by P.T. Smith
Looking at Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode and The Invention of Death creates, in the context of the history of the novels, an odd pairing. Next Episode is a Quebec classic, and as much as it is the narrative of one man, that man is looking to fight and write on the behalf of Quebec itself, looking towards an independent state. The Invention of Death was unpublished during his lifetime, and the narrator is concerned with his own life and his relationships, not the larger political world. However, written prior to Next Episode, Aquin’s first published novel, The Invention of Death has the same madness of prose, features a narrator trapped in his life, enclosed in his mind, diving deeper into solipsism, but with such honesty and fierceness that the complications and tensions of life as the rest of us experience it are picked apart.
The narrator of Next Episode is in a psychiatric hospital awaiting the result of his trial, where he faces charges of terrorism. There, out of hopelessness, from not seeing a way forward, and though not believing in the purpose of his writing, not believing that it can become a complete work, he sets to it:
“I have nothing to gain from going on writing. But I go on anyway, though I’m writing at a loss. No, that’s a lie: for the past few minutes I’ve known perfectly well that I will gain something from this game, I’ll gain time: an interval I cover with erasures and phonemes, fill with syllables and howls, cram with all my acknowledged atoms, multiples of a totality they’ll never equal.”
The novel becomes a mixture of a spy novel, a fantasy laid over the acts that ended with him in the hospital, and his present imprisonment. Without focusing on it, it should be acknowledged that Aquin wrote Next Episode while in a psychiatric ward, after being arrested on terrorism charges — and a gun and stolen car were involved, matched in the narrator’s spy novel. Though the narrator does follow a man, planning on killing him, and there are coded messages, lies, gunfights, occasional flights of romanticism, and a kidnapping, to think of Next Episode as a successful spy novel would be an error. After all, the narrator himself writes: “To write the kind of spy novel we read would be dishonest: in fact, it would be impossible.” Instead, the spy-like events are waypoints that the narrator’s disjointed but determined thoughts focus on and hold onto before moving back into often bewildered self-analysis.
This self, trapped in a ward, in a broken identity, a nationalist without an independent nation, believing life is impossible, turns again and again to two possible hopes, both already lost. One is a woman, love, both dominating the narrator of The Invention of Death also: “I long to go out, to stroll, to run towards the woman I love, to abolish myself in her and sweep her away with me into my resurrection and towards death.” However, were his only motivation a woman, he would still live an impossible life, hemmed in by failure; he would be The Invention of Death’s narrator. Instead, he desires a free Quebec as much as he wants to lie in bed, immersed in love and sex. And so,
“Within myself, explosive and depressed, an entire nation grovels historically and recounts its lost childhood in bursts of stammered words and scriptural raving, and then, under the dark shock of lucidity, suddenly begins to weep at the enormity of the disaster, at the nearly sublime scope of its failure.”
His assigned role in the revolution is meant to be the murder of a banker in Geneva who is in a position to freeze the funds of Quebec revolutionaries, and sending him on the mission is that woman he longs for. Not only are these two dreams — political rebellion and love — tied in plot, but the narrator holds them tight as a pair: “What violent and sweet foretaste of the national revolution was unfolding on that narrow bed awash in colors and our two bodies naked, blazing, united in their rhythmic madness.” Both must fail him, though, for in Aquin’s world life is enclosed on, chances for freedom lost. Our narrator is captured while following his prey, and when he does manage to escape and kidnap the man in turn, he still does not have a way out. They drive around Geneva, the banker in the trunk, and the narrator longing to meet with his love, unable to commit the murder. He turns again and again to the thought of their planned meeting, but we feel it slipping away from him, see how it must not happen, or he would not be writing this novel.
But he is writing, writing through the confusion of his life and of language. Confusion and contradiction dominate, whether in small moments of description — “Your blonde hair is like the dark river at my back and surrounds me” — or in ways that completely disrupt identity and action. The narrator escapes his capture by telling his captor lies, creating a new, innocent backstory for himself, and when he turns the tables, the banker now held at gunpoint, the banker repeats a disturbingly similar backstory to the one the narrator just created. This should be an obvious lie, and the narrator knows it, but cannot dismiss it. Stories confuse, they create conviction and then break conviction. They are a weapon, or as the narrator puts it, one can “empty my dialectical magazine,” like the magazine of a pistol. The same danger is found in The Invention of Death, where the narrator René’s determinations, interpretations, are constantly battered by words from his friend or his lover.
