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by Bamber Gascoigne

Anne Hébert (1916-2000)


French-Canadian novelist, poet, playwright, and short-story writer, noted for her examination of the lives of the Quebeçois. Anne Hébert combined realism and symbolism, and reworked the tradition of the historical novel. In her poems Hébert used free verse with dense, almost surrealistic images. Her novels, of which the most famous is Kamouraska (1970), show influence of the French nouveau roman and postmodern narrative techniques.

"Oh, how I love to walk through the streets, with the image of my virtue just a few steps ahead! Never out of my sight. Eyes peeled, like a prison guard. Always on that image. The Sacred Host in the holy procession. And me, right behind, like a silly litte goose. Yes, that's all a virtuous woman is. A gaping fool that stuts along, staring at the image of her honor . . . " (from Kamouraska)

Anne Hébert was born in the small village of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Québec city. Until age 11, she was educated at home by her parents, partly because she was suffering from a childhood illness. She started to write poetry in her teens under the tutelage of her father, Maurice-Lang Hébert (1888-1960), a provincial civil servant and a distinguished literary critic. Hébert mother, Marguerite Marie Taché, contributed her daughter's interest in storytelling and the world of theatre. The first things she wrote were plays, which she staged with the help of her brothers and sisters. With her brother Jean she used to tell each other stories, many times based on the books they read, H.C. Andersen, Edgar Allan Poe, the Comtesse de Ségur, Louis Hémon. "You have to dream a lot to write..." she once said in an interview. ('Anne Hébert: Playing with Fire,' in Interviews to Literature by Jean Royer,  1996, p. 15)

A formative person in Hébert's life was her cousin, Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau (1912-43), a poet four years her senior, who died of a heart attack at the age of 31. He was Hébert's frequent companion during her youth. In 'Mort' (Death) from Les Songes en Éguilabre (1942) she wrote: "left  alone / With a noble Christ / In my arms." Hébert's sister Marie died in 1952.

Hébert attended Collège Saint-Coeur de Marie, Merici, Quebec, and Collège Notre Dame, Bellevue, Quebec. In the 1940s, Hébert was briefly affiliated with the newly established government film bureau. From 1950 to 1954 Hébert wrote scripts for Radio Canada, and then worked as a scriptwriter and editor for National Film Board of Canada (1953-54, 1959-60). With the support of a grant from the Société Royale of Canada, she moved to Paris in the mid-1950s, the location of many of his stories, but made frequent visits to Montréal. Eventually in 1967, she settled in Paris. In her voluntary exile, Hébert often dealt with the themes of isolation, alienation, and repressive nature of small communities.

Hébert's first collection of poems, Les Songes en Éguilabre, was a kind of farewell to the innocent joys of childhood. Its tone was far from the images of her next book, Le Torrent (1950, The Torrent), a collection of short stories, which was rejected by editors for its violence. Eventually it was self-published. In Le Tombeau des Rois (1953, The Tomb of the Kings), her second book of poetry, Hébert explored her anguish, the stifling responsibilities of maturity, and repression and revolt. Poèmes (1960) earned her the Governor General's Literary Award. In 1960 she was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and she was a Companion of the Order of Canada. During her literary career, Hébert received several honorary doctorates.

Fantastic elements were present already in Hébert's first novel, Les Chambres de bois (1958, The Silent Rooms), and continued to appear in her subsequent works, such as in the darkly humorous Héloïse (1980), in which the title character, Héloïse, belongs to a community of vampires that dwells among abandoned Parisian subway stations and when not drinking Bloody Marys, suck the blood of Métro passengers. Open to many intepretions, in this Hébert's work the vampire can be understood as a metaphor for hidden otherness.

Les Chambres de bois was about a woman whose husband has a horror of sex. The heroine, Catherine, revolts against the marital prison, and breaks out of the rooms of the title. Kamouraska, which began the cycle set in the 19th-century Quebec, was based on historical murder case and stories Hébert's mother had told her. The protagonist is woman, who remembers the time twenty years ago, when she conspired with her American lover to murder her husband. Some real-life names were changed in the novel: the victim Achile Taché became Antoine Tassy, the murderer, Doctor George Holmes, was renamed Doctor George Nelson, and accused murderess, Josephte-Joséphine Taché, who was a member of Hébert's mother's family, is is Elisabeth Tassy.

