The Memory of a Cat
Before I began to write stories, I read a lot of them.
When I was eight, my big sister and I were signed up to the municipal library in Matane, which back then was in the town hall’s basement. A cramped, dark staircase led down to the gloomy, low-ceilinged room where books were lined up like corpses awaiting autopsy. The very same people—and no one will convince me otherwise—designed the morgue at our hospital. It was here that I first became aware of the vastness of the continent of books.
Those of most interest to me were about ghosts and communicating with spirits, like the great classic The Amityville Horror. But Anne Boleyn, my father King Henry VIII’s second wife, had been quick to ban that particular shelf for fear of the damaging effects such morbid stories might have on my young mind. I’m prone to nightmares, you see. One day I returned home with Marcel Aymé’s The Wonderful Farm (Les contes du chat perché), whose main characters Delphine and Marinette plot against their parents with the animals’ help. The little girls’ father and mother were one-dimensional, forbidding figures who would have severely irritated creative-writing teachers today. These teachers, who are always in the right, would probably have pursed their lips together and scribbled marginalia in red ink: “Can’t you make them a little more likeable and well rounded? They’re not realistic enough. We don’t believe in them.” Some would also have criticized Aymé for something that counted among my greatest reading pleasures: talking animals.
I had—and I still have—a problem with my weight that the king and queen thought could be solved by sending me to play sports with the other boys or by covering the vast expanses of fallow land that stretched out behind the royal palace. Reading was my only pleasure. The boys could wait their turn. In fact, the queen had an impressive number of books, my favourite being Jean Cocteau’s The Holy Terrors (Les enfants terribles). I think I might even have stolen her copy. Take that! One day, without warning, the royal couple returned all the books I had left in the living room. Imagine my frustration. I hadn’t finished Marcel Aymé, who was busy telling me all about a world I could entirely identify with.
“You read too much anyway! Go play outside!” one of the pair of crowns had said, spurting a cloud of SheerBoredom™ into the air. I’m sure I can still smell the stench of low tide that was used to manufacture the fragrance in the village of Notre-Dame-du-Cachalot, official supplier to the king, on the Gaspé Peninsula.
The municipal library was too far away for me to go alone. Still smarting, Marcel’s cheeky cat climbed the most inaccessible branches of my memory. I didn’t read another word of Marcel Aymé for years. They signed me up for minor hockey, with the other boys…
His Majesty wasn’t an out-and-out enemy of literature, though; far from it. Some mornings after nightshift, he would hand us a pencil so that we could put down on paper the dreams he had just gotten out of us. One day in 1979, journalists the world over reported with the frenzy they are renowned for that an American satellite by the name of Skylab had left its orbit and was threatening to come crashing down to Earth, ready to strike an undetermined spot. Naturally, everyone was convinced the thing was going to hit them square in the face or, Inch’Allah, that it would plunge into the river estuary in Matane. Would our pretty lighthouse be wiped out by NASA’s negligence? Would the shrimp-processing plant explode into billions of pink shells in the Gaspé skies? The very prospect had been enough for the king to declare an afternoon of poetry. Drawings at the ready, we were to rise above the event with dull, dime-a-dozen rhymes. To my great disappointment, a few days later Skylab fell as a handful of scorched pieces into the Indian Ocean, west of Australia. In other words, almost exactly opposite Matane on the globe. The shrimps were saved.
Like many people, I didn’t stay with my parents very long. But books have always accompanied me. Even in an education system that had declared war on literature, I managed, with the help of a few high-school librarians, to satisfy my appetite for reading. Bless them.
At Carleton University in Ottawa, where I was admitted after high school, I was lucky enough to wind up in Alivna Ruprecht’s French literature class. Without so much as looking at the class descriptions, I signed up to every one she happened to be giving. Let’s just say that Professor Ruprecht, by the bright light of her mind and the vibrant energy of her personality, could have made a seminar on growing rutabaga in 17th century northern Latvania nothing short of fascinating. Instead, thank God, Apollinaire, Anouilh, and André Pieyre de Mandiargues featured on the program. The latter, I must confess, was the inspiration behind the orange rabbit eaten by Madeleine and Solange in Rivière-du-Loup in La fiancée américaine. There’s nothing wrong with eating rabbit, if you ask me, provided a good story comes out of it.
