Nicole Brossard Brossard, Nicole (Vol. 169) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nicole Brossard 1943-

Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, director, editor, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Brossard's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 115.

One of the most outspoken and innovative figures of late-twentieth-century Québécois literature, Brossard is an experimental and avant-garde writer, numbered among the foremost representatives of literary modernité, and regarded as a leading theoretician of écriture au féminin—women's writing—in French-speaking Canada. Openly and unapologetically political, Brossard's writing stresses her radical feminist beliefs, embracing her lesbianism and offering a literary celebration of the woman's body while promoting a sustained attack against the traditional orthodoxies of the dominant, patriarchal language, social systems, and cultural values. Additionally, Brossard's strong reaction against conventional views of poetry and fiction as mimetic representations of objective reality has become a central and defining theme in her writing—which values transgression and forbidden feminine desire—viewing these as integral elements in the creation of a radical, utopian, modern, and woman-centered vision of literature and society.

Biographical Information

Brossard was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1943. Educated at the Collège Marguerite-Bourgeois in her youth, she later attended the Université de Montréal, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in literature in 1965. That same year, Brossard published her first collection of verse, Aube à la saison, in the volume Trois—which included poetry by Michel Beaulieu and Micheline de Jordy—and co-founded the literary journal La Barre du jour, which published poetry by the significant figures of the avant-garde poetry scene in Quebec, including Brossard's own experimental verse. Brossard continued her education into the late 1960s and early 1970s, obtaining pedagogical certification and teaching briefly at secondary schools before opting to devote her full attention to a literary career. The birth of her daughter Julie and a new awareness of her lesbianism in the early 1970s shaped Brossard's emerging literary identity and helped to define the political motivations that would characterize her subsequent career as a writer and activist. She began to publish a steady stream of poetry and prose, which expanded upon the ideas suggested in her novel Un livre (1970; A Book) and her poetry collection Le Centre blanc (1970). In 1976 she co-created the radical feminist magazine Les Têtes de Pioche. By this time, Brossard had joined a community of avant-garde feminist writers and activists in Quebec, which included Marthe Blackburn, Marie-Claire Blais, Odette Gagnon, Luce Guilbeault, Pol Pelletier, and France Théoret. Among the products of this artistic collective was the theatrical production La Nef des sorcières (1976; A Clash of Symbols), for which Brossard contributed “L'Écrivain,” a monologue on the creative process of the writer. In 1977 she co-directed the documentary film Quelques féministes américaines (Some American Feminists) with Luce Guilbeault and Margaret Wescott. Later that year, Brossard was elected to the first executive board of the Union des Écrivains Québécois, a literary organization designed to define and protect the ethical and economic rights of its constituents. She subsequently served as the group's vice-president between 1983 and 1985. Meanwhile, Brossard continued her increasingly prolific literary output in the 1980s with such novels as Picture Theory (1982) and Le Désert mauve (1987; Mauve Desert). By the 1990s, Brossard had become an icon of the radical, urban feminist movement in Quebec, and continued to write, edit, and speak about such issues as postmodern literature, semiotic theory, and the awakening of feminine consciousness and lesbian desire.

Major Works

Among Brossard's early collections of poetry, Aube à la saison and Mordre en sa chair (1966) are thought to reflect the influence of contemporary poets Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau, Alain Grandbois, and Anne Hébert, although they also demonstrate Brossard's movement away from the landscape focus then prevalent among Québécois writers. Her third volume, L'Écho bouge beau (1968), exhibits a more assured and individual control of poetic language, introducing many of the erotic and body-centered themes that Brossard has subsequently explored throughout her literary oeuvre. The collection also demonstrates her developing interest in semiotics and linguistic signification associated with such French poststructuralist theorists as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Beginning with L'Écho bouge beau, Brossard also began a process of experimentalism in her writing, seeking to divorce her work from the misrepresentation of dominant ideologies, particularly those linked with patriarchy and its manifestations in language. In her subsequent poetic works, including Suite logique (1970), Le Centre blanc, and Mécanique jongleuse (1973; Daydream Mechanics), Brossard continued to expand and develop this effort. Le Centre blanc endeavors to displace the conventional ordering of syntactic elements such as subject, verb, and predicate in order to multiply and expand the range of signification and meaning in poetic language. Additionally, these works demonstrate Brossard's interest in the seductive and desire-laden dimensions of writing, as well as its subversive potential. Installations: Avec et sans pronoms (1989) and the prose poem La Nuit verte du Parc Labyrinthe (1992; Green Night of Labyrinth Park) offer thorough examinations of language, sexuality, subjectivity, and representation and uses such themes to suggest multivalent layers of meaning.

