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?”
Nervy filmmaker, needling voice
Falardeau made his name over 30 years with a broad œuvre as a filmmaker. His theme is the classic Quebec liberation theme, which he tackled comically and tragically. His comic series is about Elvis Gratton, the Québécois of 50 who dresses like Presley and admires everything American and anglophone. “Give me a double Diet Coke with that, will you?” he asks the waiter.
Falardeau’s tragic side is to be found in Octobre, his dramatization of the hostage crisis of 1970. He has no time for Pierre Vallières’s suspicions that the young militants of the FLQ may have been manipulated in their hostage-takings by the CIA or the Canadian secret services. In his film, with the concerned-guy face of Luc Picard in the leading role, the Felquistes are ordinary joes. They just want freedom for Quebec. They envision this freedom in terms of independence, and probably some dose of socialism. They move steadily toward using the terror weapon, the hostage-taking weapon. Falardeau follows them all the way through their adventure, to the death, half-accidental perhaps, of one of their hostages. The conditions they had set for releasing him – the freeing of political prisoners, and safe passage out of the country for themselves – had not been met. Falardeau follows them, not quite approving of their action, but certainly sympathizing with them.
Thus, Falardeau was a sympathizer with the violent wing of the Quebec independence struggle. But the mourning for him was not limited to others who sympathized with this wing. Nationalists of all stripes participated in the hommages. A few federalist voices were heard too – the Montreal Gazette – testifying perhaps to the special role of artists in Quebec society. Le Devoir published a cahier spécial, with the man’s face on the cover, marked by his ironic smile.
Ironic smile? As much as for his films, Falardeau was known as an often-interviewed controversialist. This was where I had a problem. I’d always found his needling voice what we used to call nationaleux: given to uncritical praise of the nation, and unable to see the humanity of those outside the nation. There was a sarcasm there, a sneer.
Yet even I had the highest esteem for the films. I liked their nerviness. I liked the idea of a populist public intellectual, which doesn’t really have its equivalent in English Canada. If the socialist element had been a little more present in the Falardeau vision …
Well, then I’d have been more open to it.
Celebration of the word
So Falardeau was a grande figure. Flawed, maybe, but a grande figure. Was Nelly Arcan a similarly grande figure? She seemed to be acclaimed as such; the literary critic Danielle Laurin, especially, made strong claims for her in Le Devoir. She had only been on the scene for eight years, and she expressed an individualism and ego-cultivation that is certainly one of the new tones in the Quebec generation of 30-year-olds.
I think it was hard to miss a mighty feminist implication in her novel too. But she didn’t make that explicit. She did not wish to present herself as exploited. She was not exactly admired for being a former prostitute, for voicing her strong ego. But she had transformed the content of her life into literature, and literature is one of Quebec’s most prized possessions. The word, the logos, has been the main tool for building the Quebec nation through four centuries.
Just on the eve of the two deaths, this logos had enjoyed its great celebration. The federal government, which administers the Plains of Abraham, had announced an American-style reenacted battle on September 12, the 250th anniversary of the battle between France and Britain. This idea was so denounced and lampooned from all sides that the government had to back down. They cancelled the costume conquest.1 A rare step for a government to take, non? Into the gap stepped a contingent of Montreal intellectuals of Falardeau’s generation. On the Saturday and Sunday of the anniversary, they improvised and staged a very simple show called Le moulin à paroles.
Therein it seemed to me possible to see some links.
There was continuity – ah, how we need continuity, when we’ve begun to have lived a few decades! But there were new elements, taboos that got broken. Here was peace and love on the field where there had been blood and guts and war and conquest.
The show was in the tradition of Falardeau’s generation. Many shows bearing the title Chants et poèmes de la résistance had proceeded it, many dozens of Nuits de la poésie. The texts the actors, teachers and ordinary people read to the crowd on the Plains that weekend were nationalist classics, manifestos, pleas. But also bits of commonplace day-to-day life through the years. The nuns who nursed Montcalm in his dying, on that day in 1759, were heard from. So was Jehane Benoît and her recipes. But the senior group that organized the Moulin had to seek some help from younger artists. The Nelly Arcan generation had to be heard from. How were these younger readers woven in?
To my ear, the Moulin à paroles was a delight in every way. The sun shone, the sky was blue. The words made me think of our past and of our future. There was continuity – ah, how we need continuity, when we’ve begun to have lived a few decades! But there were new elements, taboos that got broken (as when the hated antiseparatist article-writer Mordecai Richler was praised for his more literary work). Here was peace and love on the field where there had been blood and guts and war and conquest. Quebec was a good branch of the universe to be suspended from.An Innu, or Montagnais, read in Innu. Christopher Hall read a passage of Mordecai Richler, in English. The FLQ Manifesto of 1970 was read by Luck Mervil, the singer of Haitian origin. Another black performer read a surprising text: JKyll, a young woman of a hip-hop group, was the voice of Michèle Lalonde’s “Speak White.”
Nelly was gone. Pierre was gone. And new creative spirits were cooking up new kinds of consensus for us to live by.