Let’s get this out of the way: Réjean Ducharme’s Swallowed is an absolute classic in Quebec. The 1966 novel is widely taught in high schools and universities, and the fact that an English translation wasn’t available in Canada until last year is scandalous. But too much focus on Ducharme’s canonical status is misleading. It makes reading him sound like an obligation, the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables. The experience is closer to a dose of mushrooms — and not the kind your mom would serve.
Ducharme’s debut, which was originally published as L’Avalée des avalés, revolves around the rebellion of Berenice Einberg, a nine-year-old girl who grows up on an unnamed rat-infested island in the St. Lawrence. Her father is Jewish, her mother Polish Catholic. The parents each claim a child for their cultural heritage — Berenice’s older brother is literally named Christian — and wage a proxy war through the siblings. When their willful daughter responds with an obsessive, often sexualized attachment to her brother, she is exiled to New York to live with her ultra-religious relatives. Later, as a teenager, she is sent to Israel.
This book, though, is more about voice than about story. “Everything swallows me,” the narrator declares in the text’s opening lines, and she continues with increasing intensity. “When my eyes are shut, my own stomach swallows me, chokes me from within. When my eyes are open, what I see swallows me, smothers me from within the stomach of what I see.” Her fervour spirals down the page: “The river is too great, the sky too high, flowers are too fragile, butterflies too fearful, my mother’s face is too pretty.”
Impressively, Ducharme sustains this manic energy for another three hundred pages. Berenice claims she wants to “penetrate Christian’s mind like a sword, and break his own sword over my knees.” She quotes the Quebec romantic poet Émile Nelligan one moment and in another exclaims, “Crappy cow crap!” There are constant word games that force the translator Madeleine Stratford to be creative in her choices. In the French, Berenice calls her mother “Chat Mort,” literally “dead cat,” which also puns on “amour”; later she switches to the nonsense word “Chamomor,” as a mocking rejection of maternal affection. Stratford plays with “mother” to give us “Mothy Mouser” and “Mousermoth.” One could quibble with a few decisions, but ultimately the translation is fluid and forceful.
And the result is wild. Page-long paragraphs see Berenice contemplate world domination, analyze her own skeleton, and rave about sex. She mashes up mythologies, going from philosophical to crude in staccato outbursts. Many passages present a kind of phenomenology of rage at her subordination by her parents, the surrounding society, and even language itself. In response, she takes words and reshapes them, flinging insults and inventing narratives as a form of armour to protect her individuality.
Groping around for an anglophone equivalent threatens to diminish the book’s originality, but noting some resemblance to other works does prepare the reader for this onslaught. Both Stratford and the Véhicule editor Dimitri Nasrallah mention J. D. Salinger, and one can certainly see Holden Caulfield in Berenice’s adolescent anger. That comparison is inexact, though, as Ducharme is more stylistically experimental (think Woolf) and less realistic (Pynchon, perhaps). There is also no coming-of-age epiphany to wrap this story up. In the final section, the narrator watches a striptease in an Israeli military camp with a rabbi turned major and a lesbian who refuses to bathe.
The closest Canadian parallel might be another 1960s title, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, which is stylistically daring but barely publishable today, given its irreverent depiction of Indigenous characters. The analogy to Cohen’s work raises a question: What should we make of Ducharme’s treatment of Judaism? Is it cultural appropriation? Anti-Semitism? Maybe. The novel’s depiction is inaccurate and toys with stereotypes: characters have hooked noses and “synagogues smell like blood and ash.” Then again, so do the churches. It is possible that this book is satire — or allegory (some academics read the Einberg family as representative of Canada’s split between anglophones and francophones). Berenice’s alterity makes her a vehicle for Québécois frustrations, an interpretation that transforms the authoritarian Jewish characters, ironically, into dogmatic Catholic nationalists.
The stylized nature of the text resists easy answers about its politics. Above all, as Berenice is such an unreliable and singular narrator, a sociological reading seems beside the point. Near the end, she declares that she’s inventing her own language: Berenician.
Swallowed exploded onto the scene when it was first released, but it almost wasn’t published at all. Every house in Quebec rejected the manuscript when Ducharme sent it out, so he tried the French publishing giant Gallimard. He won approval in Paris; the work was nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt when its author was only twenty-four. Three more novels followed in the next three years, with a slower, more varied production over the subsequent decades, including film scripts and song lyrics. Within Quebec, Ducharme’s transatlantic success became evidence that French Canadian writers were neither peripheral nor inferior. He died in 2017 with three Governor General’s Awards under his belt.
Through it all, Ducharme lived apart. He refused events and interviews, and there are only two public photographs of him. His brief biography, which appears in some Gallimard editions, gives a sense of the author’s idiosyncrasy: “Réjean Ducharme was born in 1941 in Saint-Félix-de-Valoix (Joliette County). He has hitchhiked, taken taxis, walked, stood still. . . . He’s looking for work.”
In the francophone world, he remains an institution. A theatrical adaptation of L’Avalée des avalés has been making the rounds in recent years. After a 2016 reading in Montreal, a production played at France’s Festival OFF d’Avignon in 2018. The Théâtre du Nouveau Monde staged it last fall — online, because of the pandemic, but with another run scheduled for May.
Yet anglophone audiences have long been deprived of Ducharme’s talents, with translations available unevenly and belatedly. The British academic Barbara Bray brought out The Swallower Swallowed in 1968, but her edition is hard to find and was never available in North America. A smattering of small Canadian presses have released translations of Ducharme’s other novels, with limited circulation. One hopes that Véhicule’s new effort will have a bigger impact.
Swallowed is certainly not for everyone. But much of anglophone publishing has become so blatantly moralizing, or so relentlessly realist, that the cumulative effect can feel suffocating. For some, Ducharme will provide a touch of madness that Canadian literature desperately needs.