If Hieronymus Bosch had travelled to the New World, he might have been able to illustrate Elle
, Douglas Glover's first novel since the excellent The Life and Times of Captain N.
Based on details snatched from the margins of the historical record, Elle
tells the story of a lustful young French woman abandoned on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the Sieur de Roberval, the leader of a disastrous attempt to colonize Canada. After surviving the onset of winter, Elle is found by an Inuit hunter, who becomes her lover, keeps her alive, and draws her into a bear-haunted dream world. Eventually, Elle crosses the frozen river and escapes the island, but what happens next defies concise summarization--Glover's imagination ferments his readings in history and shamanism into a profoundly intoxicating vintage.
Elle is nothing like the kind of historical fiction that dominates Canadian literary awards--thank goodness. Like Terry Griggs (and the Australian author Richard Flanagan), Glover knows that the past can be as funny, earthy, improbable, rich, and bizarre as the present. His publishers insistently tout Elle as a Rabelaisian novel, and the carnal monk does figure in the book, as a character and an emblem of the nobler elements of the European renaissance. Glover's storytelling, however, has little in common with the rumbustiousness of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man is a much closer analogue--both works engage with First Nations mythology and the crimes of colonialism in a manner that is lean, lurid, elegant, intelligent, and utterly compelling. --Jack Illingworth
History and fiction have long been set up in opposition to one anotherthe one being characterized by truthfulness and objectivity, the other by imagination and invention. Of the two oppositional terms, fiction has often been deemed the less rigourous genre, tainted by falsehood. Yet, as decades of post-structural theory have suggested, historical objectivity is a notoriously elusive entity, and the question of how history is produced, indeed the whole concept of "history," is a vexed one. What passes for history has often been evidence generated by the established opinion of the age under consideration. On the other hand, fiction is not the site of falsehood, but a way of knowingthe place where methods of representation and signification, and subjectivity itself are examined. Consequently, fiction always returns, like a ghost, to haunt history.
Douglas Glover tells the story of a legendary French woman who became a passenger on an expeditionary force to colonize Canada; she got tossed off the ship with two companions, and marooned on the desolate, icebound Isle of Demons. Glover says that he has plundered too many sources to list, although he acknowledges Arthur P. Stabler's The Legend of Marguerite de Roberval as a key one. He has tried to "mangle and distort" the facts as best he can.
Douglas Glover has a long engagement with the historical process, and great experience in turning that engagement into highly entertaining forms. He has written two previous novels parodying various aspects of the historical narrative, and he has a clearly articulated purpose underpinning his present novel. In a 1994 interview in this journal he recalled the words of the Canadian scholar Winnifred Bogaards:
"She said the contemporary historical novel had to be about the writing of history, about our changing sense of the nature of time and history. And old-style historical novel takes a period or event or heroic figure as its subject; the modern historical novel takes history as its subject."
Accordingly, he undertakes to puncture holes in the process by which myths are created, hardened into dogma, and elevated into canonized texts that become the jurisdiction of a priestly caste. Glover follows Rabelais in discarding the official version of medieval culture for a racy and riotous account of carnal pleasures and adventures, a carnivalesque bawdy sequence of eating, drinking, defecating, copulating, and dying. The Rabelaisian model is underscored when his picaresque heroine, the eponymous Elle (she resembles Rider Haggard's She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed in her capacity for eternal regeneration and transformation) returns to France, and becomes the companion of F. F. is none other than Francois Rabelais himself.
Soon after Elle's abandonment on the island, she is bereft of her lover and her old nurse, but quickly finds a replacement in her next companion, the Inuit hunter, Itslk. The two exchange myths from their different cultures. Elle regales Itslk with stories from Tyndale's translation of the Bible, her favourite book, and a recurring point of reference throughout the novel. Itslk is especially interested to learn that the man who made the Bible available in the vernacular was burned at the stake. (I thought the historical Tyndale was strangled and his body burned, but maybe that was apocryphal. Who knows?)
In return Itslk offers stories from his own oral culture. He tells of a hunter who stalks a bear which leads him far beyond his usual hunting grounds. When he finally catches up with the bear, it is already dead, and a naked white woman, emerges from the carcass as if the bear had given birth to her. The story, in fact, is prophetic of their actual meeting, for when the bear dropped dead, it fell upon Elle, who crept inside the carcass for warmth. Itslk found her shortly afterwards smeared with the blood, slime, and offal. When Elle, after her return to France, tries to sort out the mix of memory, legend, myth and dream, she can hardly follow her own life-story. She describes it as "the unofficial account of an anti-quest":
"This is the story of a girl who went to Canada, gave birth to a Fish, turned into a bear, and fell in love with a famous author (F.) Or did she just go mad? In either case, from my point of view(the inside), they look the same."
This is Glover's treatment of what the Victorians, at the height of the historical novel's prestige, called "the woman question." It is a question crucial to any examination of a historical process that has been characterized by the exclusion of women.
Glover contrives in his own way to repair that omission; he takes events that have previously been the province of soldiers, generals, politicians, and explorersthe colonization of Canadaand recasts them, making a woman the central character. Paradoxically, the woman is fitted for that centrality precisely by her eccentricity, that is by her refusal to conform to the norms of her society, and her resistance to the role of wife and mother. The female character modifies, manipulates, or flouts the traditional female role in her own original way. The immense vitality of Elle makes this a case in point. Yet such headstrong delinquency inevitably ends in pathos, as her own words indicate:
"I am far gone in self-pity, melancholy, misanthropy and other Words ending in -y. I drink wine spirits for nourishment, take laudanum to sleep and insert clysters of galbanum, asafetida and castoreum to counteract the constipating effects of the laudanum. . . .In Canada I was, briefly, next thing to a god (an ambiguous and confusing state), but now I am perceived as a liar, a madwoman and, worst of all, a bore. (Weep, weep.) No one believes a word I say, either that I once went to the New World or knew the celebrated F." Joan Givner
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
"One of the most important Canadian writers of his generation." - Philip Marchand, The Toronto Star -- Philip Marchand, The Toronto Star
"Pain and love are the twin gods that rule Glovers universe." - The National Post -- The National Post
"[His] language is so sharp, so evocative, that the reader sees well beyond the tissue of words into a forbidding life called the past." - The New Yorker -- The New Yorker
A bold and unique rendition of Canadian history. -- Tania Therien, The Calgary Herald
A remarkable, wondrous experience. -- Wayne Johnston, author of The Navigator of New York
A rich blend of elegance and punch. -- Ken Babstock, The Globe and Mail
Galloping, brawling, lively. -- Robin McGrath, The St. Johns Telegram
Knotty, intelligent, raucously funny. -- Brian Bethune, Macleans
Lascivious, bizarre, entertaining . . . Glover has a wonderful facility for imagery, language, farce, and the grotesque. -- Quill & Quire