Brossard's narrative texts, which often feature a mélange of poetry and prose, generally dismiss traditional plotting and schemes of characterization. Un livre focuses on a small group of acquaintances and lovers whose movements, actions, and gestures form the structural center of the work and contribute to its themes of liberation, autonomy, and simultaneity. Brossard's second novel, French Kiss: étreinte/exploration (1974; French Kiss; or, A Pang's Progress), shows more of a concern with the emotions and physical sensations of the main characters, rather than conforming to traditional notions of plot or narrative. The novel follows Marielle and four other underground revolutionaries who create a short-lived utopian community, successfully staving off outside reality and Montreal's authorities before their experiment is destroyed by police intervention. Evidencing the influence of the French nouveau roman and other experimental fiction of the twentieth century, French Kiss subverts traditional modes of psychological characterization, instead offering a deep focus on the characters's movements, smell, texture, skin, and hair. Brossard's lesbian-feminist viewpoint and its consequent critique of patriarchal society is the driving force behind L'Amèr ou, le chapitre effrité: fiction théorétique (1977; These Our Mothers; or, the Disintegrating Chapter), a work that probes the psycho-social dynamics of the relationships between mothers and daughters. Another defining element of Brossard's prose is its focus on sexuality, particularly in the novels Amantes (1980; Lovhers) and Le Sens apparent (1980; Surfaces of Sense). Lovhers ostensibly takes place at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City, though the work itself is more specifically a mixture of erotic poetry and utopian prose focused on the lesbian body. Drawing upon technology for its central image, Picture Theory—the term is borrowed from the theoretical work of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—nevertheless critiques and transgresses notions of linear, scientific logic. Its central focus is the daily repression and potential liberation of feminine desire, which Brossard visualizes in the symbolic contexts of the hologram—a construct that employs laser light to create a seemingly animate, three-dimensional image in space. Brossard uses this image as an abstracted reference to the mystery of the feminine and of a woman's limitless potential for interpretation. In a departure from Montreal, the setting of most of her fiction, Brossard favors the symbolically suggestive desert of the American Southwest in her postmodern novel Le Désert mauve, a text that plays with categories of writing, reading, and translation. Its first portion recounts the adventures of an alienated and rebellious fifteen-year-old girl, Mélanie Kerouac, detailing her high-speed drives through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. In the novel's second section, Mélanie's narrative is transformed into a book written by an author named Laure Angstelle. In the third and final section of the volume, a woman named Maude Laures discovers Angstelle's long forgotten work and decides to translate and rework the story under the title Mauve, l'horizon. More fictionally accessible than Brossard's earlier novels, Baroque d'aube (1995; Baroque at Dawn) explores the theme of feminine imaginative desire as it follows the efforts of three women—a writer, a photographer, and an oceanographer—to understand and interpret the creative process.

Critical Reception

Since the early 1970s, Brossard has been widely recognized as a principal figure among North American feminist intellectuals and writers. Her unique poetic voice, radical politics, and provocative interpretation of lesbian poetics have positioned Brossard as a central figure in the avant-garde movement in late-twentieth-century Québécois literature. While some commentators have criticized her fiction for its experimental and non-traditional treatment of plot and character as well as its heavily meta-literary content, many contemporary critics have praised Brossard's writing as demanding, multifaceted, and richly suggestive. Amid those undisturbed by Brossard's open challenge to existing social, cultural, literary, and political institutions, her creative and theoretical work has been regarded as among the most esteemed in contemporary Francophone literature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aube à la saison (poetry) 1965

Mordre en sa chair (poetry) 1966

L'Écho bouge beau (poetry) 1968

Le Centre blanc (poetry) 1970

Suite logique (poetry) 1970

Un livre [A Book] (novel) 1970

Narrateur et personnages (radio play) 1971

Mécanique jongleuse [Daydream Mechanics] (poetry) 1973

Sold-out: étreinte/illustration [Turn of a Pang] (novel) 1973

French Kiss: étreinte/exploration [French Kiss; or, A Pang's Progress] (novel) 1974

