Gail Scott - Falling back asleep. Dreaming Holmes by the fire. 19th-century subject. Cosy. Contained. Yes. This is what “one” missing. Earlier looking out at little house on straw. In left vitrine across street. Seeing it for a divine small silver rabbit. At store closing they letting out to run around display space. His shit small and tight. Like mine. The shit turns black from soot
Gail Scott, My Paris, Dalkey Archive, 2003. 
"In contemporary Paris, a diarist persistently gathers the remains of an epoch, accompanied by the literary ghost of Walter Benjamin, whose famous Paris arcades project serves as a kind of Baedeker. But, little by little, she becomes an amalgam of her detritus— including a touch of ressentiment. For alongside the pleasureable Paris in which expatriate avant-garde artists and rebels have "traditionally" flourished, lies a typically complex city, teeming with disaster. Casting light and shadow, looking backwards and forwards, My Paris is a hynotizing tale of desire and nostalgia, magically submerging the reader in the endless— and not always seamless— sensuality of the City of Light."
“With My Paris Gail Scott devises an experimental novel that can be likened to the work of only a few contemporary Canadian writers, and which derives its inspiration from numerous avant-gardists who created radical books in Paris during the first decades of the [20th] century.” – Norman Ravvin
"Scott’s previous novels, Heroine and Main Brides, both emit a soulful phantasmagoria of city, culture, and desire. In the first scene of My Paris, the narrator is reclining on a divan, but she is also traveling. ... [Scott] has found a new way to make lyricism out of fragmentation and juncture. ... My Paris ends with... a kiss. What is it about Paris? When I return from that city I often fall into panic – must get back, must get back. But if I can’t have my Paris, I’ll take Scott’s throng of fragments, a new kind of novel that sets both Paris and the genre on their ears.” – Robert Glück
"In this intriguing book, an Anglo-Quebecois woman writer visiting Paris in the early 1990s muses about life, literature, art, and politics in stream-of-consciousness diary entries. Through these 120 brief entries, we are made privy to the things that struck her: places of historical merit, commercial offerings, the mistreatment of African immigrants, caf culture, and the war in Sarajevo. We also read snippets about contemporary French TV and are kept abreast of the ways a clothing store near her apartment entices shoppers. Scott eschews complete sentences, offering only impressionistic fragments: "Thinking growing old in Paris. Maybe nice. City being circular. Metro. Every half kilometer." While many readers will find this technique tiresome, Canada's Quill & Quire magazine dubbed the book one of 1999's ten best. Perhaps this is because the novel lingers in the mind's eye long after it is finished. Vivid, personal, and seemingly honest, this work is recommended for large public and academic collections." - Eleanor J. Bader
"I will begin by simply recommending this book, very highly. Gail Scott has written a novel that is decidedly else: memoir, diary, travelogue, social commentary, stylistic experiment; she pulls it off admirably.
The book is structured in numbered (but undated) journal entries written by the narrator, a quebecoise writer in Paris thanks to some kind of grant or prize enabling her to stay in what she calls her “leisure lottery studio”. There isn’t much plot to speak of: the narrator walks around, visits friends, cafes, galleries, and other location, reads, and comments on her surroundings and herself. The interest lies in the way numerous elements are woven together. One doesn’t read to find out what happens next but rather to find out what will come up next, what will be seen or examined or recognized.
A number of themes recurr throughout the book; I wil only mention a few. The narrator travelled on short notice and worries about her visa. All around her the government is cracking down on illegal immigration, and she becomes almost paranoid that she will be deported. Yet, the people around her point out that the aliens being arrested and hassled are not white Canadians, but rather black africans fleeing their own countries for various reasons.
The narrator’s literary knowledge inserts itself often into her comments. Early on and often later she relates herself to Balzac’s Girl with the Golden Eyes. She also works in Breton and Aragon in connection with their urban wanderings and the search for the marvelous, as well as the best known American expats such as Stein (both in connection were her as a resident of Paris and her stylistics as a writer). The most often cited work, though, is Walter Benjamin’s unfinished The Arcades Project (as it is known in the current English translation), a montage history of 19th century Paris. The narrator finds the book in her studio and continues to read it throughout the narrative. She goes in search of some of the old arcades and uses Benjamin’s work (after the first or second time he is referred to as “B”) to examine her contemporary surroundings.
Another aspect of examination in the work revolves around the narrator’s marginal status. Her status as a French speaking quebecoise creates language variances which Parisians inevitably point out to her. If I am interpreting the text correctly the narrator is also a lesbian, but an interesting bit of the stylization — all the characters are only referred to by initials — creates a blurred gender field for the majority of the people and thus makes any evaluation of sexuality difficult. The narrator most often seems to comment on women and her acquaintances are often directly identified as lesbians. The narrator herself always seem to feel marginal to any of the people she interacts with, even a friend who visits from home.
One of the most immediately striking aspects of the book is Scott’s use of language. There is a preponderance of sentence fragments relying on gerunds, which create a fragmented sense of experience. Late in the book a passage stuck out that comments on this stylistic trait: “Strolling. Not noun. But not verb either. I.e. neither excluding. Not caricaturally absorbing other.” (129) Again this element of marginality. Time feels out of juncture, present or past, it is hard to decide from where the narrator is coming. Descriptions and events are often ambiguous or almost opaque to interpretaton, yet one quickly adapts to the choppy sentences and the fragmented grammar. I offer a simple sample from early in the book:
Walk with S along a curved white street. Rue de varenne or rue du Bac. Hot and sunny. Stark shadows cast by walls of 18th century buildings. Small French cars parked half on sidewalk. Two cops by the cafe. Le ministere est par la, the ministry’s over there. S saying with a shrug. A veteran of May ’68. And subsequent productions. Knowing when to regard them. As furniture. (8)
One can also note the use of French, almost always translated subsequently for the Engish speaking reader.
I can’t at all do this book justice. I’ve read it twice and enjoyed it immensely both times. I’ll admit that my general interest in French and related matters makes this book of specific interest to me, but I believe that many readers, open to adjust themselves to the oddity of style, will find much her worth considering. I plan on reading more from Gail Scott.“ - MadInkBeard
"Georges Perec, the French experimentalist, once wrote a novel without using the letter “e.” Canadian novelist Gail Scott shows a spiritual kinship with him in this slender, postmodern meditation on the City of Light.
My Paris is billed, somewhat unconvincingly, as “fiction” and takes the form of a diary so cryptic it resembles a prose poem. Scott practices a literary pointillism that is as different from Adam Gopnik’s Paris dispatches or Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce as Seurat’s paintings are from Chardin’s. The first lines of her book suggest its idiosyncratic tone and punctuation: “Like a heroine from Balzac. I am on a divan. Narrow. Covered with a small abstract black-and-white print.”
