24 October 2011

Recognizing Nelly Arcan

Whore [Putain]
Nelly Arcan [trans. Bruce Benderson]
New York: Black Cat, 2004

Nelly Arcan was in the news again last month with a new book, Burqua de chair. Between its covers she writes of humiliation, her words inspired by a 2007 appearance on Tout le monde en parle. Don't know it? François Lauzon devoted a piece to this autowreck in The Gazette.

Arcan hanged herself just over two years ago. There were obituaries. "Acclaimed Quebec Writer Who Penned 'Whore' Found Dead in Montreal" read the headline fed by the Canadian Press. The Moose Jaw Times Herald published all 220 words. It is the only time that her name has appeared in its pages. The best obituary published outside the province – and there is no coincidence in this – came from a fellow Quebecer, Linda Leith. Of this novel, Leith writes:
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.
Writing has always been a solitary occupation, but we now expect our authors to take the stage on radio, on television, at book fairs and at literary festivals. Arcan's beauty, a publisher's dream, did distract. "She was thin and surprisingly busty," writes Leith, "and yes I know we’re not supposed to say such things, but Nelly Arcan’s physical presence was too eye-catching to ignore."

And yet, Arcan was ignored. Take away the obits and you'll find that she received next to no attention from the English language media outside Quebec. One wonders why. Where were the publishers? Were they really so ignorant of her talent? Or is it that pervasive puritanism and provincialism had them looking the other way? This English translation of Putain, Arcan's accomplished debut – a nominee for both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina – wound up being published by Black Cat, an imprint of New York's Grove/Atlantic. I've never once seen it in a bookstore.

Arcan's final novel, Paradis, Clef en main, completed in the days before her death, has just been published in translation by Vancouver's Anvil Press. Titled Exit, it has been nominated for a Governor General's Award. I've never once seen it in a bookstore.

This is not a review, but a recommendation. If you haven't already, read Whore and then Exit. If your French is good – or even shaky – track down Folle. All are extraordinary works by a woman who is at once amongst this country's most recognized and most overlooked writers.

Object and Access: An attractive trade-size paperback – that's the author on the front cover. Unread copies, all first printings – there was no second – can be bought online for one dollar. Whore is found in eight Canadian libraries: the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, the Toronto Public Library, the Vancouver Public Library and the libraries of Dalhousie, McGill, York, the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. Shame on all the others.

Putain, a bestseller, is readily available in bookstores and libraries in the province of Quebec... and in France, Belgium and Switzerland.


  1. I only just heard of Arcan via August Bourré's excellent review in the latest issue of CNQ (containing Fetherling's very favourable review of your Glassco book, which I've just ordered).

    The Bourré review is not online, so I can't link to it. That was my first reaction: everyone should know about this book. An online search for Arcan reveals the paucity of English-language coverage of her work. How sad that the media is Canada in English is so slow to pick up on these things. The public would of course be interested, but how are they supposed to learn?

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Mr. McIlroy. I do hope my review will help others find their way to her work.