When an Author Chooses/Uses French:
HÃ©bert and Chedid
Marilyn Gaddis Rose
It would be absurd to claim that a geographical setting or
an historical event can be rendered authentically only by the
language indigenous to that place or time. This would mean
that countries with a colonial history, even if their populations
could use the colonizer's language natively, would never be
able to adapt it to their own experience. Such a claim would
also preclude bilingual writers or diglossic countries from producing authentic literature.
The preeminence of American
literature refutes the first inference.
writers and diglossic national literatures refute the second inference. Yet on the other hand, it would be only common
sense to claim that a group's language reflects the exigencies
of its setting and the events of its history. The juncture of
geography, history, and language cannot fail to affect a writer's
expression. So, absurd as it may seem, sometimes with bilingual writers, especially writers from milieux which have
experienced colonial conflicts of culture and language, we
have the impression we are reading a good translation instead
of an original work. Could this mean we detect a slight gap
or mismatch between language and material?
In any event, two superbly crafted novels, Anne HÃ©bert's
Kamouraska (1970) and AndrÃ©e Chedid's Nefertiti et le rÃªve
d'Akhnaton (1974), gave me such an impression which subsequent personal travel only reinforced. Canada is majestic,
and Egypt is overwhelming, but these novels are centripetal,
if not claustrophobic. Should it make any difference that
once in their lives either woman could have chosen English?
that Chedid could have chosen Arabic also? that each is writing
an historical novel and hence not about an era for which her
own idiom was current? Should it make any difference that
French is their literary medium?