The Last Bullet Is For You

Martine Delvaux. Translator David Homel

September 2016

This title is now out of print.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
 is the title of Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s classic hymn to love, which novelist Angela Carter once described as being “like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning.” Later, Carter wrote privately to a friend, saying that she would hate any daughter of hers to have to write such a novel, adding, “By Grand Central Station I Tore Off his Balls would be more like it, I should hope.”

And now along comes Montreal novelist Martine Delvaux with The Last Bullet Is for You. This stream-of-consciousness novel takes the form a love letter, but it is the last one. One last letter filled as much with the memory of love as the desire for revenge. Love is war, wrote Ovid, and this book is a battleground. Writing is both an act of passion and the means to end it once and for all. Writing is the last bullet, shooting through the love story and into what is left of the lover: a ghost, a fiction. And maybe that’s what he was from the start.

Martine Delvaux was born in Québec City and brought up in a francophone village in Ontario. Her most recent books in French are an essay on photographer Nan Goldin and another on Serial Girls from Barbie to Pussy Riot (forthcoming in translation from Between the Lines). Delvaux studied in the United States and England and now lives in Montreal, where she teaches women’s studies at Université du Québec à Montréal. White Out (translated by Katia Grubisic) was published by LLP in 2018.

David Homel is an award-winning novelist and translator. He has won the Governor General's Award twice for translation. He has also worked as a filmmaker, journalist, and teacher. His most recent book is his memoir, Lunging Into the Underbrush: A Life Lived Backward (LLP, 2021). He lives in Montreal.

What they say
Angry, eloquent
Publisher's Weekly

This story begins when the Quebecoise narrator meets a Czech man in Rome. During their intense love affair, he moves to Montreal to be with her and they marry. But his love for his new wife is quickly overtaken by hatred for the city, the country, and the continent. The narrator's apartment becomes, she thinks, symbolic of a historic battleground, representing the new world while her lover believes in the superiority of ancient civilizations. Once he has left, ostensibly for a trial separation, the narrator returns to Rome, writing one last love letter before they part forever. Like Delvaux's 2015 novel, the as-yet-untranslated Blanc dehors, this one focuses both on a relationship and its absence. Told episodically and not chronologically, the story intersperses the narrator's suffering in Rome with memories of the couple's time together. But these aren't exclusively romantic, myopic visions of the past; the departed lover is gradually revealed to be cruel and bullying. Delvaux is merciless and unsentimental in describing the intoxication of love and the despair of its aftermath.

This is an angry, often devastated, but eloquent postmortem of a complicated relationship, bound to be deeply appreciated by many who have suffered broken hearts.
July 2016, Publisher's Weekly

Praise for Delvaux's Bitter Rose

“In this short book several girls go missing or are killed, information presented matter-of-factly, as if to say, ‘That is the horror of life.’ La vie en rose, but the pink is cough syrup, not cotton candy.”—Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail

"Fans of the gritty realism in works by Quebec authors such as Heather O'Neill or Rawi Hage will find another favourite in Delvaux." –Dora Cerny, The Humber Literary Review

Pitch perfect intensity
Ian McGillis

It’s a cultural quirk that can go unnoticed unless you spend a lot of time hanging around in bilingual bookstores, or have one of those strange jobs whereby people send you books through the mail. I refer to the phenomenon of French readers, in Quebec no less than in France, being far more open to buying and reading short books of fiction than are their anglophone counterparts.

The francophone predilection is observable no less on the bestseller lists than at award-giving time, while in the English-reading world, a size bias lingers. An interesting test case happened in 2012, when the two most hotly tipped contenders for the Man Booker Prize were Colm Toibin’s 112-page The Testament of Mary and Eleanor Catton’s 848-page The Luminaries. Catton’s book won, and while not wishing to cast any aspersions — the book is, by any sensible measure, magnificent — it’s hard not to suspect it had a built-in advantage.

The preamble, ironically a tad overlong, is by way of saying that two of the year’s best — and slimmest —translations of Quebec writers into English have just appeared, and it would be a shame if they were overlooked because of some unwritten criteria that measures worth by the page.

Martine Delvaux was profiled in this space a little more than a year ago for Bitter Rose, a coming-of-age novel set in a stifling Franco-Ontarian town. Now, also translated by David Homel, comes The Last Bullet Is For You (Linda Leith Publishing, 125 pp, $14.95), in which a woman who might be the Bitter Rose girl grown up finds herself in the shell-shocked aftermath of a volatile relationship and addresses the man she thought she had loved.

The clear spiritual antecedent here is Elizabeth Smart’s epochal (and similarly short) 1945 novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, but there’s nothing retro or reverential about what Delvaux is doing. Her point-by-point takedown of a Czech roué who considers himself superior to “Americans” (distinctions between Quebec, the rest of Canada and the United States are meaningless in this context) simply because he comes from an older culture, is withering and bracing in all the best ways.

But while plenty of cleansing anger is on display, the book is not a self-righteous screed. The narrator doesn’t spare herself: what, after all, was she doing with this person in the first place? “What was the empty room, what was the need you gave the impression you could fulfill, what truth about me did your presence reveal?” she asks, and finds no easy answers.

As with Smart, you end up grateful for the brevity, not because you don’t want more, but because you sense more might just be too much to take. This is intensity at a pitch best kept condensed.

September 2016, Montreal Gazette


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