Nicole Brossard’s Fences in Breathing,
Translated from the French (2007),
Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood
Coach House Books, 2009

Today’s bookish book was an easy choice because I had chosen Nicole Brossard as one of the writers whose feminist writing I wanted to explore for this year’s Women Unbound Reading Challenge and her most recent novel was translated into English last year and I’d been looking for an excuse to spend some time with it.

Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood’s translation allowed me to read about Anne’s work as she “begins to write a novel in a language that is not hers, a language that makes meaning foreign and keeps her alert to the world and its fiery horizon”. But it didn’t help me make sense of the story, which isn’t the usual sort, with a beginning-middle-and-end, but the sort that begs for a discussion afterwards. And not a lazy discussion about bookishness on a summer afternoon on a porch-sit, but a fast-paced debate about meaning and literary construction in an air-conditioned study room in an academic setting.

This slim novel is one of those books that you think will be a delightful diversion for a couple of hours but which you discover takes you ten times longer to read than the baggy Victorian monster that you’ve had kicking around the bedside table for ages, longer still than the collection of essays on that ever-so-significant subject that you are convinced will make you a “Better Person” if you ever actually finish reading them.

It really isn’t the kind of book that I should have chosen to read on a summer afternoon; I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if I’d approached it as a group (when I read her Mauve Desert a few years ago, I loved it, but I think a good part of the enjoyment was rooted in the discussion our book group had about it), and if I’d been reading it in the context of her work (perhaps alongside some of her poetry, which has been so highly acclaimed).

But, even so, Fences in Breathing is a provocative book and the idea of Anne’s invented language is fascinating indeed. “In my language, the words piano and writing are homonyms, and their definitions, nobody knows why, intersect, with a single exception for the zones of silence inherent to one and the other.”

For readers who are also writers, Anne’s character and musings would likely be of particular interest. “I must look after my solitude. Be able to count on it to astonish me, to plot and to go on with this madness for speaking even as I abandon my own language. In all languages, the writer’s solitude feeds the little pleasures and great frights of infinite nights.”

And for readers who are keenly interested in the feminine voice, Fences in Breathing will be especially rewarding.

“Each sentence had her own inner tense and I wanted to settle into it to get a sense of its colour. I had also noticed that, though they had the same number of syllables, one of them took longer to utter. Three syllables did not always equal three syllables. Therein lay a clue that, in each language, time could be stretched or it could contract to make it easier to decipher the cumbersome monotony of dailiness and the tenacious enigma of passions.”

You can see why I think her work a good choice for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.

“At the other end of the bridge, while listening to the wind, I felt the verb to dive station itself sideways across words and I thought about women’s caresses, their hands, the softness of their cheeks, about the slightly crazy heat that rushes to the head and transforms how we see.”

Words and definitions, language and syntax, interactions and intersections: such is the stuff of Nicole Brossard’s novel.

“I could imagine the sentences but I could no longer see myself writing them. In any case, it was impossible to grab them out of the air in full flight or slow them down enough to grasp their meaning or their scope.”

And, yet, I can’t slow her sentences down enough to grasp their meaning or their scope. For a reader with a more scholarly bent, or for a playful reader in the mood to philosophize, Nicole Brossard’s novel has much to offer.

Anyone else over-reached with their reading ambitions recently?