QuÃ©bec Studies, No. 9, 1989/90
CRITICISM, THEORY, AND LITERATURE
NEPVEU, PIERRE. UEcobgie du rÃ©el. Mort et naissance de la littÃ©rature
quÃ©bÃ©coise cmtemporaine. MontrÃ©al: BorÃ©al, 1988. Pp. 243.
This is one of the most suggestive essays on QuÃ©bec literature to appear in recent years.
Nepveu's first book of criticism, Les Mots Ã l'Ã©coute ( 1979), gave us sensitive readings of Gaston Miron,
Fernand Ouellette, and Paul-Marie Lapointe; it remains one of the few indispensable books on
QuÃ©bec poetry. Here, his aim is to provide a synthetic interpretation of QuÃ©bec literature as a whole,
from its "birth" in the demand for an autonomous culture to the "death" of the nationalistic project.
These terms are reversed in the title because, according to Nepveu, authentic writing could only
emerge from an experience of negativity and literary autonomy is attained when writing continues
beyond any specific project.
Ranging over the variety of literary production since Saint-Denys Garneau (the "first poet of
our modernity" and the earliest one with whom contemporary writers have a vital relationship),
Nepveu distinguishes three "moments" in Quebec's aesthetic development: foundation, transgression, and ntualization. These moments roughly correspond to the concerns of the fifties and sixties,
the seventies, and the eighties, but from a contemporary perspective the later ones do not entirely
supersede the earlier ones. Rather, they can be seen as interrelated, each one enabling a reappropriaÂ¬
tion of the others.
The writers of the fifties and sixties, for example, sought to create a country in and through
words, but, as Nepveu argues, they could only do so negatively, through the representation of exile
and absence. The more urgent the aspiration to being, the more intense the experience of hollowness.
Although the writer's anguish does stem from the presence of external obstacles, it becomes more
acute as the writer realizes how "success" would, paradoxically, abolish the conditions required for
poetic expression. This discovery, which Nepveu traces in excellent chapters on Garneau and Gaston
Miron, can lead to a paralyzing confrontation between the poetic project and the "non-poÃ¨me," but
(and this insight only emerges retrospectively, from the experience of a "later" moment) it can also
help the poet abandon excessively idealistic notions about poetic speech. It is now possible to see how
the "prosaic" dimension in Garneau's poetry is less a failure to be lyrical than a way of making contact
with the real world of writing. A complementary process is at work in novelists such as Victor-Levy
Beaulieu, whose desire to create a totalizing, "Balzacian" world must accommodate the necessity of
The aesthetic of transgression represented by Nicole Brossard and others exposes the limitations inherent in the urge to found a nation or other homogeneous entity. Arguing that the very focus
on transgression preserves the idea of boundaries, Nepveu suggests that much "subversive" writing
points to another kind of "center," which may be blank (as in Brossard's "centre blanc") or parodie, as
in Gilbert Langevin, but which remains attractive because the poet wishes to create a new subjectivity
even as old egos are swept away. On the other hand, to the extent that this new subjectivity is
associated with a play of surfaces and forms, the notion of transgression itself fades away in favor of
non-definitive, "ritualistic" crossings of lines that only mark provisional concentrations of energy.
Examples of this would be Jacques Poulin's Volkswagen Blues, to which Nepveu associates Brossard's Le
DÃ©sert mauve, Yolande Villemaire's La Vie en prose, but also, in another register, the "Ã©critures
migrantes" of RÃ©gine Robin, Fulvio Caccia, Marild Mallet, and Dany LaferriÃ¨re, who have introduced
a variety of cultural perspectives to the francophone literary scene.