In Alexandre Chenevert, the Montreal bank teller trapped by his narrow environment and acutely aware of his loneliness, Gabrielle Roy has created a vivid and poignant portrait of an ordinary man and his attempts to transcend his circumstances and his fate.
Set in 1947 amid the crumbled dreams of the post-War world, and drawing on modern themes of personal alienation and of the restorative force of nature, The Cashier is a tour de force of characterization and empathy by a literary virtuoso.
About the authors
Gabrielle Roy was an award-winning French Canadian author.
Marie-Claire Blais is a defining figure in Canada&146;s literary landscape, with over 30 books to her credit, including La Belle Bete (Mad Shadows), published when she was twenty, Une Saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel (A Season in the Life of Emmanuel), which is now taught regularly in university and college courses, and Soifs (These Festive Nights), which won the Governor General's Award in 1996.
Excerpt: The Cashier (by (author) Gabrielle Roy; afterword by Marie-Claire Blais)
It was still dark. The bed was warm, and the room quiet. Alexandre Chenevert had been awakened by what he thought was a noise, but was really a nagging recollection. One of his overcoat buttons was dangling loose by a single black thread. And then too, it was spring. Spring reminded him of the income tax. “If I should forget to have that button sewn on . . .” he reflected, and then the notion occurred to him that perhaps there wouldn’t be any war, simply because the weapons of today have such terrific killing power.
He did hope, however, that he would remain master of the thoughts about to wander through his mind. In days gone by, when he could still enjoy a good night’s sleep, he had occasionally gotten up at an unusually early hour, but it had been to take a trip into the country, to catch a train, and then once – what seemed a whole lifetime ago – it had been for an expedition to climb Mount Royal in the dawn. His present cruel sleeplessness, despite everything, was linked to former joys. He felt as though he was off on a jaunt, as though he might come back a new man; he even had some feeling of self- importance. His brain tricked him into the belief that he was refreshed after so brief a rest. “Seeing I can’t get back to sleep,” Alexandre Chenevert cheerfully told himself, “I might as well turn it to good use. . . .” And he began thinking of Marshal Stalin, with his seminary education, of Tito, Yugoslav dictator, and of the brand- new silk umbrella he had mislaid yesterday, most likely on the streetcar. For a very long time he had bought himself only cotton umbrellas, the cheapest ones, the cloth of which wore out in no time. He had believed that in the long run it would be more economical to buy an umbrella which would be serviceable for years. And that was the one he had had to lose. During his life he had lost a great number of things, and almost always the best things – first his youth, and then his health, and now his sleep. But of the two of them – the Russians and the Americans – which possessed the bigger supply of atom bombs? A very important thing, superiority in atomic bombs. Because after a fashion it promised security. Gandhi had just started a new hunger strike. Alexandre Chenevert had a liking for him ever since the day when, glancing at a photograph of him, he had discovered what he considered a certain resemblance to himself; like the Indian Mahatma, he was thin, almost skeletal, and, Alexandre thought in his heart of hearts, perhaps good into the bargain. The stevedores were on strike too; food intended for starving peoples was rotting on the wharves. Then again, Alexandre told himself, if people weren’t hungry, and if food were not perishable, would the dock workers have any means to assert their rights? Justice, it seemed to him, was won only at the cost of fearful pressures. What was more, air travel was far from a safe business. Again yesterday a plane had crashed somewhere in Newfoundland. thirty- eight dead. The poor old world hadn’t stopped spinning for a trifle like that. Alexandre envisioned the globe as you see it at the movies, at the beginning of a newsreel. A lion roars; a dancer swings her hips; a tank bursts into flame; then Mussolini, hanging by the feet, his features horribly swollen; beside him swayed the stripped body of Clara Petacci; a background of skyscrapers; a faceless man talking into a microphone. He announced: The world has become one and indivisible. “Indivisible, indivisible . . .” Alexandre began repeating. He chanted the word, broke it into its parts, counted its syllables. Five syllables.
