Authors: Douglas Glover
Tags: #FIC019000, FIC014000
Critical acclaim for
A National Bestseller
Winner, Governor General's Award for Fiction
Shortisted, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Shortlisted, Best Book, Canada and the
Caribbean, Commonwealth Writers' Prize
is a magnificent hail Mary of pure imaginationâ¦
a ribald, raunchy wit with a talent for searing self-investigation.”
The Globe and Mail
“A magical novel that manages to plumb the depths of religious
wonderment, even while it is also a wild, nearly pagan celebration
of what is ribald in man and nature.” â Oscar Hijuelos
“Only Douglas Glover could write such a bawdy, outrageously
modern historical novel.” â Michael Winter
“Douglas Glover imagines our history as no one else canâ¦ Equal to
in its contribution to Canadian mythography.”
“Knotty, intelligent, often raucously funny.” â
“A packed read, delivering imagery, history, humour, and
wonderfully creative writing.” â
“A wickedly smart narrative and a post-modern,
wise-cracking approach to history.” â
“A boisterously bawdy re-dreaming of the birth of the nation.”
“A historical novel with a postmodern heartâ¦
frozen nether world between fantasy and reality.”
Winnipeg Free Press
Also by Douglas Glover
The Mad River
The South Will Rise at Noon
A Guide to Animal Behaviour
The Life and Times of Captain N.
16 Categories of Desire
Notes Home from a Prodigal Son
The Enamoured Knight
Copyright Â© 2003, 2007 by Douglas Glover.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). To contact Access Copyright, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call 1-800-893-5777.
by Lev Dolgatshjov, istockphoto.com.
Cover design by Kent Fackenthall.
Book design by Julie Scriver.
Printed in Canada
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Glover, Douglas, 1948-
Elle: a novel / Douglas Glover.
Originally published 2003.
PS8563.L64E45 2007Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C813'.54Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C2007-900210-2
Goose Lane Editions acknowledges the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP), and the New Brunswick Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport for its publishing activities.
Goose Lane Editions
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For my mother, Jean.
Neither words nor time enough to say my thanks.
I first came across the story of a girl marooned in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Francis Parkman's history of New France. The best account of her adventures and what was written about them at the time is in Arthur P Stabler's little book
The Legend of Marguerite de Roberval.
The native words Elle uses in this book come from lexicons attributed to Jacques Cartier in Bernard G. Hoffman's
Cabot to Cartier: Sources for a Historical Ethnography of Northeastern North America 1497-1550.
Itslk's story of Tongarsoak appearing as a white bear is suggested in Mircea Eliade's
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.
I am indebted to Robert Mandrou's
Introduction to Modern France, 1500-1640: An Essay in Historical Psychology
for the Latin prayer against toothache, sixteenth-century French menus, herbal remedies and other details of daily life. The little speech Elle's mother makes was actually uttered by Jean Gerson's father in the fourteenth century, according to J. Huizinga in
The Waning of the Middle Ages.
The reading list Francois Rabelais gives Elle comes from, well, Rabelais â I was using Burton Raffel's modern translation.
I have plundered many other gorgeous books, too many to list, but especially
Labrador Winter: The Ethnographic Journals of William Duncan Strong, 1927-1928,
edited by Eleanor Leacock and Nan Rothschild; Frank Speck's
Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula;
A. Irving Hallowell's
in the Northern Hemisphere;
and Alfred Bailey's
The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures 1504-1700.
Also, of course, Cartier's own account of his travels in Canada and Roberval's fragmentary narrative, which, in Hakluyt's version of 1600, does end in midstream with the words, “The rest of the voyage is wanting.”
The reader should not confuse the territory known to Cartier and Roberval as the Kingdom of Saguenay with the contemporary Saguenay River which joins the St. Lawrence at Tadoussac. Cartier thought the Kingdom of Saguenay was northwest of Montreal, up the Ottawa River.
Otherwise, I have tried to mangle and distort the facts as best I can.
I have said nothing about my mother. I did have one. She gave birth to three others before me, bore a dead baby every year after, and died in childbirth when I was five. She adhered to the quiet piety of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who were later persecuted by the Dominicans. But she was also addicted to religious enthusiasms
sleepless vigils, fasting
which I thinly gave her dreams as strange as my own in Canada. When she spotke of them, her cheeks would burn with shameful delight. Once I saw her in the chapel, licking God's foot. When I was four, she swept into my room, pregnant, weeping, her hair in disarray, a beeswax mortuary taper in her hand. She stood with her back against the wall, her arms stretched out, and said, Thus, child, was your God crucified, who made and saved you. This was as close as we ever came to knowing one another, and soon after the nurse Bastienne came to care for me.
I remember this: Itslk describing the difficulties of seal hunting. Seals love to bask on the ice next to their breathing holes. Killing them is tricky because their bodies often fall through the holes and disappear. The hunter must sneak as close as possible to the seal so that he can race forward and catch it before it is lost. But this also is difficult because seals sleep in catnaps, nodding off for a few seconds, then starting awake and peering around for signs of danger. A good hunter copies the seal's habits, peeping his head down, then
popping up and scurrying forward. When hunting a seal, Itslk said, it is necessary to imitate the seal precisely, to become a seal.
I remember this: When I was six years old, I sneaked into my father's secret room where he kept his books. He had fallen asleep over a volume he had borrowed from the months. It lay open on his lap to a map of the world, Mappe Mundi. I was a jealous child. Father never paid enough attention to me. I stealthily lifted the book from his twitching fingers and, hiding in a corner, tore the page into strips and ate it. When he awoke and saw what I had done, he was so enraged he snatched off my shift and whipped me till I thought I would die. I might have done, too, except I noticed the door open a crack and slipped through when his grip loosened.
I ran from the house and kept on until I reached the forest. I heard children laughing and singing and followed the sounds till I came upon a pit where the villagers dug sand for their roads. The hollow was alive with peasant children playing tag, sliding on the sandbanks and digging birds' nests. When they saw me standing above without any clothes on, with my hand over my privates, they laughed, for they knew who I was and enjoyed my embarrassment.
But there was a stranger among them, a tall, unshaven man, dressed like a mummer or an actor, with rat skulls dangling from his belt, a patch on one eye and a set of bagpipes in a travelling pack over his shoulder. He gently shushed the village children and dug in his pack till he found an old shirt, which he handed to me. He smelled of cinnamon and rose petals, an odd smell for a man. He touched my cheek with a finger and raised one eyebrow as if to ask a question.
I wanted to join the games, but the children were shy of me and hung back. The stranger had been watching a small, frail child I
recognized as the village shoemaker's club-footed son. The boy never glanced up, even when I was naked, but concentrated on the crude serpent he was carving in the sandpit floor, a tiny wriggling shape with a viper's head and a tapering tail. The stranger dropped to his knees and began to dig with the shoemaker's son, shaping the scaly back of the thing in the earth, inserting a forked stick for a tongue and pebbles for the eyes.
In ones and twos, the other children began to join the statue game. Larger and larger snakes appeared in the damp sand, then a prodigious fish with a spear in its back, and a fantastic beast the stranger carved and called a crocodile, which no one had ever heard of. Someone sculpted a turtle out of a hummock, a girl drew a circle around two swallow burrows in the pit wall and made a face with the holes for eyes. With the stranger's help, the statues grew grander, more complicated and refined. Every animal known to the children, and some not known, erupted from the pit floor. I carved a bird in flight, and, with the club-foot boy's help, something that might have been a dog or a small bear. We put twigs in the paws for claws.
Faces loomed on every wall, laughing faces, gloomy faces, elephant faces, horse faces. The stranger picked a spot where the pit wall drove outward like a flying buttress and painstakingly carved the face of an immense monkey. With its palms clapped to its ears, it seemed wise and benevolent yet somehow sinister. The children started a new game, pretending it was the lord of the place, but tried not to look that way.
Next to my bear, I started a tower. Suddenly cities and castles began to sprout on every vacant piece of pit floor. Great walls and dikes were thrown up. Rivers, lakes and moats wound among the statues. Some were trampled in the rush to build. Wars broke out. Boys catapulted clods of earth at one another's fortifications. The walls grew ever higher, with gates, drawbridges, crenellated parapets,
bastions, towers and buttresses. Kingdoms rose and fell and rose again.
The excited builders scavenged loose sand from old statues to build new ones. The first snake disappeared and along with it the huge fish and the crocodile. I tore up my flying bird to repair a crumbling citadel, which disappeared in the next war. The faces along the pit walls underwent grim modifications. Monsters appeared, sad, deformed faces leered out at us from every side, pocked with spear thrusts. The stranger's monkey remained untouched, though even it altered subtly as the day wore on, beginning to lose definition.
At first I could not tell what caused this. Whenever I glanced that way, the monkey sent a shiver down my spine. Then I noticed how steadily the wind blew, and the way dry sand flaked off, scouring the sandpit walls, eroding the statues, gradually robbing them of detail and form. The stranger saw it, too. His hand tousled the club-foot boy's tow-coloured hair. The boy peered up adoringly. The stranger caught my eye. His face wore the same quizzical expression as when he handed me the shirt. It felt like an invitation, an invitation that froze my heart. The stranger shrugged as if to say, Never mind. I'll come for you again. Hefting his pack, he offered his hand to the club-foot boy. When he stood, the rat skulls clattered at his waist.