Gaspésie Revisited

Last August, after leaving New Brunswick, my husband and I followed the south side of the route 138 loop along la baie des Chaleurs until we reached Percé, Québec. While the countryside is undeniably beautiful, it is not as spectacular as the rugged north shore.

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We stayed at the same hotel as last year, Les Trois Soeurs, but on the second floor, so our view of the famous rock was even better. The delicate pastel shades of the sunset were just lovely.

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Unfortunately, our friends were not able to join us, so we spent more time wandering around Percé. One thing I hadn’t noticed before was the plaque on a rock in front of a large yellow house across the road.

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During WWII, the French poet André Breton spent the summer of 1944 in this house with his female companion, Elisa.

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It was here that Breton was inspired to write one of his surrealist masterpieces, Arcane 17.

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Goodreads describes the book as follows:

Using the huge Percé Rock—its impermanence, its slow-motion crumbling, its singular beauty—as his central metaphor, Breton considers issues of love and loss, aggression and war, pacifism, feminism and the occult, in a book that is part prose and part poetry, part reality and part dream.

Breton was not the only artist inspired by the Gaspé peninsula. Earlier, in the summer of 1932, Georgia O’Keefe drove there and painted several barns that prefigured her later work in New Mexico.

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I also came across an exhibit about a prominent group of radical Québec artists and musicians, including the Quebec superstar Robert Charlebois, who gathered in Percé in the late 1960s at a bar known as La Maison du Pêcheur.

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By 1969, Percé had become a Quebecois hippy haven. Ironically, the original house is now a prosperous restaurant; pictured above is a reconstruction for a 2013 film of the same name.

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 This was not the Quiet Revolution of the early 60s, which modernized Québec and made it a secular society.

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Perhaps the surrealist poet Breton best captured the essence of Gaspé. The forces of change are being felt once again, but in the form of climate change. In the fall of 2015, two violent storms hit Percé and caused considerable damage, destroying part of the boardwalk and beach. La Ville de Percé built a new green walkway and decided to leave the damaged section for tourists to view as part of an exhibit on climate change and the coastal environment.DSC02534.JPG

The Québec government acknowledges that climate change is being caused by greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities.

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Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel

While the subtitle of this book announces itself as a novel, in terms of length, it more closely resembles a novella or short story, as it can be read in one sitting. But in terms of the depth of emotional involvement it manages to draw out, it reads more like a novel.

My Name Is Lucy Barton begins with the narrator Lucy recalling the time she spent nine weeks in a hospital room in New York City facing the Chrysler building. She had had an appendectomy but developed a fever. Although she was subjected to all kinds of tests, the doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with her, so her husband asked Lucy’s mother to visit, which she immediately does. She has not seen her daughter in years. The story hinges on their relationship, bringing us back to Lucy’s childhood in a small town in Illinois, where her family suffered extreme poverty.

Suffered is the right verb here. Strout briefly lets us know what it was like for a child to be tormented at school by her classmates and teachers for being so poor. The family, which includes three children, actually lived in a unheated garage. The deprivations the children experience reminded me of Tilly Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Like Elena Ferrante, Strout shows how poverty can be stultifying and scaring. Lucy is not even allowed to cry. What saves her is that she is able to escape into books. Lucy says,

the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point.

We also learn that Lucy’s father was essentially destroyed by the trauma of his experience in WWII. He cannot forget the atrocities her committed on German soldiers. What Strout seems to be getting at is how the humanity of both the torturer and the victim is violated, with lasting results. Following the war, many suffering from such trauma received little or no help. The situation has not improved all that much, as we continue to hear of the PTSD of those who went to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fortunately for Lucy, she is bright and eventually wins a college scholarship. She leaves home, graduates, and marries a man who is completing his postdoctoral studies at the university. Because he is of German origin, her father wants nothing to do with him, thus creating a serious breach between Lucy and her family.

After Lucy and her husband settle in New York and have two daughters, the emotion picks up again. Lucy has two stories published and meets the writer Sarah Payne, who has been faulted by a male critic for being “compassionate.” Lucy goes to hear Payne speak on a panel at the New York Public Library and notices the man “sitting alone in the back row.” I do like Strout’s sense of humour, her ironic use of understatement. Before long, Lucy becomes a student in Payne’s writing class. It is essentially through writing and following Payne’s advice — not to protect anyone as she writes –that Lucy is able to construct a viable and whole self.

It seems too that Lucy’s mysterious illness was caused by her need to have her mother’s love affirmed. Of course, readers understand that Lucy’s mother loves her. She has after all taken a plane on her own for the very first time in her life in order to visit her sick daughter. Since Lucy’s mother has no money for a hotel, she actually sleeps in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room. But because her mother has been so hardened by poverty and what must have been a brutal marriage, not to mention her own impoverished upbringing, she cannot bring herself to tell her daughter she loves her.

It may very well be that Lucy’s mysterious ailment was a manifestation of her need for parental love. We learn that her doctor has taken an interest in her and comes to check in on her even on the weekends, when he doesn’t work. We are told that members of his family died in the camps during the war, yet this man is still able to express love and kindness — in a word, compassion. In a sense, he becomes the positive father figure Lucy lacked.

By the end of the novel, Lucy reflects on the pain she has caused her own children and adds,

I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is  mine, this is mine, this is mine.

What is unique, is that Strout writes, “we children.” This is no ordinary heart to heart. Strout is speaking directly from her wounded child to the reader’s. This is a beautiful and touching ending, a novel narrated with the simplicity and honesty of a child.

Photo © Leonard-Cendamo.