Of Those Who Build Cathedrals

On Réjean Ducharme's Swallowed

“The child gods are the worst,” former bricklayer and National Book Award nominee Nell Zink once remarked, adding “There’s something proto-pedophilic about believing kids are more mature than adults.”

This sort of pathological aversion to precociousness—not unlike recent crusades against supposed retail trafficking rings or cannibalistic deep state cabals—may ultimately say more about the accuser than the accused. An anecdote: I once witnessed Zink abandon a bookstore lectern mid-sentence in order to eject a disruptive toddler (alongside parent or guardian) who was noisily chattering several aisles away. For whatever it’s worth, the passage being read on that occasion begins, “A thirteen-year-old girl stands in a landscape made almost entirely of garbage, screaming at a common domestic sow.” (Never let it be said that Zink can’t craft an opening line.) Before the end of the first page, this thirteen-year-old has been whisked off in the care of a “middle-aged American” in khaki shorts. Draw your own conclusions.

I don’t want to stray too far into the weeds before mentioning this: The official Du Mois selection for Apr. ‘21 is Madeleine Stratford’s translation of Réjean Ducharme’s Swallowed. More than just a marquee translation of 2021, Stratford’s contemporary interpretation of this 1966 Québécois masterpiece (yes, masterpiece is the word for it) should create a crater of literary significance that spans at least a decade in either direction, a five-alarm barnburner of a book whose inferno is likely observable from space. In short, the newly resurrected L’avalée des avalés has been worth the wait. (And is only available here in this current iteration thanks to a fairly heroic effort on the part of Esplanade Books editor Dimitri Nasrallah.)

Swallowed, as Stratford has rechristened the novel, with its adolescent narrator exhibiting all the ferocious wrath and operatic adoration of a deity in revolt, would then seem to be Nell Zink’s greatest fear realized: a conduit for the whole of the churning cosmos in the shape of a nine-year-old girl. That girl’s name is Berenice Einberg and, yes, you should be very, very afraid of her. Shuttled from one domicile to the next (and under the guidance of varying religious denominations), Berenice remains uncowed by the invasive proddings and unceasing admonitions of adults, shrugging off the yolk of their authority with assertive aplomb while dabbling in animal cruelty and pining for her javelin-throwing brother. There is, as they say, a lot to unpack here.

On hand to further discuss this landmark novel is disgraced scrimshaw aficionado Spencer Ruchti.

Justin Walls: Réjean Ducharme (1941-2017) is often described as being “reclusive,” Quebec’s “phantom author,” and maybe that’s accurate, I don’t know. What’s indisputable is that Ducharme completed this book at the unfathomably tender age of twenty-four, after which it garnered considerable acclaim, being shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and winning a Governor General’s Award. And then, well, [Adam Curtis voice] and then a strange thing happened. Swallowed’s lone English-language translation, 1968’s then-titled The Swallower Swallowed (tr. Barbara Bray), evaporated into the ether and, in fact, an anglophone edition has never been published in Ducharme’s native Canada—until now. 

What’d you think of it?

Spencer Ruchti: A few weeks ago I texted you in a bit of a frenzy about this book, having only read the first twenty pages. What did I say? This book was made for me? Stratford’s sharp translation, Esplanade’s efforts to bring this text back into the fold, the timing of its production and publication at the tail end of our global isolation… I’m sure you recognize that rare feeling when a difficult book finds you at exactly the right time and place in your life. This book, like a certain Canadian punk band’s debut studio album, is all killer, no filler.

You know me, Justin. I like Thomas Bernhard’s fluvial cynicism. I like Cioran sticking his finger in your eye. I like Knut Hamsun and Kafka and Jon Fosse spitting melancholy and articulating our worst instincts. But calling Ducharme another sour, death-careening novelist doesn't do him justice. Berenice (every time I start writing about her, I feel the need to interrupt myself)—there’s no narrator like her. Reader, imagine a child with the soul of Fitzcarraldo-era Werner Herzog. But Herzog, at least, has an unrelenting curiosity about him, even when presented with this planet’s savage horrors (he made Grizzly Man, after all). Berenice is different. She spends long paragraphs declaring herself evil, hateful, and vile. In one scene, she watches as her parents bicker without end : “I spy on them. I watch them yell at each other. I watch them loathe each other, hate each other, their eyes and their hearts filled with utmost ugliness. . . . I like it. Sometimes it pleases me so much that I can’t help but laugh. Go on hating, you fools! Hurt each other so I can see you suffer!” It takes your breath away. Where do I begin?

