Oct 24, 2010

Monkey droppings - Elle by Douglas Glover: "When the New and the Old Worlds meet, first we exchange corpses."

Today, the monkey continues his chimp-love of a Canadian literary master.

by Douglas Glover

Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I am aroused beyond all reckoning, beyond memory, in a ship's cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland, with the so-called Comte d'Epirgny, five years since bad-boy tennis champion of Orleans, tucked between my legs. Admittedly, Richard is turning green from the ship's violent motions, and if he notices the rat hiding behind the shit bucket, he will surely puke. But I have looped a cord round the base of his cock to keep him hard.
Now that is an opening paragraph to be reckoned with.

A few months ago I came across a copy of Douglas Glover's Precious, a novel I had always been meaning to read. I found it an utter delight, a Canadian hard-boiled noir that ranks with the best of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Thus emboldened, I picked up a copy of Elle, somehow expecting more of the same.

Witness my shock, then, at not only the opening paragraph (see above), but at the content, as far at odds with Precious' subject matter as you can get. Imagine discovering that Dashiell Hammett also wrote Naval histories; that weird.

And double my shock at this; Elle is very likely a masterpiece, a breathtaking, bold, coarse, witty, sexy, mythic, and scatological take on Canadian history unlike any historical novel I have ever read. Keep in mind I'm not a historical fiction type of guy, all told, but still: wow. This may be my favourite historical novel of all time.

As you can see from above, Elle starts with a bang. The narrator (only known as Elle) is on her uncle's ship, travelling from France to Canada in 1542. Elle is a desperately intelligent woman, and is prone to questioning all that is somehow taken for granted in her world:
In Orleans, in 1542, there are forty-three tennis courts . . . it makes you think. There are only thirty-seven churches. Yet we burn Protestant heretics (also horse thieves, book publishers, books themselves and the occasional impolitic author when we can get one) and not maladroit tennis players. What one is to make of this odd circumstance, I cannot say.
Elle may be too smart for her own times - "Like many women, I know what I don't know - a duplicity of mental operation caused by living in a world run by men and Dominican priests." - and her unusual nature makes her prone to condemnation. After being caught with her lover by her uncle, Elle is quickly set ashore in the Canadian wilderness along with Richard and her nurse.

Her companions quickly perish, but Elle, stripped from her high European upbringing, somehow manages to survive the harsh new terrain:
I have made many mistakes. I blame printed books for this, a recent invention which has led us to solitary pleasures: reason, private opinions, moral relativism, Lutheranism and masturbation.
Elle soon discovers that the new world is scouring her of her past, making her into something more than she ever thought possible. She is stronger than she ever thought, evolving into something new and unseen, something harder that the world may be unprepared for.

What Glover accomplishes in Elle is something wonderful and rare; he makes Canadian history come alive. I don't mean to say that the novel is completely factual (although it is based on certain historical accounts); I mean that in a genre often typified by ponderous tomes of deep research and accuracy at the expense of narrative drive (I'm looking at you, Parrot and Olivier in America), Elle is, gosh darn it, fun. It's a lively beast, this book, with a story that leaps off the page. It moves, it breathes, it zigs and zags with glee, and goshdarnit, it breaks your heart. And while Glover keeps a light touch, Elle is hardly insubstantial, with a breadth of compassion and drama that puts most other novels to shame, historical fiction or not.

I'm not much for high-toned reviews; I like them, but I don't think I'm smart enough to complete one on my own without a lot of advance prepwork. I read this book for pleasure, and believe me, I was pleased. So I'll leave it at this: Elle is an amazing piece of work.


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