Anne Hébert was born on August 1, 1916, at her family’s summer home in Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault. She was the daughter of Marguerite Marie Tache and Maurice-Lang Hébert, a provincial official in nearby Quebec City, Canada. Various illnesses kept Anne at Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault during much of her childhood, studying with a private tutor. However, Anne grew up in an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. Her mother loved the theater, and her father was a well-known poet and literary critic. Through his efforts, Anne developed the mastery of grammar and syntax which is evident in both her poetry and her prose. During her adolescence, one of her best friends was her cousin, Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau, who was just four years older than Anne but had already attained recognition as a poet.
As a member of a devout Roman Catholic family, Hébert was given a strict Catholic education. She was enrolled in a primary school in Quebec City taught by the Surs du Bon-Pasteur, and later she attended the Collège Notre-Dame de Bellevue and the Collège Mérici in Quebec. While she was in secondary school, she became associated with her cousin’s literary circle. Her involvement in theatrical productions dates from this time, as do her first poems, which from 1939 on appeared in various journals. They were collected in 1942 in her first book, Les Songes en équilibre (dreams in equilibrium), which won the Prix David the following year. However, after the death of her beloved cousin in 1943, Hébert went into seclusion and turned from poetry to prose. In 1950, she self-published her first prose work, a collection of novellas and stories titled Le Torrent (The Torrent: Novellas and Short Stories, 1973), which publishers had rejected as presenting too negative a picture of life in Quebec.
In the 1950’s, Hébert became involved in radio, film, and theater. From 1950 to 1953, she worked for Radio Canada, which in 1952 produced a verse drama she had written. She then joined the staff of the National Film Board as a scriptwriter and editor. Meanwhile, in 1953, she had published a collection of poems titled Le Tombeau des rois (The Tomb of the Kings, 1967), which received high praise from the critics. In May, 1954, Hébert received an award from the Royal Society of Canada which enabled her to leave her job, move to Paris, and devote the next three years solely to her writing. She did return briefly to her work at the National Film Board, but by 1967, Hébert had settled down in Paris, though she often returned to Montreal. As her friend and fellow-author Mavis Gallant points out, in both places Hébert lived a solitary life, in part because of her shyness, in part because isolation seemed essential to her writing.
During the 1960’s, Hébert received many awards and honors, including a Governor-General’s Award for poetry and a Molson Prize for poetry from the Canada Council. She devoted the last four years of the decade to her novel Kamouraska (1970; English translation, 1973), which won the Prix des Librairies de France in 1971. Although in 1994 Hébert did publish one more volume of poetry, Le Jour n’a d’égal que la nuit (Day Has No Equal but Night, 1994), she spent most of the final decades of her life writing novels. She won Governor-General’s awards for Les Enfants du sabbat (1975; Children of the Black Sabbath, 1977) and for L’Enfant charge de songes (1992; Burden of Dreams, 1994). In 1993, she was awarded the Prix Gilles-Corbeil for her life’s work. Hébert’s last novel, Un Habit de lumière (1999; A Suit of Light, 2000) was awarded the Prix France/Québec/Jean-Hamelin.
In the spring of 1997, Hébert moved back to Quebec City. Though she loved Paris and found it easier to write there, she had always insisted that Quebec was her true home. Hébert died of cancer on January 22, 2000, and was buried alongside members of her family in the cemetery of the Church of Saint-Dominique in her native village.
The subject of Anne Hébert’s...
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