Eighty-five years of art and history through the eyes of a woman who fled her family – as re-imagined by her granddaughter.
Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her mother’s mother. Curious to understand why her grandmother, Suzanne, a sometime painter and poet associated with Les Automatistes, a movement of dissident artists that included Paul-Émile Borduas, abandoned her husband and young family, Barbeau-Lavalette hired a private detective to piece together Suzanne’s life.
Suzanne, winner of the Prix des libraires du Québec and a bestseller in French, is a fictionalized account of Suzanne’s life over eighty-five years, from Montreal to New York to Brussels, from lover to lover, through an abortion, alcoholism, Buddhism, and an asylum. It takes readers through the Great Depression, Québec's Quiet Revolution, women’s liberation, and the American civil rights movement, offering a portrait of a volatile, fascinating woman on the margins of history. And it’s a granddaughter’s search for a past for herself, for understanding and forgiveness.
‘It’s about a nameless despair, an unbearable sadness. But it’s also a reflection on what it means to be a mother, and an artist. Most of all, it’s a magnificent novel.’– Les Méconnus
About the authors
Born in 1979, and named an Artist for Peace in 2012, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette has directed several award-winning documentary features. She also directed two fiction features: Le Ring (2008), Inch'allah (2012, which received the Fipresci Prize in Berlin). She is the author of the travelogue Embrasser Yasser Arafat (2011) and the novels Je voudrais qu'on m'efface (2010) and Le femme qui fuit (Prix des libraires du Québec, Prix France-Québec, Prix de la ville de Montréal), garnering both critical and popular success.
Rhonda Mullins is a writer and translator living in Montréal. She received the 2015 Governor General's Literary Award for Twenty-One Cardinals, her translation of Jocelyne Saucier's Les héritiers de la mine. And the Birds Rained Down, her translation of Jocelyne Saucier’s Il pleuvait des oiseaux, was a CBC Canada Reads Selection. It was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, as were her translations of Élise Turcotte’s Guyana and Hervé Fischer’s The Decline of the Hollywood Empire.
‘This is prose to lose yourself in. Never complicated, it’s gentle like a love song, comforting and enveloping like a black-and-white film, full of tones and textures. These sentences can destroy us. Not for their simplicity, but for the powerful beauty within the simplicity.’ —Peter McCambridge, ‘Best Translated Book Award: Why This Book Should Win,’ on Suzanne
Two Suzannes‘Suzanne’ is both intimate and epic, and this dual nature makes for its resonance. Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette has written what has to be considered a novel. Her bold imagining of the thoughts of Suzanne, her grandmother, is fiction. But in puzzling out Suzanne’s life in the avant-garde movement in Montreal of the 1950’s, Anaïs goes beyond romanced biography. She deals with records, published statements, literary texts and paintings now available to the public. Since these were factors in the profound social and political changes in the province, Anaïs’ searing emotional hybrid has an epic dimension as well
Nothing could be more personal than the story of Suzanne (Meloche) Barbeau leaving her two small children in the care of others, separating from her husband and beginning another life in 1952. Anaïs’ mother, Manon Barbeau, has spent a lifetime perturbed by the brutal severance from her mother, Suzanne. Writer and filmmaker, Manon’s unease has resulted in a remarkable documentary, ‘Les Enfants de Refus global’ (1998) and a novel, ‘Merlyne’ (1991), that has yet to appear in English. Anaïs, at one remove from abandonment, has a less visceral relation to what became a monumental family event. A writer and filmmaker herself, Anaïs decided to enquire in depth. Why had Suzanne left and, moreover, what had she done with her life afterwards? Why till her death in 2009 did she fight off attempts of Manon and Anaïs to connect with her?
Anaïs’ enquiry had mixed results. It did uncover details that would enrich the novel to come. It failed, however, to solve the mystery of why her grandmother departed and why she refused family contact afterward. This inclined Anaïs away from biography and toward a novel of imagination operating within the bounds of some known facts. A critic can hardly object to her choice of genre, but he can consider how well she succeeded with it. ‘Suzanne’ is written with a light touch in running style. The second person voice, “you” this and “you” that, which usually ends in awkwardness for a novelist and a agony for readers, is handled deftly enough to offer no distraction. The simplicity and sensuality of Anaïs throughout carries us forward. Her sensitivity to children’s perceptions results in a stunning rendition of Suzanne’s childhood. Anaïs’ feminism proves to be the most effective kind. It recounts a woman’s life seen through her own eyes.
All the same, Anaïs cannot be a neutral observer. She shares the orphan’s wound of her mother. Consciously or not, she burdens Suzanne with guilt. As early as page 63 she announces her verdict. “What you don’t know is that there will always be somewhere else, and never the same place. That will be your undoing”. Anaïs has every right to portray a character of her novel as she pleases. A critic of fiction can only speculate on whether the personage might have been stronger if her inner motives were left enigmatic. As the novel unfolds the Suzanne-character continues in her mistaken direction. Some sympathy is extended to her and timid justifications of her conduct offered, but there’s no doubt that she’s going down the primrose path of dalliance. Finally Anaïs offers her character a redemption of sorts or perhaps only a chance to do penance. The profligate engages in some laudable interracial militancy which brings her out of the solitude where the author has lodged her.
So much for Suzanne, creature of fiction. What about the real woman that Anaïs saw only fleetingly but whose absence haunted the family? The double nature of the book, a novel leaning toward biography, obliges us to linger a moment on the situation of the historical Suzanne. As a young woman coming to Montreal from Ottawa she found the obscurantism of the Duplessis regime and its clerical cohorts that has been referred to as a new dark age. However, the artist, thinker and teacher Paul-Émile Borduas and his young acolytes offered heroic opposition, a chance to break through the murk. Growth and freedom were possible. There was another way to live, and Suzanne joined the group. Now what Borduas proposed in the manifesto, Le Refus global/Total Refusal, was a freedom from crippling restraints in art and in life. Everyone had his own path to tread. Step by step each would “evolve” in his own way. The process was sacred and failure in life was not to follow it through wherever it led. Accusations of self-indulgence did not trouble Borduas or his followers. Suzanne embraced this view of life. Was she “undone” by it as Anaïs’ fictional Suzanne? It’s just as likely that she considered it a somewhat difficult but ultimately hopeful choice.
Still more separates the two Suzannes, fictional and real. The young woman of the novel leaves her children and husband so as to be free in love and in art. That she never carries her art to any kind of completion nor manages a lasting sexual relationship is seen as failure. But what if the non-fictional Suzanne’s break with social norms wasn’t about art at all but was, in line with Borduas’ extreme individualism, a search for fulfillment of her own unique kind? A careful reading of the meager prose and poetry she left suggests an answer. Her apparent promiscuity was a quest for ecstasy, the heightening of her own feelings by her absorption in another. The enormity of her ambition explains the apparent raggedness of her existence.
(It was literally impossible to render Suzanne’s and Claude Gauvreau’s surrealist poems in English. Poetry based upon the material surface of words and their sound can’t be translated simply by what the words mean. New English poems in equivalent spirit would have to be written, which is hardly the job of a prose translator, even such a good one as Rhonda Mullins.)