Work examines co-lingual works of fiction
By Everett Martin
When did you last read a novel that was written in more than one language? The difficulty of reading this kind of book might be trumped only by the difficulty of finding one. Someone who can definitely help you with the latter is Catherine Leclerc, Professor of French Language and Literature. Her 2010 analysis of co-lingual works of fiction has earned her a nomination for the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award, one of Canada’s highest honours for writers.
Leclerc says she was shocked to learn of her nomination in the French non-fiction category for her book Des langues en partage? Cohabitation du français et de l’anglais en littérature contemporaine (Shared Languages? Coexistence of French and English in contemporary literature). While she had already won the 2010 Gabrielle Roy Prize for the same work, the “GG,” which is awarded on Nov. 15, is in a league of its own.
“I’m honoured to be nominated for a Governor General’s Award, because you can see that the jury is attracted to the importance of lesser-known works,” said Leclrec. “It is often awarded to those who give an outlet to traditionally muted voices.”
In her book, Leclerc analyzes literature from the 1960s to the 1990s that is written in both French and English. She’s quick to point out that, while many novels feature characters who speak different languages, her research and analysis focus on books where the entire narrative, not just the quotations, goes back and forth between the two languages, and sometimes delve into others, too.
“Generally, there is only one dominant narrative language in any work of fiction,” says Leclerc. “The authors I chose seek to threaten the authority of this one language within their own works. Regardless of the extent to which they succeed, the exercise always provides a unique result.”
Leclerc believes literary co-lingualism is very relevant to Canada, but her book does not have a political slant. She describes the concept of literary co-lingualism as an ethical goal, but one that is rarely, if ever, possible to fully achieve. Her interest lies not in whether the authors realize their goal, but in the journey they take towards attempting to achieve it and repercussions of their writing and editing decisions on the final product.
“Who cares what language you speak, or I speak? To an extent, it doesn’t matter,” explains Leclerc. “However, the way we assign value is based on what we already believe, and when [the authors] hierarchize languages within a text, they are also hierarchizing the speakers and the weight of their message.” This is where she believes the social lessons of interest to literary critics, cultural academics and Canadians in general, can be learned.
Five books make up the bulk of Leclerc’s analysis: Between, by Christine Brooke-Rose (1968), Heroine, by Gail Scott (1987), Hellman’s Scrapbook by Robert Majzels (1992), L’homme invisible/The Invisible Man by Patrice Desbiens (1981) and Bloupe, by Jean Babineau (1993). Among this group of writers are two Anglo-Montrealers, a Franco-Ontarian, one Acadian and one Briton. The significance of having no Franco-Quebecers on the list is not lost on Leclerc. She says it’s fitting that these works exist on the geographical or linguistic borders of Quebec, since co-lingual works often exist only on the periphery, or “in the margins,” of mainstream literature.