To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nicole Brossard: Why Do You Write in French?

[This essay was read in April 2000 at a conference organized by the Department of French and the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Columbia University in New York. “The Chosen Tongue: Language and Construction of the Self in French and Francophone Literature” featured roundtables on the subject of French language and literature. Brossard participated in a roundtable entitled “Pourquoi écrivez-vous en français?” moderated by Maryse Condé. The other panelists were Mongo Beti, Raphaël Confiant, Nancy Huston, Vâclav Jamek, Daniel Maximin, and AbdourahmanWeberi. As the only panelist from Quebec, Brossard addresses the challenges of having been born a francophone in North America for whom French both is and is not her mothertongue. As a feminist, Brossard speaks of the need to escape the misogynist conventions perpetuated by all languages.]

All the love we can have for a language will never be ideological.
—France Théoret, Entre raison et déraison

To tell you the truth, I have never asked myself that question. Belonging to the only group of Francophones issuing from the French colonies who can really claim an infamous “Gallic ancestry,” being part of a people for whom the French language is an obsession, a favorite pastime, a source of anguish and pride, having inebriated myself very early on with French literature as though it were mine in hopes of one day, to paraphrase France Théoret, talking like we write, it seems to be completely honest if a bit simplistic to answer today’s question by saying that I write in French because French is my mothertongue.

This in spite of the fact that the language spoken around me throughout my childhood was imbibed with English words as though to force us to position ourselves within the dailiness of North-American reality. Here a char with son windshield, son bumper, ses tires; here a bar with its floor bien shiné, ses waitresses, ses hot-dog toastés, ses beans, ses smoke meats, ses sundaes. Hence, a seventeenth-century pronunciation with our moé pis toé against which my mother warned me, here many curse words, church words,where anger, pleasure, appreciation, amazement, and deception are all expressed by the name of God in one form or another. The superlative is a curse, each emotion has its curse.

That said, I think a mothertongue is oral and that written language holds nothing maternal. In this sense, French is not my mothertongue. While a mothertongue and reality flow together, gasping, full of holes, stammering, with dangerous liaisons and surprising constructions, written language is initiation, lesson, mistake, and castigation, a taught language with its rules to obey and its exceptions, a deliberate and conformist language strong in gender discrimination and outlawed meanings, a language of great taboos and a selective memory. The vivacity and vitality of written language finally depends on the adventurous ones, the dreamers, the audacious, and the amazons who take the time to write a book or to live a lifetime in the form of a book.

So I write and, while I admit that for me the French language is nobly aggravating, it is also madly pleasurable, because it puts at my disposal dazzling delirium, exemplary transgressions, and honorable delusions of grandeur. Written French is very obviously the language of Louise Labé, Molière, Madame de Clèves, Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, Colette, Camus, Monique Wittig, Beckett, Nathalie Sarraute, Cioran, Eugène Ionesco, Romain Gary, Nancy Huston, Anne Hébert, Réjean Ducharme, and of Michel Tremblay; of Maryse Condé, Raphaël Confiant, and Patrick Chamoiseau. But it is also the language of Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, Claude Gauvreau, and Raymond Queneau. It’s a nit-picking, picnicking language. It’s all so beautiful and complicated, I can also say I write in French because of the joy and pleasure of reading Laurence Stern, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein in translation.

From our very first written words, we learn to exist differently. To play. To polish. To perfect our joys and our misfortunes, to displace the horizon. And above all, we try to have a pure heart about words as we examine them under every angle: in front, behind, a lado de, dessous, dessous, and over the shadows.

If there are childhood faces furrowing the mothertongue and keeping us emotionally enraptured, there are others that, working in written language, ignite the passion for elsewhere, risk, and the unsaid. Despite having nothing to do with one another, written language burns to appease the needs of mothertongue, and childhood memories almost always make for touching books. For my part, I have only rarely used my mothertongue to write, maybe in a novel that came out in 1974, called French Kiss. A novel whose story (which has nothing to do with childhood) unfolds through word play crossing Montréal, Sherbrooke Street, with time to stop for a lingering kiss where the tongues, filled with stories and a future, happily intermingle. As for the rest of my writing, I write French, I mean to say with the verb “to be” and some surrounding words which, in my case, try to escape from the conventional, the everyday, and quite obviously from a grammar that can in one fell swoop make any trace of the thinking female and the feminine

But is the question not how the French language, in its literary form, inflectsmy vision of the world and my attitude towards life, love, death, reality, and fiction? Summarily, toward which ideas, which ethic, am I oriented by the French language, in whose arms does she push me, about what does she want me to think? Before which beauty does she want me to pause? Does she make me more rational and logical than I would be without her, more friendly, more arrogant? Does she incline me to uselessly turning pirouettes and somersaults, does she draw me to the hidden-phrase, mirror-phase of armchair psychoanalysis? The dear French language who always travels by train and lingers on the terrace all day long, does she have what it takes to stay in gear through the daily grind across the Americas, from sea to sea, is she equipped in verve and verb to translate the depths of women’s thoughts on life, Man, and the little boys he transforms into soldiers who have remained remarkably identical for centuries? In fact, I have long asked myself whether the French language had what it takes to venture into Quebec’s great north, to pick blueberries and observe themoose on the lakeshores, to transform the collectively repressed into the lucid and beautifully risked, to surf for a time on the idea that we may not die after all, to go out all night and blow off steam before stopping dead in your tracks at the idea that yes after all we will disappear one day. I belong to a generation that has had its doubts about what the French language could do for us, specifically if she would allow us to enter into what in French we called modernity, while anglophones were already postmodern. Could we, in proper French, enter into a contemporary world where space and time would be completely modified, where speed would fracture memory and identity, where strong sensations would replace the emotion that requires a real book-slowness to be born? Could we, in proper French, invent it, remake it, desire it, start it over, and release this new world of genetic modification, the virtual, and the internet. Good old French, speak to me of science and ethics, speak to me of women in Algeria, Zaïre, Haiti, Romania, and around the passenger stations, speak to me of Paul Celan and of Walter Benjamin walking in Paris, speak to me of my next book in translation.

[The preceding essay/talk is excerpted from Nicole Brossard Selections, to appear this November in the University of California Press’s Poets for the Millennium series. At the start of her remarkable introduction to Brossard’s remarkable book, Jennifer Moxley writes: “Pleasure. This is the word that first comes to mind at the mention of Nicole Brossard’s poetry.There are otherwords, of course, words with historical and political resonance — Québécoise, avant-garde, feminist, lesbian — words which cannot be uttered casually, words which cause some to stop listening and others to lean in and listen more closely. Brossard puts such words at risk, for under her pen they magically change. Heavy words become light yet still maintain their gravitas, their restrictive weight (‘labels’ as some dismissively call them) becoming expansive, utopian, inspiring. Specific historical moments turn into universals, personal desire into the condition we all share of being incorporated — in our bodies and in the body of language. Like a mystic’s vision, turning the arduous climb to enlightenment into a flash of brightest intensity, Brossard’s pen lifts these heavy words into an ether of lightest thought. The result is pleasure, the pleasure of thinking, of reading, of having a body, of being in love, of being alive.”]

No comments: