Hébert, Anne (Vol. 29)
Anne Hébert 1916–
French-Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, and dramatist.
Hébert's work is imbued with traditional French-Canadian themes: solitude, the burden of the past, sin, and spiritual struggle.
Poèmes, which won the Governor General's Award in 1960, contains Le tombeau des rois (1953; The Tomb of the Kings) and previously unpublished poems. In this volume, the tension between pleasant childhood reminiscences and adult inhibitions is evoked in powerful imagery of confinement and suffocation. Critics compare the themes and imagery of The Tomb of the Kings to those in Hébert's first novel, Les chambres de bois (1958; The Silent Rooms).
In her recent novels, Les enfants du sabbat (1975; Children of the Black Sabbath), another Governor General's Award winner, and Héloise (1982), Hébert adds a supernatural dimension to her familiar themes of sin and spiritual crisis. Children of the Black Sabbath is a chilling tale of demonic possession and Héloise is a story of vampirism set in the Paris Métro.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
PATRICIA PURCELL [later PATRICIA SMART]
The writing of Anne Hébert records an intense interior drama of poetic and spiritual evolution, though in volume her poetic output has been quite small….
Miss Hébert's first volume of poetry, Les Songes en Equilibre, reveals to us a young girl in the first stages of physical, artistic and spiritual evolution. The style likewise is as yet unformed; on the whole it is thin and frail, but occasionally it gives a foretaste of the clearcut, unadorned style of Miss Hébert's more mature poetry.
The girl evoked in the pages of Les Songes en Equilibre is one who, like [her cousin] Saint-Denys-Garneau, deeply loves the natural joys of life, but who, like him, feels that her salvation and her inspiration lie in renouncing these joys and embracing the anguish of solitude. She has been capable of suspending herself in the present moment, of experiencing a joy not over-cast by the awareness of eternity…. (p. 51)
With the stirrings of maturity, however, comes the realization of poetic and spiritual duty. She wonders at her audacity in believing that the things of the world existed to amuse her; suddenly natural joys fade at the arrival of a calm figure which usurps their place…. (pp. 51-2)
In a series of unequal poems Miss Hébert traces the gradual growth within her of the sorrow of the adult, the poet, and the saint…. (p. 52)
Certain key images are...
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[The Tomb of the Kings] is a book closely unified by its constant introspection, by its atmosphere of profound melancholy, by its recurrent themes of a dead childhood, a living death cut off from love and beauty, suicide, the theme of introspection itself. Such a book would seem to be of more interest clinically than poetically, but the miracle occurs and these materials are transmuted by the remarkable force of Mlle. Hébert's imagery, the simplicity and directness of her diction, and the restrained lyric sound of her vers libre…. When these poems are weak, it is because the imagery becomes too elaborate, turns into machinery, and begins to echo that naturalized French citizen, Edgar Poe. The title poem has this fault …, as do a few others, but they are far outnumbered by the poems in which this most difficult subject is given the strange grace of art. (p. 203)
Samuel Moon, in a review of "The Tomb of the Kings" (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXII, No. 3, June, 1968, pp. 203-04.
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F. M. Macri
Anne Hébert's story, Le Torrent, and its relation to the rest of French-Canadian literature takes on the same significance as does the relation between an ancient House and its coat of arms. It can be argued that the story is a zenith point within the tradition to which it belongs. (p. 9)
Le Torrent is most accessible through its superficial meaning, through its theme of conflict. It has been stated above that the story is emblematic; as such, it represents the duality that has always characterized French-Canadian literature: the division of being. The same is manifested by the use and opposition of particular symbols. Water opposed to dryness invites life; the closed room or house opposed to the open land or water invites death. This opposition reflects the archetypal conflict between the flesh and the spirit. The lesson to be learned here is that the traditional life of the spirit is really the death of the flesh, not its mere suppression but its death: a paradox indicating the seriousness of the division of being. The persona will try to escape this division through a destruction of the traditional notion of life and an assertion of life by the physical senses, to reinstate the natural equilibrium of existence.
At once the struggle between instinct and reason becomes apparent…. The result is dédoublement, the splitting of the personality by two equally strong forces. The same opposition and...