Hébert's narrative moves from first person to the third, she enters the mind of Elisabeth, and reveals her revolt behind her submissive appearence: "A swine! His words, my husband's very words. Yes, that's what he is. A swine. That's just what he is." But she refuses to join her lover in his flight. Explaining Elisabeth's decision Hébert said in an interview. "For Elisabeth, total freedom would have meant the freedom to leave. In this era, it was very difficult: she did not have the strenght to do it". (Women and Narrative Identity: Rewriting the Quebec National Text by Mary Jean Matthews Green, 2001, pp. 97) By 2001, Kamouraska had been translated into thirteen languages. Hébert co-wrote with the director Claude Jutka the screenplay for its film version (1973), starring Geneviève Bujold.

Les Enfants du Sabbat (1975, Children of the Black Sabbath), set in a Quebec convent, was a tale of witchcraft, incest, and intercourse with the devil. Julie, the protagonist, is dedicated to sorcery and lives out a perverse version of the virgin birth. Not surprisingle, Hébert once described her own work as "playing with fire." ('Anne Hébert' by Eva-Marie Kröller, in Canadian Literature. Quaterly of Criticism and Review, Summer 2000, p. 7) The novel was poortly received in Quebec, but it won the Governor General's Literary Award.

Les fous de Bassan (1982, In the Shadow of the Wind) depicted people in an isolated English-speaking village in the Gaspésie region. Ronald Ewing has argued that Hébert chose the local "to create a mood and use a writing style which are both strongly identified with William Faulkner". ('Anglophone Presence in the Early Novels of Anne Hébert' by Douglas L. Boudreau, The French Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, December 2000, p. 308) Six narratives relate from different angles rape and murder of two cousins, Nora and Olivia Atkins. One of the narrator is their cousin Steven Brown, the murderer. Nicolas Jones, the pastor, opens the novel. Both men represent male power. Nora also tells her story, and about her sexual awakening. "I know about boys. That sting in the middle of their bodies, while I, I am hollow and moist. Waiting." The sixth narrator is the spirit of Olivia. The book was a best seller in Canada and in France it was awarded the 1982 Prix Femina. "The power in this haunting book - a power that seems in no way diminished in translation - comes from the language, the rich, inventive images, the heated, melodious prose. The winds Anne Hebert stirs up in her readers' minds do not die down until long after the book has been closed." (C. B. Bryan in The New York Times, July 22, 1984)

In the late 1990s, Hébert returned to Canada after learning she was terminally ill. She died of bone cancer on January 22, 2000, in Montreal, Quebec, and was buried in her native village in the cemetery of the Church of Saint-Dominique. Hébert never married and had no children. Her final novel, Un Habit de lumière, about a family torn apart by secred dreams, came out in 1998. Again there is a fusion of contrasts typical of Hébert's work: the day and night, good and evil, life and death, the loss of innocence and redemption and grace. The protagonist is a young boy, called Miguel, who has a strong desire to be a girl. Hébert was often described as a quiet, reserved person, but in many photographs taken of her, she seems to be happy and enjoying life.

For further reading: Le centenaire d'Anne Hébert: approches critiques, sous la direction de Nathalie Watteyne (2018); A Journey in Translation: Anne Hébert's Poetry in English by Lee Skallerup Bessette (2016); Re-writing Women into Canadian History: Margaret Atwood and Anne Hébert by Elodie Rousselot (2013); Anne Hébert: Essays on her Works, edited by Lee Skallerup (2010); Telling Anxiety: Anxious Narration in the Work of Marguerite Duras, Annie Ernaux, Nathalie Sarraute, and Anne Hébert by Jennifer Willging (2007) The Art and Genius of Anne Hebert: Essays on Her Works: Night and the Day Are One, ed. by Janis L. Pallister (2001); 'Anne Hébert' by Eva-Marie Kröller, in Canadian Literature. Quaterly of Criticism and Review (Summer 2000); Anne Hébert: In Search of the First Garden by Kelton W. Knight (1999); Anne Hébert, son oeuvre, leurs exils by Neil B. Bishop (1993); Anne Hébert by Janet M. Paterson (1985); La femme à la fenêtre by Maurice Émond (1984); Anne Hébert by Delbert W. Russell (1983); La quête d'équilibre dans l'oeuvre romanesque d'Anne Hébert by Serge A. Thériault (1980); 'Hébert, Anne,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Entre songe et parole by P.H. Lemieux (1978); Anne Hébert by R. Lacôte (1969); Anne Hébert by P.Pagé (1965)

