by Malcolm Reid
In Quebec, two deaths and two mournings marked the year 2009 in an extraordinary way: Nelly Arcan’s and Pierre Falardeau’s.
For me, 2009 was a joyful year, not a time of mourning. I published a book and became a grandfather. And these personal events took me to Toronto for the summer, and therefore away from the Quebec atmosphere. But on my return! Arcan died, and then Falardeau died, and I could see that that one week, marked by two deaths, was a week of rare emotion in the nation.
Nelly Arcan committed suicide on September 24, at the age of 36. Pierre Falardeau died one day later. He was 62 and a heavy smoker; his death could be seen as a less surprising one. But it did surprise me. And perhaps it surprised most Québécois: the intensity of the discussion of him – of his style, of his ideas, of the loss his passing represented – certainly suggested that.
Who were they? Both were culture stars. They were of very different kinds, perhaps – yet similar people seemed to be mourning both.
Female sex workers of America
Arcan was a novelist who made her name with the stunning 2001 novel Putain (the English translation is called Whore). In it, she drew freely from her experience as an escort, or prostitute, in her twenties. The tale was told in exquisite French. It steered away from pornography. But the basic impulse was nevertheless provocative and sexual. Éditions du Seuil put a photograph of a woman’s thighs in tight underwear on the paperback edition, suggesting, but not quite saying, that Arcan had posed for it.
The book was drenched in a sad and bitter tone. It was as if a lingering Judeo-Christian shame devoured the woman telling her story. A paragraph that stuck with me was “We were just a group of young whores sitting around talking in the sunlight … ”
Yet a public persona sprang up, on TV and in the press. And in this persona, Arcan always asserted the rightness of the sexual-exploitation stance for her, and perhaps for anybody, today. Look around you, the sexual is on every billboard, on every magazine page, she would say, when asked why she continued writing on the prostitution theme after her first novel. (She published four books.) Had she not gotten it out of her system? Could she not seek a more dignified world? How can I leave it behind? Each writer finds their own tone and territory, and this is mine. And what is a marginal position in one generation can become a standard view in the next.
Being possessed by a painful period of her youth, her book even has something of the rawness of Pierre Vallières. It’s not so much White Niggers of America – it’s more like Female Sex Workers of America. Her ex-boyfriend said in Le Devoir the week after her death, “Your warning was in your books, in your letters, in your medical records, it was in the sky above us. Why were we surprised when you went through with it?”