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[The reader] of Anne Hébert's The Silent Rooms (Les Chambres de Bois) will find that it is a novel about the choice between human normalcy and one kind of art. The English reader may therefore be surprised. The Silent Rooms is not a "modern" novel in the sense of an obvious technical breakthrough. However, it was, and is, a revolutionary novel in French Canada which deals with the alienation of the artist, a theme long familiar to students of English poetry. The Silent Rooms is symbolist, psychological, legend-like, and terse. It is the work of a poet … drawn out beyond symbol into a tale. It poses the choice not between the life of the layman and the life of the artist (painter, poet or musician), but rather, between the sensitive layman (Catherine, the heroine) who is drawn by an artist's love and the artist (Michel, the hero) who is destroyed by an abusive concept of his role. The heroine is unwilling to pay the price of physical death, by her inner gradual psychological destruction, for the genuine love of a man emotionally imprisoned by his art. At the end of the novel Catherine chooses Bruno, the man with the low dumb forehead of the bull according to Hébert's description, and abandons Michel, the man with the fated "Y" veined forehead of the artist.
What then does The Silent Rooms make of the artist? Perhaps the more pertinent question is what the novel does to the dilettanté heroine who is...
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[Traditional Quebecois] rejection of the real world as well as of the pleasures (sinful) of the present and of the body resulted in a collective malaise that is expressed with great sensitivity and power in [Poems by] Anne Hébert.
Indeed, perhaps no other Quebecois poet has so successfully presented the long night of the French-Canadian soul as it seeks to exorcise its demons and escape from the small "chambre fermée" in which it finds itself imprisoned and exiled. Although this poetry is deeply personal and highly original, it is difficult not to remark upon the similarities between the personal adventure of Anne Hébert and the general evolution of Quebec society in recent years. The two collections which make up Poems—Tomb of the Kings and Mystery of the Verb—were originally published in 1953 and 1960 respectively. The contrast in style, tone and content between these two collections reflects the development not only of Anne Hébert but of the collective Quebecois consciousness as well.
Tomb of the Kings is essentially a poetry of absence, an exploration of the pain and anguish which results from an awareness of one's solitude and of an all-consuming blackness. Here the abundant water imagery promises not fertility, but rather loneliness and silence…. The poet's situation is complicated also by the relative comfort and attractiveness of the state of immobile solitude in which she...
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[In Les Enfants du Sabbat we] encounter the archetypal Quebec literary experience; a precocious adolescent becomes the battleground between the commands of the spirit and the desires of the flesh. Les Enfants du sabbat seems to be a logical development of Anne Hébert's earlier novels, Les Chambres de bois … and Kamouraska…. The fable-like, implicitly incestuous world of Les Chambres de bois and the romantic, implicitly demonic northern landscape of Kamouraska develop into a much more explicit, earthy, "experienced" version of incest, mortification and sacrifice in this tale of the devil's struggle for the soul of the heroine, Julie. This "enfant du sabbat" is in the line of Hébert heroines who struggle between the strictures of a repressive, closed and macabre tradition and the promise of liberation through violent defiance. Anne Hébert, in this novel, pulls away the veils of an impotent religion and the hypocrisy of faith, just as in her earlier ones she attacked the decadence and impotence of the seigneurial breed. It is the dynamic possession of a soul that interests her here, not the shrivelling of a soul. Yet the struggle she depicts seems contrived and romantic.
Hébert, as her earlier works demonstrated, is not interested in character or action, but in mood, and in states of being shaped by the peculiarities of Quebec's social, historical and religious verities. This novel takes...
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In [Kamouraska], which will one day be recognized as a masterpiece of Quebecois literature, Anne Hébert studies the psychology of an actual historical figure of the period 1840. Having been accused of having had her lover kill her husband, Elizabeth Rolland strives to expiate her guilt by playing the roles of devoted wife and mother (which she detests) to her second husband and their children.
[Critic Albert Le Grand] discovers in Elizabeth Rolland "an ethic of contradiction which opposes … irreducibly the present to the past, good to evil, the angel to the beast", contradictions which the widow of Antoine Tassy tries in vain to resolve in the world of dreams into which she plunges to be aroused or lulled. The critic sees this struggle between good and evil at the individual level and finds that the protagonist spreads bestiality by releasing it in all those who come into contact with her. Thus evil is conceived as an inherent and universal quality, but one which is unleashed by a sorceress who serves as an intermediary between tellural forces and mankind.
