Culture & Conversation

Who was Nelly Arcan?

Nelly Arcan committed suicide on September 24, 2009

Nelly Arcan committed suicide on September 24, 2009

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.

  • 4 Responses to “Who was Nelly Arcan?”

    1. Ami Sands Brodoff

      Beautiful and perceptive piece on Nelly Arcan. I was moved, disturbed, shaken-up by the raw and powerful voice in Putain, which exudes rage. This is what fiction should do: shake us up.

      I did not know Arcan but saw her from a distance, fascinated, troubled, disturbed about how she seemed both to play with–and play into–the imprisoning ideals of feminine youth, beauty, and sensuality. It was clear how a clumsy observer and/or reader might get her oevre wrong.

      I was shocked by her death, saddened. Saddened, too, by what seemed an odd silence in the anglo literary community I am a part of, though relieved to read the depthful image in Le Devoir on the Saturday after her death. And now this piece by Marianne Ackerman.

    2. Addison Steele

      As much as I feel bad about Nelly Arcan and her ending, I don’t think that any biographical material really has much to do with whether her writing works or not (except as a commodity). And I don’t think her writing works all that well — as I don’t think any biographical/confessional writing makes much sense in the early 21st century. I mean it’s pretty much “Been there, done that” sort of stuff, no?
      Are we really supposed to get so excited about the fact that someone is going to write about her experiences as a highly-paid escort? Please, give me a break. That is so pre-cultural wars. Only in Quebec would people still get all excited. It’s no wonder that she struggled later to recreate the buzz. The truth is that there really wasn’t much of a buzz in the first place. I mean, woman as commodity: give me another break. Isn’t it about time we move on from this? Like everyone else, I like confessionals — but after a while all those confessions start to sound the same. Has no one heard of Joyce? Woolf? Beckett? If you’re going to write in the early 21st century, you should at the very least have done your literary history.

    3. Leila

      However Arcan fit into the literary/capitalist landscape, the truth of the matter is she was an intelligent and sensitive person who tried to make a go of it. I don't scorn confession when it is honest and difficult, as obviously Arcan's was. Confession is not something you trade, it is somethint you are. Perhaps the tragedy of Arcan is that she lived in an era where she found herself trading it. Confession, writing, sex…. saddly, not much differentiated them.

      Marianne, you've written a piercing and touching piece. Thank you very much.

    4. No Exit

      […] A powerful argument for suicide as a human right, Exit is also strangely life-affirming. Ordinarily, these contradictory positions could suffice as the motor of a plot. Arcan’s protagonist is the irascible, narcissistic Antoinette Beauchamp, who seeks strength and reason to live from within the depths of her own twisted psychology. Knowing that the young woman who wrote this outrageously beautiful, thoroughly original novel did not is, well, heartbreaking. […]


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