Such self-consciously literary prose makes My Paris read like a creative-writing exercise. (“Write a story that uses punctuation to suggest fragmented emotions.”) But Scott is a thoughtful and painterly writer whose technique, if cloying, can produce telling images such as this one of the novelist Colette as an “old hedonist”: “She grooming fifty minutes daily. Standing by mirror. Automatically straightening sagging hip. And writing fifty books.” - Janice Harayda
"With My Paris Gail Scott devises an experimental novel that can be likened to the work of only a few contemporary Canadian writers, and which derives its inspiration from numerous avant-gardists who created radical books in Paris during the first decades of this century. Nicole Brossard, Kristjana Gunnars and Aritha van Herk, like Scott, forefront the writer’s predicament—highlighting feminist, or at least feminine concerns as they conjure a poetic, digressive style. But Scott’s chosen compatriots are not live Canadians; rather, they are mainly dead Frenchmen (along with a single dead American-turned-Frenchwoman). Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, Roland Barthes, André Breton, and Gertrude Stein all haunt and motivate Scott’s narrator—a lesbian Québécoise writer who has the run of a Paris apartment, and is penning a kind of diary of her stay abroad. The outcome is a book with many of the fascinations of the French modernists who inspired it. The nameless narrator makes oneiric forays through the city like Breton’s Nadja. She investigates the remnants of nineteenth century arcades beloved of Benjamin. Her infatuations with the Parisian women she meets are notable for their lack of intimacy, and remind us of the ritualized courtship practiced by Proust’s characters. Her penchant for reading shop windows as texts reminds us of Roland Barthes’s mythologies of the everyday—his decoding of pasta ads and movie posters to discover their hidden messages. And all of this is rendered in denatured prose strongly reminiscent (though not quite imitative) of Gertrude Stein. In a number of enigmatic asides we are reminded of Stein’s battle cry in favour of "abolishing commas," her assertion that by "emphasizing predicates" she was "inventing the 20th," and the peculiar Steinian urge to make "a picture of you sitting there. In portrait of about three words." And so, echoing her mistress, Scott creates a narrative voice that is at once abstract and vivid:
Looking out window. Rain streaking pane. Not having found dream café yet. Probably having to leave Faubourg. In this manner whiling away the dangerous snare of late afternoon. Manufacturing alcoholics. Into evening. Until it’s late when slipping off cushion. Showering. Dressing. Coming up with calf-length tights. Short flowered skirt. Blacktop. Rushing down Raspail. Choosing café near more ordinary 6th. Growing crowded. Workers drinking beer or wine. At bar. Pulling wallets from belts. At smalls of their backs. Elegant women with pretty shopping bags. Ordering nonalcoholic drinks. Grenadine. Or mint. For the skin.
If Stein’s motto, put a bit more pugnaciously by Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, was to abandon dead forms and discover a script appropriate to the new era, what motivates Scott’s experiment? And in what sense is My Paris experimental, trailing as it does the ghosts of surrealists and automatic writers, the unfinished projects of Benjamin and Breton? One answer might lie in Scott’s search for a lesbian poetics—a subject that underwrites nearly every scene in the novel. In the hard, juxtaposed images of women’s clothing, faces, hair and gestures she portrays a hidden life of fantasy and fetishized desire. It may be, too, that in coming to the city of surrealists and Stein, from the frozen province the narrator calls "chez nous," that she quite simply goes native, immersing herself in Paris’ rich and radical writerly heritage. In doing so—though Scott does not address this directly—the narrator may be describing a Francophone cultural landscape, unfindable at home, which she will transplant from the Luxembourg Gardens and Montparnasse to the somewhat less romantic routes she travels along Rue St-Denis and St-Laurent.My Paris is a puzzle, leaving questions of intention unanswered. Its narrator’s views about Bosnia, north-African immigrants, fashion and the importance of a good café are all clear. But beyond these more prosaic concerns, the novel’s mode of expression seems designed to titillate and provoke. Scott might argue that there is nothing more to the idiosyncracy of her narrator’s voice than the simple fact that it is hers.The most direct pleasure of My Paris is the presence of a number of multifaceted scenarios, built of shapes and colour reminiscent of a Robert Delaunay painting. These images, like the one that follows, are the most striking mementoes of Gail Scott’s Paris:
Ρ asleep in her bed. Dusky pink cheeks—still alarming shade of grey. Having received transfusion. Adorable pyjamas with hearts. Ear piercings. Making her look vulnerable. Incongruously I recalling they putting saltpeter in milk. At girls’ schools chez nous. To keep libido down. I wondering if behind innocent closed lids—she feeling angry. Being famous for temper. Once climbing ledge. To throw pavé at spurning boyfriend’s window. Breeze filling room. Curtains blowing gently. Leaves whispering happily. No one surveying the coming and the going. Suggesting sickness just a pause. In the gaiety. Making hospitals chez nous. Appear like prisons. - Norman Ravvin
"My Paris is not for those who dislike grammatical experimentation. But for those who do enjoy playing with language, this memoir (billed as a novel) of six months in Paris in 1993 is a pleasure.
