Place and Belonging: André Alexis's Pastoral, by Pamela Davison
Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
I'm writing to you for the second time. Four years of silence passed, during which time I revisited your novel Petite more than once.
I'm still wondering if the mail got lost, if you didn't want to answer me, or if you just didn't know what to say. Maybe you lost my letter under a pile of paperwork? Maybe you preferred to keep your answers to yourself? I understand your refusal to testify. Besides, to write a novel rather than a story, as we have done, is it not to refuse the burden of the anorexic experience? In any case, I admit that I did not find the pretension (or the courage) necessary to repeat my questions to you. You should know that I am a fairly discreet person, and I surprise myself rewriting you.
I took your silence for an assent, a tacit confirmation of what I was thinking. But was that the case? Now I am silent. At the doctor, I am silent. In the long corridor of the house where we sometimes cross paths, I am silent. It’s an intolerable silence, I realize it years later, but it’s normal silence for Nouk. I have nothing to say and my words are worthless. In Petite, your words helped formulate my own and encouraged me to break the "intolerable silence" that has been my lot for many years. The beauty of your work, far from any pathologizing representation, showed me the presence of the potential for creativity in spite of the circumstances. By reading you, I realized that I too could discharge my poetics. You gave me permission to open my wound and write with my blood, in all its ugliness. Smash the image of the perfect girl who held me captive.
The only language that works for me emanates from my bones. They are the ones that take on this responsibility. My bones say it all, express what I want people to see in me. On me. Purity in linear form. Sure, there could always be so much more to say; I could speak for hours about this and that. But everything is said, right here, under my skin’s surface. My bones. My narrator struggles. She, too, is trying to kill her body. Like your Nouk, she has great ideas. She dreams of bodies of steel, immortal, androgynous, preserved from any degradation. She imagines going beyond the very principle of humanity to incarnate this container where she stands absolutely alone in her uniqueness. A decoy, because she is not alone. Our writing stems from this post-humanity which obsesses us and brings us together, which generates between us this sororal rather than maternal bond, more metaphysical than physical. The sisters of hunger do not give birth, they contaminate each other, marinate their dry words with gastric juices. You will have introduced me to size zero writing, which allowed me to take back this body, mine, with violence, but also with an ecstatic incantation, almost in love, similar to yours towards Nouk.
I can still see myself sitting on the lounge chair in the courtyard, my purple notebook open. Pieces of grass drift and land between the pages. My father mows the lawn next door. Everything is so strange here. So I go upstream, I write things. Missing things, defunct things, unfinished little drawings. The flow enters, intrudes through the gap. I catch the words that come to my mind, meet bits of fossilized memories that I spit out. It’s satisfying. There are many corpses accumulated in my head, and tons of ghosts lurking nearby. Stories that haunt me to the bone, my old reels of film. The images and the faces fall from me, out of me. A rain of old days. Chewed, eaten images, shaped by my arid, disembodied interior. I dive head first into the notebook.
I think about it: maybe writing allows one to remain eternally anorexic by generating the self in the verb rather than in the body. How can you never live in such a world, how can you escape? I seek to escape death, the feelings, the jealousy of the gods, the sufferings which they concoct for those who love, those who live. Maybe projecting into a text is a way to escape the world, and to swallow it up all at the same time. Maybe hunger, like writing, is as deadly as a lion and as beautiful?
Like Nouk, I feel connected to other little girls. I feel a kind of intimate solidarity with them. These girls who negotiate their exit from the world. How can I not see in them, in me, the witches' convent, the refuge for souls in search of sublimation? I write mainly because when I write, I feel less alone. I join these witches who allow themselves to howl with laughter, spitting their venom instead of swallowing it. I have the incredible violence of wise girls, whose hunger makes their bodies bloom. We are the worst, the little time bombs. By dint of holding back the vociferous voices in our heads, we become explosive reservoirs of rage. Our secret revolt permeates our texts, where it finally flourishes in broad daylight, releasing its spores in everyone's face.
