Novels within novels

Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon

By Mark Heffernan

A review of Yesterday, At The Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard

Published on April 1, 2005

Yesterday, At The Hotel Clarendon
Nicole Brossard

Coach House Books
$27.95
cloth
200pp
1-55245-150-X

Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon (published in French as Hier), revolves around the characters of Simone Lambert, director for the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City, and an archivist referred to only as the “narrator.” The latter has a writer friend, Carla Carlson, with whom she meets regularly to discuss literature and ideas. Axelle, the museum director’s estranged granddaughter, works as a researcher in a Montreal laboratory.

The novel’s opening paragraph underlines its theme and gives the reader some idea of the prose to follow:

While others march gaily towards madness in order to stay alive in a sterile world, I strive for preservation. I cling to objects, their descriptions […] every moment requires me, my gaze or sensation. I don’t readily let go of days by banishing them to the blank book of memory.

The stridency in the phrase “every moment requires me,” is soon repeated diverse ways, in prolix passages and hyperbole. Within a few pages the narrator says:

[…] I gorge on newspapers and magazines. I feel an obligation to know, an excessive, painful duty of memory that makes me feel my nose is stuck to death and to simple sad things like accidents, disappearances, unspeakable misery.

This “gorging” conflicts with the Brahminical reticence expressed later when she says:

[…] when the shadow of (newspaper) words spreads in disturbing grey over the clueless reports […] I’m careful to keep my distance from the toxic and rancid beings who undermine history.

The narrator avoids falling into “daily life’s communal graves,” yet her “nose is stuck to death.” We understand she is trying to preserve things from ephemerality, and we surmise that she and the museum director share the ideals of humanism. And then this passage:

For now, I’m content to cherish my favourite centuries, beginning with mine so fierce and sly, brilliantly fuelled by science, unquenchable in its rage against nature. Gradually gobbling up each one of the best ideas that our obsession with comfort will have ripened inside us like little just-in-cases.

Does the narrator value a rage against nature? And what does she mean by the “best ideas that our obsession with comfort have ripened inside us”?

The narrator’s ideas rarely manage to emerge from a prose that overwhelms its objects. And perhaps to escape this murkiness, the narrator meets with the prairie writer Carla, who speaks “impeccable French,” and who tries in every encounter to foist on the archivist her semiliterate ramblings about her father. Brossard’s half-novel, in which the principal characters are mere sketches, suddenly branches out into the disconnected contents of Carla’s quarter-novel. When the narrator confesses, “I’ve found conversations with Carla exhausting,” the reader must concur. The narrator laments, “In this city of Quebec…we could have undertaken the countdown of certainties, set something up between us other than those existential playthings called childhood or flamboyant dreams.” The phrase “the countdown of certainties” has no resonant meaning in English, and this is the translator’s fault (whatever the original French may be.)

The “gorging” of newspapers and the “gobbling” of ideas produces a note of extra literary significance when we learn that Simone and her lover Alice “roam the world to gorge on sites, necropolises…” There is a reference to Carla’s “fiction acting as a tampon,” absorbing the content of their conversations, and a description of a “sky in heat.” The jarring metaphors and skewed ideas lead to an abrupt shift in form; the quarter-novel within the half-novel then becomes a play, in which the four female characters (the only male character in the novel has died) discharge their monologues into the air for nearly a hundred pages.

The award-winning author (Brossard has received le prix Athanas-David, Quebec’s highest literary distinction, and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry) has here produced a novel of such low quality that it invites sociological analysis rather than literary critique. mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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