The unnamed narrator, a 40ish Anglo-Quebecker, arrives in the City of Light in June having won the “literary lottery,” a studio apartment that Quebec’s art council maintains there for the use of artists. She records her experiences nearly day by day: the encounters with the concierge, the changes in the window display across the street, the people from the “south” who are hassled on the Metro about their immigration status. In the background is the war in Bosnia, while over all floats the ghost of Gertrude Stein, a North American lesbian like both Scott and her narrator, who shattered conventional uses of language in order to present the world with a new face.
Scott’s strategy is to use the gerund form of verbs almost exclusively and to break sentences up into segments rarely more than five words long. For example, “The marvellous is to be had. I thinking at 5:30a. Looking out window. Pale blue sky beyond anarchy of chimney pots. You just have to pierce the smugness of the surface.” At first this is annoying, but the device refracts reality so that experiences that could merely be the stuff of a travelogue take on much more weight.
In the afterword Scott also says that she was inspired by Walter Benjamin, a German observer of Paris whose Paris, Capital of the 19th Century demonstrates a “revolutionary method of recounting history through montage of found textual ‘objects’ and anecdotes.” Certainly her book’s short sections, juxtaposing sometimes seemingly discordant observations about French life, add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.
The central, unnamed memoir is framed at the beginning and the end by references to a painting of a Saltimbacque, a clown-like figure “balancing as if on a highwire tightrope.” One leaves the book wondering how much of Scott one should see in the figure and how much of all of us, since we are all poised between ordinary life and war in places like Bosnia." - Mary Soderstrom
Excerpts and conversation between Gail Scott and Corey Frost
Gail Scott, Heroine, Coach House Books, 1987.
"It is October, 1980, the 10th anniversary of the October Crisis. In a bathtub in a rooming house near the city's heart, Montreal's 'Main,' a woman is trying to negotiate her personal passage from Quebec's politically turbulent 70's to the threatening bleakness of the 80's. She is negotiating other passages too: from a passionate 'open' love affair with a male left leader, and from deep involvement in far left politics, to a new way of life and living whose form she knows can only be grasped as she speaks it."
"Gail Scott’s first novel is set in an impoverished section of downtown Montreal known as The Main. It is October 31, 1980, the tenth anniversary of the October Crisis, and the heroine is taking a bath in her rundown flat at the Waikiki Tourist Rooms and ruminating, to the poignant strains of Janis Joplin, over the past ten years, searching for insights through which she can forge a “new heroine” for her ever-delayed novel. Self-discovery becomes her first act of creation as she obsessively anatomizes the decline of her relationship with Jon, a leader of the left. Sincerely, if unrealistically, committed to “progressive” — that is, non-possessive — loving, the couple are seen to embody the uneasy alliance that formed between feminists and male revolutionaries in the l970s; a decade later, with Jon no longer in her life, the heroine turns to her feminist roots as a source of inspiration for both her personal and artistic endeavours. The Main, from its omnipresent graffiti to its cafes and eccentric inhabitants (including the enigmatic figures of the Black tourist and the grey woman) is brilliantly captured in Scott’s dense, rhythmic, and highly sensual prose. With its intricate circular structure, the novel keeps returning to a few isolated and seemingly inconsequential moments from the heroine’s past, but by the end of the book these have become a tapestry rich in nuance and meaning. Heroine concludes on a deliberate note of irresolution which is typical of its uncompromising rejection of easy answers throughout."
"Sepia, she's so beautiful when she talks of writing, you can almost feel the edge of freedom. As in a Cocteau film, ca 1940. A woman in a black skirt, black gloves, nipped in waist is walking out a door towards a black and white caf. Orpheus waits. From that moment, you know anyhting can happen." (page 172). "Nothing I've read since satisfies my desire for density and beauty...Here memory is not 'the past', but imbues vitally the moment, as desire (wherein the future creates itself). As in Lorca's New York, desire is inscribed in the city; the city itself is tied with love." - Erin Moure
Gail Scott, The Obituary, Coach House, 2010.