I am expected to be well-spoken, well thought out, ripe, full and composed. But what I have to say is neither full nor composed. What I have to say is poor, irrational and fractional, of a terrifying emptiness, like that of hollow orbits. What I have to say attracts others like me to the void, those who speak without making noise. I was born a woman and therefore flowers are supposed to issue from my lips and bees to hover close. We want honey and precious ambers to flow from my body. In truth, my body is a cry, a slap in the face of those who do not listen. It's a cry that no one can silence, my slight ungovernable body. My little body adored, hated, challenged, overflowing with hunger. This hunger helps the corrosion of the body, its purification. Helps to never become a woman, to take refuge in my simplest expression, like when I write. My texts, like yours, are meager. We weigh our words as carefully as we weigh our bodies, calculating the value of every sentence as if they were calories ingested, avoiding fats at all costs, surpluses, anything too much. We cut what exceeds, we withdraw as soon as we experience pleasure, it seems to me. I am often criticized for that, my brevity. Is this also your case? I write while constantly refraining from doing so, an excessively prolonged anal phase as the psychoanalysts may tell me. I intellectualize my impulses, regularize my ideas, turn them over to dig them like a clay vase. Achieve ever greater erosion. Filter everything, without exception. Everything I say, do and write. I am unable to abandon myself. Even when I tear off the molted skin, I never let it hang completely, casually, on the page. I arrange her pose, stage her to exercise my boundless control. Do not leave any unintentional flaws visible.
I took refuge in my bones to escape the deafening decibels. Words will have hurt me as they will have fed me. An obligatory passage to extract my venom, perhaps. Like you, Nouk, I cultivated sentences to which I had to cling to like buoys to avoid disappearing. Your words are among these. Our stories are skeleton texts, friendly bones compatible in their asceticism. They share the same gnawed, minimal frame. Our dishonest voices, filled with bad ideas, cross like two charred breaths. And yet we know how to breathe, strongly. Fires lit in a hurry. Our deap-sea bodies, our pyre bodies, knew how to write before they were consumed.
Actually, I'm Nouk, I'm all of you, I'm each of us. You are me, too. Animated by the same supernatural energy which makes us fight the limits, leads us to take pleasure in suffering. We are the reverse of the world. Why am I so deeply convinced that these girls who let themselves die have a common and secret reason, that they seek to know where life and death are, because of something that had to be told to them, that they couldn't tell them, something that scares them. We share a common scar, which is also our secret pact. I love us and we cry at the same time, my sisters.
I did not write this novel to help others or to reassure. Besides, I am aware that reading it can be harmful. It has been confirmed. The director of the theatrical adaptation of my book believes that it can potentially be dangerous, a poisoned book. Yours too, I believe, keeps no one safe. On the contrary. Contemplate the void and it will contemplate you in return. Our texts are bottomless wells whose edges must be firmly held so as not to fall in upon itself.
I suppose writing could help unravel the strangling threads that kept me from telling anything else. You talk about the vital need to write anorexia. You did it well, Geneviève, even if sometimes you cut the story with no more talking about it or admit arriving in a place where [you] don't like to go. Your revisiting of the past seems like an obligation. But I can see that now I am obliged to continue this story of Nouk, Cora and the baby, as we are obliged to finish the cleaning when we started. You stress the health benefits of telling such an experience. But is it as healthy as one would like to believe?
Likewise, I told myself as best I could, with makeshift means, with scraps crammed with things and others, found in the nooks and crannies. You know when you open the drawers and you realize how crazy you are to keep so many memories? It's always the same thing; we don't throw anything away. It’s reassuring to accumulate. We say we will need it later. We make heaps, little mounds while waiting. I make a dishonest heap of memories, if you tell a story, you shouldn't do it halfway. Then one day, it's too much, it overflows. So we suddenly empty. I too had to clean up. My narrator is my safeguard, the one who protects me from certain decline. The one who, let’s face it, keeps me away from readers. A reflection in the mirror that distances me from pure madness and a shredded ego. You see, I understand your game, I multiply tenfold by reflex. Escape the chains, all the chains.