Now how would you spell Hyderabad? Two r’s or one? Today’s newspaper headlines certainly mentioned some weird places. And the crossword puzzles called for some stranger still. Alexandre had tried everything to make himself sleepy, even racking his head for hours to find a three- letter word which was the name of a Swiss canton. But the Pope didn’t get much sleep either. His Holiness, Pius XII, was looking at Alexandre with those huge eyes – gentle and overburdened – so prominent in his pictures. Christ’s vicar on earth, and hence favouring neither the one nor the other among the enemy peoples. How could he avoid worrying nights, his head also tossing on his pillow, twisting from right to left, from left to right? Switzerland had eleven cantons. Or were there more than that?
The war had vastly broadened Alexandre’s knowledge of geography. Just as certain travel stories leave us with a lifelong fondness for such odd regions as the Cordillera of the Andes or Tierra del Fuego, so the correspondents’ dispatches and the radio news had engraved on Alexandre’s mind names that powerfully attracted him – Murmansk . . . Ankara . . . Teheran. He knew just where Dunkirk lay, and most of the Normandy beaches; Arromanches, for instance – what a pretty name, which despite everything called to mind the tireless motion of the sea. Stalingrad still clung in his memory, and it retained an echo of some such syllables as “Sarroya Roussa.” Even into the desert had the armies pursued each other. And in the desert dwelt graceful gazelles. Truly, without the war, what would Alexandre have known of the great, groaning world, resplendent and more thinly populated than most people said?
Nor were they getting along with each other in Greece. The papers had said the war was over. But fighting had not stopped. What’s more, Alexandre had foreseen it; we shouldn’t have started rejoicing. Nowadays he envisioned a huge portion of the map of the world coloured red. You know very well that some fifteen years ago nobody said much about the Russians. There were those who wrote about the Red Peril and the Bolshevik Menace. Alexandre had barely had time to grasp it when the Bolsheviks became the “allies of democracy.” The press did not frankly say “our friends.” There were differences of opinion, but in all the editorial tone had been favourable. Headlines told of the heroic defence of Stalingrad, the brave Russian offensive, the vast efforts of the Russian people. Alexandre had been slow to overcome his distrust. The attack on Finland still weighed on his heart. And yet the existence in his mind of two hundred forty million Russians hinged upon certain insignificant if human details. The Russians wore loosefitting shirts gathered at the waist by a belt and high leather boots. They were musicians; they sang in choral groups; their novelists were the greatest of all time. Moreover, it was not their fault if they remained backward and barbarous; their masters had long held them in serfdom. One day Alexandre read that they had reopened the churches over there in Russia. Thereafter he became a lukewarm apostle of the alliance, asserting, “There’s a chance we may come to an understanding with the Russians.”
But now we were back to terms of abuse. One fine evening Alexandre had turned on his little radio and had once again heard talk about the Reds. Thenceforth no more human touches. Just the Bear, the Soviets. And yet this radio voice through all the years seemed the same to Alexandre, always urbane, always persuasive, so deeply convincing: “We must be on our guard against the Soviets. . . .” “Our allies, the Russians. . . .” When had it spoken truly? It was even to be expected that America would some day join forces with its former German enemies to stand off the Russians, yesterday its allies. “In that case, it wasn’t worth fighting them,” Alexandre protested. Allies, enemies, allies. . . . He lit his small bedside lamp, glanced at the alarm clock. He had only been awake for twenty minutes.
Beside him Madame Chenevert lay asleep. How could she rest quiet when war threatened to break out at any moment? In three years. Perhaps five. As soon as they were ready.
When she went to bed, Eugénie Chenevert wrapped her hair done up in curlers in a net that had become greasy with use. Thus exposed, her face was red and puffy; her lips half open, her cheeks sagging; she had a doltish look which disgusted Alexandre with sleep. Must not a person who slept so soundly lack any capacity for thought and real feeling?
Besides, supposing there were no longer any reason for going to war, it would be impossible to destroy the munitions of war: that would be waste; they would have to be used.
He got up.
In the bathroom he began to meditate even more intensely. He kept studying his toes, misshapen by corns; he had ugly feet, thin and rawboned. Once again he was struck by that emancipation of the mind which takes place at some of the most inopportune, least worthy moments in life. To reflect on the immortality of the soul while staring at his toes seemed to him almost shocking. Yet, when you came down to it, why was it indecorous? What was unseemly: such thoughts, the heights they reached, their remoteness from human bondage? Or else the too- frequent needs of a nervous man? It was shot through with irony; either a man should not think or else he should not have to eliminate the wastes of the body.
