Anne Hébert Hébert, Anne (Vol. 4) - Essay

Hébert, Anne (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hébert, Anne 1916–

A French-Canadian poet, novelist, and playwright, Anne Hébert now lives in Paris.

I myself cannot appreciate … the poetry of Anne Hébert. [She tends] to run to half-prose strophes that remind me of Paul Claudel—a writer I temperamentally so much dislike that I suppose I cannot do him justice, and so perhaps cannot do [her] justice; just as I am possibly handicapped by my indifference to William Carlos Williams, in appreciating the current work of the English Canadian poets. This kind of half-prose vers libre, from Claudel to Paul Éluard, leaves me cold when it is written in France itself, and the language of the poets mentioned above, with its abstraction and its purified metaphors that do not seem to refer to anything in their actual Canadian world, inflicts on me a mortal chill that seems to freeze my very hand and prevent it from turning the page….

The fiction of Anne Hébert does take us into the maisons seigneuriales and other recognizable Canadian places, but these, too, are rather stripped. And we are partly in a realm of dream. In Les Chambres de Bois, much admired by some, a young girl "of the people" is captured and married by the scion of the local mansion, a somewhat sinister place, which "smells of wet ferns and the cedar wardrobe." Young Michel is a dilettante, who paints a little and plays the piano and indulges himself in imaginings of becoming a concert performer. He has a morbid aversion to daylight. In marrying the flattered Catherine, he is trying to secure for himself something "solid and sweet" to nourish his own anemia. But he can only depress and starve her…. (The fact that we never know exactly where the story is taking place is characteristic of one kind of French Canadian fiction. The family life described could hardly belong in any country except French Canada, yet Michel and his wife at one point seem to make a trip to southern France. These old-line French Canadians in their cultural enclave on the North American continent do not always quite know where they are.)… They have no visitors, no friends, no children. Poor Catherine does not know what to do with herself. Michel neglects to consummate the marriage till his wife breaks down one day and accuses him of not really loving her. After trying to prove by action that he does, he turns on her as something unclean….

But now something more plausible happens—I mean more plausible from the outsider's point of view: I am not prepared to say that the story told above is impossible. Catherine … meets a handsome young man, of whom it is muttered by her servant that he is "heavy and obstinate, a true peasant."… They fall in love, and he asks her to marry him. The reader of French Canadian novels, which usually end in frustration, may expect that Catherine's inhibitions will prevent her from divorcing her husband, but after spending a night with the lusty young man,… she agreeably surprises this reader by telling her lover that she "consents to become his wife." She … gives Michel back his ring and goes to join her lover. In the literature of French Canada, this ending is unusually cheerful. A vibration from Lady Chatterley has perhaps now been felt in Quebec.

Edmund Wilson, in his O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1964, 1965 by Edmund Wilson), Farrar, Straus, 1965, pp. 123-27.

Anne Hébert arrived at her view of poetry through a painful exploration of her own imaginative world, discovering gradually that her personal imprisonment in silence, her sense of isolation and paralysis, was shared by others and was indeed a reflection of a cultural paralysis, a collective vision bequeathed by the past. She came to recognize and reject the past, in the rapacious kings who, in "Le Tombeau des rois", propagate themselves through her; in the wraith-like Michel, who secludes his bride in the closed rooms of the novel Les chambres de bois and cannot bring himself to consummate their marriage; in La grande Claudine, the bitter, puritanical and fierce jailor to her son François who begins the story "Le Torrent" by saying, "I was a child born dispossessed of the world."

For Anne Hébert, rejecting the old vision and going on to articulate a new, was again a liberation and a birth into the world. It was a living demonstration of the transforming power of the word….

Anne Hébert managed to effect an imaginative revolution without cutting herself off entirely from her cultural heritage. She re-interpreted the Christian tradition of her province giving new stress to the incarnation of the Word, to the figure of Adam making articulate the Word incarnate, naming and praising the world, to the communion of all life realized in and through the word. And this was doubly possible because she could see in the religious experience defined in these theological concepts the analogy to her experience of poetry….

The poet is not, she protests, the rival of God; but a witness to His grace. Perhaps she would concur with Coleridge in saying that the imagination is the repetition in the finite mind of the infinite "I am". Certainly it is difficult in Miss Hébert's view not to see him as the rival of the priest.

D. G. Jones, "Myth, Frye and Canadian Writers," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1973, pp. 14-16.

I don't know how large a sum Miss Hébert received [with the Prix des Libraires, awarded for her novel Kamouraska] but I hope that it was substantial enough to permit both the purchase of Aristotle's "Rhetoric" and leisure time in which to underline those parts which stress the three directions which any discourse may take: rhetorical ethos, pathos, and logos with their accompanying emphases on the speaker's virtue, the audience's emotions, the discourse's coherent arrangement, respectively….

In the midst of a consideration of a twentieth-century novel it may seem quaint to resurrect elements of classical rhetoric. Nevertheless, though classical rhetoric's consideration of the direction of a speech did not include the structure of novels, it does not seem irrelevant to demand of a novel that a narrator's emotional involvement both in herself and in her attempts to provoke emotion in the reader square in intensity with the theme and with the structuring of that theme through plot.

Frank L. Ryan, in Best Sellers, August 1, 1973, p. 199.

Gwendolyn Moore's translation [of The Torrent] is faithful, but too literal. The ghost of the French syntax lurks behind all her sentences and besides certain and parfait—those two bêtes noires of all translators—entire phrases, such as un édifice parfait de regularité, are given their exact English equivalents.

The Torrent deserves better than this awkward translation into peculiar English. The stories are all carefully worked miniatures which outline the boundaries of Hébert's artistic world. It is a limited one, in which humans struggle more with themselves than with social forces outside their control. But what Hébert loses in breadth, she gains in depth.

Brian Vintcent, "Hébert in Awkward English," in Saturday Night, February, 1974, pp. 34-5.