Anorexic, I was two.
Author, I am always a double.
Impossible to get together, to bring me end to end like a sheet that we fold.
I share with you this liminal existence.
Never dead, never completely alive.
Neither fictitious nor really real.
Authentic and false.
Disembodied and embodied
We are oxymoronic,
Defeated and triumphant,
Enjoying our dissolution.
Your text like mine, these small texts, confined like shoes that are too narrow, are our stubbornness. Strangely enough, our texts allowed what our bodies refused to accomplish: the perpetuation of our desire to remain eternally small, eternally girls.
In an interview, you explain that we write books because we don't remember. Because we forgot, we write because in writing we remember. “We write to catch life.” You justify this failure of memory, this inevitable loss, as an essential ferment of creation. Maybe they had other words, which I can't remember. We write with what we forgot. I'm following these groping years, these are my little dark years, I hardly remember the facts, I may be inventing them. I remember the details, the objects, the gestures, and my pain as if it were today.
But are we choosing to speak of anorexia, or is it simply refusing to erase itself from memory? Forgetting is sometimes saving, and remembering brings fear back. You yourself suffered from it. In writing these lines, when almost thirty years have passed, I am afraid, I do it sparingly, with excessive caution. I do it because it seems to me that it is necessary. I cannot speak of those years without fear, without shame, or without my heart beating, stupidly, too strong.
Like you, I don't know if we can one day get rid of it, but I know that I wrote anorexia while I was still happy to see my ribs in the mirror and the small hollow in my chest. These bones triumph over my flesh. Maybe you have to learn to live with the disease, as you have to learn to live in a shared flat. Treat it as otherness, a being apart, outside of itself. That’s why I wrote these things that I had mummified. Another kind of body slowly took shape, page after page. A thin, poor, dislocated body. A living body. I cannot say why or how, but throughout the text, long-dead pains resuscitated at the same time I did. For better and for worse. Perhaps they never died. My miles of bitten nails and skin could attest to their survival. I'm a sleepwalker, more than ever. I walk and talk at night, I talk to I don't know who. I laugh, I cry. Maybe I should be exorcising the house, myself included.
Like you, I had a hard time saying it. I was tempted to renounce the heavy words, the words that haunted me at night when I summoned them, but each time the abdication was felt, I told myself that these fragments testified that I was still alive the moment they left me. That each sentence drew one more line on my palm. It was a pulse, but it was also a walk that brought me closer to death. These words which testified to my longevity, which tarnished me and sublimated me. These words are precious seconds of life at the same time as they irrevocably devour my body.
I wanted to let go of my memories. The memory of hunger destroys what is left of us, finishes by corroding the pieces. Is writing – this discipline so ascetic – the keystone for rebuilding life on the very foundations of ruin? I feel that literature will probably be of some use to me, in the long run, like a survival kit, or a sewing kit. It could maybe help me to patch some pieces back together, mend the bits that have been torn. And also, writing is minimal, doesn’t take any space, costs nothing. Writing is practical.
I would have liked to hear you, but I have come to consider your silence as the enigma I needed. Your silence fell before me like a mirror in which I could question something other than my reflection; the image of a witch sister, of a survivor. To be confronted with your absence forced me to speak, to invent famine grammars, this language ??born in hunger, to understand what brings us together. The void led me to seek, to move. I have completed a great cycle of silence, a wheel that I will have covered with my words, as much as I could, before I could rewrite you. You could say that as I got older, I became a little more pretentious. I am not waiting for your answer.
This text was originally published in the journal Moebius, no155, Montreal, November 2017. I was asked to write a letter to a living author of my choice. I chose Geneviève Brisac, a French author who notably published Petite (1994), a short self-fiction novel in which she recounts, through an anorexic alter ego called Nouk, her little dark years of eating disorders.
Fanie Demeule is working on a doctorate at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where she now teaches. Her second novel, Roux clair naturel (Hamac, 2019) was published to much acclaim. With Lightness, she appears in English for the first time. She lives in Montreal.
Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
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