‘Baloney’ by Maxime Raymond Bock

Book Reviews

41sdw6voadl-_sx307_bo1204203200_Reviewed by Ben Wood

The English reception of Quebec writer Maxime Raymond Bock’s work may be proof that two negatives can in fact make a positive. Not only is he a writer from Canada, already a strike of irrelevancy, but is writing from and about Quebec—the nation within a nation. Two strikes. Curiously, this hasn’t hurt him any. After winning the 2012 Prix Adrienne-Choquette for his collection of stories, Atavismes, the English translation (titled, Atavisms) was put out by the American publisher Dalkey Archive Press. Not bad for a book about New France and Quebec nationalism.

Writing from a place like Canada, it is difficult to appeal to American or international readers. Canada is close yet remote, familiar yet foreign, known in general but generally unknown. But appealing to Canadian readers is no easy task either, for both English-speaking writers and francophone writers seeking to break into anglophone Canada.

Guillaume Morissette may have found one way around this. He wrote his novel New Tab in English, despite being a native French speaker living and working in Quebec, only for the success of the novel to prompt a French translation. In an interview with The Puritan, Morissette admits to being surprised by all this: “my assumption was that [the book] was going to be ignored by all French media because I don’t write in French, and I assumed that unless I won some national award, it just wasn’t going to get picked up by French publishers because it would be off their radar.” Aspiring to the lofty standards of ‘autofiction’ set by Sheila Heti or Ben Lerner, New Tab has no trouble appealing to any Anglophone who’s gone to Osheaga or partied in Montreal under the auspices of the government-subsidized French language program, J’Explore. Which is to say, there is nothing particularly French or Quebecois about the work.

There are other recent works that don’t completely eschew the specificity of contemporary Quebec life or its cultural history and have still found English readers. Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Matane, published this year by the small imprint QC Fiction, certainly fits here. Another would be The Goddess of Fireflies by Geneviève Pettersen. There are a number of small presses now publishing the translated work of Quebec writers. Then there’s Bock’s first English-translated book. In his review for the New Yorker, Pasha Malla described Atavisms as being written by and about “a place with its own unique codes.” The worry for the publisher is that knowledge of these codes might be seen as a prerequisite to reading. However, Malla posited, “By embracing this unapologetically French-Canadian sprit, [the stories] might…be just ‘exotic enough’ to appeal to a broader North American readership.” The problem is that any sort of exoticism tends towards reductionism and essentialism even if it lends itself quite easily to a successful marketing campaign. Fortunately, after reading Bock’s stories it’s near impossible to come away with a simplistic or even cohesive understanding of Quebec identity. His work indirectly demonstrates that these identities are and always have been subject to debate, however much dissenting voices are silenced.

In Bock’s latest translated book, Baloney (originally published as Des lames de pierre), he is still embracing the spirit Malla identified in Atavisms, this time through the story of a French-Canadian poet whose obscurity has done nothing to reduce the prolific output he’s determined to maintain. When a young writer meets Robert “Baloney” Lacerte at a poetry reading, the older, unknown poet tells him his life story: from his discovery of poetry in rural Quebec—“the end of the known world”—to a harrowing episode in South America and life in Sherbrooke and Montreal. The depiction of urban living is far less glamorous than the Montreal in Morissette’s New Tab, but completely in line with Lacerte’s tendency towards isolation and dereliction, and whose life resembles the counterculture artists of the beat generation more than it does the millennials of the creative class to be found in Morissette’s DIY-friendly city.

As this is a story of Lacerte’s life, it appropriately begins at the beginning—birth. “Like ninety-four other people in the province of Quebec, Robert Lacerte was born on November 18, 1941.” That the sentence begins by mentioning the ninety-four other people before naming Lacerte is telling, as though his inability to make a mark on the world was cemented the day he was born. After all, he was just another baby born that day. Further into the story you have to wonder if he’s just another poet, as well. Why else would he be lurking around the poetry van’s public readings and so open to talking to the young writer who approached him? Bock hints as such but presents another answer: his work may not be all that good. Though the book is a life story, it is one rife with uncertainty, and readers are not to believe everything Lacerte says. His nickname—“Baloney”—tells us as much. This opens up space for the voices of Lacerte, the young writer and Bock himself to fight for primacy, authority—for presence—which makes Baloney a book about the life of a French-Canadian poet as much as it is a book about narrative itself.

While working as a cook in a lumber camp in the forests of rural Quebec, Lacerte is introduced to poetry by his coworker, who has smuggled into camp books by Quebec’s major poets. Crémazie, Fréchette, Grandbois, Routhier—“Fifteen books and nothing but French-Canadian verse,” Bock gibes. It’s clear he isn’t giving a history lesson—though I certainly needed reminding that the “O Canada” was written by Routhier—but saying something else (especially to English readers, unintentional as it may be) about the wider reception of Quebec poetry; its quality, too. Grandbois “seemed at once obvious and empty, a series of words dumped out one after another. There was nothing to understand. Perfect: he hadn’t understood a thing.” It’s unclear to whom these impressions belong, as Lacerte’s level of literacy at this point is never fully established. He struggles to sound out words and his judgments of prose are based on the white spaces left on a page.

From the lumber camp Lacerte goes on to live a transient life, at least what he remembers of it, but writes the entire time. He lives a bohemian life in Sherbrooke, going on benders, dropping acid, making plans for radical, direct political action, embarks upon a perilous journey through South America and eventually returns to Quebec. After maintaining a constant output throughout his life Lacerte eventually finds notoriety as a poet, only to lose what little recognition he had as quickly as he gained it. He decides to exile himself from the poetry scene and work alone, and becomes increasing isolated from his fellow poets and society at large until much later when he meets the young writer to whom he recounts his tale.

The story of Lacerte’s life is written like someone reciting a story they once heard, one that’s been passed around until it’s elevated to the status of myth and nobody is sure where they first heard it or even if it’s true. Occasionally, the narrative is interrupted by Bock, who breaks the spell of the story to offer specific, trivial details, such as someone “treading silently over a foot of powder so fluffy that, once disturbed by his feet, it took flight again.” Nice imagery, to be sure, but wholly at odds with the simple, direct narrative it’s couched in. In the chapters punctuating the story of Lacerte’s life, the young writer offers his own story of how he met the older poet. It’s here where he admits Lacerte’s poetry was “just plain bad, really: even as a fellow failed poet, I couldn’t find another way to slice it.” But Robert gets his own word in, too: “His work was lost on his contemporaries.” In other works a multiplicity of conflicting voices can seem careless, or the work of a writer unwilling to allow their characters to have narrow perspectives, blind spots, to embellish or omit. In the case of Baloney, however, it’s a deliberate strategy and an urgent reminder in our post-fact age to investigate the motives behind every speech act. Unreliable narrators are interesting for many reasons not least for the questions the author is trying to get their readers to ask.

In the end, Bock leaves it to the reader to guess at the reason for Lacerte’s obscurity (unoriginality, incompetence, a consequence of his social isolation or the outmoded ideals of an older generation) in order to open up space for a much broader question about the legacy of French-Canadian poetry, both inside Quebec and, for Bock’s English readers, beyond. This allows him to have some fun with 19th- and 20th-Century Quebec verse without rendering meaningless the very possibilities of literature and poetry. For Lacerte, writing is life-giving. He tells the young writer that life begins with your first memory, not your first breath. He remembers bits of his childhood but not enough to convince him that he actually had one. Between these fleeting memories is nothing, emptiness. Then he would emerge again, a little older and things slightly different, only to recede into the void once more. “That was why he wrote, to prolong the time he existed, to have fewer of these moments of nothingness.” As his writing fulfills the phenomenological purpose of confirming his own consciousness, it could be said that the quality of his work isn’t to be judged by comparison to the canon of Quebec poets or to the work of his peers, nor to any formal standards. No, the measure is far more singular and objective: to document a time in which he existed.

If this is true then it’s no surprise that when the young writer enters Lacerte’s cluttered apartment he finds stacks of his work covering every available space, written on anything, the back of bills and on napkins, “piled up as high as my waist in the middle of the room, as tall as a man in the corners,” leaving only a small path from the door to each piece of furniture. A life’s work and nothing but French-Canadian verse.

Coach House | 96 pages | $18.95 | paper| ISBN# 978-1552453391

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Ben Wood

Ben Wood is a writer from Winnipeg and is an associate editor for The Winnipeg Review.