Alexandre began to pray. He was prone to prayer whenever he became aware of his sickliness. It was as instinctive with him as the cry of distress he sometimes cast into the void, a cry to his mother dead years ago. “Mama!” he would beseech, himself already old, adrift amid his wandering thoughts, alone in the night.
Suddenly he was off headlong on the Palestinian question. He had read that boatloads of immigrants, near the port of Jaffa and in sight of the promised land, found themselves refused permission to leave the ship. In desperation a handful of these refugees had tried to swim to shore. One of the bathtub faucets would not close tight; a little water had collected on the enamel bottom of the tub. Alexandre saw a Jew from Poland, his hat pulled down over his ears, thrashing about in the Red Sea. Somewhere else in an office a top bureaucrat was settling the affairs of mankind on a slip of paper. He it was who determined how many immigrants might be allowed to land. In the distance riders appeared mounted on the nimble little horses of the desert, and Alexandre envisaged burnooses, black bears, ferocious eyes . . . Arabs! How he hated them. He hated the English bureaucrat in his office. All his pity went out to the Polish Jew he had espied drowning in the trickle of water in the bathtub. People shouldn’t be treated that way, Alexandre told himself.
Barefoot, shivering in his rumpled pajamas, he wandered around the room. With all his heart he wished the Jews had a country of their own. He went into the kitchen and turned on the light. The Palestinian problem seemed to him beyond his competence and responsibility. Indeed war, treaties, the atomic bomb – none of it was within the range of Alexandre’s powers. “What of it?” he said out loud. “There’s not a thing I can do.” Nevertheless he felt there was something humiliating in being a man and in not wrestling with misfortune. He took a dry biscuit from a big, round, cream- coloured box marked “Biscuits.” In China, how many Chinese were there by now? But wasn’t it India that was the most overpopulated country? Alexandre asked himself. He had a notion to look it up right away in the encyclopaedia, but began searching instead for the bicarbonate of soda. Wendell Willkie had proclaimed on the radio: The world has become one and indivisible. Eating sometimes helped insomnia. Alexandre had read that it drew the blood from the brain to the stomach. Bicarbonate of soda . . . bicarbonate of soda. . . . Eating always suggested to Alexandre some sort of medicine. It was not true hunger, indeed, which tormented him – rather a nervous gnawing sensation. “I’ll end by dying of cancer of the stomach,” Alexandre told himself with a certain archness, as though he would thus at least attain a fate wholly his own.
He stood in the cold blank light falling from a white ceiling on the enamelled cabinets, on the sparkling sink and shining linoleum of a little kitchen as clean, white, and dismal as a room in a hospital.
He was a small man, almost puny, with a huge worried forehead. Two deep wrinkles framed his thin- lipped mouth, drawn tight by stomach cramps – or perhaps merely by life’s frightful complexity, which on occasion he imagined he alone in all the world fully appreciated. The top of his head shone. Along the sides, two skimpy tufts of hair protruded, disarrayed by the movements of his sleeplessness. His rather long and slightly beaked nose lent him a certain likeness to those unsociable birds of prey reputed to be vicious, yet perhaps merely ill- starred. Alexandre was absorbed in thought. Sometimes, while he probed the night in the white silence of the kitchen, he suffered a feeling of such strangeness that it constricted his very heart. What business had he to live in such an age? Like many imaginative men, Alexandre felt that he was not made for the century in which he lived, this epoch of appalling tedium all too little relieved by gadgets, by nickel, aluminum, plastic, celluloid, Bakelite, nylon, zylon. . . . For some time now, the refrigerator had been silent; its motor clicked back into action with a dull explosive rumble. The machine purred gently. It put you in mind of an experimental laboratory. Alexandre sensed his utter inferiority as a man, with all his little stomach troubles, his endless colds, his confused problems. The machine’s smooth functioning threw into bold relief his hopeless yearning. What more did Alexandre ask of life than his refrigerator – the last payment finally met – what more than a sure meal ticket and a new suit every two years? Then, just as he asked himself the question, he realized that he was far from being alone in the world. Almost everyone on earth, had Alexandre been able to question them that night, would have replied: Peace, it’s peace we long for. Even the men of Lapland would have agreed with him. Mankind’s common hunger lay everywhere about him. Whereupon a piercing joy possessed Alexandre. It could not be very wicked to win our case in the end, since we’re all agreed, he told himself with a smile. He rubbed his small hands together. Surely the insomnia that brought such a discovery in its wake had something good about it! Alexandre felt a deep content. All mankind offered itself to him at that moment, so varied, so astonishing, responsive to the most exacting affection. And his impatient heart set forth somehow to span the globe.
