Originally written after the author had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, Testament is a response to the news that Vickie Gendreau would have little time left to live: about a year.
The novel’s translator, Aimee Wall, writes about the work, a few months after its author died, in Lemon Hound.
She explains: “I have spent a lot of time trying to find a way into writing about this book. I wanted to talk about it, but then wasn’t sure I knew how. I went looking.”
She goes looking “for other novels written from similar places of suddenly-limited time” and writes about the novel in numbered paragraphs, assembling fragments of information and observation and reflection.
I find myself wondering where, in the sequence, it occurred to her that she could translate Vickie Gendreau’s work. When she realised that it could work, could connect with English audiences despite the linguistic challenges.
In the translator’s note, Aimee Wall observes that Testament “moves between the present and the near-future, between poetry and prose, between French and English” in a “textured, hybrid language” which makes translation particularly challenging.
And, then, there is a subject matter.
Debilitating illness is one thing.
“I never left the hospital. I will never fully leave the hospital. I come back every day for my radiation treatments. I have this little coloured scarf and a ton of hats to hide the hair I’m losing.”
Fatal illness is yet another.
“You don’t want people talking about miracles when they’re discussing your recovery.”
Testament chronicles present-day events (“My mother accumulates old visitor badges and cards for my appointments in her huge purse.”).
But the bulk of the work is preoccupied with future events, imagined encounters with the author’s friends after her death and imagined encounters with these imagined encounters.
So, Raphaêlle observes: “I’m wearing a black dress. Vickie too. We’re wearing balck. I think black is charming. It’s slimming.” And Maman notes: “I didn’t understand any of Vickie’s book. Her friend Mathieu is going to help me make some sense of this document.”
When she speaks to readers directly, Vickie Gendreau sometimes speaks of ordinary things. “There will always be a collection agency to wake me up in the morning. There will always be a pot of something rotten in my fridge. There will always be someone to hate me. Someone to make a fool of me on athe telephone at three in the morning. Someone to treat me like a slut in front of my family. Someone to steal my drink, someone to steal my purse.”
And she is aware of the concept of readership, of the ways in which readers might interact with words on a page. Specifically her words. And difficulties with endings. “I won’t bore you with that too much. My stories never work. That’s why I like poetry, it’s always infinite. I’m suspicious of people who end their poems with a period.”
But, more often it’s as Aimee Wall describes. “Testament pulls the reader in close and then sometimes doesn’t let her in on the joke.” As though we are “occasionally eavesdropping on snippets of conversation for which we have little context, smiling at inside jokes we don’t really understand”.
Anyway, is that the point with a book like this: understanding? I wonder if one could adapt the translator’s statement to imagine the author being interviewed about her work, after her death, after some time has passed: “I spent a lot of time trying to find a way into writing my book. I wanted to talk about everything, but then wasn’t sure I knew how. I went looking.”
Perhaps, in the end (for how can we not think of endings now), it is less about the reading, less about the writing, and more about the looking.
About leaving something behind which does not end with a period —