Selected works:

  • Les Songes en Éguilabre, 1942 (the Prix Athanase-David) [Dreams in Equilibrium] 
  • Le Torrent, 1950
    - The Torrent: Novellas and Short Stories (translated by Gwendolyn Moore, 1973)
  • Le Tombeau des Rois, 1953
    - The Tomb of the Kings (Toronto: Contact Press, 1967) 
  • La mercière assassinée, 1958 (screenplay, dir. by Jean Faucher)
  • Les Chambres de bois, 1958 (the Prix Québeck-Paris)
    - The Silent Rooms: A Novel (translated by Kathy Mezei, 1974)
  • Poèmes, 1960 (Governor General's Award)
    - Poems (translated by Alan Brown, 1975)
  • Saint-Denys Garneau and Anne Hébert, 1962 (bilingual; translations/traductions by F. R. Scott)
  • Le Temps sauvage, 1967 (play)
  • Les Invitées au procès: théâtre, 1967 (play)  
  • Dialogue sur la traduction, 1970 (with Frank Scott)
  • Les petites villes, 1970
  • Kamouraska, 1970 (the Prix des Libraires, France; Prix de l'Académie Royale of Belgium)
    - Kamouraska: A Novel (translated by Norman Shapiro, 1973)
    - Suuri rakkaus (suom. Matti Brotherus, 1971)
    - film in 1973, prod. France Cinéma Productions, Les Productions Carle-Lamy, Parc Film, dir. by Claude Jutra, screenplay by Anne Hébert, starring Geneviève Bujold, Richard Jordan, Marcel Cuvelier, Suzie Baillargeon 
  • Les Enfants du sabbat: roman, 1975 (the Governor General's Award; the Prix de L'Académie Française)
    - Children of the Black Sabbath (translated by Carol Dunlop-Hébert, 1977) 
  • L'Ile de la demoiselle, 1979
    - Two Plays: The cage and L'Ile de la demoiselle (translated by Pamela Grant & Gregory J. Reid and Sheila Fischman, 2010)
  • Héloïse: roman, 1980
    - Héloïse: A Novel (translated by Sheila Fischman, 1982)
  • Les Fous de Bassan: roman, 1982 (the Prix Fémina; France)
    - In the Shadow of the Wind (translated by Sheila Fischman) 
    - film in 1986, prod. Cinévidéo, Les Films Ariane, TF1 Films Production, dir. by Yves Simoneau, starring Steve Banner, Charlotte Valandrey, Laure Marsac 
  • Selected Poems, 1987 (translated by A. Poulin, Jr.)
  • Le Premier Jardin: roman, 1988 (The First Garden)
  • La cage, 1989 (play; prod.)
    - Two Plays: The cage and L'Ile de la demoiselle (translated by Pamela Grant & Gregory J. Reid and Sheila Fischman, 2010)
  • L'Enfant chargé de songes, 1992 ((the Governor General's Award)
    - Burden of Dreams (translated by Sheila Fischman, 1994)
  • Le Jour n'a d'égal que la nuit, 1992 (the Prix Alain-Grandbois)
    - Day Has No Equal But Night (translated by A. Poulin, Jr., 1994)
  • Oeuvre poétique, 1950-1990, 1992
  • Aurélien, Clara, Mademoiselle, et le Lieutenant anglais; récit, 1995
    - Aurélien, Clara, Mademoiselle, and the English Lieutenent (translated by Sheila Fischman)
  • Poèmes pour la main gauche, 1997
  • Est-ce que je te dérange?: récit, 1998
    - Am I Disturbing You? (translated by Sheila Fischman, 1999)
  • Un Habit de lumiere: roman, 1999 (the Prix France/Québec/Jean-Hamelin)
    - A Suit of Light: A Novel (translated by Sheila Fischman, 2000)
  • Lectures d'Anne Hébert: Aliénation et contestation, 1999
  • Anne Hébert: Collected Later Novels, 2003 (translated by Sheila Fishman)
  • Romans. Extraits, 2015 (Œuvres complètes d'Anne Hébert; IV)

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