From his analysis of all her prose works, [Adrien Thério] concludes that "the world of Anne Hébert is a world of abortive fairy tales" and that "it is from this miscarriage that most of the drama originates". According to this critic it is concerned with "The Sleeping Beauty" but in which the knight, who frees the princess from her unbearable existence,...
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Kamouraska is especially suited to begin an analysis of twentieth-century gothic fiction in Canada, since in form and content it provides the reader with a double perspective, a Janus-like look both towards past and present types of gothicism. Looking one way we can see it as a continuation of the traditional black romance, with many of the gothic features and motifs of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors. Looking another way we see it has characteristics which are undeniably contemporary and which place it in the mainstream of modern gothic writing.
Kamouraska is really a story within a story, and it is this feature in particular which lends the book to a consideration and comparison of traditional and modern gothicism. (p. 53)
[The] story clearly provides many of the ingredients of the traditional gothic romance: here are violence and bloody murder, flight, escape and imprisonment, sadism and sexuality, secrecy, trickery, and betrayal—and overall an atmosphere of fear, suspense, and explosive passion. Moreover,… the story is based on an actual historical event while quickly moving into imaginative and more symbolic territory. It uses history as a starting point rather than constant reference, and makes a highly selective use of background details which are chosen for their contribution to the atmosphere or emotional impression…. The events and details which are given...
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In Les Chambres de bois, Anne Hébert tells a simple story with few characters, little action, an uncomplicated plot….
Anne Hébert's language is sparse and precise, dépouillé. Time and space are anonymous, and are, in fact, internalized; the real time and space of the novel exist within the characters, within their dreams, within the confined world created by Michel and Lia in their chambres de bois. The tone of this novel, its symbolic language, its deceptive simplicity, its timeless, spaceless quality, its paradoxical concrete abstractness are reminiscent of a fable. It is a story of a journey through death and stagnation into life, of the affirmation of life, and of the struggle of life against the forces of darkness, death and evil. The movement experienced in this novel and reflected symbolically through language, theme and image is the repetition of a pattern developed within individual poems and throughout the body of Anne Hébert's work.
The clear and dramatic development that occurs in Anne Hébert's writing, is a development that can be traced from her earliest poems, Les Songes en équilibre, through to her latest novel, Kamouraska, and to the poems in Mystère de la parole and her most recent poems. Moreover this development is reflected in microcosm in both the poem, "Le Tombeau des rois", and in Les Chambres de bois. In fact, a...
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Joyce Carol Oates
In "Children of the Black Sabbath" [Anne Hébert] poses the timely question of whether a beautiful young girl from an impoverished rural community in Quebec can find happiness and contentment in the Sisterhood of the Precious Blood—whether she can take final vows as Sister Julie of the Trinity before her complicated, colorful past as the daughter of an alcoholic sorceress and a sado-masochistic father (in fact, the Devil himself) can cause mischief. She does not succeed.
Another dramatization of "possession." Another sequence of ostensibly inexplicable events, culminating in the actions (here thwarted) of a Grand Exorcist. One would think that Anne Hébert, or at the very least her publishers, would be hesitant about bringing out a novel that seeks to combine "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby," especially when the film "The Exorcist II" is drawing in vast hordes of people; but here it is, and there is very little to say about it. Hébert might have turned the screw a bit more and made her nuns intentionally hilarious, or she might have slowed down and written a serious psychological study of the delusions of "possession." "Children of the Black Sabbath," however, is merely silly…. Anne Hébert seems to have settled for dispirited pop fiction. And that it is so plainly derivative is both puzzling and embarrassing. (pp. 14-15)
Joyce Carol Oates, in a review of "Children of the Black Sabbath,"...
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Paul G. Socken
[Children of the Black Sabbath] is a forceful tale of personal and social anguish. It is the story of Sister Julie of the Trinity, born of parents who practise quasi-occult rites such as incestuous "initiations" and drunken orgies….
The novel is, simultaneously, the most traditional and the most unique on the Quebec literary scene…. Anne Hébert makes the point unequivocally at several instances and readers acquainted with Quebec's literature will find the portrayal of the people suffering under the yoke of climate and clergy more than familiar. The worldliness and hypocrisy of the Church, another theme "exposed" here, is also not without literary precedent…. In fact, an analysis of the thematic content will yield very little that is new or dynamic.