I’ll pass over in silence the most wonderful orgasms—sometimes public—that Italo Calvino and Michel Tremblay were kind enough to give me. Nor will I mention the blinding flash of light that one day shot out of the novels of Jeanette Winterson, an English author I had been introduced to by a no-nonsense American girl when I lived in Berlin. No, oranges are not the only fruit. Nothing to say either about Wladimir Krysinski, the suave and sophisticated professor from Université de Montréal’s comparative literature department, who handed me the madness of Julio Cortázar on a cushion embroidered with Polish motifs. We each take our secret weapons where we can find them. Then I came down with a severe case of Durasitis that left me on my knees, but Latin American novels and water exercises picked me right back up again.
My German teachers, serious and pragmatic, brought me back down to earth by introducing me to authors whose Sartrean determination to make literature a realm devoted only to rhetoric reminded me of the hyperrealism of Quebec literature from last century. A terrible injustice has been committed! We are awful! No redemption for us! Yes, probably. But the Germans are also champions of remembering and forgetting, frequent winners in two disciplines I like to practice myself. Winning medals is very important to them.
I share the Germans’ fascination for remembering and forgetting things for the simplest of reasons. I have been afflicted with a photographic memory since childhood. It is not perfect, but the pictures and words it retains are film-like in quality. And so I can perfectly remember the little red fire truck my babysitter gave me for my third birthday in Amqui. I have a very vivid memory of my father’s grimacing face as he changed the dressing on a wound I had given myself on the foot by stepping on a rusty rake that had been lying in the yard. I can still feel the grey wool of the mitts my great-grandmother would knit then mail to us rubbing against my wrists. I can still recite by heart the names of the nine Austrian Länder and their capitals. It’s an ability that comes in very handy when finding your way around German towns with impossible names. And it’s responsible for me recalling the following episode from Rue Saint-Louis in Amqui when I was three years old: Anne Boleyn, contrary to all propriety, had been so bold as to park her car in front of our house as she waited for her lover, Henry VIII, while my mother tried to stop him closing his suitcase.
Madame Théberge, the neighbour who lived opposite and was never short of advice, shouted across from her balcony: “Kill her, Micheline! Kill her!”
I remember that particular lady’s fridge was always full of red and yellow Jell-O. In Amqui, there was a cat that had perched itself on the pole of a washing line and was now meowing for us to come help it down.
It is perhaps this fascination for memory that makes the meeting between Gabriel Lamontagne and Sister Mary of the Eucharist so moving, in my eyes. As he’s leaving the convent in Rivière-du-Loup at the end of La fiancée américaine, she takes a photo of him with a Polaroid camera. This moment, frozen in time, is supposed to forever make him the grandson of Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne, the grandson whom Madeleine had taken away from Rivière-du-Loup, the place where the memory was born.
More than a few common threads run through my stories. School is one of them. The place where we have no choice but to live together. My novels were born of this forced sense of community. I’ve gone back to school every year since 1976. For me, school represents the Other, society, the pack.
And it’s somewhat surprising that a person such as myself—someone of unpredictable humour—has managed to stay in teaching for so long. In Ontario, a place where teaching literature in high school is permitted (indeed ordered) by the powers that be, students have to read and study at least four or five books a year. My students would conscientiously read the pages I assigned them according to a schedule worthy of a Soviet five-year plan. But what they most looked forward to with the excitement of those in love was me closing whatever book we happened to be talking about to tell them tales of satellites falling to earth, washed-up whales dying on the shores of the St. Lawrence, cops, old and peeved Berlin women, and enfants terribles who are allergic to vegetables and lay waste to their neighbours’ gardens. My little Torontonians were my first readers. Long before my head ever appeared in French high-school textbooks in Quebec, my stories had already fallen on the ears of my little Ontarians, leaving them eternally disappointed by my novels since they contain nothing much new to them. Perhaps I’m always trying to explain and speak to them. Perhaps it’s still their laughter I’m waiting for eight seconds before the bell.
A few years ago, when I was still living in Toronto, I was visiting Montreal and browsing around a big bookstore in Côte-des-Neiges. My gaze fell upon a shelf thick with French novels, among them a book whose title reminded me of something or other. I hadn’t seen it in at least thirty years: Les contes du chat perché. It must have taken me a good five minutes to remember the circumstances in which I had met this particular cat. I was tempted to steal the book to pay my debt to the story once and for all, but such places are closely guarded and what would Professor Krysinski have thought when he picked up the newspaper one day only to discover that he could count a book thief among his former students? I paid for the book with a heavy heart. Cecila, an Argentinian friend I hold dear in my heart and to whom I told this story, advised me to read it right up to the second-to-last page, without finishing it. “That way, you and no one else get to decide when you finish it. It’s the only way to be done with this story.” I took her advice. I didn’t read the last page of Les contes du chat perché. And if ever I do, no one will ever know.