Nicole Brossard Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nicole Brossard 1943–

French Canadian poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Brossard's life and career through 1997.

Nicole Brossard played a pivotal role in the development of a postmodern literary movement in Quebec which focused on gender and language. As co-founder of the avant-garde periodical La Barre du Jour and the feminist collective Les Têtes de Pioche, Brossard helped to create a dialogue in Quebec poetics which affected a generation of writers. Eventually Brossard gained an international reputation as a feminist theorist as her works were translated into English, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Biographical Information

Born in Montreal, Brossard attended several different schools, including the University of Montreal. In 1965, she published her first group of poems in Trois—a collection of poetry which also featured Michel Beaulieu and Micheline de Jordy. That same year she co-founded La Barre du Jour, a literary journal devoted to the fusion of social and political analysis and the creative process. She taught from 1969 to 1971 before devoting herself to writing full time. Brossard's published work includes poetry, novels, and essays on feminist and literary theory. In 1976, she co-founded the radical feminist newspaper Les Têles de Pioche. In 1991 she received the Athanase-David Prize of Quebec for her body of work.

Major Works

Brossard's career has had three distinct phases. In the 1960s she attempted to overcome the tendency in Quebec nationalist poetry to portray women as a mere representation of the land. The main focus of her poetry was similar to that of other 1960s writers in Quebec: portraying the country and its spatial features. However, Brossard took a new approach by using the human body and physiological features to map out history. She used language as a tool to explore new dimensions of being. In her poems, Brossard disrupted traditional rules of language, including syntax and French gender rules. In the 1970s, the second phase of her career, Brossard continued to write poetry, but also began experimenting with the novel. Her Un livre (1970; A Book) examines the construction of characters and plot as surface constructions ac-cessible only through the acts of reading and writing. To Brossard, literature does not need to represent reality, but takes on a life of its own. Asserting that writing is research, therefore a hypothesis-generating act, not a reality-representing one. Brossard combines fiction and theory in her poetry and novels. She believes in the power of language to liberate the individual and to restructure social institutions. Le Centre Blanc (1978) is characteristic of the poetry of this period, with syntactical subversion and a lack of traditional grammatical order. The third phase of her career tackles issues of sexual difference. The focus of Brossard's work has increasingly narrowed to the topics of feminist and lesbian politics. L'Amèr (1977; These Our Mothers) is both a search for new language and an exploration of the responsibilities of motherhood. This work, in conjunction with Le Sens apparent (1980; Surface of Sense) and Amantes (1980; Lovhers), attempts to overcome patriarchal censorship and celebrate a lesbian Utopia. Amantes is a collection of poetry dealing with lesbian love and the emotion of thought. Picture Theory (1982) reworks these ideas in a complex theoretical way. By developing combinations of meanings, the reader must engage in the creation of the text. Le Désert Mauve (1987: The Mauve Desert) takes up the issue of translation of language, and how translation is an act of transformation.

Critical Reception

Some reviewers of Brossard's work complain that it is too complicated and difficult to understand. Critics assert that the intellectual nature and difficulty of Brossard's work makes it elitist and inaccessible to the masses. Marguerite Anderson admits that "while reading Nicole Brossard is invigorating, it is not easy." Much of the discussion surrounding Brossard's work centers on her theories of politics and literature. Louise H. Forsyth states that "Brossard writes with the assumption that both the personal and the poetic are political." Many reviewers point out Brossard's unique subversion of traditional syntax and narrative technique. Whether in complete agreement with her politics or her approach, most reviewers agree with Brossard's contributions to the literature of Quebec. Forsyth asserts Brossard's importance, saying, "Her works and activities have served to redefine Quebec letters and culture so effectively that her voice and the voices of many other women speaking and writing autonomously out of women-centered space are being heard and heeded."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mordre en sa chair [To Bite the Flesh] (poetry) 1966
L'Echo bouge beau (poetry) 1968
Suite logique (poetry) 1970
Un Livre [A Book] (novel) 1970
Sold-out, étreinte/illustration [Turn of a Pang] (novel) 1973
Mécanique jongleuse [Daydream Mechanics] (poetry) 1973
French Kiss: étreinte-exploration (novel) 1974
La Partie pour le tout (poetry) 1975
La Nef des sorcières [with Marie-Claire Blais, Marthe Blackburn, Luce Guilbeault, France Theoret, Odette Gagnon, and Pol Pelletier; A Clash of Symbols] (plays) 1976
L'Amèr: ou, le chapitre effrité [These Our Mothers, or The Distintegrating Chapter]...

