From a display table in a bookshop on Quebec City’s historic Rue St Jean, Folle by Nelly Arcan caught my eye: a letter from a young woman to the man who left her. Back in the UK, I was doing my French degree and needed to find some literature that I liked on my own terms. There was no way my lecturers would have heard of this.
36-year-old Nelly Arcan had been found dead in her Montreal loft in September 2009. Police ruled suicide. It’s not fair that any exegesis of her work barely manages a few lines without mentioning her final circumstances, but society is obsessed with those who die young – especially beautiful women who die young. But when reading her work, which is known for being semi-autobiographical and exploring female life’s visceral fragility, one can’t help but wonder how much is from the character and how much is from the author.
Regardless of subject matter and its veracity, at its roots Arcan’s life – and her writing – reflects a standard coming-of-age narrative. She grows up as Isabelle Fortier in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec (Catholic logging town, population 6,000) and sets off to attend university in Montreal (Canadian metropolis, infamous for its uneasy straddling of the country’s two linguistic solitudes). It’s natural for parents to become apprehensive of how their children will change when they leave home. Isabelle becomes a sex worker alongside her studies. She also writes, under the pseudonym Nelly Arcan. In her autofiction, the narrator refers to herself frequently not just as a prostitute, but one degree cruder: a pute or putain (“whore”). The latter word provides the title of her debut book, based heavily on those experiences.
Deliberately titling her first two novels with adjectives often applied to women (Folle was released in English as Hysteric), it is no surprise that during her time in the literary spotlight, Arcan was often challenged about her feminist credibility. What was often ignored, however, were her personal emotional struggles. A long-time sufferer of depression and anorexia, it is inescapable that Arcan’s act of writing was cathartic, a means of disassociation. The title of last autumn’s anthology of tributes to the author, Je veux une maison faite de sorties de secours (“I want a house made from emergency exits”), alludes to a very specific breed of emotional turmoil. In Folle, the narrator is obsessed with her lover’s exes and even with the women in the pornography he watches: she regards all of them as competition. Obsession by definition possesses its subject, but in the narrator’s world, power must be wreaked on the fates of others, too. After getting an abortion, she watches TV in a state of delirium, wondering whether she should post the gory pot of post-operation fallout to her lover, likening this to serial killers mailing a finger to their next planned victim. From the beginning of the book – the narrator’s suicide note – there is no doubt as to how it’s going to end. “When I’m dead,” she keeps reminding him; “This is why I’ve decided to kill myself,” she reasons. Provoking a reaction from him that she will not be there to witness is a plus, because it is a way of convincing herself she is detached.
Folle moved me not only for this deeply jarring narrative of loving someone to the point of self-destruction, but also for addressing real, writerly anxieties. The novel is written almost entirely in the second person. “In order to be a young writer, you [need] to get published before the age of 28,” she reminds her paramour. The most striking thing about this is that writing and publishing are considered the same act here. She is ostensibly more successful than her male, journalist partner because she has published several books.
To her, writing is losing parts of yourself; the intimate understanding that you are going to die. The strong link between death and legacy, their imperativeness, is commonly recognised by those who wilfully die young. Furthermore, much is made of their national difference and how this affects perceived intelligence and literacy between the two. The narrator is from Quebec, the lover in question is French – “Français de France, as we say [here] to create distance [from ourselves]”. The Frenchman admires Quebeckers for their shamelessness and lack of pretension, while she gets off on his accent, which reminds her of poets and thinkers. She observes how he employed the joual (working-class Quebec vernacular) that she had invested years into unlearning, yet that he was also aware that he would never know the disgrace that the “colonised” were destined to inhabit. It is a switching power dynamic between Old and New Worlds, the political leaking onto the (inter)personal.
Their relationship is not the only one that anchors the setting of the narrator’s story in Folle. She quotes online reviews from past prostitution clients: “Plusieurs ont écrit dans des forums de discussions we can’t go down on her”. The clients are therefore English Canadians, with inherited wealth; that is, the minority in both senses in Montreal, an economically-stagnant, francophone city. When she admits that she comes off as boring whenever she speaks English, as she is able to discuss little else than Florida and Sex and the City, I’m reminded of a trait I have seen in several Quebeckers: self-consciousness in this country that is not a country. How much does environment govern a person’s own sense of identity? I desperately want to ask Isabelle Fortier questions; even her extremely confessional style of writing has not sated me. How did she envision Quebec’s political future? Did she ever have the fear, as I know I’d have done, of being arrested once publically revealing her former vocation?
In 2013, a 10,000-tonne, driverless train packed with crude oil rolled down a hill and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people and decimating many buildings. I was to depart the following month for a residence in Quebec, so naturally, I was absorbed by the news for days.
Specifically, it was the name that would not undo its grip on me. The enunciation of Lac-Mégantic was like someone choking back tears. Of all the thousands of municipalities in the province, here was the scene of the biggest rail disaster in Canadian history and it was where Nelly Arcan had grown up. Who had selected Lac-Mégantic to generate so much tragedy?
It has been three years since the rail disaster. The reconstructed library at Lac-Mégantic has been christened Médiathèque Municipale Nelly Arcan. It is where local children will hopefully learn to love literature and the arts. When they curiously and casually ask who Nelly Arcan was, what will their parents answer? How old will they be when they finally open a book by this lost talent? And will life lead them down a path where they directly empathise with its contents?
Rosamund Mather is a writer, editor and translator based in Berlin, Germany. Find her on Twitter @spookytofu and read her blog roseailleurs.net