‘To See Out the Night’ by David Clerson (Review)

Of all the books from Canadian publisher QC Fiction that I’ve covered on the blog (and there have been a fair number), one of my favourites would have to be the excellent short novel Brothers.  I’m far from the only one with a soft spot for that particular work, so it will come as good news to many that writer David Clerson and translator Katia Grubisic are back with the latest QC offering.  This time around, they’re taking a different approach, with a number of shorter tales, but what remains the same is the quality of the writing and, no matter where the writer takes us, the slightly bizarre turn the text often takes.

*****
To See Out the Night (review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of twelve short stories set mainly in Quebec, with the occasional trip abroad.  The tales presented here explore the loneliness of modern life, with most spending some time with men leading a rather solitary existence.  However, the writer shows an impressive range of variations on his theme, taking us from sober descriptions of dull lives to fantastic adventures both at home and abroad.

For many readers, the stories exploding into a bizarre form of magical realism will be the pick of the collection.  A good example of these is ‘City Within’, a mysterious piece that has the narrator exploring a subterranean world beneath the basements of Montreal.  While their day is spent on mundane work, by night they roam an uncanny realm extending over multiple levels, never knowing what they might find.  There’s a distinct sense of a trip into the subconscious, one that proves to be addictive, tempting protagonist and reader alike to leave the real world behind.

The realm of the bizarre is also the driving force behind ‘The World Beyond’, in which an academic recovering from a stroke goes in an unusual direction with his work:

His writings drifted gradually, dealing with the subject of the disease more indirectly.  The transformation was progressive: the scenes he wrote no longer evoked his suffering or the moment of the stroke.  Words like ambulance, catheter, and convalescence disappeared; their universe represented reality less faithfully now.  He stopped writing in the first person, but instead made up fictional narrators.
‘The World Beyond’, p.69 (QC Fiction, 2021)

Abandoning the fixed conventions of academic writing, he plunges into the strange hospital of his imagination, producing reams of pages in a Joycean burst of self-expression, eventually inventing his own language to describe what can’t be explained in everyday words.

While these tales come from the city, To See Out The Night also has several pieces looking at more provincial life.  For example, there’s ‘Yamachiche’, a charming, low-key story about three failed writers from a small town, showing how a desire to create can take root anywhere, even if it’s often destined to fizzle out.  In the same vein, ‘Poland’ has a man telling us of his elder brother and the surreal books he’s written, lengthy novels that describe a very different life to the one the narrator is living.  Both of the stories leave us wishing these meta-fictional titles actually existed in our reality…

Several pieces, such as ‘The Forest and the City’, take a closer look at the outdoors.  This one focuses on a man recalling the walks he used to take with his ex-wife, the fond memories only making the ache of loneliness deeper.  However, the pain is deeper (and darker) in ‘The Language of Hunters’, where yet another loner (I did warn you…) is made to confront a painful past event by a visit to his father’s hunting cabin.

Some of the more impressive stories in the collection come when Clerson combines his fascination with nature with the surrealism touched on above.  One of these is ‘Sukhumi’, where a Canadian student bonds with a researcher from the Soviet Union – who died long ago:

The first time I met Spiroberg in a dream, I didn’t know if he was dreaming about me or the other way around.  He came to me in my sleep every night for months, and I was never sure who was dreaming of whom.
‘Sukhumi’, p.85

The bulk of the story consists of strange conversations in dreams (and the odd monkey or two), with welcome echoes here of another QC Fiction book, Pierre-Luc Landry’s Listening for Jupiter.

The opening piece, perhaps the best in the book, takes this theme of abandoning the real world to its greatest extreme.  ‘The Ape Within’ is a surreal tale of a man who lets go of his hold on modern life (and perhaps his sanity) after watching a  documentary one evening:

Louis met the animal’s stare, those eyes in which he saw nothing, a blankness that frightened him. Although other images blinked across the screen, Louis felt that his gaze remained plunged into the orangutan’s, that the dark eyes were a parasite inside him, as if the primate’s pupils had lodged themselves in his.
‘The Ape Within’, p.15

The man finds himself changing as the imagined intruder begins to alter the way he regards his life, and if he initially looks for ways to free himself of this simian influence, he gradually comes to terms with the invader, realising the futility of the dull life he had been leading before its arrival.  It’s a short, powerful piece, packing a lot into a few pages, and it makes for an excellent introduction to the collection.

There are a couple of weaker efforts towards the end of the book, but overall To See Out the Night is an impressive collection of stories that never outstay their welcome, and after her excellent work on Brothers, Grubisic again brings Clerson’s work into English in a pleasing manner.  Another engaging, thought-provoking work, then, and given what we’ve been shown of Clerson’s work so far, let’s hope that there’s more to come in the future.  I did see that he’s published one other novel – I trust that QC Fiction (and Grubisic!) are on the case 🙂

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