Comparing Shields’ Swann and Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne on a long sleepless night

Swann: A Mystery by Carol Shields and Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

The two books I’ve just finished reading, Carol Shields’ 1987 novel Swann: A Mystery and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne (published in 2015 in French as La femme qui fuit), could scarcely be more different.

Suzanne

Barbeau-Lavalette’s book was a sensation and a bestseller in Quebec. However, it only caught English Canada’s attention when the translation by Rhonda Mullins became a finalist in the 2019 Canada Reads contest. Suzanne is Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s novelistic telling of her grandmother’s life. Suzanne Meloche was an artist and activist during the early stages of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Her husband (and the father of her two children), Marcel Barbeau, was also an artist. The couple was part of a rebellious artists’ group called Les Automatistes.

The author scarcely knew the grandmother who had abandoned her mother when she was a small child, a grandmother who continued to shun closeness with both daughter and granddaughter right to the end of her life. Barbeau-Lavalette needed to write this story as a novel because exploring Suzanne’s inner life and her decisions could only be done through a sympathetic imaginative process.

Suzanne has been praised for its beautiful writing. It is easy to read and has an entrancing quality. The text is presented in short fragments mixed with Suzanne’s poetry. The author has said that she used this style to mimic the way Suzanne was impossible to pin down. In life she was always fleeing; she never stayed in one place very long.

In my opinion, Suzanne deserved to be the first book voted off in the 2019 Canada Reads competition; it was not “the one book to move you” that would be appreciated and understood by all Canadians. It is very much a niche work of art. Ironically, though, its greater significance became more obvious to me after reading Swann.

Carol Shields (1935–2003) was one of Canada’s best-loved novelists and short story writers, and her books won everything from the Pulitzer Prize (she was American-born) and the Governor General’s Award. Though Swann is one of her lesser-known novels, I enjoyed reading every page of it. The book displays Shields’ ability to create rich in-depth characters, and her astute (and often heartwarming) understanding of marriage and other relationships.

Swann

In many of her books, Shields engages readers by experimenting boldly with structure, and Swann is a good example of this. The story is told from the point of view of four main characters, in four separate sections, and there is a final fifth section written as a film script. In this novel Shields develops a mystery story about an uneducated woman named Mary Swann who lives on a poor farm in Ontario. Somehow, this deprived woman has managed to write many extraordinary poems, which she delivers to a Kingston publisher, Fredric Cerutti. This sophisticated European man is astonished and delighted by the quality of Swann’s poetry. However, the very day after receiving the poems, he discovers that the reclusive poet was brutally murdered by her husband only hours after he saw her.

One night soon after I started reading Swann, I had one of my terrible nights of insomnia.

The insomniac wants nothing more than sleep, oblivion, the escape from the prison of their own mind. Yet as I lay there I remembered something I had just read in Swann. Sarah Maloney, a scholar studying Mary Swann’s poetry, muses (after a reference to meditation), “I’ve never been able to see the point of emptying one’s mind of thought. Our thoughts are all we have. I love my thoughts, even when they take me up and down sour-smelling byways where I’d rather not venture” (p. 20).*

“Our thoughts are all we have . . .” I tried to be grateful for my relentless insomniac thoughts. And suddenly my mind started down a fruitful path. I was thinking about Suzanne Meloche and Mary Swann, two characters from such different books, and I suddenly realized what these characters shared. Skip the next section if you want to know the answer right away.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a life-long problem of mine. It’s a problem rooted in the fear of insomnia itself that started during my second year of university. I had a three-day period of difficult chemistry and biology exams and could not sleep during the entire time.

Insomnia is a problem unlike most others: it can’t be cured by willpower or hard work; it can even ferociously resist positive thinking when the dark wormy thoughts of the night try to induce panic.

It demands surrender and acceptance. It becomes an exercise in tricking the mind into thinking it doesn’t care whether it sleeps or not, no matter how exhausted both mind and body have become.

I’ve become expert at resisting that panic and remaining physically calm even though I feel the anti-sleep anxiety buzzing in my brain, forcing me to endure the hateful combination of extreme exhaustion coupled with extreme mental arousal . . . for hour after crawling hour.

I do try to counter the “dark wormy thoughts” with positive thoughts as best as I can. One technique is to remind myself of all the things in my life I am grateful for, huge things like my health, my continued enjoyment of running and cycling, and the people I am close to.

I often think about the comfort of my bed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have insomnia in a setting where physical interference actively prevented sleep.

I imagine being Mary Swann or Suzanne Meloche

In my wakefulness, I started thinking about what it would be like to have insomnia in the environments that the main characters in Suzanne and Swann endure. Both live in run-down buildings without indoor plumbing. Nights in Quebec and Ontario would be bitterly cold in winter and often sweltering in summer.

The novels portray women who have good reasons to be insomniacs. They are living in dire poverty, unable to even provide properly for their children. Mary Swann is trapped in a marriage with a violent, abusive, ignorant man.

I was suddenly struck by the ways these women are similar even though Suzanne is bright, articulate, and well-educated, and Mary is uneducated and virtually unknown even to her closest neighbours. The main thing is that both are artists living in times and circumstances that gave women few choices. In fact, it’s almost miraculous (especially in Mary’s case) that they can produce art at all.

Both “pay the price” for being artists. Both are trapped by poverty, biology (children being the almost inevitable result of marriage), and the subordinate role of women. Mary can’t escape and dies a violent death at age fifty.

Suzanne, in contrast, makes the bold and socially unacceptable choice to abandon her children and husband and live as an artist. But the consequences (for both Suzanne herself and for her children) are severe: Suzanne ends up isolated, lonely, and mentally ill; her son never recovers from the abuse he endured at the hands of his adoptive family and becomes a permanent resident at a mental institution; her daughter manages to become a successful filmmaker (Manon Barbeau) and has a daughter herself (Anaïs), but she never loses her feelings of being rejected.

All in all, Suzanne is a very sad story and it seems to me that Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette wrote it in an attempt to solve the mystery of her grandmother’s actions; how could Suzanne Meloche continue to reject her daughter and granddaughter’s presence in her life after the initial abandonment? At the heart of the mystery is the artistic impulse, and Barbeau-Lavalette tries to explain and justify the actions caused by complete devotion to the artistic calling. In this she is at least somewhat successful.

Perhaps Barbeau-Lavalette could have broadened her readers’ understanding by writing more about the context of Suzanne Meloche’s story. The Catholic Church was all-powerful in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. Almost all French-Canadian women were trapped by their religion’s prohibition of birth control; biology was destiny, and women often had twenty or more children, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and lack of higher education.

* Shields, Carol. Swann: A Mystery. Toronto: Stoddart. 1987.

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