After a few trips to Spain earlier this week, my outing into Quebec literature takes us back to Canada today, even if we will be crossing the border a couple of times with this one as well. As promised, I’ll be taking a close look at a classic of modern Canadian Francophone literature, which makes it even more surprising that it hasn’t been available in English translation for decades, and never in North America. Mind you, when you hear all about it, you might not find it that surprising after all, both for the challenge it poses translators and its slightly bizarre nature. Nevertheless, it’s here now, and there’s someone very special I’d like you to meet – please say hello to the star of the show, Berenice Einberg!
Swallowed (translated by Madeleine Stratford, review copy courtesy of Esplanade Books) was the late Canadian writer Réjean Ducharme’s first novel, appearing back in 1966, but in his insightful introduction, Dimitri Nasrallah explains that it took a while for the book to even see the light of day. Rejected by several Canadian publishers for the playful, childish nature of his novel, the young Ducharme took a punt and shipped off a few manuscripts to the French publisher Gallimard. Fortunately, they saw his writing differently, and all three of his early books were eventually published, with Swallowed leading the way.
Ducharme’s debut novel certainly isn’t the gentlest of introductions to a writer’s world. It’s a lengthy story narrated by Berenice Einberg, a girl growing up on an abandoned abbey on an island in the Quebec countryside, and in her monologue, full of flights of fancy, tangential asides and vivid dreams, she drags us into her world. Life at the abbey is full of surprises, and with her parents (a Jewish soldier with big ideas for his daughter’s education and the younger Polish refugee he saved from the war) constantly at each other’s throats, Berenice is generally free to indulge her whims. These mostly involve spending time exploring the natural delights of her island realm and clinging to her elder brother, Christian, in a rather indecent manner.
Alas, Berenice’s uncontrollable nature means she eventually pushes things too far, and after several failed attempts to curb his daughter’s excesses, her father decides that she needs a more structured environment, sending her off to New York to stay with her ultra-orthodox relatives. However, even a few years under the watchful eyes of Zio and Zia are unlikely to do much to tame their niece, and life in the big city soon provides more opportunities for her to continue her education in corruption.
Ducharme was famously a recluse who avoided interviews, and given the focus in the book on a recalcitrant child, there are obvious parallels with J.D. Salinger and his most famous work. To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of The Catcher in the Rye, so I was a little hesitant to start this one, but once you get into Swallowed, any thoughts of Holden Caulfield are soon swept away. Berenice has a life of her own, a charismatic character who is most definitely not phony.
In fact, the theme running throughout the book is her determination to enjoy life and live it to its fullest, and much of her time is spent emancipating herself from all those who seek to constrain her. She’s as keen to avoid her mother’s embraces as her father’s rules, and even Zio’s iron fist turns to jelly when Berenice decides she’s had enough. We meet her at the age of nine, following her through to adulthood, and I can promise you that you’re in for a tumultuous journey.
As interesting as Berenice’s actions are, though, the true core of Swallowed is what’s going on inside her head. From a young age, she’s firm in her belief that she’s all alone in the world, with everything outside her mind mere inventions:
I’m alone. I just need to shut my eyes to know it. When you want to know where you are, you shut your eyes. When you shut your eyes, you end up where you are: in the dark, in the void. My mother, my father, my brother Christian, and Constance Chlorus are there. But they’re not where I am when my eyes are shut. Where I am with my eyes shut, there’s no one but me.
pp.20/21 (Esplanade Books, 2020)
As a result, she can be cruel at times (especially to cats…) and ignores any attempts to get close to her, simply going her own way and doing as she pleases, whatever the cost of her actions.
It also means that it’s hard to take her at her word – this is Berenice’s world, and we’re just visitors (or figments of her imagination). Sometimes her fantasies are easy to spot, especially when she drags us into exaggerated nightmare-like situations, but at other times it’s not quite so clear-cut. The main example here involves two girls Berenice is close to, Chlorus Constance and Gloria, who are complete opposites (the vibrant perfect schoolgirl and the filthy, foul-smelling ‘lesbian’). It’s hard not to believe that they’re both in Berenice’s head, mere projections of parts of her personality.
While never truly explicit, sex is another theme that’s frequently in the air. Her mother’s extramarital exploits are alluded to, and Berenice shares childish kisses with Chlorus and Gloria, and flirts with her New York boyfriend, Dick Dong (whose name must be Stratford’s ingenious invention – UPDATE: 7/4 – From a comment below, and Stratford herself on Twitter, I’ve learned that this was actually Ducharme’s invention!). Yet it’s Christian that Berenice really loves, and she leaps into bed with him at any opportunity, wanting to possess him. It’s a little close to the bone at times, and this twisted sisterly love is one of the main reasons for her banishment from her home.
As any reader will soon learn, though, it’s the language that really makes the book. It starts off plainly enough, but it soon becomes flowery and ornate, with Berenice often coming up with vocabulary beyond her tender years:
Skirting the oat field, shrouding the barbed wire fences, the cherry trees stand in a single file as far as the eye can see. Their frail branches buckle, chock-full of fruit, packed with red sapphires. No host was ever this hospitable, no king has ever burnt this much incense, sported this many shiny jewels, set such sumptuous tables, or offered such a munificent welcome. (p.85)
Her stream-of-consciousness monologues, replete with invented words, frequently become a barrage assaulting the reader, and there’s certainly a lot here for any translator to work with. Stratford has taken up the gauntlet with gusto, and without referring to the 1968 UK version (as she explains in her brief translator’s note), she has plunged head-first into Berenice’s world in an attempt to bring it closer to its Quebec roots. Obviously, I can’t compare the versions, but this one is certainly an enjoyable read, and it succeeds in painting a picture of the larger-than-life Berenice.
Despite wittering on for far too long, I probably haven’t given you the full picture, but that’s the kind of book Swallowed is. Absorbing and at times overwhelming, it really needs to be read to be understood. At its core, though, it’s the story of a girl and her desire to be free:
“Here’s what I need to do to be free: destroy it all. I didn’t say deny, I said destroy. I’m the artwork and the artist. Everything around me, everything I see or hear, is the marble from which I must escape – hacking, carving, sanding my way out. A marble block contains a bust, but on one condition: provided you sculpt it Do you get it?”
“If you destroy it all, what will you feed on?”
“Nothing, you idiot! And I’ll starve to death! But, for two whole days, I’ll have been free!” (p.197)
Berenice isn’t one for half-measures, and if it’s a choice between drudgery and death, she’ll be sure to greet the latter with a smile on her face and a curse on her lips. I’m not convinced she’s someone I’d like to spend time with on a regular basis, but she’s certainly a very interesting person to meet – as I’m sure you’ll agree if you give Swallowed a try 😉