Gaétan Soucy, the brooding Quebec writer and existential philosopher, once described himself in an interview as “a fool who believes that creating literary works will save me. If I should be unable to write, it would be fitting that I die at once.”
The author of four novels, most notably The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, which has been translated into more than 20 languages, Mr. Soucy died July 9 in Montreal of a heart attack. He was 54 and had published nothing in more than a decade.
His last novel, Vaudeville!, appeared in 2002 and was shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Award. His equally dark The Immaculate Conception was a Giller Prize nominee four years later when it appeared in English but was actually his first book, having been published in French in 1994.
“He was a complex, strange and difficult man, a great writer. Writing was necessary for him – as necessary as waking up in the morning,” says acclaimed translator Sheila Fischman, who worked on two of his books.
Although, she says, “he was warm, generous and funny with a tremendous curiosity – a tremendous cultural curiosity; he read and travelled widely – there was also a very dark side to him. He battled demons.”
Shy and reserved, Mr. Soucy also could be a stimulating conversationalist. Students describe him as a provocative teacher who liked to play chess and the piano – and drink beer.
All of his books are preoccupied with themes of alienation, his characters all rooted in isolated places. But like many people from remote and distinct societies, they survive on their own terms.
“It’s true he had his ups and downs,” says his publisher, Pascal Assathiany. “He was intimidated by compliments. But he certainly knew what he was doing and what he was about.”
Mr. Assatiany had been led to believe that Mr. Soucy was working on a new book, but plagued by self-doubt. “He wasn’t ready to publish it, but I don’t think he had given up on it. Each time I saw him, he said he was going to send me something.”
Gaétan Soucy was born Oct. 21, 1958, to parents who raised seven children in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a working-class district in Montreal’s east end.
His interest in literature was stimulated when, at 15, a book by Edgar Allan Poe appealed to his dark sense of humour. He was both a voracious and eclectic reader, his tastes ranging from Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to Samuel Beckett, Roberston Davies and René Déscartes. At the Université de Montréal, he studied mathematics and astrophysics, writing his master’s thesis on German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
As a fledgling writer, he began a book, but it was to elude him for 15 years. So, to supplement his income, he taught philosophy at Collège Édouard-Montpetit in Longueuil, on Montreal’s south shore.
He also fell in love with Japan, travelling there in 1986 to immerse himself in the culture, returning for several summers, studying the language at McGill University, and having a daughter with a Japanese partner.
When his first book finally appeared, The Globe and Mail’s critic deemed The Immaculate Conception a chillingly agile story of ritualized brutality straight out of Poe.
“Soucy’s metaphysics are potent, the details dense, yet the bones of the story disarmingly bared ... it is a bit like watching the plate spinners on Ed Sullivan … Soucy’s fabulist juggling can be so frenetic, it is easier to dwell on effect than on mechanics. What keeps you reading, finally, is cynicism, the urge to see whether the acrobatics can be pulled off without smashing the dinnerware.”
Inspired by what he called “a sinister atmosphere of country devastated by winter,” he wrote The Little Girl in less than a month during the massive 1998 ice storm that paralyzed much of Quebec.
The narrative unfolds as the protagonist, a 16-year-old girl, who believes she is a boy, goes to a nearby village to buy a casket after the death of her reclusive father. In the process, she discovers the truth about the real world.
On the bestseller list for 32 weeks, the book was awarded France’s Prix Renaudot and praised in The Washington Post as “bitterly intelligent but savagely morbid.” It prompted Le Monde to declare its author “a master of suspense who gives life to enigmas ... While his tale becomes more and more explicit as it progresses, it also becomes more mysteriously pulsating.”
Vaudeville! is the book that eluded him for years – the fantastic tale of Xavier Mortanse, a young immigrant to New York who, in the course of demolishing a perfectly good theatre building, unearths a box that contains a singing frog and shares the frustration of actors being thrown out of work.
Mr. Assathiany, his publisher, says Mr. Soucy “had a great literary style. His inventive use of language was unique. He was well aware that the reason he was so highly regarded and respected by his peers was not just because of luck.”
Yet he often lamented the fact that fewer people are reading and despaired that all the effort he put in his writing was perhaps wasted.
“For the young there is no history; they think the world has been created just for them,” he told The Globe and Mail’s Ray Conlogue in 2003. “As they say to themselves, ‘We are living in the real world now, and everything before us was just a kind of stuttering.’”
“What they have lost is a sense of what the world is,” he added. “We all live in a fiction, but that is not the same thing as saying we live in an illusion.
“My relation with my country and with my family is deeply fictional. All of us must dream at night.”
Ms. Fischman, who translated Atonement, the 1997 book many believe is his best (it was awarded the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal), says that she was “blown away by his tremendous intelligence,” but describes his work as “very literary and sometimes difficult to read.”
As a result, he enjoyed “great critical success and laudatory reviews,” she adds, but “I don’t think he had the commercial success which he deserved.”
(Not that the critical kudos were universal. Catoblépas, his play about a woman who leaves a mental institution after 20 years to find that her son, raised by a nun in her absence, is a monster, was dismissed as the product of “someone who has no idea how theatre works.”)
Even a prepared statement after his death by Quebec Culture Minister Makka Kotto noted that Mr. Soucy “had a vocabulary and a syntax that could frustrate a reader and at the same time pierce the heart. But his use of every word, every comma, can be justified.”
Similarly, before this week’s federal cabinet shuffle gave him a new portfolio, heritage minister James Moore declared that, as a literary artist, Mr. Soucy “will continue to hold a place of honour in the history of French-language literature.”
But the opening paragraph of Atonement may best serve as his eulogy:
“The fundamental disaster which fashions the reality of the world is the inevitable death of those we love. Anyone who claims to believe in the unreality of things need only be reminded of the reality of mourning.”
Gaétan Soucy’s funeral is to be held on Saturday. He leaves his daughter, Sayaka, his parents and six brothers and sisters.
A TASTE OF SOUCY
From The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches:
The inspector approached me with the coffee and I think I can say from the way he was behaving that he thought I was someone who deserved to live. He hesitated before a fair number of sentences, his lips moved, but words didn’t come out.
Finally he said, “Why do you always talk about yourself as if you were a boy? And your accent, where on earth did you get that … didn’t you know you are a girl?”
And even I’d say,” – his lips uncovered all of his teeth which made me think of sunshine when it cleans a little path between two clouds on our estate – “and even I would say, a very very pretty one.”
And I swear he said that second very in italics. “Maybe a little grimy,” he added, because nothing is unalloyed beneath the salt of heaven, not even kind words.