‘Hysteric’ by Nelly Arcan, Trans. David Homel & Jacob Homel

Book Reviews

Hysteric coverReviewed by Jacob Siefring

“The other side of the coin of my first book was its enormous weight that would crush the second,” observes the narrator of Hysteric, referring to the book that established the reputation of its author, one that transports its readers into the mind of a Montreal prostitute. Indeed, Whore (2005, Black Cat, Trans. Bruce Benderson) set a very difficult precedent for any writer to follow: radical by virtue of its despair, obsessed with a vision of the world where religious fathers prostitute their daughters and unwanted sex acts recur in endless, joyless succession. The book’s style was an original, rapid-firing of short clauses, ricocheting angularly through our consciousness, disorientingly brisk and choppy. It was a style perfectly matched to Whore’s inconsolable, histrionic performance, the bleak hysteria of a captive mind raging within. The book’s success upon its appearance in 2001 further made it a tough act to follow, and established an initial link with a lurid subject matter that made communicating with journalists disastrously difficult for Arcan.

Whore’s narrator resumes her story in Hysteric, a couple of years after becoming a minor literary celebrity on the basis of her first book’s success. (Hysteric was first published in French as Folle in 2004, Whore as Putain in 2001.) She even acknowledges a few of those disastrous interviews. If it’s de rigueur to view the narrator of a novel as separate from the author of the book, Arcan’s first two books—Hysteric especially—problematize that distinction, and effectively concatenate the figures of author, heroine, narrator. The mode has been dubbed “autofiction.”

The storyline is commonplace, classic even: the history of a doomed love affair, a woman’s betrayal and bereavement. Arcan’s signature subjects–the relation of women to physical beauty in a male-dominated world, the sexual objectification of women primarily through sex–show its uniqueness. The boyfriend is a journalist and porn enthusiast, a few years younger than her, from France. His height, confidence, and superior background and upbringing are irresistible attractions for her, outweighing some seriously sleaze-ball tendencies (he has a hobby of photographing his cock and is a demeaning asshole). When the relationship disintegrates, she is pregnant. Abortion ensues. Terminal estrangement, reclusion, a desperate search for satisfaction through binge-watching movies, watching Internet porn, going to Montreal sex joints. The text is teeming with Montreal Plateau landmarks, by the way.

The novel’s brightest point may come across in an argument between the lovers about biological determinism. The narrator posits that

ova, since the beginning of human life, should have been broadcast as a sort of ejaculation […] If reproduction had depended on women’s pleasure, women would have naturally and infinitely enlarged the circle of men at their beck and call, men would have founded their institutions from beneath and punished each other for incompetence. In the clash and competition to satisfy women, men wouldn’t have had time to make war, neither would they have tried to have more than one woman.

This is rich conjecture, and it stands as evidence of Arcan’s ability to think in terms other than those of the oppressive reality her books describe. It’s a beautiful, utopian vision that arises in a flash. It fades just as rapidly, as the narrator recalls that the lovers’ discussions always degenerated into shouting and mutual irritation, a kind of “barking.”

The movement of this passage is fairly characteristic of Arcan’s broader approach to story arc. Fate hangs like a tragic pall over Hysteric, both as psychological obsession and organizing narrative principle. “The day I turned fifteen I decided to kill myself when I hit thirty,” we are told in the beginning, then reminded as the day draws near and the narrative progresses towards its inevitable end. Several other leitmotifs, associated each with a minor character—tarot, associated with the narrator’s aunt; apocalyptic theology, with her grandfather; astronomy, with the father of the boyfriend—reinforce the idea that what the stars have in store for us can be neither changed, nor resisted. Not only is this idea one of the book’s weakest, simplistic and gloomiest aspects, it’s also morally disarming, an ethical terminus. Such an attitude of fatalism would be less disconcerting if it were less total, presented not as a foregone conclusion but as narrative process, with attendant reversals and character development. The act of remembering and telling her story leaves the narrator unchanged.

Surely, if Arcan were alive today, the fatalism of Hysteric would be less unnerving than it is in her absence. Judging from her first two books alone, she was a writer of remarkable talent, honesty, and courage. Her books can be appreciated as jagged and daring works whose voice is fresh and bracingly immediate, bristling with electricity. Readers can only wish that the fatal resignation of Arcan’s first two books had been less extreme, less authentic, less real.

Anvil | 192 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927380963

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Jacob Siefring

Jacob Siefring was born in Dayton, Ohio and now lives in Ottawa. His reviews and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Montreal Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Golden Handcuffs Review, Ambos, and Numéro Cinq Magazine. Frequently, they discuss French-language books and writers in English translation. You can find him at bibliomanic.com.