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Caroline Bayard (essay date Fall 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Subversion Is the Order of the Day," in Essays on Canadian Writing, Nos. 7/8, Fall, 1977, pp. 17-25.

[In the following essay, Bayard compares Brossard's earlier work to her later writing, tracing her growth as a writer.]

It has been said about Québécois writers that they start writing earlier and produce more than their English Canadian or European counterparts, as if the inner pressures and the cultural motivations which sustain them are intensely productive. Whether or not this generalization is valid, it holds true for Nicole Brossard. In 1965, when she was 22, her first volume of poetry, Aube à la saison, was published, and in that same year she...

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Nicole Brossard with Canadian Fiction Magazine (interview date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Interview with Nicole Brossard on Picture Theory." in Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 47, 1983, pp. 122-35.

[In the following interview, Brossard discusses the form and major themes of her novel Picture Theory, and its relationship to her other work.]

[Canadian Fiction Magazine:] Firstly, why did you return to an English expression by an Austrian writer, Wittgenstein, in a Québecois novel that deals with language?

[Brossard:] In Amantes, I had already used the expression "Picture theory" for its intriguing, aesthetic qualities, if I may use those terms. It's an expression that fascinated, seduced me. On the one hand...

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Marthe Rosenfeld (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Development of a Lesbian Sensibility in the Work of Jovette Marchessault and Nicole Brossard," in Traditionalism, Nationalism, and Feminism: Women Writers of Quebec, edited by Paula Gilbert Lewis, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 227-39.

[In the following essay, Rosenfeld compares the "great contributions [of Nicole Brossard and Jovette Marchessault] to the development of a lesbian sensibility in the literature of Quebec."]

Until the rise of the women's liberation movement, lesbianism as a theme had no real existence in the history of literature. From the age of Sappho in the sixth century B.C. to the beginnings of a lesbian culture in the Paris of the early...

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Marguerite Andersen (review date January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Women of Skin and Thought," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 4, January, 1987, p. 16.

[In the following review, Andersen discusses the feminist aims of Brossard's French Kiss and Lovhers.]

Nicole Brossard is one of the leading writers of Quebec. From a feminist literary viewpoint she is probably the most important one: she is an innovative writer who is also a radical feminist. Questioning established cultural patterns and systems, her texts—prose, poetry, theory and often a mélange of the three—have since the seventies been showing Quebec writers the way to modernity. Brossard's writing is literary theory as well as political...

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Barbara Godard (review date May-June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Feminism and Postmodernism," in American Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, May-June, 1988, pp. 8, 20.

[In the following review, Godard discusses Nicole Brossard's Le Désert mauve and Gail Scott's Heroine and asserts that "It will be hard for [other writers] to surpass the brilliance of the writing of Gail Scott and Nicole Brossard in their critiques of representation and of narrative."]

Especially in Quebec, feminists have played an important role in theorizing postmodernism through their intervention as editors of the prominent periodicals La nouvelle barre du jour and Spirale, of which Nicole Brossard and Gail Scott were founding...

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Louise H. Forsyth (review date Autumn-Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Lovhers and Le Désert mauve, in Canadian Literature, Nos. 122-123, Autumn-Winter, 1989, pp. 190-93.

[In the following review, Forsyth states that in Brossard's Lovhers and Le Désert mauve she "writes with the assumption that both the personal and the poetic are political."]

Nicole Brossard published Amantes in 1980. Except for D'arcs de cycle la dérive, a limited edition poem and engraving, this was her first book of poetry following the publication of the retrospective Le Centre blanc in 1978. She was widely recognized by then as the major radical feminist and post-modern writer in Quebec....

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Christian Bok (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "i, a mother / i am other: L'Amèr and the Matter of Mater," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 17-38.

[In the following essay, Bok asserts that in Brossard's L'Amèr, she "disarms phallogocentric language, disarms such words as 'mother' and 'woman' and 'figure' so that they can no longer he used as masculine weapons."]