"Rosine is surrounded by ghosts. Ghosts of family. Ghosts of past lovers. Ghosts of an old Montreal and its politics. Ghosts of the shale-pit workers who, in the 1880s, frequented the Crystal Palace, upon whose ruins her Mile-End triplex sits. Her dead maternal family is there, too, with their restlessness, their stories, their denial of their indigenous ancestry. There'Č"s even the ghost of an ancient Parisian gendarme lurking in the dark stairwell, peering through her keyhole. Rosine herself may be a ghost. Rosine'Č"s voice is splintered 'Č ; sometimes a prurient fly buzzing over the action, sometimes a politically correct historian and sometimes a woman perpetually travelling on a bus or lying in bed 'Č ; and so too is our understanding of narrative. In offering up a kaleidoscopic view of Rosine and her city, The Obituary fractures our expectations of what a novel should be, allowing the history of indigenous assimilation, so violent in the West and so often forgotten beneath the French'Č ;English conflicts of Montreal, to burble up and infect 'Č ; in the most dazzling, joyful and affecting ways possible 'Č ; the very language we use. The Obituary is the eagerly anticipated new novel by one of Canada'Č"s foremost innovative writers. It'Č"s wildly inventive, full of verve and humour and compassion."
"Toronto's Type books has a section for 'Books Without Plot' - this is where you'd find The Obituary. Full of footnotes, the narrative jumps from its protagonist, a fly, a historian and a woman on the bus. Words are scratched out and wordplay abounds - such as 'Dial M[ontréal] for Murder' - rather than direct description. About fractured identity - language, race, gender - the disjointed narrative is a perfect fit. It's a tough read, but full of wicked wit." - The Telegraph-Journal
"Gail Scott’s The Obituary is a quest-for-origins narrative with a murder mystery spliced in. The backdrop is genocide, in particular the one on which our own culture has been built: “the gêne on which we standing.” It’s difficult reading—sentences are fractured, syntax is unusual, and the narrative is distributed between the protagonist Rosine, a politically correct historian who is mainly relegated to footnotes, and a fly—but the writing is masterful and the rewards voluminous, particularly for local readers. This book captures the human sounds peculiar to Montreal like nothing else I’ve read and unearths layers and layers of urban history. The depiction of yuppefying Mile End is brilliant and often hilarious. Rereading is highly recommended." - Carte blanche
"Gail Scott is a writer who challenges her readers—to participate, to make connections, to think—and her latest novel, The Obituary, is no exception. Through the multiple voices of a fragmented narrator, Scott raises questions about history, memory and the way that both can be rewritten. What makes the book truly fun to read, though, is the process of piecing together Scott’s beautifully textured sentences; they are almost best when read out loud, so that you can really appreciate their musical, Montreal-esque sound." - Amelia Schonbek
"It takes a long time to read The Obituary, the eighth book from acclaimed writer Gail Scott, considering it's a mere stripling of 162 pages. It's a question of density, partly, but also of shifting gears – you might need to enter this book slowly, as you would a cold lake. Gail Scott trades lyricism for a language chopped, excised, and expurgated: words are stricken from the text, fragments hop like fleas, letters drop like flies. The syntax favours the inelegant, breathless present-progressive and long unbroken lines like commands spewed from a computer:
Yesterday, riding bicycle down sidewalk, past deserted bank building, sticking middle finger straight up in fuck-you sign a former prime minister making famous. I liking best when he wearing fringed jacket + paddling a canoe.
It's tempting to call it prose poetry and leave it at that, but there is something else going on here, beyond experiment for experiment’s sake. What purpose, then, does such overt stylization serve?
As Umberto Eco points out in the afterword of The Name of the Rose, "writing means constructing, through the text, one’s own model reader." While Eco putatively spends a hundred pages preparing his reader for the rest of the book, Scott takes about five. After that, a kind of jouissance sets in as you adjust to The Obituary’s particular rhythms, tones, and shifts of voice; you swim willingly through the pages, creating meaning as you go.
