Montreal novelist Nelly Arcan committed suicide on Sept. 24 at the age of 36. She was hardly known at all in English Canada, but there has never been a figure like her in Canadian literature, or perhaps anywhere.
The literary world is hardly a stranger to feminine beauty, but the beauty we find among women writers tends to the intellectual, if not the ethereal, with distractions from the athletic, the angelic and the elfin. To find a figure comparable to Nelly Arcan, you have to imagine Marilyn Monroe as a writer - and no ordinary writer. Picture Marilyn Monroe at the age of 28 getting short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Dublin IMPAC prize for her first novel. And then writing a second novel that gets nominated for the Dublin IMPAC prize again. Marilyn Monroe crossed with Zadie Smith and - why not? - Colette.
Nelly Arcan was a nom-de-plume. She was born Isabelle Fortier in Lac Mégantic in the Eastern Townships of Quebec in 1973, moving to Montreal as a student of 19. She rose to international stardom in 2001 when Putain (Paris: Le Seuil, 2001; Whore, NY: Grove Press, 2004), her first novel, was nominated for both the Médicis and the Femina, two of the most prestigious French literary prizes.
Bright and talented and aware, Arcan was also beautiful and - we already knew this long before her death - very fragile. Putain is a work of autofiction (or fictionalized autobiography), so she might have been prepared for journalists' questions about the similarities between the prostitute Cynthia in the novel and Arcan's own experience as a sex worker. She was not. She was panicked and stammering.
She followed up with Folle (2004), also nominated for the Prix Femina. She had, she said, chosen as titles of her two novels the words ("whore" and "crazy") most often applied to women. L'enfant dans le miroir and a third novel A ciel ouvert appeared in 2007. She handed in the final corrections to her fourth novel just three days before she hanged herself. Paradis clé en main is due out Nov. 3 (Montreal: Éditions Coup de tête). Perhaps she will now get published in English in Canada.
She was thin and surprisingly busty, and yes I know we're not supposed to say such things, but Nelly Arcan's physical presence was too eye-catching to ignore. She would have turned heads on a movie set. The literary set had never seen the like.
I have a memory of her signing copies of Putain at the Salon du livre de Montréal in 2001, sitting very straight behind a table of books, wearing a tight-fitting sweater made of pale blue mohair, her hair very blond and very chic. And I have a different kind of memory of her a few years later, after Folle came out, at the Blue Metropolis festival; this time her hair was straggly and dark, and she looked a bit of a mess. There is a photographic tribute to her here.
She had issues, it seems, about the way she presented herself to the world. What woman writer does not? What woman does not? There's a thoughtful piece about Arcan in the French literary and cultural magazine BSC News by Montreal writer Aline Apostolska: "Women's writing is always about the body, the flesh, about what the body is used for. Especially when her books are sold on the strength of the way she looks. Nelly Arcan came up with a great expression for the Western woman's need for physical perfection: the burqa of the body."
Nelly Arcan's death has been overshadowed in Quebec by that of nationalist filmmaker and author Pierre Falardeau, who died of cancer on Sept. 25. His funeral last week attracted the big political guns and inspired fists to be raised on behalf of the independence of Quebec. The loss of Nelly Arcan is sadder and quieter, but she is the one who may become legendary.