Nicole Brossard calls L'Amèr a book of combat, and indeed the (s)wordplay begins with the title—one word that suggests three: la mère (the mother), la mer (the sea), and l'amer (the bitter). The English translation These Our Mothers by Barbara Godard cleverly...

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Marthe Rosenfeld (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Modernity and Lesbian Identity in the Later Works of Nicole Brossard," in Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism, edited by Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope, Blackwell, 1993, pp. 199-207.

[In the following essay, Rosenfeld discusses Brossard's Amantes and Picture Theory to show that "Nicole Brossard's postmodernism is linked inextricably to her lesbian-feminist vision of the world."]

Although there is no unique style that characterizes the work of all lesbian writers, it is not surprising that Nicole Brossard, the most famous lesbian poet of contemporary Quebec, should also be "resolutely modern" in her textual practice. A...

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Alice A. Parker (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Enigma of Writing," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 6-7, 9.

[In the following review, Parker argues that Brassard's Picture Theory and Mauve Desert "are fine samples of how Brossard integrates the language of current scientific theories and technological advances into an intuitive, utopian vision of a more just future for women, lesbians, and other marginalized groups."]

Thanks to two fairly recent translations, American readers have access to major works of prose fiction by one of Québec's most provocative writers, Nicole Brossard. Picture Theory, a complex, challenging, exuberant, and erotic response to Joyce and...

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Nicole Brossard with Lynne Huffer (interview date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Nicole Brossard: Montreal, October 1993," in Yale French Studies, No. 87, 1995, pp. 115-21.

[In the following interview, Brossard discusses her relationship with feminism and fiction.]

[Huffer:] I would like to begin by talking about your work both as a writer and a feminist. Since the 1970s you have been a part of the feminist movement as a poet, novelist, editor, essayist. Could you put the history of these various activities in a contemporary context?

[Brossard:] The poet, the novelist, and the feminist are still very active. I am still trying to answer questions about what it means to be a contemporary subject in...

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Barbara Godard (review dale June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Producing Visibility for Lesbians: Nicole Brossard's Quantum Poetics," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 21, No. 2, June, 1995, pp. 125-37.

[In the following essay, Godard discusses Brossard's use of quantum theory in her discussion of visualization and lesbian politics in Picture Theory.]

Vision, passion, reading, a mathematics of the imaginary—these key terms from the opening stanzas of "The Vision" section in Nicole Brossard's long poem Lovhers interweave the formal and thematic concerns more fully developed in her 1982 fiction, Picture Theory. The epigraph to the hologram version of the text, written in the future anterior of 2002 and...

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Lynne Huffer (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Lesbos to Montreal: Nicole Brossard's Urban Fictions," in Yale French Studies, No. 90, 1996, pp. 95-114.

[In the following essay, Huffer asserts that "Brossard's oeuvre distinguishes itself from an entire Sapphic tradition of lesbian writing by demystifying nostalgia rather than celebrating it."]

Helen, my grandmother, is one hundred-and-one years old. Having never remarried since her husband died over thirty-five years ago, she dines and plays bridge with the other elderly residents of the group facility where she lives in Toledo, Ohio. It's funny how women endure. Like a lesbian enclave, the place is virtually without men. I think of this as some...

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Kimberly Verwaayen (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Region/Body: In? Of? And? Or? (Alter/Native) Separatism in the Politics of Nicole Brossard," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 61, Spring, 1997, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Verwaayen discusses the role of separatism in the politics set forth by Brossard in her writing.]

"What kind of message is this?" was one feminist response during a CBC round table (aired on "Prime Time Magazine" in prereferendum October 1995) in reaction to propagandist remarks made by Lucien Bouchard in a recent "yes"-side campaign linking reproduction and the sovereignty project in Quebec. While Bouchard's alienating comments exemplify a centuries-old validation of women through...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Anthony, Elizabeth. Review of Mauve Desert, by Nicole Brossard. Books in Canada XIX, No. 8 (November 1990): 47.

Asserts that the reader is "frequently enriched by [Brossard's] gambles [in Mauve Desert]; at times, however, her philosophical abstractions so dematerialize the real that we lose the necessary obstruction and grounding of objects' provident solidity."

Baehler, Aline. "Traversée du Désert." Canadian Literature, No. 132 (Spring 1992): 177-79.

Reviews Brossard's A tout regard in French.


(The entire section is 183 words.)