And almost at once he again ran headlong into the Bolshevik peril. He perceived neither men nor children nor women nor towns nor countrysides: only a vast area all tinted one disturbing colour over which was spread in black letters U.S.S.R. Germany also became clouded over when he thought of Dachau. Who could forget Dachau? Who could be friendly toward the Nazis? Alexandre had seen a few spy films and he knew what the Nazis were: blond, squareheaded young men with crew cuts who spoke in harsh, abrupt, metallic voices. And all the SS, dressed in black, hidden behind dark glasses, driving their motorcycles at breakneck speed ahead of the tanks.
What had Alexandre set out to find when he had started round the world? He most certainly would not find it among the English. You had only to watch their actions here in Canada to discover their taste for dominion. Of course for Alexandre the English were the hereditary enemy, nominated by history, the schools, his whole environment – the enemy he could scarcely do without, for were he to lose him, what would become of his grievances?
The French Alexandre reproached for having done injury to religion by bad books and the great number of freethinkers they had spawned. Nor could he forgive the Jews their control – he had only lately read that it was beyond denial – of the fur industry, hatmaking, the press, and the motion picture. He caught a fresh glimpse of that Polish Jew, but he wondered whether he had not been invented out of whole cloth by the Jewish imagination, as skilled in winning the world’s pity as in every other form of propaganda. As for the Americans, they were guilty of having set up material progress as the basic goal of life. Alexandre fell back upon his own people, his compatriots. Their faults at once sprang to view: envy, the habit of feeling sorry for rather than asserting themselves, hate rather than love; yet very arrogant when they proved to be the stronger – in short, the faults of men in general, but in this manifestation they hurt Alexandre. From them he turned to his intimates, to his small circle of acquaintances. This chap, whom he had once helped out, avoided him; another had not paid him a small loan made long ago; yet another, in whom he thought he could confide, kept telling people behind Alexandre’s back that “poor Chenevert was turning sour.” A very real bitterness stirred within him. He was uncovering most precise reasons for being pained at mankind. Certainly his stomach bothered him. Alexandre’s fine trip had merely led him into the desert. How could anyone return home from a journey so poor in spirit? The kitchen clock kept ticking away. And there was still the noise of the motor, pumping coldness. An extraordinary invention. Would the Japanese go back to making inexpensive toys? “Made in Japan.” One day in a cheap novelty shop Alexandre had seen a toy, a small porcelain object, a kind of figurine representing a human being, quite a bit of work, and it was marked “five cents.” Alexandre had picked it up and looked at it closely. It was not at all badly made: features, dress, a certain attitude – all that, and for only five cents! He had been on the verge of understanding the Japanese. But then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and since that everyone knew the Japanese for what they were – crafty and underhanded sons of Nippon! No one in the world could you trust, not even that poor little Nipponese who had moulded a human expression into his five- cent figurine. Alexandre’s heart remained heavy with disappointment. Then the face of a man whom he had seen occasionally, almost the face of a stranger, came back to him; he reflected on this human being whom he scarcely knew: Constantin Simoneau at least was an excellent man. And there remained, as a resting place for his eager heart, one man who was dead and whose whole life was to him very nearly a closed book.
Without the dead, the absent, the folk you had never even seen, whatever would become of man’s faculty for love!
Alexandre went back to bed.
“Eugénie, are you asleep?” he asked quietly.
