Quebec Studies

Book Reviews

Quebec Studies (1989), 9, (1), 151–178.


Québec Studies, No. 9, 1989/90 BOOK REVIEWS CRITICISM, THEORY, AND LITERATURE NEPVEU, PIERRE. UEcobgie du réel. Mort et naissance de la littérature québécoise cmtemporaine. Montréal: Boréal, 1988. Pp. 243. This is one of the most suggestive essays on Québec literature to appear in recent years. Nepveu's first book of criticism, Les Mots à l'écoute ( 1979), gave us sensitive readings of Gaston Miron, Fernand Ouellette, and Paul-Marie Lapointe; it remains one of the few indispensable books on Québec poetry. Here, his aim is to provide a synthetic interpretation of Québec 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 reappropria¬ 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-poème," 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 incompletion. 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 Désert mauve, Yolande Villemaire's La Vie en prose, but also, in another register, the "écritures migrantes" of Régine Robin, Fulvio Caccia, Marild Mallet, and Dany Laferrière, who have introduced a variety of cultural perspectives to the francophone literary scene.

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