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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Judges and Juries

Two acclaimed titles from Quebec

Amanda Perry

Que notre joie demeure

Kevin Lambert

Héliotrope

384 pages, softcover and ebook

Ce que je sais de toi

Éric Chacour

Alto

296 pages, softcover and ebook

These days, Canada’s literary scene seems to depend upon prize culture almost as much as upon government grants. Making the long list of a major award is one of the few ways that writers secure media coverage, and the effect seems particularly strong when consecration comes from the old imperial metropoles. The English-language press here thus discovered Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience after it was considered for the Booker, and the stars of Quebec’s 2023 literary season were anointed by the French.

In November, Kevin Lambert became the third Quebecer to win France’s Prix Médicis, after Marie-Claire Blais and Dany Laferrière, for Que notre joie demeure. (An English translation by Donald Winkler, The Joy of Our Desiring, will appear from Biblioasis later this year.) The Chicoutimi native already had two well-received novels under his belt, and the win cemented the thirty-two-year-old’s status as an increasingly rare species: the celebrity writer. That said, Que notre joie demeure did not gain critical momentum until nearly a year after its release, when it made the long list for France’s most prestigious award, the Prix Goncourt. Joining Lambert in last fall’s media frenzy was the debut novelist Éric Chacour, who made it through the first two rounds for France’s Prix Fémina and Prix Renaudot with Ce que je sais de toi (What I know about you). The book eventually took home the Prix Fémina des lycéens, an award granted by French high school students, and it remains in the running for a similar prize in Quebec.

Two literary darlings from Quebec, recently anointed by the French.

Pierre-Paul Pariseau

At times, the French interest in Quebec’s cultural products has been tainted by condescension. The nominees for the Prix France-Québec attracted controversy in 2022 when two of the three finalists featured canoes on their covers. Thankfully, these latest triumphs speak more to the diversity of the province’s letters than to any stereotyped understanding of its people. Lambert delivers a lyrical portrait of a star architect, Céline Wachowski, who is targeted by anti-gentrification activists after agreeing to design the Montreal headquarters for Webuy, a fictionalized version of Amazon. The novel is stylistically adventurous, with subtle shifts in perspective and paragraphs that stretch on for pages. By comparison, Chacour’s novel features conventional writing and a refreshing subject. Ce que je sais de toi follows Tarek, an Egyptian doctor whose marriage unravels when he begins an affair with a young male sex worker.

Que notre joie demeure opens with a luxurious party filled with chandeliers, champagne, and cocaine, where the elite crowd talks about “hair, good weather, or the latest show of Cirque du Soleil.” This disconnect between the power of certain individuals and their banal humanity becomes a recurring thread. Céline, the protagonist, fascinates those around her as the head of a celebrated architecture firm, as a best-selling writer, and as the host of a Netflix show on deluxe home renovations. Yet her impulses can be shockingly petty. When her former employee Gabriela asks for a reference “without inquiring, even once, about her state of well-being,” Céline sabotages the woman’s chance for the position and reflects that “Gabriela’s lack of consideration saddened her.” Such myopic perspective leaves Céline ill-prepared for her fall from grace. After a New Yorker article targets her firm for driving gentrification and Céline herself for creating a toxic work environment, she finds public opinion and the board of her own company turning against her.

Lambert’s work is self-consciously literary; his previous novel, Querelle of Roberval, imports its anarchic protagonist directly from Jean Genet. Likewise, Que notre joie demeure borrows its tripartite structure from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, with two parallel birthday celebrations interrupted by a section titled “Time Passes,” which charts Céline’s professional decline. The third segment combines an extended dialogue with Marcel Proust and a cameo by the Hollywood star Sigourney Weaver — a mix of registers that saves the novel from pretentiousness while commenting on modern celebrity. And Lambert’s title and aspects of his style are a tribute to Marie-Claire Blais’s Soifs cycle. Blais wrote entire books as a single block of text, her focus shifting mid-sentence between the wealthy and the impoverished. Lambert, mercifully, provides paragraph breaks, but his technique is similar. Although Céline’s perspective predominates, he makes telling excursions into the minds of others — her employees, a housing activist, a woman brought in to clean her mansion — in order to reveal her biases and distortions.

The result is subtle, at once immersing the reader in Céline’s sense of persecution and revealing her blind spots. When François Legault plugged Lambert’s novel on Facebook as a “nuanced critique of the Quebec bourgeoisie” that reveals how “pressure groups and journalists look for scapegoats for the housing crisis,” the author left an angry reply to the premier’s post. “You would have to read with your eyes closed to not see how the version of the city portrayed in the novel goes against the destructive, anti-poor, anti-immigrant, pro-landlord, and pro-rich policies of your government,” Lambert retorted.

