Geneviève Robichaud’s research and writings focus ardently on translation, poetry and theory. With Erin Wunker and Sina Queyras, she is the co-editor of Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader (Coach House Books 2020) and is the author of a book on translation poetics forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press.
These days, I come to Ulysses through Penelope: Penelope, the origin and end of adventure, as Susan Friedman describes her. Penelope: the great fabric/ator and figure of home – waiting as she does for Ulysses to return. There, she weaves and unweaves, remakes “what has already been narrated” (Friedman).
What I am sharing with you here, below, is an introduction I prepared for the re-launch of Gail Scott’s badass yet tender feminist novel, Heroine, which was held at La Librairie Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal in the pre-pandemic month of November 2019. In my introduction, I talk about the snags in narrative of Scott’s prose line.
The writing of the introduction came slowly. I was a new mother, that was part of it, but it also had to do with my desire to write about where things touch: the “original” Heroine and the “re-launched” Heroine, were they the same thing? Ostensibly, they were the same, but were they really the same? Writing the introduction came slowly also as I attempted to make sentences and half-lines speak to each other. There were several books sprawled around me at any given moment. On the sofa, I re-read essays from Spaces like Stairs like a diligent student. In my notebook, I faithfully copied parts of pages, drawing lines across the lined pages’ gutter to inscribe a note, a thought, an experience. Arrows and circles linked various scribbles. When I’d come back to my notes, some observations turned into ideas. Others, with the passage of time, now felt encoded. I have a tendency to encode when I write. It is a tendency that leans toward a slant or poetic way of thinking, but it is also a way of distorting some part of my private life I want to transform in my writing.
In sharing this introduction, I imagine the introduction participating in the already narrated that is proper to how Friedman reads Penelope. Is there a larger purpose, however, to sharing this event-specific piece of writing: my introduction? It is not a lecture, after all, from which future readers will continue to derive points of interest or knowledge. Is the genre of the “introduction” interesting? Is it even a genre at all?
Renee Gladman has created a useful verb for the kind of thought structure I am attempting to create as I write this, which is an attempt to link and leap between Scott and Penelope, a November night in Montreal and the ones in preparation leading up to it. And to now, which also shifts. The verb Gladman invents is simultanates — “a verb that would indicate one thing causing something else to run parallel to it”. I am writing about an introduction I gave in the past while at the same time trying to articulate or first understand what an introduction can offer outside the context it was meant to do its introducing in. Perhaps there’s a kind of displacement that happens, like the re-launched novel circulating with the memory of its original circulation and its coming into being in time.
It seems a very useful verb also in relation to the “run” in my introduction.
In the meantime, I run into other phrases. Like this one from Gladman again: “where does literature exist?”
Is the novel really baffled by time and memory? Perhaps. It is after all the art form that is the most mired by human experience and duration. You could say that the novel simultanates the two.
Another useful question by Gladman: “When we move from our minds into language, from something that must be multilayered, full of fragments, full of complete feelings, like novels that exist in the shape of an instant, what are we doing?”
In life, many things feel like coincidences or accidents or chance encounters, regardless of whether or not they actually are. The doing, then, might not be the same as the doing in literature, and yet the more I think about Penelope, the more the two converge. And when the two converge, is that not too an example of the “already narrated”? Oscar Wilde’s well-known life imitates art is one example of this sensation of convergence.
I had the feeling of convergence the first time I encountered Penelope, which was during the first few months of my pregnancy. I was seated in the doctor’s office awaiting my first checkup, inconspicuously reading Nicole Brossard’s L’Amer. I did not bring the book to give added, symbolic (if not intertextual) meaning to the event. It was a lapse. I had been rereading Brossard’s body of work for a book I was invited to weave together with Erin Wunker and Sina Queyras. I had put L’Amer in my bag by accident that day, not as an unreliable narrator, nor as an anticipated allegorical gesture, but as the co-creator of a book that, like the baby yet unborn, was a book not yet fully formed.
Seated there, quietly – not a hardened shell of a belly yet to disclose to the outside world that a large cluster of cells on the inside of it would soon become a baby – it was there – in the no outside signs (yet) of those singular group of cells, where life clings to life – that I met a version of Penelope. It read: “J’ai tué le ventre” (Brossard).
The death is symbolic. It is the death of the mother reduced to her reproductive functions: biological and literary. Instead, the mother in the book, as she is necessary to new modes of writing, speaking, and seeing, explodes narrative from within.
Penelope’s weave, like Brossard’s uncontainable and brocaded narrative, is also the story of making things by hand. Working against the grain of re-production, her work, as Friedman so aptly points out, is her survival. In L’Amer, it is also a matter of life and death: a life and a literature lived in and through the feminine.