At the grey hour which comes before the dawn, there was always a moment for Alexandre when he saw himself a new man. He made resolutions. He would wholly change his life. First of all, he was going to sleep. Then his health would be better and it would be easy for him to love and be loved. And eagerness to begin at once his fresh life tortured him with impatience. He felt as though he must physically grasp his good intentions that very instant, otherwise they would slip out of his reach.
“Eugénie,” he implored.
Had she awakened at that moment, Alexandre might perhaps have succeeded in expressing to her feelings sensitive beyond anything she had ever suspected in him, feelings of which he himself was aware only when overtaken by insomnia. At such moments he was less ashamed than usual of his heart’s deepest and truest impulses. He would have liked, for instance, to have explained to Eugénie that the Japanese were not as crafty as people said. They found themselves, as it were, forced to sell tiny figures for less than five cents. For, after all, how much profit do you think that could bring them? he asked. But she was sound asleep. And her state of well- being was enough to rid Alexandre of his good intentions. He thought of her in terms of abuse he never would have dared utter aloud. He wondered whether he did not hate Madame Chenevert. What could this heavy woman, this dull, unfeeling woman, understand about the fate of the Japanese? He sat on his pillow, his back against the bars of the bed, and he beheld his soul, grown tender for an instant, fill with bitterness and suspicion.
This time he had woken up Madame Chenevert.
“Aren’t you asleep?” she asked drowsily. “How often have I told you you read too much, Alexandre . . . all those murders and catastrophes. . . .”
But before she could finish scolding him, she was slumbering once more.
You had to read. Modern man was the heir of such a mountain of knowledge. Even had he limited his curiosity to that which was published in his own day, he could never have succeeded in absorbing it all. And where did truth lie in all this mass of writing? Alexandre lived in the age of propaganda.
Take an aspirin tablet. Aspirin is spelled a- s- p- i- r- i- n. I repeat, a- s- p- i- r- i- n. Buy a cake of Lux soap. Germany must be destroyed. Germany must be put back on her feet. What sudsy suds.
Still everyone knew very well that Lux soap made no more suds than any other. From life’s beginning to its end, a man listened to interminable discourse, and must keep asking, Is it true? Is it false? Alexandre had to acknowledge himself wholly alone in this limitless thicket of men’s convictions. He became angry. He cast aside everything written, explained, reiterated; and then like a slave he came back to it, seeking its support. He took to heart a violent editorial he had read a few days before. He became deeply indignant with the English. They had let the Jews down in this Palestine business. Promises, secret treaties, and then shift for yourselves. We’re washing our hands of it. Well, since that was the way things went, Alexandre also would wash his hands . . . of Palestine and the rest. The man at the microphone kept repeating: indivisible, indivisible.
If I were President Truman, Alexandre wondered, what should I do? And he pitied President Truman.
He imagined a deep forest. He moved along, clearing himself a path, in perfect silence. He found an abandoned cabin. He let himself fall upon a bed of sacking. Here were no newspapers, no radio, no alarm clock. Alexandre was becoming less tense; his hands began to unclench; his mouth lost some of its grimness. The trees of the forest stirred in the wind. As Alexandre imagined them, these trees were full of kindly welcome, tender, green, and his unconscious nostalgia imparted to them a gentle motion which charmed him. It was like a soft patter of raindrops all around Alexandre. A feeling of restfulness overwhelmed his soul as it found ease in the absence of all but vegetable life. But he had no umbrella. He had lost his umbrella. What would he do without an umbrella? His hope seized on a halfhearted foresight – perhaps it wouldn’t rain much this spring. But such optimism seemed to him terribly imprudent, likely to invite long spells of wet weather that would soak him to the bones.
He was jerked away from the cabin in the woods. Now he was journeying through the city. The rain beat on the pavement. The street lights glowed, each in its aureole of dampness. It was one of those rainy nights in spring such as Alexandre had loved, but his pleasure was spoiled by silly trifles. His shoes would be ruined. He could not help stepping in large puddles of water. His overcoat was soaked. He would catch cold. He would have to buy medicines. Perhaps, taking everything into account, he would do better to buy another umbrella. On the very edge of sleep, Alexandre was overtaken by paltry considerations of prudence. If he had so greatly loved rainy nights, it was because they seemed to set up a sort of justice on earth. At night, beneath the rain, all men walk with their backs arched, their heads sunk between their shoulders, barely noticeable save when they passed before bright shop windows. Alexandre was filled with love for his neighbour when he beheld him thus from afar, faceless, and moving rapidly out of his own orbit.
