Who was Nelly Arcan? Her suicide last week at the age of 36 has launched a discussion in Quebec media and literary circles that won’t end any time soon.
Scheduled for posthumous publication next spring, Arcan’s last novel is said to deal with suicide, a consistent theme in both her private life and writing. All reports so far suggest a troubled, complex intellect, a literary pioneer whose gaze was firmly fixed on the existential abyss we all see from time to time, a woman who couldn’t or wouldn’t look away.
A leading light in what the French call “autofiction” – using one’s personal experience, uncensored, undisguised, for the purpose of engaging readers – Arcan appeared on the scene in 2001 with Putain, a novel inspired by her extracurricular activity as a highly-paid escort while a student at UQÀM. A sensation in France and Canada, it was translated into English as Whore, published in Toronto and New York. She has struggled ever since to equal that early success, dissecting female body image issues in Folle. But each new book sold fewer copies, until she was dropped by Editions de Seuil, and turned to a small literary press for the forthcoming Paradis clef en main.
According to the narrative now spinning around her death, Nelly (born Isabelle Fortier, from Lac Mégantic) wasn’t nearly as tough as she appeared in print. She was sensitive, friendly, fascinated with suicide, a talented writer who was only just beginning to learn how to “invent” stories for novels, and leave her own skin alone.
I read through her oeuvre last year while researching a piece on young Québécoise fiction writers for Walrus Magazine, and met her for a chat in a St. Denis St. café. Not only did the petite blonde fail to live up to the tough broad persona striding through her fiction, she left me, after an hour or so, weak with maternal concern.
A serious brutalized psyche: that was my impression at the time. I had pretty much written a draft of the piece when I met her. Afterwards, I re-examined every word, afraid a careless turn of phrase would inflict a needless wound.
Raw. Afraid. Like a dog that’s been beaten and now walks on three legs. That’s how I remember Nelly Arcan. We ended up talking about how difficult it is to meet the right guy, to reconcile a writing career with an intimate relationship. Not a very original or even newsworthy subject, one best left to lifestyle gurus, but I was flailing around, looking for a way to answer the insatiable questions in her eyes.
“You are a very good writer,” I heard myself saying. She was, but what I really meant was, you don’t need to wrap yourself in a bulky sweater or hide under a hat when chatting to a woman your mother’s age. I don’t disapprove of what you did, I don’t judge.
Having met her and followed her trajectory as a public figure, it’s hard not to conclude that it wasn’t the exchange of sex for money that did Nelly Arcan in, destroyed her psyche. It was the exchange of sex for literary fame. Dressed up like a Vegas show-girl for Tout le monde en parle, Québec’s popular TV sneer-fest, she was reduced to tears by the host’s scornful attitude. Old taboos die hard. And yet she responded by consistently living up to type-casting, peppering her newspaper columns with stories of sex toys, sex, more sex, as if to say nothing mattered, until it did not.
A stronger spirit might have resisted media pressure, or blown it off as a joke. That was not within Arcan’s grasp. She took it all so seriously, got caught up in early fame, the causes and effects. Making money from writing novels is very hard to do, consistently, in these brutal times, when a literary life is more about selling than writing.
That’s not how it all began. Nelly Arcan’s engagement with books started in the library. A precocious student of French literature, she wrote an MA thesis on Daniel Paul Schreber, author of a pioneering work of sexual psychology, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. Her first novel had its real beginning not in street-work but in the painful, grinding process of recovery and self-reconciliation from same. The first phrases to catch an editor’s eye were written in a notebook she kept while under psychoanalysis. Not intended for public eyes at all.
Putain is full of derision for the poor dopes who pay for sex. But the mirror effect was there too, the scorn she felt reflected in their eyes. It was in her body language, her constant search for approval, perfection, glamour, beauty. Her still naturally young face – under the knife so often – had taken on the slightly frozen aura of much older (well-preserved) woman.
Now we know for sure, Arcan’s novels were proverbial postcards from the edge. She was a writer who took what she surely must have imagined was the obvious next step of female liberation in these exuberant days of high capitalism. She sold herself, wrote about the selling and sold the writing. When it didn’t sell, she was crushed.
I shivered when I read the excerpt, published in this newspaper, from a column she wrote last spring. “Life belongs to the person who lives it. And if it’s true that suicide is a terrible legacy that should absolutely be prevented from happening, it’s also true that not wanting to make the people around you suffer is no good reason, at least in the long term, to live.”
In English, we say a suicide “took her own life.” In Nelly Arcan’s case, she seems to have taken it back, the ultimate and perhaps the only remaining act open to someone for whom living has for so long been synonymous with selling.
Femmes Fatales, Marianne Ackerman’s essay on Québec writers, can be found at Walrus.