as a poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. Born in Amqui, a little village in the Matapedia Valley, she decided at the age of twelve to be a writer, and after her early education with the Ursuline nuns, went on to study literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis at the Université de Montréal, the Sorbonne, and the Université d’Aix-en-Provence, where she received her doctorate. Since 1969, she has published over thirty books while at the same time teaching literature in several Quebec universities. Her work in all genres combines passion, lucidity, erudition, poetic vision, and political commitment, boldly transgressing the boundaries between poetry and prose. Among her many awards are the prestigious Athanase-David Prize (2002) for her lifetime body of work, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry (1990) for Chant pour un Québec lointain (translated by Howard Scott as Song for a Far Quebec), and the Journal de Montréal Prize (1986) for Les Fleurs du catalpa. Her work has also won international recognition, with many publications in France and some fifteen translations into English, Spanish and Italian. Nancy Huston has described Madeleine Gagnon as someone in whom the boundary between inner and outer life is porous; her words are poetry and her ear for the words of others is poetry too. Everything she takes in from the world is filtered, processed, transformed by the insistent rhythms of the songs within her.
Phyllis Aronoff lives in Montreal. She has a master’s degree in English literature. The Wanderer, her translation of La Québécoite by Régine Robin, won the 1998 Jewish Book Award for fiction. She and Howard Scott were awarded the 2001 Quebec Writers’ Federation Translation Award for The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701. She is currently president of the LTAC.
Howard Scott is a Montreal literary translator who specializes in the genres of fiction and non-fiction. He is a past president of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. His literary translations include works by Madeleine Gagnon and Quebec science fiction writer Élisabeth Vonarburg. In 1997, Scott received the prestigious Governor General’s Translation Award for his work on Louky Bersianik’s The Euguelion. In 1999, his translation of “The Eighth Register," a science fiction story by Alain Bergeron, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for best short-form.