Berenice is the antithesis of the adult world, its total rejection. One thing Nell Zink and I have in common (in addition to our affinities for the musician Daniel Johnston, Robert Walser, and German literature in general) is our distaste for precocious “child gods.” Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie are the pinnacle of the genre, and no other will surpass her (sorry).

I’m not even sure Zink could qualify Berenice as one of her child gods. I think Zink would fall in love with Berenice, just like you and me! Part of me believes this is because Berenice isn’t didactic or banal; she’s pure energy, pure ecstatic rhythm and bloody language. Yes, her parents are divorced, a hallmark quality of the child god—but she eggs them on, invites their loathing! There are so many representative passages to choose from, but one of my favorites is this: 

But no matter how safe a haven may be, isn’t it always a cage, a prison, a gloomy, gluey tunnel? . . . I stand against love. I rebel against love like they rebel against loneliness. To love is to feel interest and affection for someone or something. To love is to experience life: I want to provoke it.

Calamity appeals to Berenice more than anything else. And if not calamity, then erasure; there are plenty of self-effacing passages in this book, including one in which Berenice describes herself as “a pimple Earth will absorb and be cured of.”

Does Berenice feel alien to you? I mean this in a literal sense: from another planet.

JW: In a literal sense, no. The notion that any subset of humanity should necessarily aspire to verisimilitude in literature is, in my estimation, a huge tell. What exactly do we find to be so eminently plausible about the adult protagonists of modern fiction? “The proper stuff of fiction does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction,'' as Woolf wrote on the topic. (The topic of modern fiction, that is, not juvenile martians.) While I am loath to fill space with lengthy quotations, Berenice’s response when asked by a teacher to define the term “phosgene” might be illustrative here.

It’s a con pound, Sir, not a compound! Because, you see, from the depths of my Anapurna, I carved, in solid rock, a shaft leading to the light, to the tip of all things! Because, you see, sitting below my high mountain as you are sitting below this roof, I can finally breathe light and air! Do you even know what a gnu is, Sir? No? I’ll tell you what it is! It’s a bloodhound, a filthy beast, a despicable yak! And do you know what a yak is, Sir? No? I’ll tell you what it is! A yak is a human being like you and me, a filthy teacher like you and me, a despicable chemistry teacher like you and me! And stop calling me Berenice! Only my brother is allowed to, the brother I’ll marry right under your nose!

I’d wager that there is precisely nobody, whether on a preschool playground or in the halls of academia, that could be expected to communicate in this manner. That doesn’t make Berenice an extraterrestrial. It makes her a yak. And do you know what a yak is, Spencer? A yak is a fiction like you and me. Sticking with the alien theme: An inability to accept even the invented interiority of a minor almost mirrors the egocentrism required to believe that we are alone in the universe, a theory that has been thoroughly debunked by our friends at the Pentagon, I might add.

SR: That yak bit is incredible. Stratford has translated Ducharme in such a way—with conviction, with clarity, with a bit of wide-eyed accusation and finger-pointing in every sentence—that it’s impossible not to read Ducharme on his own terms, right? There are no rules. Not everyone will like it. But if you were to read this novel and condemn it for its lack of verisimilitude, then you’re “crappy cow crap,” as Berenice would say.

Lest I forget, Berenice also has the capacity to feel wonder. She and Constance Chlorus experience delight at the first snow of winter. With her brother, Christian, Berenice hunts for bugs and experiences “some kind of miracle” amidst larvae and nymphs. She has a rich and beautiful imagination, but she’s also “a skeleton’s garb,” as she describes herself, hollowed out and brittle amidst her screeching hyperbole. Berenice’s extremism is both brutal and naive (“The best way to need no one is to wipe everyone out of your life.”), like an existential pout and stamp of the foot. If she’s truly a child, then her very language is a vehicle for lashing out, a juvenile act. At whom? Her emotionally absent mother and her domineering father? Adulthood? Or me, the reader? A case could be made for the latter. I don’t know, man. When I read Ducharme, I feel complicit and I can’t explain why.