The violent power of language and the way Aquin uses that to create his prose style is what most directly unites Next Episode and The Invention of Death. Unique may be an overused word, one which often comes with an unnecessary modifier, but Aquin’s prose is just that: unique, utterly mad, yet coherent. Lines lash out at you, “My past is disembowelled by the hypocritical pressure of the verb.” The vividness of a disembowelment comes first, then the clear understanding of the way our pasts can suddenly, utterly change and be lost to us, then the bizarreness of a verb being so violent, language, not event, destroying our past. Aquin create images, but blends them with ideas or feeling: “sorrow is running secretly in my veins,” (Next Episode), “Baths are in the shape of bellies, I like to slide myself between their whitish walls and curl up there like a fetus without consciousness, and consequently, without pain.” (The Invention of Death). Aquin’s prose is a form of logorrhea that finds sense and beauty again and again.
The sentiment that everything is past, and therefore lost, opens The Invention of Death: “It’s over. Consummatum est. Here I am alone on an unmade bed where I can still recognize the impression of her body.” As Next Episode’s narrator does not know how to end his writing, The Invention of Death has no beginning. René has decided to leave his lover and to end his life. The story unfolds between meditative flashbacks and drifting thoughts as René drives on, intending to crash off the Quebec bridge into the St. Lawrence. This movement in time is in Next Episode also: the failures, the tripwires of the past must be revisited from the prison of the present. There, they flow in and out of each other, not wildly, but paragraphs directly follow paragraphs, broken into generally short paragraphs. In The Invention of Death, the line breaks follow paragraphs, and there are section breaks, not chapters. It makes for a choppier book, a sense of vignettes, and adds clarity to our way through René’s mental wanderings. René’s trap is no physical prison, there are no authorities closing in on him, but life itself is an imprisonment: “I’ve explored all the corridors and all the rooms of my life, I’ve gone as far as the end of the intolerable.”
René and the narrator of Next Episode both sought a way to a life they could find livable, and both invoke the worship of women. In Next Episode, a world with an independent Quebec would be a free life, and would allow his love with “K.” to settle, no longer caught up in the twists of conspiracy and rebellion. She is a foggy figure, remembered ambiguously, described so vaguely that she resembles a mysterious woman working against the narrator, and we wonder if she is lover and betrayer, a true femme fatale. Against that, in The Invention of Death, the women have names: Madeleine and Nathalie. René may have left both of them, turned from love twice, but he still longs for them, or more accurately, longs for a love to make life possible. As K. is the femme fatale, René needs Madeleine and Nathalie to be the eternal woman, to be lover, sex object, mother, and daughter. With Madeleine: “I slept a little, my head in the hollow of her belly from whence I came into the world” and when she discusses the birth of her daughter (her husband’s, not René’s), she admits she came “as in your arms a little while ago.” Sex, birth, motherhood, and lover dwell in the same space, live through intertwined emotion. René’s commitment to this sense of a woman in fullness is so complete that he imagines telling Madeleine, “I was then so close to identifying myself with you, Madeleine. I almost felt, in my growing weak, the contractions of an imaginary uterus.”
Yet, even with this love, René is unable to escape his solipsism, his fear of imprisonment, and so sees betrayal everywhere. His jealousy of Madeleine’s relationship with her husband sends him into a rage, based in terror of not being loved, and he becomes blind to the pain he causes. Aquin, though, as much as The Invention of Death is about René, has sight of Madeleine’s pain, and wants the reader to have compassion: “I’ve humiliated myself in my bed because I was already humiliated by my entire life.” René too is humiliated, by moving from hotel room to hotel room, bed after bed, as if a different woman each time, and in place of that, he fantasizes of habit, of consistency with his lover. In his thoughts, René puts words, beliefs, in Madeleine’s mouth, and the mouth of his friend Jean-Paul. When those illusions are broken by reality, he feels betrayed, and hurt, lashes at these people. Other times, he is justified in feeling betrayed. Again and again, René sees love broken, fond memories pierced. The good, the safe places of the world, of life, are always passing: “Ecstasies die and do not live again, unless in memory. One never takes up a kiss again, one replaces it with another, and so on afterwards until the lips are eaten by worms.” Unable to believe that that safety can hold, he turns from it, does not admit to Madeleine his fantasy of running away with her when she tells him of the same hope. That human connections are fraught with failure, embarrassment, with pain both felt and caused, is what finalizes that a life of comfort and success is impossible for René, and all he can do is flee, divorce himself cleanly from life.
Two novels, two narrators moving from present to past and back again, both despairing of a clear path through life, in a prose that teeters on the edge of madness in imagery, in connections, Next Episode and The Invention of Death could easily be depressing novels, as confined as their narrators, yet Aquin opens them up with their moments of beauty, and their existence as acts of protest. As he nears death, René tells us:
“When the whole world will have lost faith, it will nevertheless be necessary to keep the churches open, so that they can still serve as refuges and so in their great feminine forms can take the place of caresses for a conquered child. And there will always be conquered children.”
Both of these novels are on the side of the conquered children, a type of novel that is always needed, and Aquin is one of the champions.
The Invention of Death is available in translation by Joseph Jones from Quattro Books. Next Episode has been translated by Sheila Fischman for the New Canadian Library.