Hubert Aquin Essay - Critical Essays

Aquin, Hubert


Aquin, Hubert 1929–1977

Aquin was a Canadian novelist. A political activist before he became a writer. Aquin continued to be concerned primarily with political themes. A recurrent theme in his fiction is the effects on the individual of the French-Canadian nationalism issue. His highly acclaimed first novel, Prochain épisode, emerged from his experiences as a political activist. Aquin is noted for his unusual, quick-paced style, complicated structuring, and imaginative use of metaphor. He committed suicide in 1977.

Ofelia Cohn-Sfetcu

Readers and critics have unanimously recognized that the substance of Hubert Aquin's Prochain Episode is governed by the vertical superposition of two different, but mutually qualifying, temporal movements: one related to the real world of the clinic where the narrator is incarcerated and kept under strict surveillance and the other to the world created in his own mind. Also unanimously agreed upon is that the narrator-prisoner, who is waiting for the date of his case in court and sentence, commits his thoughts to paper in order to beguile present time and thus escape the psychological disintegration caused by prolonged suspense. While these observations are accurate, a closer analysis of Aquin's text indicates that the prisoner's act of writing is not motivated by one reason only but rather by a complex of reasons. Outstanding among them is the fact that, deprived of an authentic future in the absence of a court sentence, the prisoner wants to create one, thus giving his mental life the quality of duration which it otherwise lacks. Simultaneously, through the act of using language, the author confers on his creation a permanence which real life refuses to him. Writing, therefore, is revealed not only as prophylaxis against an insufficient present time and a phenomenal world but as the dimension within which man can express his creativity and wherein human intelligence can score a victory over the irregularities of time. (pp. 449-50)

[The] narrator has been imprisoned and subsequently hospitalized for terrorist activity and at the moment of writing is deprived of his freedom waiting for the date of his trial and sentencing. The exact position in time of the prisoner with respect to his court case is of fundamental importance for Aquin's argument, for it is not the physical incarceration itself, or the breaking of his spirit by the strict schedule of solitary confinement, that drives him to despair. Nor is it the knowledge that prior to his arrest he has failed both his revolutionary mission and the woman he loves. It is all these reasons, but chiefly it is that he has been forced to live for a long time in a suspense to which there seems to be no end….

Imprisonment, of course, denies the individual the possibility to move in rhythm with the rest of humanity…. [He is] reduced to motionlessness while the rest of the universe is in motion; his agony is heightened by the fact that in the absence of a fixed point from which to measure time, he loses trace of time itself and discovers his self disintegrating…. But suspense also denies the individual an authentic contact with his own future. Consequently, the prisoner in Aquin's book is subjected to a double incarceration: that of his body and that of his time. The problem he faces is not so much how to bear his physical confinement but how to fight the mental enclosure imposed by waiting and to escape its lethal effects. In truth, existence in suspended duration and the lack of activity have already affected him; not only have they caused him to age physically at a dizzying rate, but they have brought a spiritual fatigue which threatens to overcome him. Manifesting itself as a gradual amputation of will power, this mental torpor finally leads him almost to suffocate in nihilism and to consider suicide. (p. 450)

And yet, [after a statement of utter despair,] without transition or justification, the next sentence in the book, the one immediately following this expression of all-encompassing negation, marks the beginning of the spy-story which the prisoner has decided to write. "Is this," the reader asks himself, "an instance of Aquin's losing control of his subject matter, or, on the contrary, an indirect comment on the availability of the human spirit?" In view of the evidence provided by subsequent pages, the sudden juxtaposition of the nihilistic statements concluding Chapter 1, and the narrative ones introducing Chapter 2 and the story within a story, is neither a slip of the pen nor lack of craftsmanship. It is, instead, a master stroke testifying to the force of man's intelligence. Despite his imprisonment and despite the formidable depression which he experiences, the prisoner has decided to continue to live. The man who has been deprived of an external reason for continuity has found an inner one to sustain him…. [The] principle which allows for continuation is discovered: that is, the desire to become again an integral part of that universal totality whose structure is based on perpetual motion. And since the nature of waiting allows for hope, the prisoner rejects suicide. Desire and hope are, therefore, revealed as determinant...

(The entire section is 1904 words.)

Linda Leith

Hailed today as one of the major Canadian writers of the twentieth century, as a literary saint and as a national hero, Hubert Aquin was immediately recognized as an important new writer when his first novel, the powerfully angry Prochain Episode was published in 1965. With Trou de Mémoire (1968) and L'Antiphonaire (1969) his reputation was firmly established within Quebec. A Prix de Québec and a refused Governor-General's award were the prelude to Quebec's most prestigious literary prize, the Prix David, which was awarded to Aquin in 1972 when he was 43 years old. He was already a cult figure for members of Quebec's political and artistic avant-garde when he committed suicide in 1977, and his following has increased both in number and in conviction since that date….

The main character in Hamlet's Twin [Aquin's fourth and final novel] is Nicolas Vanesse, a Montreal actor who, as the novel opens, is in the middle of rehearsals for a TV production of Hamlet in which he plays Fortinbras, Prince of Norway…. [Early] in the story [Nicholas] decides to give up acting and produce his own film based on recent events in his life. The novel is thus also a screenplay, complete with dialogue and camera directions as well as numerous authorial asides and explanations. This screenplay, which many a québécois cinéaste must have dreamed of putting on film, chronicles vividly and sometimes confusingly the...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Roland Bourneuf

As has been frequently pointed out, the problem of individual and national identity is fundamental in Hubert Aquin's [first] three novels—so fundamental, in fact, that it can perhaps be considered their focal point. Aquin likes to present characters who are "abnormal" in some sense. Either they must contend with intense pressure from the outside (the risk of imprisonment and psychoanalysis in Prochain épisode), or they are under the influence of drugs (in Trou de mémoire), or else they have undergone traumatic experiences (the narrator of L'antiphonaire is raped, and then watches from a distance as her seducer is murdered by her husband). The narrators in all of these stories attempt to escape inner disintegration through the act of writing; for them … writing becomes a question of life or death. Mental confusion gives way to, or rather coexists with, acute awareness: by inventing doubles for themselves or by identifying with historical personages, Aquin's characters can appear and disappear in a multiplicity of guises. In one sense, what is important in these narratives is that most of the narrators are French Canadians who consider themselves as such and who feel the inertia of an immense sleeping country behind them. The revolutionary narrator in Prochain épisode imagines a counter-revolutionary character who is out to thwart the F.L.Q.; the narrator pursues him but does not kill him as he should, so that both the act and the story are left hanging. The structure of Trou de mémoire is more complex; it includes several narratives that are all connected with the murder of a young woman, Joan, by her lover, Magnant, a revolutionary Québécois who pursues and rapes Joan's sister, to the despair of her lover, Olympe, a Nigerian who catches up with Magnant in Montreal, and so on. A succession of narratives, with each one refuting the others, creates a very disturbing effect. The book is first presented as a "critical edition" of Magnant's journal, with intentionally redundant footnotes that waylay and vex the reader with useless details. Then the "editor" takes over and casts doubt on everything that has been said previously: Magnant had not gone to Africa, and so on. Then Joan's...

(The entire section is 913 words.)