To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon - Nicole Brossard, Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood I owe a big thank you to Ali and The BURIED Book Club for bring Nicole Brossard's work to my attention. She's my favorite discovery of 2013 so far. I'm also embarrassed not to have known her work before. She's a poet and a novelist, a queer feminist who has been lauded in her native Canada. (You can watch her 2011 reading at Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania at the PennSound site at

Nicole Brossard

[b:Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon|1806153|Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon|Nicole Brossard||1805419] has been lauded by some as Brossard's most impressive work. Originally published as Hier in 2001, this English translation captures the blend of poetry and prose, the intertwining of the personal and the historical, the delight in language and the overall sense of humanity for which she is known.

The novel is structured in five parts. The first introduces us to four women: an unnamed narrator who works in the Museum of Civilization in Québec City, writing up the geographical provenance and dating the artifacts; Simone Lambert, an archaeologist and museum director for whom the narrator works; Carla Carlson, a writer who travels to Québec City whenever she is writing a novel, and who is friends with the narrator; and Axelle Carnavale, a geneticist who is Simone's granddaughter. Each of these women is coping with loss: the narrator is mourning the death of her mother, which taught her what the word agony really means; Simone is haunted by the disappearance of her daughter, Axelle's mother Lorraine, years ago, as well as mourning the death of her lover Alice Dumont years before; Carla continues to explore themes around her father's death in her fiction; and Axelle is coping with anger and loss over her mother's disappearance. In addition to the interpersonal relationships that we see tying together these women, we also can trace common concerns and connections among them, particularly revolving around themes of ruins and time, history and artifacts, preservation and loss, and memory.

The second section, The Urns, focuses solely on Simone, and introduces another loss that helps to bring together the four characters at the bar of the Hotel Clarendon in part three. Part Three is written as a play, complete with stage directions and a heavy emphasis on dialogue. Section four, Carla Carlson's Room, continues the play format, complete with a scene all in Latin (don't worry -- there's a translation in the back). The novel concludes with Chapter 5 -- which is written by the narrator, and followed by a series of notes that helped to produce this novel. This metafictional structure, this awareness of form and direct consideration of the process of writing, is one of Brossard's hallmarks, and she carries it out with style, humor, and depth.

This is a novel of ideas written by a woman in love with language. She intertwines the rational and the emotional, language with the sensual, with acumen and insight. When I was reading the book, I couldn't stop myself from posting lengthy updates, because Brossard's prose is so magnificent.

For example, here is the first paragraph of the novel, as the narrator introduces herself to us:

While others march gaily toward madness in order to stay alive in a sterile world, I strive for preservation. I cling to objects, their descriptions, to the memory of landscapes lying fully drawn in the folds of things around me. Every moment requires me, my gaze or sensation. I become attached to objects. I don’t readily let go of days by banishing them to the blank book of memory. Certain words ignite me. I take the time to look around. Some mornings, I yield to the full-bodied pleasure of navigating among seconds. I then lose my voice. This doesn’t bother me. I take the opportunity to lend an ear to ambient life with an eagerness I never suspected. The idea of remaining calm doesn’t displease me. Some days I make sure everything is grey, like in November, or sombre, for I like storms.

Simone remembers her lover Alice in the following passage:

Passing by the urn called royal, Simone repeats to herself urn, shoulder, belly, hip. And suddenly water is streaming over Alice’s firm body. Their life together reappears like an alternation of precious moments between the shortage of water on the sites of the past and the abundance of chlorinated water in the bathrooms of the hotels they stayed at on a regular basis: the cool water of the shower under which they multiplied their mouth to mouths, the boiling calming water of the hot tubs, the stimulating water jet they learned to aim accurately at their clitorises, which split time in two or, depending on circumstances, into a thousand fragments that splashed the eye and then gently went on to merge with the idea of happiness and the salt of tears. Urns of life and daily chores which, held at arm’s length above women’s heads, were illuminated by their energy or which, passing through their rough and wrinkled hands, poured tender milk into the mouth of a child or fresh water through an old mother’s parched lips.

Brossard conveys the visceral impact of bad news received by Simone with such power that it took my breath away:

Eight-oh-four and ten seconds in the evening. The news came via Simone’s cellphone like an axe blow to the ear. The news fell into her phone like a two-year-old from the fifth floor the news fell into her phone like a knife slash into the gums the news made a blackfly buzz in the phone the news spread through Simone’s body spilled tons of toxins into her brain left a trickle of saliva at the corner of her mouth unravelled the quiet thread of life the news sent shivers down Simone’s spine nailed her to the front of Niche Number 7 of Centuries So Far.

And throughout the novel, Brossard explores more philosophical or abstract themes with the same grounding in lived experience, the same attention to language:

Can gravestones be thought of as ruins? Can they be said to fire the imagination and awaken our knowledge as the necropolises of ancient worlds do?
Is it possible to discuss inner ruins, childhood landscapes degraded by time or learned constructions of the mind, such as stoicism and altruism, eroded by the biting breath of new beliefs? Can one talk of philosophical ruins? I sometimes find myself imagining my contemporaries, arms akimbo, circulating amid ideologies fallen into ruin, finally able to examine them in their most remarkable and sombre aspects. Theories about progress and communication whose finest images so far are the mere carcasses of a lot of small things whose lights have gone out. I also sometimes edge along sites constructed entirely of incomplete images whose broad lines end in the shape of a root or a tailspin, images left stranded like old symbols incapable now of bearing fruit, and about which we don’t know what danger or new attraction will have turned off from using them those who originally designed them for the pleasure and intelligence of their world.

This is a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful novel that embodies Brossard's sense of humanity. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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