There’s a point about two-thirds into the novel when I thought, “Is Berenice really lashing out?” Is she screaming into the void? Or is she the void, the sum of her environment and the whole cruel human ecosystem? Berenice says: “Here’s what I must do to be free: swallow everything, spread over everything, enclosing it all, ruling over everything, subjugating it all, from the pit of the peach to the pit of Earth itself.” (This, in the middle of the classroom. She’s banished for her efforts.) Berenice never really speaks in aphorism, but is always hurtling toward truth. If not an alien, then maybe she’s a god—not a child god, but a tormented God god. Thus why love stories must bore her; why she must scorn what she “spontaneously likes.” “When your life is a beautiful love story,” Berenice says, “you live a mediocre life, a failure, a waste of life.” I think what she really means is this: When your life is a beautiful love story, you’re primed to endure the most suffering. The only honest response is to swallow everything.

JW: Ah, bringing us back to the eternal question: Are we pimple or are we Earth? Of course, there’s an established and vibrant vein of youthful narrators running throughout the Du Mois. The incorrigible Ms. Einberg joins the ranks of such imperiled ingénues as Adeline Dieudonné’s nameless heroine from Real Life (tr. Roland Glasser, Feb. ‘20), Roy Jacobsen’s Ingrid Barrøy in The Unseen (tr. Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, May ‘20), and ten-year-old Jas Mulder in Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's The Discomfort of Evening (tr. Michele Hutchison, Sept. ‘20). Each a harried ward of their environment, hectored by the daily inquisition that is burgeoning womanhood, these characters negotiate their individual circumstances with an eye toward some degree of subsistence, survival, or—in what might be considered a best case scenario given the severity of their circumstances—sustainability. 

In contrast to those figures, Ducharme’s Athenian creation (See also: Linda Boström Knausgård’s The Helios Disaster, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles, starring a “twelve-year-old goddess” with Grecian origins) is the all-devouring force which must be bargained, pleaded, and negotiated with, even as she finds herself frogmarched through the front door of the decommissioned abbey that had once been her home. As readers will come to realize, Berenice lives rent free in her own head, the sole master of her ever-shifting reality, and, much like her assorted caretakers, we too are at the whim of her increasingly fanciful embellishments and outbursts. To paraphrase a classic SportsCenter witticism: “You can’t stop her, you can only hope to contain her.” 

With that in mind, Ducharme’s Berenice more closely resembles a diminutive Oedipa Maas, or perhaps the alternate timeline orphan of a Thomas Pynchon-helmed Anne of Green Gables, using self-delusion as both sword and shield against the awaiting savageries of tomorrow. Less Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, more Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. It’s that conspiratorial sense of humor between writer and reader which recalls the farcical exploits of Pynchon, yes, but also Richard Fariña, Terry Southern, even Barry Hannah, and distinguishes Swallowed from any mere crucible of youth. Ultimately, though, the crucial aspect which truly sets this novel apart is the irrepressible powerhouse at its core—its translator. There’s just no overstating the indispensable role that Madeleine Stratford has played in preserving Réjean Ducharme’s prodigious idiolect, madcap jouissance, and above all, his one-of-a-kind child god.

Congratulations.

And for Those Keeping Score at Home

A small addendum: There’s no way I can invoke Pynchon, an all-time prolific character name generator, without noting that teenage Berenice’s American beau (no, she doesn’t stay nine-years-old forever) is called “Dick Dong.” That’s all from me.

And now, just for posterity, here are the particulars on the pick.

Publisher: The fiction imprint at Véhicule Press, Esplanade Books, gets the glory.

Translator: All hail Madeleine Stratford, the 29th consecutive translator to grace the Du Mois big board.

Provenance: The distinguished province of Quebec is liable to make a habit of this. It was only Nov. ‘20 that Christiane Vadnais’s Fauna (tr. Pablo Strauss) was doing a dance in the Du Mois endzone and here we are again. For taxonomic purposes, the credit will go to Canada writ large which, no, doesn’t seem fair but, hell, that’s life!

What is the Du Mois? It’s a highly curated English-language reading series operating on a year-long rotation. The rules are simple—one recent and exemplary work of literature is lauded each month with no repeats permitted in the categories of publisher, translator, or provenance. Explore the inductee archive here.