New York has a French bookstore, but it doesn’t stock many books by Québécois authors, so when I was in Quebec this summer, I spent a lot of time at the bookstore Pantoute—Québécois for the French expression pas du tout (not at all).
Among the novels I brought back with me is Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, published in 1970.
Hébert was born in Quebec City in 1916 and died in Montreal in 2000. She worked for Radio-Canada and wrote poetry, publishing her first collection of poems in 1942 (“Anne Hébert” [Canadian Encyclopedia]).
She moved to Paris as an adult, but all her novels take place in the Quebec countryside and are “psychological examinations of violence, rebellion, and the quest for personal freedom” (“Anne Hébert” [Encyclopaedia Britannica]).
A descendant of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and an ancestor of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Kamouraska is set in the early nineteenth century and tells the story of Elisabeth Rolland, born Elisabeth Aulnières. When the novel opens, we learn that Madame Rolland’s husband is dying, and his imminent death brings back for Elisabeth memories of her first marriage—to Antoine Tassy, the squire of Kamouraska, a womanizer who sexually abuses Elisabeth. Elisabeth falls in love with an American doctor, George Nelson, and together they plot to kill Antoine, who was a schoolmate of George’s. They are helped by a servant, Aurélie Caron. Elisabeth is acquitted of the crime thanks to the lies of her aunts. George, meanwhile, escapes to Vermont.
Like Madame Bovary and Alias Grace, the novel is based on a true story. Like Madame Bovary, it is the story of an unhappy marriage. Like Alias Grace, the narrative switches between first person and third person. But whereas in Alias Grace first person and third person are used to distinguish the narratives of different characters (first person for Grace, a servant accused of murdering her employer, and third person for the doctor who tries to help Grace remember her past), in Kamouraska, first person and third person alternate within chapters, even within paragraphs: third person situates the reader in Elisabeth’s bodily present while first person invites the reader into Elisabeth’s mind—into her memories, reveries, and nightmares. Here, in Norman Shapiro’s translation, is the opening of the novel:
The summer went by from beginning to end. Madame Rolland didn’t leave her home on Rue du Parloir. It was very fair, very warm. But neither Madame Rolland nor the children went to the country that summer.
Her husband was going to die, and she felt a great calm. He was just slipping away, ever so gently, hardly suffering at all, and with such admirable good taste. And Madame Rolland waited, dutiful and above reproach. If she felt a pang in her heart from time to time, it was only that now and again this waiting seemed about to assume distressing proportions. That peaceful sense of being free, ready for anything—that feeling that surged through her, down to her very fingertips—couldn’t bode any good. . . .
I should have left Quebec. Gone away from here. All alone in this barren, empty July. There’s no one I know left in town. I go out, and people stare at me like some strange beast.
Scholars have examined the novel from various perspectives, including as an example of “Canadian gothic” (Davidson 245), as a story about a “working-class intruder” (Rimstead 3), and as a narrative about an Anglophone “outsider” (Boudreau 309). I find Douglas Boudreau’s analysis of the Anglophone “outsider,” the character George Nelson, particularly intriguing. Nelson came to Canada with his family as a child because his father was a Loyalist who did not want his children living in the United States after the American Revolution. Boudreau, who uses the term Anglais (literally a person from England) to refer to any English-speaking character, notes that in Quebec literature “[t]he Anglais is a reminder of the colonial presence that has affected Quebec history and culture since the British Conquest of New France, and this perhaps is why the Anglais represents the consummate outsider in Québécois literature. Alien by language, culture, and often religion, this character also represents the traditional oppressor of the French-Canadian people” (309). As an Anglaise in Boudreau’s sense, I look forward to reading more Québécois literature and learning about a culture that is not much studied in the United States.
The novel was made into a film, directed by Claude Jutra, in 1973. I would love to see it, but it’s hard to find here in the US.
“Anne Hébert.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 8 Jan. 2018, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/anne-hebert.
“Anne Hébert.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 28 July 2019, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Anne-Hebert.
Boudreau, Douglas L. “Anglophone Presence in the Early Novels of Anne Hébert.” The French Review, vol. 74, no. 2, Dec. 2000, pp. 308–18. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/398725.
Davidson, Arnold E. “Canadian Gothic and Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, summer 1981, pp. 243–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26280678.
Hébert, Anne. Kamouraska. Éditions du Seuil, 1970.
Rimstead, Roxanne. “Working-Class Intruders: Female Domestics in Kamouraska and Alias Grace.” Canadian Literature, no. 175, winter 2002, pp. 44–55. EBSCO, connection.ebscohost.com/c/literary-criticism/9680897/working-class-intruders-female-domestics-kamouraska-alias-grace.
Shapiro, Norman, translator. Kamouraska. By Anne Hébert, House of Anansi, 2012.
Always enjoy your posts. I learn something new. Look forward to reading a book that you mentioned. Thanks!
Enjoyed your analysis of Kamouraska. Will look for the book en Francais. I’m just reading a book by Gabrielle Roy Rue Deshambault. – It’s quite captivating .
Merci, Gloria! I brought back Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion from Quebec and plan to read it soon.
Excellent review! Definitely must read the book! Just checked our library system’s catalogue on-line. What a surprise! The main branch actually has a copy! I’ll get it when I go out later. (I just finished a book and am ready to start a new one, so perfect timing.)
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