What, then, lends the book the awesome power discerned in it by various critics? Its strength, one might suggest, lies in its force of language, evident even in translation, its evocative imagery and its imaginative narrative technique.
Anne Hébert is, above all, a poet. The words spring to life, the images penetrate and reveal. The reader smells the "strong prevailing odour" of the shanty in which Julie was raised, views "two unkempt children, covered with fleas and filth" and the two rooms "small and windowless", experiences the "anguish" of the children who are "powerless." No one who lives there can survive in any normal sense....
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Paula Gilbert Lewis
Héloise is a modern-day recounting of the Abélard (here as Bernard) and Héloise legend, with Bernard's wife, Christine, representing the spiritually good life. It is also a modern Dracula, with the atmosphere of a Fellini film, The Damned, and even Cabaret. From the outset of the story, carefully chosen language evokes a somber feeling of perdition, silence, and a void, immediately contrasted with words suggesting life, joy, and light. Surrounding these two distinct realms is the frenetic, urban world of Paris. (p. 763)
Héloise is a well-written novel in Hébert's typically beautiful, simple, and effective style. It is an interesting work, appealing to one's love for the fantastic and the macabre. One does wish, however, that its symbolism were somewhat less obvious; and one does wonder, in particular, in what further direction Anne Hébert is intending to move in her fiction. (p. 764)
Paula Gilbert Lewis, in a review of "Héloise," in The French Review (copyright 1981 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LIV, No. 5, April, 1981, pp. 763-64.
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[Les Fous de Bassan] applies the term for a sea-bird (fou = gannet) to the half-crazed remnants of a Puritan community living on the eastern sea-board. Since they came up originally from America, have English names and have remained Protestant, it seems unlikely that they would express their sexual frustrations and homicidal tendencies in Canadian French, but one never knows. The blurb suggests that the main character is the seawind, the spirit moving over the waters; perhaps this is why the book seems vacuously ambitious.
John Weightman, "From the Crab Basket," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), January 2, 1983, p. 46.
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The world is in order
The dead below
The living above
This is the epigraph to Anne Hébert's novel Héloïse…. And the dead do indeed come to us in this novel….
Héloïse is no ordinary femme fatale; she's the Real Thing, a vampire and a revenant, as well as a tall, pale, beautiful woman with "night-dark hair." She needs to drink the blood of men in order to stay "alive."…
I do not think this novel will come as a surprise to anyone who read The Torrent, Hébert's collection of novella and short stories, or her novels, The Silent Rooms and Kamouraska. Sex and death, or passion and death, have always been linked together in her works, and she has often explored the theme of "mastery." Hébert's characters, if they give in to their strange passions, often suffer death of one kind or another. The image of the vampire is a brilliant "objective correlative" for the passionate possession of one human being by another….
In the hands of an artist less skilled than Anne Hébert this could have been a very silly book. Bottereau is hard to take sometimes…. But when he says how "simple" it all is for him ("I rape and I kill") we feel his awful amorality. He is...
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Delbert W. Russell
In 1977–78 Anne Hébert returned to drama [the genre in which she created some of her earliest work,] with the short play L'Ile de la demoiselle, which was published less than a year before her recent novel Héloise. Neither of these works is written on the scale of Kamouraska or Les Enfants, but both pick up and reshape certain themes from the earlier works, while bringing new dimensions of their own to the growing canon. Both demonstrate once again the polarity of life and death, but in new contexts and with opposite points of view: in L'Ile it is the will to live which dominates, and in Héloise it is the attraction to death which carries off the characters, with the result that the two works, when taken together, exemplify the two opposed poles.
Of the two works, Héloise is the more substantial, but L'Ile, spare as it is, is not without charm. In contrast to the earlier plays, L'Ile is dramatically focused on one central character, and the structure of the play (two parts, each with sixteen sequences) suggests that it is intended for television or radio rather than the stage. Anne Hébert's interest in the past of Quebec, most noticeable in Kamouraska, is here pursued farther back in time, to the sixteenth century. In choosing the de Roberval expedition, which was the first attempt by France to colonize the New World, the author has chosen a background which...
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