Our young separatist narrator is imagining his own future and the future of Quebec, and both man and nation are struggling with matters of expression and independence, in Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode (published in 1965, translated by Sheila Fischman in 2001).
He is isolated and lonely: thinking back, thinking forward.
“I need you; I need to retrieve the thread of our story and the ellipsis that will take me back to the heat of our two consumed bodies.”
The narrative is deliberately disorienting for readers but, paradoxically, it is rooting the writer.
“Writing a story is no small matter, unless it becomes the daily and detailed punctuation of my endless stillness and my slow fall into this liquid pit.”
It is what maintains and sustains his sanity. (Or does not.)
“This book is the tirelessly repeated act of a patriot who’s waiting in the timeless void for the chance to take up arms again. Moreover, it embraces the very shape of the time to come: in it and through it I am exploring my indecision and my unlikely future.”
In Sheila Fischman’s translation, the prose is rhythmic and readers are caught up in the swell of long phrases which pull readers in and then cast them outwards once more.
“Writing is a great expression of love. Writing used to mean writing to you; but now that I’ve lost you I still mass words together, mechanically, because in my heart of hearts I hope that my intellectual wanderings, which I reserve for born debaters, will make their way to you.”
This classic novel takes work, as does any relationship, but one can’t help but feel that it is a love letter of sorts: a heartfelt declaration.
And even without an understanding of the politics and philosophy which simmer beneath the story, the storyteller’s passion remains seductive: seductive and secretive.
There is a lot of clandestine activity in Next Episode, as secret communications and quietly orchestrated acts of resistance unfold in any backdrop of revolution.
This is true, too, in Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black with Pearls (1980). The narrator’s lover works for The Agency, and their capacity to spend time together is dictated by this organization’s demands.
Shirley Kazenbowski (née Silverberg) looks in magazines for clues which might refer to an earlier meeting or could suggest possibiltiies for their next meeting. Everything has the possibility of containing a message, a sign (or, a memory, perhaps a loss).
“The question still remained: where, in the problem of dead elms [discussed in an issue of National Geographic], was his message for me? I counted words on a line, lines on a page, the number of Latin terms. Nothing was revealed. Fatigue diverted a rising dread.”
The personal landscape and the physical landscape intersect, the geography of memory settles into place.
“Even in the rain I could see that what appeared to be new shops and buildings were only facades over the old: larger windows, bright tile, some stone work. I felt my past had not been erased, just covered over and given new names in other languages.”
There is a strong sense of place in the novel, as she walks the streets of Toronto, looking for clues. In those shops near Spadina and Dundas Streets, she walks with her head down, in the rain. Often the weather parallels her emotions, when she is overwhelmed, suspended between meetings and missing her lover.
She is pulled into memories of other places in which they have spent time together as she searches through her collection of postcards.
“This card, recalling the night Coenraad first made his appearance, filled my mind with a clarity of detail that one sees in shock, as after a blinding explosion or during a night of labor. And even when the shock is the result of violent pleasure, then the ordinary properties of wood or plastic or paint or cloth take on strange and mysterious shapes and colors. The senses sharpen as if one’s very life were in danger, even in paradise.”
Her senses do seem to sharpen as the story unfolds, circuitously, through memory and imagination, through those parts of her past that have been covered over and renamed. Gradually, readers come to have a different understanding of her current situation.
“Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined.”
When I came upon this passage, I immediately thought of the way that Next Episode‘s narrator thinks about writing as an expression of love.
The narrator in Basic Black with Pearls hopes her words will reach her lover, too. And Next Episode‘s narrator desperately needs to believe what he imagines.
When characters start having conversations between books, I smile. (Even when their stories are sad ones.)