Beyond the already narrated, Penelope, Friedman suggests, is also the figure of repetitive time and of women’s work.
If the sensation of repetitive time links Penelope to mothering and to a chance reading of Brossard, reading Brossard and Penelope together seems more than an apt parallel: Brossard, the great un-reader with her recurring emphasis on dé-lire; Penelope, the figure of the no-longer and the not-yet. But what is the link I am trying to make, here, between Scott and Penelope or between myself and Penelope? I’ve lost the thread.
I start again: I am sharing this introduction with you. Gail Scott the fabric/ator of snags. It is an introduction where I begin with a question:
How do you introduce the generosity of a mentor? And do you? Is it pertinent? Will it seem sentimental even though what you are trying to say is not something about you and your relationship to this person but something of their character, something intrinsic to what they bring to the world: an intellectual generosity, an ecstatic politics.
Is it a narrative problem (the failure to speak of what [or in this case of whom] we love)? The problem of the “not articulable” rather than the “inarticulate”?
My feeling is that Gail Scott’s oeuvre coalesces around these unspeakables, creating snags in narrative, the better to catch one’s reading on spaces of doubt and hesitancy –
The heroine asking,
“Oh, Mama why’d you put this hole in me?”
For the poet and translator, Jen Hofer, “the snag is a call to attention, a reminder not to take language for granted”.
The snag is also “a hole that makes a ladder down a pair of stockings” (Kate Briggs), a woven fabric that wears the tiny gestures and relations between the subject and the world. “In order to mend this snag, it is necessary to wet a finger and apply a bit of saliva on it to stop the run”, writes Kate Briggs in a beautifully decanted book about translation and Roland Barthes called This Little Art.
The worlds Scott creates in her fiction are full of these snags: the porosity of the (small) sutured subject, the preoccupation with who speaks when one speaks, the attention given to re-patterning the rhythms of language’s thinking in a form that avows various forms of vulnerability.
These get metabolized in Heroine by G.S. asking:
What is a heroine? And how do you make a heroine? The emphasis falling on the making,
“of hole-ding a project away from the mythology of the writer” (Briggs), from the mythology of the hero to make space for a new mythology, that of the heroine – the Amazone revolutionary armed with her black book – a journal where she records her involvement in resistance movements and street politics, a kind of unrehearsed poetic treatise on aesthetic and erotic interventions that might shape the memory of her future novel. The heroine: a contemplation of the embodiment of resistance and vulnerability – “not the published author for whom the work is done” (Briggs):
“She––” the final snag of the novel falling on the punctuation mark. The dash––a final strike in defiance of closure. An explosive indication, on a nano scale, that the narrative of Heroine is a narrative still on the run.
Have we caught up with it?
I often find myself thinking about the dynamics of certain works, and how closely or loosely their circulation might resemble the trajectory they followed upon of their “original” publication. Reading Heroine, with its snags through time, only encourages such a pathology.
Of course, the rhythm of the re-issued novel is going to be different to that of its original context of publication. I say that as though it is self-evident, and yet the proof of the kind of speed effected by a book, not just one that has been out of print, as it accelerates towards the future, “can indeed create profound disturbances” of the most delightful and ecstatic variety (Briggs).
My “old” copy of Heroine lies open next to the new edition. Do they speak to one another? Do they understand each other’s relations?
In its most ecstatic form, such collisions disrupt the forward march of chronological time, shoring up relations, catching on the delicately woven “now” we call the present moment. There’s the snag: the vulnerability and resistance that is so well captured in Scott’s Heroine.
We are in the presence of a great novel and an unspeakably talented and fantastic novelist whose output is nothing short of pure genius. These are not exaggerations that must step in to do the work for the failure to speak of what we love.
This is a call to attention
a run in the fabric of the night, which,
following the dysrhythmia of Heroine’s fling,
is full of possibilities.
There is no greater pleasure than to acknowledge a writer, friend and generous mentor as well as a book that continues to snag my whole heart.
And if introducing the generosity of a mentor and of a mind-altering book seems sentimental, let me assure you it is not. It is an ecstatic gesture of encounters, which is also the snag of poetry, or something woven like it.
Pour citer cette page
Geneviève Robichaud, « Fabricator », MuseMedusa, no 9, 2021, <https://archives.musemedusa.com/dossier_9/robichaud/> (Page consultée le setlocale (LC_TIME, "fr_CA.UTF-8"); print strftime ( "%d %B %Y"); ?>).