A dog began to bark in the street. Irritated beyond measure, Alexandre got up. When he opened the slats of the Venetian blinds, he was surprised to see a portion of the sidewalk flooded with cool light. The sun had risen while he was imagining a night of justice wherein everyone moved with his back hunched against the gusts, elbows tight against his sides. The black dog was scurrying about, its nose in the wind, quite beside itself with eagerness to pick up some scent. At a distance he could hear a milkman whistling, and his horse’s hoofs echoed briskly as they came closer. To Alexandre life seemed all the more bitter if only because he saw others find in it a joy beyond his comprehension.
He went back into the bathroom and opened the small medicine cabinet. He examined – always freshly surprised at their number – the phials, the pillboxes, the bottles, the salves which crowded each other on the narrow shelves. There was something there for every ailment, and at a glance you might realize the unbelievable variety of affliction to which a human being is subject.
“Are you irritable these days, down in the mouth, and in a bad humour? . . . It’s because your liver is not secreting enough bile. . . .” For long years Alexandre had listened to such instructive utterances, and that was why his little medicine cabinet was well stocked. But he always got up just as ill- tempered and out of sorts. Never did he recover the “pep” they promised him and which, to be sure, he had never had. Alexandre was not the “peppy” type.
Salts, effervescent powders – the small cabinet did not contain merely correctives for that affection general in our age, almost as common as good health, to judge by the advertising devoted to it in streetcars and newspapers; there were likewise little brown pills for the kidneys; vitamins; and finally a whole section devoted to remedies for the common cold: drops to clear up congestion, some to be sprayed deep into the throat, others to be inhaled through the nostrils. On the top shelf at the back he at last discovered the object of his search.
Dormine. To be taken a half- hour before retiring with a hot beverage.
He reached for the little bottle.
Here was indeed the only thing that tempted him.
For years he had slept badly and less and less as time went on.
It was beyond his endurance to continue thus fettered to himself.
But were he at last to savour sleep, how could he do without it afterward? The drug that conferred this boon he would long for, no matter what the price, and he would lack the strength of will to give it up.
Slavery for slavery, were there any grounds for preferring one to the other?
Till then he had only very rarely taken sleeping- pills – five or six times perhaps in the space of several years, just enough to have known the most comforting of certainties: this time I’m going to sleep – to delight in it a few minutes – then, immediately afterward, to drift off without the least recollection. But the next day he had continued for a long time in a state of torpor, his mind muddled, as though a stranger to himself, heavy and dull. Appropriately enough he had read in a popular article on medicine that nothing weakened the will and the faculties so much as the use of soporifics.
Now Alexandre Chenevert prized his faculties. He was a small man without any special gifts who had nothing extraordinary to offer the world but who, for precisely that reason, would have found it heart- rending that the entire harvest of his thoughts should be lost forever. Yet he no longer did anything about them, having even ceased jotting them down in his black- covered notebook, which he still kept handy, but which he would have been ashamed to see surrendered to another’s curiosity. Why indeed had he ever begun? Perhaps through respect for the wanderings of his captive soul. Without any real ability for self- expression, his soul had genuinely aroused his pity – so completely was it a prisoner. For a long time he had envied the men who were able by their speech or by a written phrase to set free their inner lives, for it seemed to him that he had much to say. As he saw it, what he lacked were not things to say, but the manner, the skilful words, the talent, which have nothing to do with the secret depth of the soul. And then it was that he had bought the bottle of Dormine.
But before that, even before the notebook, Alexandre had thought it incumbent on him to write open letters to the press. One of them had been published on the second page of Le Sol, beneath an advertisement for soap and with the heading “A Citizen Protests.” Even today, just as on the evening when he first saw himself in print, Alexandre could shut his eyes and see how the column was placed, could visualize the type of the title, could read his signature and the street address at the end of the letter, for he had not hesitated to reveal its authorship.