The writer won the Facebook squabble as far as “likes” are concerned. Legault’s take, however, is not so obviously wrong. Céline remains the novel’s centre of gravity, far more developed and psychologically compelling than her critics. Marielle, a social worker whose brother collaborates with Céline and who intends to hate the woman, finds herself charmed in her presence: “Proximity ends up revealing a kind of radical equality between our existences, an uncomfortable equality.” Marielle’s epiphany could be taken as a critique of capitalism and its meritocratic alibis: If we are fundamentally similar, why are some of us billionaires and others facing eviction? Yet her revelation cuts both ways, defanging attacks on the elite by insisting they are people just like us. When a novel spends most of its energy humanizing the wealthy, it’s hard to conclude that its author is telling us to eat the rich.

The spat with Legault was not the only media scandal involving Que notre joie demeure. In an interview last year, Lambert discussed employing the poet and Queen’s University professor Chloé Savoie-Bernard as a “sensitivity reader,” as she, like one of his characters, is of Haitian descent. The disclosure triggered a ruckus in France after another writer denounced the practice as absurd. (Savoie-Bernard emerged as the adult in the room, explaining that she’d helped with the book because Lambert is a friend.) The character in question, Céline’s subordinate Pierre-Moïse, is ultimately inoffensive and unmemorable. More interesting is how Céline turns to identity to shield herself and Pierre-Moïse from criticism of their practices. She paints the media attacks as misogynistic and xenophobic: “Quebec’s fascist and supremacist foundations have risen up against them.” There is plenty of truth to her insistence that “you can live and die in this province without ever being from here,” but she also selectively frames herself as marginalized to avoid confronting her own power. With such insights, Lambert earns his reputation.

Identity and the limits of social acceptability receive more straightforward treatment in Chacour’s work. Indeed, the premise of Ce que je sais de toi sounds like an exercise in intersectional analysis. The novel revolves around Tarek, a recently married doctor from Cairo’s Levantine community, framed here as a westernized and bourgeois “city within a city” that is out of step with rising Arab nationalism in Egypt. During his rounds at a clinic in the impoverished neighbourhood of Moqattam, Tarek meets the handsome teenager Ali and employs him as his assistant. After Tarek discovers that Ali is also a sex worker, the two begin an illicit affair. Chacour describes their liaisons with a mix of poetry and elision: “By day, his hands extensions of yours on the body of patients. By night, his body an extension of yours under your impatient hands.”

This use of the second person reads as a stylistic quirk until the narrator interrupts his description of Tarek and Ali’s first kiss to proclaim, “After all, how would I know?” The narrator, it turns out, is Tarek’s son Rafik, conceived right before the doctor, rocked by the consequences of his affair, emigrates to Montreal. The novel’s second section describes Rafik’s childhood, marked by his mother’s bitterness and his father’s absence. One can understand why this character would refrain from speculating in detail about his dad’s erotic life.

Ce que je sais de toi plays with tropes of forbidden love, as Tarek and Ali are condemned by the social censure of homosexuality as well as by their “nearly fifteen-year age gap, education, profession, family, status, religion.” Nevertheless, Chacour largely avoids clichés through the intricacy of his setting. He depicts the internal diversity of Egypt’s Christian minority: Tarek’s ancestors fled Damascus in 1860, for example, and his wife, Mira, is Armenian. Chacour also prefers the Egypt of dates and events rather than broad strokes of exoticism. Mira’s initial encounters with Tarek occur against the backdrop of the Six Day War; their reunion, ominously, coincides with the 1981 assassination of Anwar El‑Sadat. The resulting portrait of Cairo is more didactic than Lambert’s confident approach to Montreal’s particularities, but it’s still effective.

Chacour’s own depiction of Montreal is limited to a few thin chapters. Indeed, anyone interested in the experiences of the city’s Egyptian Christian immigrants would be better served by Nathalie Doummar’s Mama, a masterful play recently published by Éditions du remue-ménage. In thematic and practical terms, Chacour’s book is only contingently Canadian. Born in Montreal to Egyptian parents, the writer has spent more of his life in France than in Quebec, and he claims he sent his manuscript to Alto, rather than a French press, because he liked its covers. Overall, we can rejoice in the happenstance. Although the novel contains a few too many missed encounters where it could have used more daring scenes, it remains a promising debut.

Lambert’s and Chacour’s successes abroad may be a source of pride, but there is no obvious way to imitate them. Are poetic approaches to urban planning the trend in Paris right now? Are cross-cultural queer melodramas? It’s all the better that the answer is probably neither. When the laurels of international recognition descend, the home audience may as well celebrate. But if prize culture must be powerful, let it also be unpredictable. That way, writers are struck trusting their own visions instead.

Amanda Perry teaches literature at Concordia University and Champlain College Saint-Lambert.

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