What is it about the French language that makes it so susceptible to a marvelous discursiveness? Again, events in the French language side of the WordFest program have proven to be among the most interesting at the Festival.
Last year, at the Centre Française of the Uni—well, no, I suppose I should say, “l’Université de Calgary” (not least as a poster in the room we were in declared that “le Français était la première langue parlée en Alberta)—I heard Monique Proulx and Dany Laferrière, who went on to win France’s prestigious Prix Médicis, speak. This year, I went to see the best-selling French author Marc Levy and the Québecoise expatriate Pascale Quiviger, whose most recent novel The Breakwater House was yesterday named a finalist in the translated category of this year’s Governor-General’s Awards for Literature. (Her previous novel, A Perfect Circle, was nominated for a Giller Scotiabank Prize in 2006).
Quiviger, no surprise, was soft-spoken and eloquent. She is a novelist but also a painter and, when I met her four years ago on her book tour, she had an infant baby in her arms (this year, it is the novelist Camilla Gibb’s turn). Already, her daughter—at home, which is Nottingham, in England, for the time being—is five, but The Breakwater House was born out of the experience of having had a child and, in particular, that first year of motherhood she described as being “un état de grande choque emotionelle (a state of great emotional shock).” Her novel is an exploration of the confusion we entertain of what is “real” and what is “imaginary”—that space of perceptual overlap where the two categories are confused is, insisted Quiviger, much larger than we think. Much that we believe to be real is fictive and a lot that we decide is imaginary is, she said, real. Her world, and that of the mother and child she portrays in the novel, is very fluid in this way, the reader never certain—and never meant to be certain—about what may or may not be “true.”
Levy, by contrast, was utterly couched in the real—at least on this day, reading from Les enfants de la liberté (Children of Freedom), his history of a little known brigade of the French Resistance made up principally of young immigrants, one of them having been his own father. He spoke directly, emphatically and well to a room of mostly students who would have been, he pointed out, more or less the same age as the extraordinary heroes, most of whom died in the course of his tale of courage, French government betrayal and Nazi cruelty. Eventually caught by the Germans and put on a train destined to take them to the concentration camps and death in what turned out to have been the last year of the war, the transport came to be known as the Train of Phantoms because, at Sorgues, the 700 prisoners of the train were marched at midnight through the village and appeared to its residents so emaciated and barely human that they dubbed them ghosts.
The story was terribly moving, and all the more so when one of the students asked Levy whom he was writing for and he said, without doubt, you.
“Imagine if one day you woke up and read in the newspaper that your government had decided you could no longer go to University,” and then, pointing at each in turn, “you because your skin is slightly dark, you because you are wearing glasses, you because you are wearing a tee shirt, and you were told that you could no longer embark on a profession, and that you no longer had the right to work, and that all of a sudden your friends and colleagues were being arrested and disappearing for no reason.”
The students laughed, but only because they so uncomfortably felt exactly the point that Levy had so calmly but dramatically made.
What had moved him so immensely about the story of the 35th Brigade, as it came to be known, was that each of its members had made a rational decision to fight, and this without ever resorting to la haine (revenge). They were fighting for freedom, they were acting as guardians of civil liberties and of their communities—and this at great cost. And this, he said, was also what distinguished acts of resistance from those wanton acts of hate we properly describe as “terrorism.”
It was a fascinating hour, and no more so than when Levy talked about his attachment to his characters and that moment when, obliged to by the facts he never veered from (but that took him twenty years to research), it came time for him to execute one of his characters—and he told his wife he could not.
“I was unable to kill off a character and had to stop writing,” Levy said, “with the absurd sensation that by not doing so I was granting him another day of life.”
Fascinating. The whole thing. Took a long walk afterwards.
– Noah Richler, WordFest’s Official Festival Blogger
Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for WordFest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.