Then someone had answered him in the columns of Le Sol, and it could have kept on, a fine exchange of views. But the editor had written Alexandre that space was lacking in his paper because of the press of advertising which, alas, as he was careful to explain, produced revenue. At first Alexandre had accepted this explanation as having been offered in good faith. Then he had thought that he detected in it a polite intention to discourage him. And at last, as the years went by, the mere recollection of his letter to the editor had become hateful to Alexandre. It seemed like proof of the sort of proficiency achieved once in his lifetime and never again to be approximated.
In his hand he still held the bottle of sleeping- tablets. Through the glass Alexandre saw the capsules, their very appearance soothing, so tiny were they. This morning he was tempted beyond measure. Perhaps a single dose would not destroy his will. Yet that was the way such things began, Alexandre warned himself. Moreover it was almost six o’clock. Were he to take a sedative now, he would never wake up at seven. And half- doped he could not do his work properly. Granted that, as he scarcely slept at all, one fine day he would most likely commit some dreadful blunder in any case.
He returned the little bottle to its accustomed place.
Basically he was abstaining from it as he would from sin, sin against the reason, against the soul. As long as his soul should live, could he ever offer it, as he might offer his ailing body, the affront of a capsule taken with a bit of water?
Meanwhile, thanks to his having resisted temptation, he hoped he had deserved sleep. He went back to bed, wearily drawing the covers over him. Just as though it had been awaiting this moment, the wandering dog began to bark again, immediately under the bedroom window. A frightful rage stirred in Alexandre. Suddenly human existence seemed to him truly unbearable. At one moment consumed by a desire to change the world and to change himself, within an instant man found himself powerless to make even a dog stop barking. Whatever had Alexandre come into this heartless world to accomplish! The barking became more distant, then ceased altogether. Alexandre thought he should hasten to take advantage of the silence to fall asleep. Soon other noises would make it impossible. He arranged himself on his right side, in the most restful position; he tried to count sheep, following the advice so freely given the whole world over by people who can’t sleep. It was just like getting your hair to grow back, Alexandre told himself; the recipes always came from the bald. Perhaps what he should try to do above all was to avoid letting sleep know how eager he was to obtain it. Alexandre turned so as to lie on his back, his hands folded behind his neck, concentrating wholly on the idea that he must beware lest he seem to seek sleep. They would try to bluff each other, he and sleep, and we’d see which one carried the day! But sleep was sharp- eyed and crafty; it saw through any attempt at scheming. Probably absolute indifference alone could move sleep. Basically sleep was cruel and not to be bought, like good health, love, and even that talent Alexandre had for so many years timidly desired from afar. Everything was beyond purchase, save perhaps unhappiness. After a sleepless night, vexed to his very depths, Alexandre imagined that he had at least elected to be unhappy, and for that he felt a certain pride. If he didn’t sleep, it was because his soul was too sensitive, because his conscience was subtle, because, thank God, he was above the indifference that beset the generality of men. And meantime he anxiously dreaded the sounds which would prevent his enjoying at least an hour’s slumber.
The streetcars were now operating on their regular schedules. Alexandre began to wait for the approach of each tram and, when the clangor died down, for the coming of the next. During the interval of silence, if it lasted longer than he had expected, Alexandre got nervous. Whatever had happened to that car? Was it late? Soon the auto horns joined the chorus. The little dog, back from its excursion, barked ceaselessly. A motorcycle passed with a cannonade of explosions. And suddenly Alexandre sat upright in his bed, boiling with resentment, a crazed gleam in his eyes; the whole city was certainly in a conspiracy to prevent his sleeping, all mankind was against Alexandre. Keeping dogs in town ought to be forbidden. And motorcycles – those instruments of the devil – ought to be kept out also: motorcycles . . . expressly invented to shatter delicate nerves. Drivers who needlessly sounded their horns ought to be dragged to the police station. Destroying a person’s sleep was at least as serious an offence as robbing your neighbour. A lot of people ought to be thrown into jail so that the rest of us could live in peace and security. Now Alexandre’s neighbour was splashing about in his bathroom, and the damn fool was singing. In a moment he would jerk the chain to flush the toilet. The partition was so thin between the two apartments that each tenant could guess at the other’s most intimate activities. The thought, however, that the greater part of the human beings in a great city lived in the same hateful promiscuity availed nothing to make that fact acceptable to Alexandre. It revolted him all the more because he could not see with greater clarity for himself than for the other thousands any means of escape. “Beast!” Alexandre flung at his neighbour. He might be a fine fellow. Alexandre knew substantially nothing about him apart from the sounds he made too early every morning, but he loathed him as he would never be induced to loathe the Russians. Heavy footsteps thudded down the stair. Alexandre held his breath; he knew that within a few seconds the street door would slam. And then the old girl next door would turn on her radio.
