Poet, dramatist, novelist, writer of short stories and novellas, and script writer, Hébert offered, in all of her works, a singular vision possessing a magical lucidity that saw beyond the mundane. While she wrote exclusively in French, she was nevertheless one of the few contemporary Canadian writers whose work was known throughout the world. Virtually all of her works were translated into English; Kamouraska has been translated into English, Finnish, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Czech. During a writing career spanning more than five decades, Hébert succeeded in portraying alienated and marginal characters, people whose destiny is more powerful than they. She also succeeded in creating a modern literary text that invites introspection and contemplation of life’s mystery, breaking with the mode of traditional realism.
Her first collection of poetry, Les Songes en équilibre, bears the traits of a beginning mastery of verse. Hébert composed many of the poems in the collection in her early twenties. The poems are experiments with free verse, short lines, and the evocation of brief impressions. This collection contains traces of the poetic themes to be expressed so eloquently in her later works. Some of these themes are the foreboding created by death, the artist and the romantic vision of a dream world, and the recurring image of hands.
First published in its original language in 1950, The Torrent is a collection of six short prose works, one of which bears the title “Le Torrent” (“The Torrent”). In “The Torrent,” François Perrault is brutally treated by his mother, “big Claudine,” who, refusing to accept his decision not to return to school, renders him deaf by striking him on the head several times with a handful of keys. From this time on, a state of dispossession takes hold of François, who later becomes partially responsible for the violent death of his mother, and who isolates himself. His solitude is disturbed by his desires for a woman. He succeeds in buying a woman with feline eyes, whom he names Amica, from an itinerant peddler. Their relationship ends when Amica robs François and deserts him. He is left alone, weakened by a life of disappointment, and, in a lucid moment, wishes to lose himself in a mirror’s reflection of his emptiness.
With The Tomb of the Kings, Hébert’s fascination with death, physical constraint, and dispossession became evident. With a stark style that is characteristic of Hébert, these twenty-seven poems evoke a desire for introspection, for the other side of existence. The image of a woman’s hands bears traces of life’s experiences, a vivisection, and some bloody and horrible scene.
The title of the book The Silent Rooms refers to one of the book’s poems, “La Chambre de bois” (literally, a wooden room), in The Tomb of the Kings. Its poetic form and its short unnumbered chapters, grouped in three parts, without transitions between them, draw attention to the lack of references to space and time. The reader does learn, however, that the rooms of the title are located in modern Paris. Despite this realistic element, the novel is dreamlike, weaving itself around psychological glimpses that reveal a fascination with death and an ultimate acceptance of life. Michel, a young man of artistic temperament, and Catherine, the central character, begin a relationship that leads her through a process of self-discovery, commencing with Michel’s attempts to confine her to a deathlike existence in their wooden rooms, and culminating in her realization that she wishes to liberate herself from Michel’s oppressive presence. Catherine succeeds in doing so; in an unnamed Mediterranean landscape—warm, sultry, and framed by the sea and olive trees—she falls in love with Bruno, incarnation of light and vitality, and thus begins a new life.
The publication of Kamouraska marked a divergence in Hébert’s career because it is based on a murder that took place in nineteenth century Quebec, in the town of Kamouraska. It is for this novel that she is best known in the English-speaking world. Elisabeth d’Aulnières is imprisoned for the murder of her husband, Antoine Tassy, while her lover and accomplice, George Nelson, successfully escapes to the United States. Like Catherine in The Silent Rooms, Elisabeth, once released from prison, leads a claustrophobic life with her new husband, Jérôme Rolland. In flashbacks, she relives the passion she shared with Nelson.
Les Enfants du sabbat (1975; Children of the Black Sabbath, 1977) is set in Quebec in 1944. Just as Kamouraska shifts between past and present, Children of the Black Sabbath alternates between images of pious religion and pagan witchcraft. The nun Sister Julie, a child of two practitioners of witchcraft—Adélard, the devil incarnate, and Philomène—has been initiated by them into the practices of the black sabbath. Having mysteriously become pregnant within the convent, she is believed to be carrying the devil’s child, and she undergoes an unsuccessful exorcism before giving birth, in a nightmarish scene, to a child half human and half beast. In so doing, she unleashes the forces of evil among the Sisters of the Precious Blood.
L’Enfant chargé de songes (1992; Burden of Dreams, 1994) recounts the childhood of Julien Vallières in an isolated area of rural Quebec, where he lives under the domination of his obsessive mother, Pauline. Julien’s life is irremediably changed after he meets a mysterious and passionate young...
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