The Obituary (sort of and mostly) follows Rosine, a woman spiralling around the "central" question of her identity as a mixed-race aboriginal in a city and culture that demand adherence to yes or no. It's a richly embodied text, erotically charged and scatological in a Genet-esque way – someone is always "letting go noisy rush of mephitic air" and there are more cracks than a St. Henri sidewalk. Rosine herself is not simply an unreliable narrator; she's an amalgam of several questionable speakers, each with its own longings, obsessions, and shames. One is a footnoting historian, another is a woman both on the move and at rest, and a third, observing everything like the proverbial fly on the wall, is actually a fly on the wall. Here the style is confrontational, challenging ideas of who/where/when is telling the story, and the struck-out words suggest not so much the work of an editor as the work of the internal censor, that super-egotistical beast forever making us say what we don't mean, and vice versa.
Alongside this nuanced and obsessive prodding of identity and narration, the novel's strongest feature is its portrayal of Montreal at the beginning of the third millennium. Scott plays with the signal-to-noise ratio to create a literary vision of contemporary urban life, a highly experiential street-level tour that is the real payout of the novel’'s stylistic wager. It's a glorious, gritty, clattering, and chugging paean to a city where everything has (at least) two meanings; who here hasn't riffed, punned, or played on a street sign whose name suggests an awkward transliteration, or coined a Franglais bon mot? The book captures Montreal in a series of View-Master slides that click, overlap, and spill over with places, smells, bits of conversation, joualisms, crumbs of steamé buns, and the associative synaesthesia of living in a city.
In some ways, The Obituary recalls Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, another novel of hybrid identities, mixed and crooked tongues, whose very title hinges on a slipped consonant. Like Diaz, Scott is attuned to the losses of migration, and to the hauntings and possessions we risk in unearthing family histories. But she is also sensitive to the elusive joy of reclaiming some part of one's sad, broken, painful, messed-up legacy. It's a thoroughly twenty-first century novel – equal parts liberating and disturbing in its treatment of the modern subject." - Anna Leventhal
"Linear narrative is dead, long live narrative. No, individual experience is dead. Or, wait, the individual is dead. Long live.
And who was the individual to begin with? Rosine, the protagonist of Gail Scott’s The Obituary, is a cluster of contradictions, conversations and recollections. Rather than a notice of death, the obit in question is the amalgamated noticings of a life. Yet, as Scott writes, “reader, you may be forgiven for asking: what, here, is a novel life?”
As an author, translator, editor and critic, Scott’s career has hinged on exploring those contradictions inherent in narrative – can perspective be at once fixed and reflect multiple voices? How can the body be present within a two-dimensional text? Although some of the tropes of narrative disturbance have become a bit familiar since their heyday in the late 20th century, the political thrust of Scott’s work is very much of the present.
The Obituary subverts standard syntax, spills into footnotes, and engages in a little bit of meta-textual footsy with Hitchcock and Shakespeare. Some of Scott’s structural gestures, her shifted translations of streets and sites or her lonely, amputated participles for instance, seem more habitual than iconoclastic – “never getting what I want, she complaining that day on Settler-Nun gate.” Despite attempts to point out the arbitrariness of recorded history, or the transience of human experience, is storytelling perhaps bound to forward movement, to imperfectly linear narrative progression?
As do her previous books, this long-awaited latest upends our expectations of a novel, and raises more questions than it answers. At the centre: “Who-am-we?” Rosine’s death, chronicled via her dramatically named therapist, in the voice of a historian and from the point of view of a fly, underscores the uncertainty of self and the fluidity of time and place.
Where am we is the other unavoidable. From Western Canada, Rosine lands in Montreal’s Mile End, once a milk-run station, then home to waves of immigrants, now increasingly tromped by “the slithering feet of the socially ascendant.” Here you never really escape the porosity of both English and French. Like Rosine’s day-to-day, Scott’s text is laced with “quelle horreurs,” “hélas,” and “Dieu mercis,” but the French has seeped farther in, spanning from simplistic transliterations to ornate, Latinate diction.
