Book of the month: Zoe Whittall

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The internet is a wonderful thing. As this project has demonstrated many times, the unprecedented access the world wide web gives us to information and each other enables all sorts of connections and discoveries that would not have been possible – or at least nowhere near as easy – in centuries gone by.

October’s Book of the month is a good example. I found it through, of all things, accommodation site Airbnb, after Steve and I used it to book a place to stay in Toronto a couple of weeks back. Our host turned out to be a friend of a friend, TV and film producer Michelle Mama, who, among many things, made the award-winning documentary 21 Days to Nawroz about the lives of three women in Kurdistan.

Michelle and I got on well and had a great time discussing our various projects, so when she told me about a Canadian novel that she had bought the film rights for and offered to lend me a copy, I was keen to take a look. She disappeared upstairs and returned with Torontonian author Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts, one of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s top 100 books of 2007 and, I soon realised, an engrossing read.

Set around the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the novel follows 19-year-old Eve as she seeks to move out of her parents’ house and establish herself and her sexual identity in downtown Montreal. There she meets and falls for ardent separatist and non-monogamous older woman Della, who sweeps her into a world of sensation and experience she could barely have imagined before. As their volatile relationship shatters and remakes her, Eve finds her way into an urban family consisting of her new housemates, aspiring novelist Rachael and the flamboyant Seven. They ride the waves of politics, violence and homophobia that surge through the city’s streets with her, seeking true independence, even at the ultimate price.

Like many of the best writers I’ve encountered during my literary travels, Whittall has the knack of taking us into unfamiliar worlds. Despite being a stranger to both the independence question and Montreal’s ‘queer’ – as Whittall’s characters call it – scene, I quickly found myself drawn into Eve’s milieu. I felt with her the threat lurking in the gaze of neo-Nazi skinheads and the aggressive advances of the men she encounters in the street late at night, as well as the unease sparked by the passionate debates around Quebec’s bid for sovereignty, and the way expectations – heteronormative or otherwise – risk crushing and warping who we are.

This sense of immersion in Eve’s world is helped by the deft succinctness of Whittall’s language: the cold air that ‘hits [her] like a punch of new ideas’, the room so colourful ‘it’s like living in the middle of an exploding comet’. Time and again the author’s images snare experience and bring it home, fresh and twitching.

Whittall’s eye for quirkiness is a source of joy too and leads to funny moments in what might otherwise be an overly heavy book. Through odd details such as Eve’s stubborn belief that she can perform a handstand on two fingers to the curse that Della claims has led to all the women in her family dying by their 30th birthday, the characters come alive. In addition, there are wicked cameos, such as my favourite, the over-discerning customer who comes into the healthfood cafe where Eve works and asks, ‘Umm, what exactly is in the tofu carrot mushroom miso stew?’

The structure creaks a little now and then. After a punchy, filmic opening that, using the technique deployed in many episodes of subsequent blockbusters such as Breaking Bad, starts with the end crisis and then winds back to take us through what led up to it, the book is a little slow to get going. There’s also a risky section towards the end where Seven stages a play to reveal his responses to the events they have lived through. Some readers may find this hard to swallow.

Overall, though this novel is a great achievement. Unlike the maudlin, coming-of-age accounts many other Anglophone writers produce, in which boredom and drifting are the order of the day, things really happen in this book. Survival is at stake, people change and Whittall knows how to make us care. The story should make an absorbing film. I hope it won’t be too long before we can all go and see it.

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (Cormorant Books, 2007)

Picture by Josh Graciano

Canada: inside story

This book had lots going for it. The British Centre for Literary Translation’s director Dr Valerie Henitiuk, a Canadian national, told me it was one of the best translations she’d come across. In addition, as a Quebecois classic, it would be the first French-Canadian novel I’d ever read. And it was feminist literature – something I’ve had a fascination with ever since my year of reading women opened my eyes to some of the riches in this frequently overlooked field of writing. Nevertheless, even with all this promise, I could not have imagined the treat I had in store.

Split into three parts, Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert takes storytelling and translation apart from the inside. The first section follows 15-year-old Mélanie as she speeds across the Arizona desert in her mother’s car, ‘moving forward in life, wild-eyed with arrogance’, while also fleeing the insecurity, awkwardness and tenderness of life at her lesbian mother’s motel. Next, the middle part catalogues the experience of Maudes Laures, who finds Mélanie’s story in a second-hand bookshop and spends two years obsessing over its meaning and the actions of its characters and author, Laure Angstelle. The final section is Maudes Laures’s translation of Mauve Desert, which is at once similar to and very different from the original text.

Rich, ambiguous and fluid, Brossard/Angstelle’s writing sweeps the reader into the heart of teenage longing, using fine details to evoke intense experience. Long, sultry afternoons around the pool consist in the glint of wet tiles and the snaking of a hose pipe, while the rush of speeding through the desert shimmers on the horizon and in the dizziness of dehydration. Deliberately ambiguous, ‘both in focus and out of the frame’ as Mélanie describes her driving experiences, the narrative opens up a vast landscape of multivalency so that we can often never be sure exactly what is taking place. ‘Reality had a meaning, but which one?’ reflects Mélanie at one point.

As Maude Laures discovers, this confusion is precisely the point. While she strives to get to the heart of the text that has obsessed her, picking apart places, characters and events, and even at one stage imagining an encounter with Laure Angstelle herself in which she berates and interrogates the author over her treatment of one character, she finds herself dazzled by ‘the inexorable light that transforms lives of flesh into the bare bones of narrative’. As she records and analyses conflicting assertions that she finds in the text and her discourse with it, some sort of truth emerges like a line drawn through a cluster of points on a graph, tying trends and outliers together into a kind of coherent whole.

Yet, as Laures’s translation in the final section shows, this whole will not be the same for any two readers. Filtered through her consciousness and the result of her interaction with the novel, Laures’s rendering of the text (here of course given another layer by virtue of having been translated in reality by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood), is a new work. It picks up fresh angles and possibilities in the story and even adds things not in the original, as well as sometimes making passages awkward and stilted. Mélanie’s brush with some aggressive road-users is a good example:

Original: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25 are dozens of motorcycles, guys smoking as they look at the sky. Two girls are talking. One of them flashes me a peace and love sign while the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, gives me a violent f**k with her finger, then with her fist. I press on the accelerator. I know reality. Fear, it doesn’t matter when you accelerate; fear vanishes like a dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

Translation: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25, a gang of bikers are smoking with their noses in the air. Two girls are talking, a bottle of beer in hand. One of them flashes me a victory sign and the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, violently “up-yours” me with her middle finger, then the whole fist up. I accelerate. I know reality. Fear is nothing, it’s nothing when one is fast so fast. Fear faints dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

This exploration of the mysterious alchemy of translation and the anxieties around the authenticity of such renderings – as Laure Angstelle puts it in her imaginary dialogue with Maude Laures: ‘How am I to believe for a single moment that the landscapes in you won’t erase those in me?’ – is utterly engrossing. It is without question one of the most innovative things I’ve ever read.

However, it does come with a health warning for e-reader fans. While normally a Kindle enthusiast, I would encourage anyone planning to read this to do so on paper. Flicking back and forth between the third and first sections to compare the two versions of the novel is maddening on-screen, whereas it would be a breeze in a hard copy.

Alternatively, of course, you could buy yourself an e-version and a paperback and read it like that. It’s certainly worth it.

Mauve Desert (Le Désert Mauve) by Nicole Brossard, translated from the French by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (Coach House Books, 1990, 2010)