Mécanique jongleuse suivi de masculin grammaticale (poetry) 1974

La Partie pour le tout (poetry) 1975

*La Nef des sorcières [A Clash of Symbols; with Marthe Blackburn, Marie-Claire Blais, Odette Gagnon, Luce Guilbeault, Pol Pelletier, and France Théoret] (play) 1976

L'Amèr ou, le chapitre effrité: fiction théorétique [These Our Mothers; or, the Disintegrating Chapter] (novel) 1977

Quelques féministes américaines [Some American Feminists; director; with Luce Guilbeault and Margaret Wescott] (documentary film) 1977

D'Arcs de cycle la dérive (poetry) 1979

The Story So Far 6/Les Stratégies du réel [editor] (prose) 1979

Amantes [Lovhers] (novel) 1980

Le Sens apparent [Surfaces of Sense] (novel) 1980

Picture Theory (novel) 1982

Double Impression: poèmes et textes 1967-1984 (poetry) 1984

Journal intime; ou, Voilà donc un manuscrit (journal) 1984

Domaine d'écriture (poetry) 1985

L'Aviva (poetry) 1985

La Falaise (radio play) 1985

La Lettre aérienne [The Aerial Letter] (essays) 1985

Mauve [with Daphne Marlatt] (poetry) 1985

Character/Jeu de lettres [with Daphne Marlatt] (poetry) 1986

Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (radio play) 1986

Correspondence [with Michèle Causse] (radio play) 1987

Le Désert mauve [Mauve Desert] (novel) 1987

Sous la langue/Under Tongue (poetry) 1987

À tout regard [with Daphne Marlatt] (poetry) 1989

Installations: Avec et sans pronoms (poetry) 1989

La Subjectivité des lionnes (poetry) 1990

Typhon Dru (poetry) 1990

Anthologie de la poésie des femmes au Québec (1677-1988) [editor; with Lisette Girouard] (poetry) 1991

Langues obscures (poetry) 1992

La Nuit verte du Parc Labyrinthe [Green Night of Labyrinth Park] (poetry) 1992

Baroque d'aube [Baroque at Dawn] (novel) 1995

Vertige de l'avant-scène (poetry) 1997

Elle serait la première phrase de mon prochain [She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel] (poetry) 1998

Au présent des veines (poetry) 1999

Musée de l'os et de l'eau (poetry) 1999

Hier: Roman (novel) 2001

*Brossard contributed the monologue “L'Écrivain” (“The Writer”) to this collaborative drama.

Nicole Brossard (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brossard, Nicole. “Poetic Politics.” In The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, edited by Charles Bernstein, pp. 73-82. New York: Roof Books, 1990.

[In the following essay, Brossard outlines her views on writing, desire, language, and reality, considering the political element of each.]

I have divided my presentation into two parts. The first part has to do with the body of writing, its motivations, its energies. The second part has to do with the references and values that surround us and the kinds of linguistic reaction they call for when we disagree with them. I say when we disagree with them because I don't believe that one becomes...

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Karen Gould (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gould, Karen. “Nicole Brossard: Beyond Modernity or Writing in the Third Dimension.” In Writing in the Feminine: Feminism and Experimental Writing in Quebec, pp. 52-107. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Gould evaluates Brossard's poetry volumes Suite logique and Le Centre blanc, and particularly her novel Un livre, as key texts in the formulation of a new, experimental literary modernity in Quebec.]

To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


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Neil B. Bishop (review date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bishop, Neil B. “Installations.” Canadian Literature, no. 135 (winter 1992): 158-60.

[In the following review, Bishop offers a positive assessment of Installations, calling the work “a joy.”]

It is paradoxical but stimulating to read these two books [Installations and Corps de glorie] together. The authors seem to share little either as poets or individuals, with the exception of Montreal (and while Brossard is a long-time Montrealer, [Juan] Garcia lived there only from 1957 to 1967, although he has continued to publish there since). And although metaphysical preoccupations are present in some of Brossard's large body of work, they...

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Irving Malin (review date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of Mauve Desert, by Nicole Brossard. Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 1 (spring 1992): 158.