The weight of his own bitterness, far more than all these noises, kept sleep out of his reach. There he lay stretched out, helpless, his hearing tormented, his eyes hollow with weariness, hating almost everything alive. His limbs were like lead, his throat dry, his body racked with fatigue, and this was the condition in which he must undertake his day’s work. That day ahead frightened him, like a barren mountain. How could he ever climb over it if he could not succeed in sleeping at least for one hour?
“I’m going to sleep. I have to sleep,” he said to himself. “I must have sleep.”
He recalled having read that people went crazy for lack of sleep. He took himself in hand. He reasoned with himself. He harked back to the years when he could sleep, and like many another man, Alexandre fed his self- confidence on the good things he had lost. Since I once used to sleep, Alexandre said to himself, I’ll sleep again.
He patted the folds out of his pillow and thrust his head into it. He turned his back on the Jews who had no country of their own. And there began to pursue him a pulsing tick- tock which gnawed away at time with appalling speed. Alexandre could sleep almost another hour, whispered the clicking seconds, eager now to rob him of any time left for slumber. But he had better hurry, for he has already lost ten minutes. He still has fifty minutes, though. The hands were leaping around the dial of his alarm clock. Forty more minutes of sleep for Alexandre. Now only thirty- five. That’s always better than nothing, whispered the seconds. Quick, quick, Alexandre. Hurry up. Quick, quick.
By his frenzied desire for it, he succeeded only in pushing sleep further away.
It was almost seven. Alexandre opened the dried- out palms of his hands. I won’t sleep, he admitted to himself. And it was almost a relief. With something like satisfaction he was at last reaching that dreary calm afforded by the absence of all hope.
“I won’t sleep.”
Then Alexandre began to go under. The old terrestrial globe started revolving once more, but at such a rate that Greece and his heavy- footed neighbour, the Jews in Palestine, and the U.S.S.R. were fused into a single hazy image. Would the kingdom of God one day be established on earth? Or would it be only in another world that men would no longer do evil to one another? The questions fell apart in Alexandre’s mind. His identity had faded to a button lacking on his fall overcoat. The thread must have come completely loose and then broken. Alexandre was sinking straight down. He passed through the rind of the earth and came to regions remote and dark beyond compare, situated perhaps before the flood, even perhaps before the separation of the waters from the land. Under slime and waves of black water, he seemed to remember that he should have gone to get his umbrella. Then his mouth yawned wide; it opened, then tightened in the slow, pathetic movement of fishes’ gills.
The alarm went off. Strange was this tiny voice of the earth, irritating and futile, plumbing into the obscure depths where Alexandre, like a minute detached particle of chaos, began to stir.
Madame Chenevert was saying, “Wake up! Wake up, Alexandre. And to think the man complains because he can’t sleep! Turn that thing off, will you? For heaven’s sake turn it off !”
Alexandre started up in a cold sweat, looking utterly bewildered. Her words, distorted by sleep, seemed to say turn that fellow in! For heaven’s sake turn in Alexandre Chenevert! Look! He’s going to run for it; he’ll get away from us; he’s going to fall asleep!
And his first concern then, even before turning off the alarm clock, was to stretch his arm from his bed and fish his denture from its glass of water; still bleary, scarcely knowing what he was doing, his eyelids heavy, he fitted it into his mouth.
“An unforgettable story of Montreal.…Remarkable for its truth and quiet power.”
–The New York Times Book Review
Other titles by Gabrielle Roy
Children of My Heart
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
The Tin Flute
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
Street of Riches
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
The Road Past Altamont
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
Where Nests the Water Hen
Garden in the Wind
The Gabrielle Roy-Joyce Marshall Correspondence
The Letters of Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy