4 min

Lesbian feminist Nicole Brossard is a towering literary figure in Quebec

Recreating reality in the ruins of yesterday

“I don’t know much about pain,” says the narrator in Nicole Brossard’s novel Yesterday, At The Hotel Clarendon, “but I’m convinced that, in order to write, one must at least once in life have gone through a devastating, almost agonal energy.”

So, what was Brossard’s?

“It was grieving,” she says. Her mother had passed away while she was working on the book. “It is true that most writers work with a wound.” Usually the pain is traceable to childhood. Others, she believes, “write with the energy of adolescence.” The poet, novelist and essayist would put herself in the latter category: transgressive, in revolt, solitary, inspired by desire, pleasure and beauty.

Indeed, in her 40 years as a writer, Brossard has established herself as a grande dame of postmodern writing. One journalist wrote that, “It could be argued that Nicole Brossard is to francophone literature what Adrienne Rich and Gertrude Stein are to English literature.”

She is also a major lesbian feminist figure, a perspective that informs her work. She cites the development of a feminist consciousness, a lesbian consciousness in the mid-1970s as the most powerful influence on her work as it re-shaped her vision of what is real and what is fictional. Such concepts forced her to “recreate the meaning of reality.”

Though she feels Yesterday, At The Hotel Clarendon is more sombre than her other writing, it is part of a continuum of questioning and exploration.

The original novel, Hier, was published in French in 2001; the English translation is by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood. Set in Quebec City, it weaves together the stories of four women. Novelist Carla Carlson is at the hotel to finish her latest book. There she meets an unnamed narrator who is grieving the loss of her mother. In the evenings, the women rendezvous in the hotel bar to talk about life, art, Descartes and Francis Bacon. By day, the narrator catalogues antiquities at the Museum Of Civilization under the supervision of Simone Lambert. Simone’s granddaughter, Axelle Carnavale, a geneticist, is the fourth character.

Brossard says she wanted to explore the kind of civilization we’re moving toward and what our ruins will look like. She wanted characters of different generations to look at what one passes on to another, what we remember and what is useful.

In terms of structure, she also wanted to shift from a novel to a play and examine what a character is in each. She wanted a character to speak from the first person. And she wanted a section to be in Latin as a provocative way to evoke another world.

“One thing that I find so interesting,” she says, “when you write a novel and it seems to be very fragmented – it has its own coherence and all the pieces end up coming at the right place. This is fantastic. This is not because of me, not because of the book, it’s because of how the human brain functions, simply.”

Brossard spends between four and five years on a novel, spending a year just taking notes and pondering.

“For me,” she says, “it’s like a little prison, starting to write a novel. It’s ‘Okay, I’m in for five years,’ something like that because you cannot leave it there. It has to go through its own process and therefore it’s on your mind all the time.”

She prefers to write in the morning until mid-afternoon, and she finds trains are wonderful places to work and will sit in cafés when travelling. (She loves to travel; Japan, Australia and Norway are just a few of the countries she has visited.) Mostly, though, she likes to work at home with her dictionary and books.

“Of course you use everything which is around you,” she says, “which is in you, also. Very often we think, ‘Oh, we have forgotten about that and that and that.’ Not at all. In the novel especially, it all comes back very naturally. Nothing is ever lost of what you’ve seen, of what you’ve heard.”

Brossard started writing as an adolescent and was on her way to a life of letters when she was 19. The eldest of two children (she has a younger sister), she grew up in the Notre Dame de Grace area of Montreal, a contentious mix of English and French. She loves the city and now makes her home in Montreal’s Outremount neighbourhood. She’s lived with her partner for 25 years and has a daughter who’s in her early 20s.

The first of the more than 30 books she has written, the collection of poetry Aube à la Saison, was published in 1965. Other volumes of poetry include Daydream Mechanics, Lovhers (Amantes), and Installations. Her novels include Picture Theory, Baroque At Dawn and Mauve Desert. She has also cofounded a literary magazine, La Barre du Jour (published from 1965 to ’75), codirected a documentary, Some American Feminists from ’76, and coedited ’91’s Anthologie de la Poésie des Femmes au Québec. Over the years she has received many accolades: the Governor General’s Award for poetry in ’74 and ’85; le Grand Prix de Poésie du Festival International de Trois-Rivières in ’89 and ’99; and the 2003 WO Mitchell Prize, among them.

What, of these accomplishments, makes her the most proud?

“We could use the word ‘proud,'” she says, “but it’s mostly the pleasure of discovery, of exploring, and believing that you are discovering or opening a new field for your own understanding of the world, or for others, also.”

One thing she would like to do is write a play. She also talks about writing and directing a film, writing a book-length essay, and doing more journalistic work on topics such as reproductive rights.

“There are two things which I believe give you the energy to want dig into the language,” she says. “Extreme suffering or extreme pleasure. Still, you will never be able to translate [those things] with words. That’s why you will keep trying all your life because what is inscribed so violently in the body never finds the proper words. Therefore it means, don’t worry, you’ll be writing all your life.”