[In the following review, Malin comments favorably on Brossard's “subversive, otherworldly” novel Mauve Desert, admiring its play with perception, language, and reality.]

The epigraph to this wonderfully constructed novel [Mauve Desert] is by Calvino: “Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.” The epigraph suggests that reading is an “adventure”—an approach to some final meaning. But it also implies that this adventure is somehow dangerous—there may not,...

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Nicole Brossard and Janice Williamson (interview date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brossard, Nicole, and Janice Williamson. “Nicole Brossard: ‘Before I became a feminist, I suppose I was an angel, a poet, a revolutionary. …’” In Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers, by Janice Williamson, pp. 59-72. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following interview, Brossard discusses her feminism and political motivation in relation to her literary works.]

[Williamson]: Would you reflect on a comment you made during a 1975 Quebec conference on women and writing? You said, ‘For that which speaks wants at the same time to condemn the law that calls for its repression, that which is...

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Maria Green (review date autumn 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, Maria. Review of Baroque d'aube, by Nicole Brossard. World Literature in Review 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 905-06.

[In the following review, Green discusses the plot and thematic content of Brossard's novel Baroque d'aube, noting its glorification of women and dismissive depiction of male characters.]

At daybreak, Cybil Noland, the middle-aged écrivaine, heroine, and narrator of Baroque d'aube, brings to orgasm an unknown woman, picked up in the hotel's elevator. She learned in her youth to look straight into the eyes of women, and the beautiful young girl responded. Reader, don't put down the book after this first paragraph!...

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Nicole Brossard and Beverley Daurio (interview date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brossard, Nicole, and Beverley Daurio. “Patriarchal Mothers: Nicole Brossard.” In The Power to Bend Spoons: Interviews with Canadian Novelists, edited by Beverley Daurio, pp. 42-8. Toronto: Mercury Press, 1998.

[In the following interview, Brossard discusses her feminist theory of writing and explains the linguistic effects she created in her novel Mauve Desert.]

[Daurio]: Among others, you have often referred to Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein in your work. Who else has influenced your writing, and who do you think people should be reading?

[Brossard]: I make a distinction between people who have influenced you and people...

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Lianne Moyes (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moyes, Lianne. “Nothing Sacred: Nicole Brossard's Baroque at Dawn at the Limits of Lesbian Feminist Discourses of Sexuality.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 70 (spring 2000): 28-63.

[In the following essay, Moyes examines how Baroque at Dawn uses the baroque genre to “explore new vocabularies and new discourses of lesbian sexuality.”]


Although the term “Baroque” surfaces occasionally in interviews with Nicole Brossard and in her essays and fiction from the mid-1970s onward, she resisted using the term to qualify her writing until she published the novel Baroque at Dawn1...

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Susan Knutson (essay date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knutson, Susan. “Text: In Which the Reader Sees a Hologram in Her Mind's Eye.” In Narrative in the Feminine: Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard, pp. 155-68. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Knutson studies Brossard's feminist vision of woman as it is symbolized by a three-dimensional, holographic image in her novel Picture Theory.]

La langue est ce qui nous permet d'acheminer l'image mentale vers la pensée.

—Nicole Brossard, Accès à l'écriture

The first edition of Picture Theory (1982) has a design on the bottom...

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Susan Holbrook (essay date summer 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holbrook, Susan. “Delirium and Desire in Nicole Brossard's Le Désert mauve/Mauve Desert.Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (summer 2001): 70-85.

[In the following essay, Holbrook explores the suggestive relationships among reading, writing, translation, interpretation, and desire illustrated in Brossard's novel Mauve Desert.]

“le ravissement” dit L. pour saisir
                                                                                                                        le sens
d'une expérience mentale où
                                                  fragments et delire
de l'éclat traduisent une...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brossard, Nicole. “Interview with Nicole Brossard on Picture Theory.Canadian Fiction Magazine, no. 47 (1983): 122-35.

Brossard discusses the form and major themes of Picture Theory and the novel's relationship to her entire body of work.

Brossard, Nicole, and Daphne Marlatt. “Only a Body to Measure Reality By: Writing the In-Between.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31, no. 2 (1996): 5-17.

Brossard and Marlatt discuss their thoughts and observations on the centrality of the body in relation to their writing.

Diehl-Jones, Charlene. Review of Green Night of...

(The entire section is 552 words.)