Reviewed by Allison Holloway
As Always: Memoir of a Life in Writing. Talonbooks, 2015.
As Always: Memoir of a Life in Writing explores both the personal and political life of one of Quebec’s most esteemed literary voices and critics, Madeleine Gagnon. Gagnon is the recipient of the Journal de Montreal’s Grand Prix de poésie, the Governor General’s Award for her collection of poetry, Chant pour un Québec lointain, and the Prix Athanase-David for her entire body of work, among others; the English edition of As Always (translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott) has also been shortlisted for the 2015 Cole Foundation Prize for Translation (Quebec Writers’ Foundation). Similar to Gagnon’s previous works, As Always explores themes of linguistic, gendered, and political identity, and the inevitable tension between one’s various identities and rural Québécois life. Gagnon’s biography is an elegantly written journey in self-discovery and an exploration of the inherent tensions of being a Québécoise academic in the 1960s.
Gagnon was born into a large family in the small rural Quebec town of Amqui in 1938. At that time the Roman Catholic Church wielded a large influence over the rural populations, and thus controlled Gagnon’s role as a Québécoise woman. Fortunately her parents valued education and, more specifically, a girl’s education. Gagnon’s love of learning was immediate and manifested itself in her voracious reading. The more she read, the more she questioned her faith and a woman’s role in French Quebec society. As Always explores her attempts to reconcile her waning faith and her growing consciousness as an intellectual, indépendiste, and feminist.
As Always is a passionate and in-depth analysis of Gagnon’s coming-to-voice as a Québécoise writer at the same time that the Québécois consciousness was coming to fruition. She leaves Quebec as a young woman to study in Acadie and France, and on her return meets an unrecognizable Quebec, a province in the throes of the Quiet Revolution: “Walking in the streets of Montreal, I was struck by a major change that had taken place during my absence. There were almost no more cassocks or long habits and veils walking along the sidewalks … The churches were emptying” (Gagnon 122). Quebec, and specifically Montreal, were previously under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. The Quiet Revolution, however, took the power back from the Church and gave it to the French people. By the 1960s, her personal contemplations in France – on the power of the Church, on the patriarchy, on women’s roles in society – were legitimized and encouraged in Quebec. The Quiet Revolution secularized Quebec, changed established power dynamics between the French and English, and gave a voice and name to the French people of Quebec—the “Québécois,” who were known previously as French Canadians, which was a name given to them by their English conquerors. Gagnon reflects on those years of colonization and disempowerment and the excitement that the Quiet Revolution brought; she writes, “Everything seemed possible to use now that the dust of centuries of condemnation was being swept away before our very eyes … we were part of a revolution. We would name it. We would write it. We were in an unprecedented time” (123). It was during this empowering and “unprecedented time” that Gagnon first dedicated herself completely to writing and wrote her first book, Les morts-vivants. Although the FLQ, a separatist paramilitary group, was active at the time, Gagnon only briefly speaks of the social violence she witnessed to oppose “violence of every kind” (125). Through prose that borders on the philosophical, she sides with the intellectuals of the time who used rhetoric and passion to envision a new Quebec, one of which she has long dreamt, but also one from which she feels distant. She no longer recognizes the Quebec of her childhood memories.
As Always is a reconciliation of self, a study of existence, and a practice in self-actualization, and Gagnon contends that “had my life not been written, I’m convinced it would not have come into full existence” (164). Through her writing, she contemplates the violence directed at women’s bodies, the silencing secrecy of many female experiences, such as childbirth. On her return to Quebec, Gagnon creates a women’s group – “I, Me, My” – that fosters a sense of female community. She recognizes that women need leaders and historical figures to foster a greater sense of identity, and decries the natural tendency to view time as linear. Her writing is both passionate and vulnerable, and she pleads, “When will people understand that we are all, at the same time, past-present-future? And that if one of the terms is missing, we become orphaned from ourselves?” (154). Gagnon spent her life trying to connect with other women and their experiences. She writes of those times in As Always and attempts to connect with her foremothers through literature, thus bringing herself into existence.
Early critics of Gagnon’s work characterized her writing as convoluted or inaccessible. The dense writing, repetition, and overlapping prose in her memoir accurately capture a woman on the brink of both collapse and self-actualization. Her writing jumps between time and events, seemingly written down as if just remembered, and reflects Gagnon’s struggle with self-doubt, her curiosity, and her eagerness to discover who she is within her prose. She frequently calls attention to her idiosyncrasies, and thus, her humanness, and contends that “I myself wasn’t sure of anything. That’s my nature: I make strong statements, but over a bottomless well of doubts” (176). Her writing reflects this process, and the nonlinearity demonstrates her desire to bring “all times back to life ... through the great craft of writing” (154). Her writing is passionate; her memoir is a triumph, a writing of its author into existence. It is an act made possible by her lifetime of striving, contemplation, sacrifice, and determination.
Allison Holloway is a writer and new teacher. She is currently completing her Master’s degree at McGill University, and hopes to continue on to PhD studies in Eastern Canada. Her research focuses on storytelling pedagogy as a tool for perspective taking. She enjoys playing soccer, drinking Guinness, and recording hilarious tidbits her three-year-old-daughter says.
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