When Christiane Frenette first jumped from poetry to prose, she landed between the two. And it was gorgeous. The result, La terre ferme, won a 1998 Governor Generals Award and informed her readership that this was no one trick pony. It was a prose debut, a decidedly poetic prose debut, which shook off the husk of genre. And now, so does her second novel, The Whole Night Through.
Sylvia Plaths 1962 essay, A Comparison, dithers on that crooked intersection where Poetry and Prose cross: If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, weighs Plath, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand.
How I envy the novelist! moans Plath at the start to her essay. She even calls poetry an evasion from the real business of writing prose. But not Frenette. Her novels are conspicuously poetic, and that is their highest achievement. Indeed it would be hard to say what (if anything) Frenette would envy-an embarrassment of stylistic riches is hers already.
Frenettes perennial theme of loss and losss staggering weight, its ridiculous longevity, is the motor for The Whole Night Through. Jeanne, our young insomniac heroine, sits uselessly on a cabins porch, in the wilderness, watching a moose take hours to expire. And, yes, she watches the whole night through.
But 200 pages of dead moose do not a ripping yarn make. Fortunately, and perhaps predictably, we are treated to a series of flashbacks as Jeanne contemplates the various deaths, losses, in her own life. The metaphor is heavy-handed to be sure. It even veers dangerously close to allegory territory (ohhh, her life is like the moose!) but Can Lit is nothing if not a breeding ground for survivalist nature conceits.
Another thoroughbred bit of Canadiana is the gambit of French-English translation. La nuit entière, thankfully, evades the better part of translations sterility in its English incarnation. The Whole Night Through represents the work of the inestimably talented translator Sheila Fischman, whose deft hand has played behind a myriad literary curtains. Only a handful of translators could have been trusted with Frenettes porcelain phrasing.
The novels centrepiece, bookish, fragile Jeanne, is a translator herself, a fitting profession for a taciturn woman incapable of directly speaking her mind. A profession, too, that withers in the vacuum of the backwoods: Out of the loop, away from well-read and cosmopolitan civilization, theres no salvation. The landscape, dumb as Jeannes conversations with her rage-consumed husband Paul, makes no room for grace, let alone uppity career hopes.
Images, scenes from her rather neglected life, steadily add up with discreet fervour toward an explanation of how and why Jeanne came to this cabin, this moment, this
moose. Why is her son Jérôme sleeping in the village tonight? Where is that loser husband? Why is Jeanne alone, chugging bourbon straight from the bottle and staring at a collapsed moose as if death were a Reality TV show?
A series of sepia tableaux, stepping stones toward the present, appear to our heroine like stray bullets as she watches the moose expire. Death can take a long time. You have to think of something.
Frenettes nine stray bullet contain the bulk of The Whole Night Through. We do check in periodically with the night in question, we watch Jeanne move along the porch or station herself on the darkening veranda. The night can be long, she has everything she needs: images, words-those that come so easily when ones alone-the lightness that alcohol brings, the weight of the smoke in her lungs. And anguish. But the present only exists briefly in this narrative; Jeannes existing spirit is only a pause, a breath, in the novel of her own life.
In her respective emotional and environmental wildernesses, Jeanne is charged with the task of cobbling together some meaning from these stray bullets, each one shrill with bereavement. Still, beneath the bald fact of human isolation (a fact that saturates the novels pages) there festers a far more intriguing problem: does Jeanne want to be loved, at all? Does the moose care whether it dies monitored, cared for? Frenette, unfortunately, spends more time ruminating on losss ephemera than dissecting its more intimate machinations.
Regardless, they are sad and laconic, these stray bullets-a team of poems beaten down to prose.
This novel is a hybrid, to be sure. The calm expansiveness of a novel buoys the reader along; yet Frenette is not interested in pulling punches, either. Expect no docility. Frenette deals with a poets economy, knows the worth of words.
And of silence. The Whole Night Through repeatedly draws us back, after each soap-opera episode from the past, to Jeanne on the veranda, silent, alone, watching her dying moose (the French for moose, élan, probably sounds less comical). Frenette insists on reasserting over and again the calm disinterest of the world-toward our dying élan, toward the sleepless Jeanne. Jeannes memories, and her life entire, cannot draw sympathy from the landscape.
A clearing. Grass sparse, yellow
In the background, the edge of the woods, clear as if cut with a knife. A dense barrier. Frenette knows it always begins with a landscape, a sound, a face, an ache. The concrete, daily actions of people are brought into relief by the horror of sublime wilderness. Can it be? Are we still stuck on our fear of becoming bushed?
With this new bushed, Frenette moves beyond the morose complaints of Susanna Moodie, mind you. Frenettes new woman-in-the-woods has a sharp sensibility, a post-modern removedness.
While Jeanne does yearn for sympathetic relationships, her longing is so rarified, so painfully romanticized, that she is more rightly labeled a misanthrope in lovers clothing. If you go on searching, youll have to face up to the fact that proximity never eradicates distance. That is Jeannes horrible lesson. And the heart of the novels persistent ennui. At the exclusion of all others, Jeanne loves a lost woman, Marianne. Now her mourning bleeds forward whenever she reaches out.
The problem-how do we repair ourselves from loves first (cruel) assault?-is unsolvable. The moose dies in the field on a moonless night-the only hitch: not to be able to make out the dark mass in the clearing. But The Whole Night Through reminds us of that confused pain and so Frenette must be applauded. The horrified creature, dying against an unforgiving landscape, is a familiar trope. But Frenettes exquisite style, her emotional intelligence, is highly uncommon. She teaches us why that baggy old trope endures.
In the process, Frenette waits for her characters to lose their skin-then pours salt over them. As in Terra Firma, Frenettes second novel is populated with characters lost within themselves. A chorus of solitudes presides, sad and unforgiving as the night sky she chooses for her novel-long scrim.
While Plath and Frenette use different tactics in confronting the beast Prose, they share a fondness for bleak sentiment. During the novels overture, Jeanne learns in class (only a few rows away from her love, Marianne) that in short, life boils down to a few encounters. The narrowness of these parameters for life-the notion, however true, that life is a bulb, not the earth around it-becomes a frightening fixation as the pages turn.
Jeannes worshipful relationship with Marianne is never consummated. Perhaps that is why it lasts. Years after they part, six thousand, eight hundred and nine days separate them. Jeanne keeps track
Give me dark alleys and bumps in the night any day. Jeanne keeps track
is true horror.
The Whole Night Through is a true achievement-poetic, sparse, just aching with its sad intelligence. Michael Harris
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada