Why doesn't our prize-infested world offer an award for the quirkiest, thickest, most infuriating book of the year? It's the one prize Gordon Sheppard would surely win for HA! A Self-Murder Mystery (McGill-Queen's University Press, 870 pages, $39.95).
HA! concerns the death of Hubert Aquin (1929-1977), the avant-garde novelist, whose suicide was a trauma for intellectual Quebec. At a glance it resembles other longish academic books, but the content is far from ordinary. It's a biographical stew, more dossier than narrative, crammed with interviews, letters, photos and maps.
It sounds like a recipe for literary disaster but turns out to be the strangely enlivening story of a chronic depressive and at the same time a sympathetic treatise on suicide that inadvertently provides excellent reasons for staying alive (one reason: eventually you get to read about grotesque culture heroes like Aquin).
Sheppard spent more than two decades studying that famous death, interviewing everyone from Aquin's intimate women friends (naturally, each of them thought she was the one who understood him) to his cleaning lady. Perhaps few will read this ungainly tome, but those who do are unlikely to regret it. I began it almost on a whim and found myself incapable of stopping.
Sheppard takes us deep into an exotic world, now mainly forgotten even by those who lived it, where romantic nationalism became a generation's mad obsession, where poets and singers were suddenly society's heroes, and where otherwise sensible Montrealers spoke of revolution as if it were likely to happen at any minute.
Aquin, who was drunk on revolution when not drunk on alcohol, was close to that world's centre. At times, in fact, he seemed to be the centre, particularly when critics called him both the greatest Quebec writer of the day and the most potent figure in Quebec culture. He was a handsome intellectual with a genius for recasting his daily existence as melodrama. "It is my life that will turn out to have been my super-masterpiece," he declared. Somehow he transmuted the petty failures of his work into an approximation of tragedy.
He taught a little but didn't like it. He was a Radio-Canada and National Film Board producer who found the work unsatisfying. He yearned for a career in business, dreamt of being a banker, even tried being a stockbroker. He nursed fantasies of driving in the Grand Prix. He lost his job with a book publishing company owned by Power Corporation, mainly because he publicly accused his boss, Roger Lemelin, of being a colonialist. Though Aquin's luck was never good (when a newspaper hired him as editor, it folded three days later), he collaborated with misfortune. He sought rejection as if it were the Holy Grail. Some friends considered his entire working life a succession of suicides.
Money, of course, was always short. From time to time he dodged writs of seizure from his first wife, whose child-support payments he had trouble maintaining, and at his death he left his second wife $10,000 in debt. His books were more admired than read; in his last year the royalties from his four novels amounted to $1,698.34.
He was no more successful in another career choice -- freedom fighter. In 1964 he announced he was going "underground" to promote a free Quebec through terrorist acts. (Do revolutionaries normally announce they are going underground? Listen, it was Quebec in the '60s -- what can I tell you?) Instead he spent four months in a psychiatric clinic. That was where he wrote his first novel, Prochain épisode (1965), about an imprisoned revolutionary.
Aquin scripted and starred in his own death. As with many suicides, it had out-of-town tryouts. In his own mind it ran in previews for many years: "Since the age of 15 I have not ceased wishing for a beautiful suicide." He was compulsively literary, so naturally, when he made an early attempt to commit suicide in a room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, he registered under the name of one of his fictional protagonists, a character who commits suicide. Naturally he never paid the bill because no such person existed.
He often discussed the inevitability of his suicide with Andrée Yanacopoula, the Tunisian-born doctor of Greek-French parentage who shared his last 12 years, became the mother of his third son and provides Sheppard's best material. Hubert let Andrée know when he was about to shoot himself, and after it happened she said she understood. His friend Gerald Godin, the poet and politician, wrote: "I think Hubert made a complete success of his suicide. Hubert's only masterpiece is his suicide."
His first wife was less enthusiastic. She saw him as a selfish scoundrel who left her and their two boys penniless. "I can only speak ill of him," she said. It angered her that he killed himself outside the Villa Maria convent, the location of her happy schoolgirl memories. "It was no doubt a way for him to have his revenge."
Sheppard loads on to the Aquin story his own sexual-political theories (he thinks the Conquest of 1759 emasculated the Quebec male, which in turn "led to the conquest of the Quebec male by the Quebec female") and discusses his own problems with his mom. He lards his book with quotes from many historic figures and lists famous suicides, casually mixing the fictional with the historical, so that Sylvia Plath, Socrates and Kurt Cobain appear alongside Juliet and Emma Bovary. If Aquin speaks of science, Sheppard throws in photos of Francis Crick and James D. Watson. Sheppard also finds several occasions to mention the feature film he produced in 1975, Eliza's Horoscope, which is seldom mentioned by anyone else.
Pasted into the book we find an envelope that contains Hubert's last letter to Andrée, reproduced right down to the yellow lined paper he used. In another envelope there's a reproduction of his last postcard to his son.
It all seems too much, a frantic waving for attention. And yet the core of the material, Aquin's astonishing story and the still more astonishing Montreal of the 1970s, come through clearly and unforgettably. Despite himself, despite his taste for self-display, Sheppard has made an exceptional book. His description of a moment in history has become in itself a bizarre literary event.