This city, where you’re often defined as not-something, fits Rosine perfectly: “After wanting to be authentic, I/Rosine the liar relocating in ‘je-me-souviens’ part of continent. Deciding veritable alienation, + not failure to be of undisputed origin.” She is not really fraudulent, however, but just of blurry racial provenance, the issue of Métis raised in a white household.
That nebulous identity is the most accomplished and nuanced aspect of The Obituary, which reads as though through a patina of dust. Rosine and her perceptional retinue exist in multiple times: addresses to a long-dead grandfather coming on the heels of wistful sighs of romantic betrayal, and confrontations with a scummy 21st-century landlord follow strolls around the Crystal Palace with the chorus of “Shale Pit Workers!” Assorted memories of Paris in the twenties, of the Habs or of the steamie special diner lunch launch, float and land as if at random.
But of course, nothing about The Obituary’s disinterested omniscience is random. Even the understatements are compelling: contentious inclusions in the book of genocides; a plural social identity that includes both perpetrators and victims; the paradoxically comforting and invasive proximity of layered urban living… Scott circles around her pet preoccupations of mistranslation, relocation, disembodiment, voyeurism, mystery and exposure and, though she balks at being dubbed experimental, this ain’t your grandmother’s etcetera." - Katia Grubisic
"If you have ever attempted to trace your own genealogy, you know it is not a simple matter of careful, cosy research. It is an active struggle against the forgettings, omissions, and concealments of previous generations. No matter how pristine the pedigree, every family has a few skeletons, packed away in cottony half-truths that over time harden into fact: that man who lived with Uncle Earl was his roommate; it’s an error on grandma’s birth certificate that makes it look as though she was born out of wedlock; and Aunt Marie spent a lot of time outdoors, which surely accounts for her dark complexion. When we tell the story of our families — of ourselves — it is not just we who speak, but a splintered chorus of past and present truths, lies, and errors.
In this sense, Gail Scott’s latest novel, The Obituary, is a ghost story. The author playfully acknowledges as much, declaring, “Rest assured, dear X, a tale’s encrypted mid all these future comings + goings … Circumstantially, I am posturing as woman of inchoate origin [problematically, I can hear you saying]. To underscore how we are haunted by secrets of others.” It is partly through its “encryption” that the tale explores and enacts how past and present live side by side, on the city map, in our architecture, and perhaps most of all, in our language. Typically, the sentence is a unit of narrative, built through syntax to create a sense of linear time. In Scott’s work, however, sentences fragment, loosening the relationship between clauses and calling on the reader to piece moments together. Consequently, The Obituary is also a mystery of sorts. Is our main character, Rosine, in her shrink’s office? Lounging in her Mile End triplex? Riding the #80 bus up Avenue du Parc? Is she a fly on the wall? Or the feminist historian who footnotes the text? The coexistence of these possibilities makes the narrative both elusive and worth coming back to.
Scott is constantly searching for innovative ways to reveal what is said and unsaid, absence as a kind of presence, and the influence of past events on the present moment. Her prose is anything but seamless. By design it trips the reader up in order to make time feel more expansive than in a conventional novel, to let a multiplicity of voices speak, and even to allow backtracking and back-talking, as when a footnote takes exception with the chestnut that “In this land everyone an immigrant,” or when Rosine remembers her mother scolding someone “For saying you, Grandpa, speaking Indian Cree to Great-Grandma Dousse.”
Rosine’s — and Canada’s — indigenous roots are perhaps the weightiest ghosts here. While Montréal is the novel’s setting, it is also the canvas on which many erasures and lies of omission have been acted out. This is partly the natural evolution of a city: when one building burns down, another is built on its foundation; street names are changed; deeds and leases change hands. But when we live in a space where someone else lived before us, we also live with them — with their dirt, their shoddy repair jobs, their neighbours who liked them better than us. Traces of what came before — or what presently is, but is denied — hide in plain sight. The myth of Montréal as a city divided simply between francophone and anglophone obscures the more complex reality, in which aboriginal Canadians and others play an important part. Here, absences speak and, as in a well-researched family tree, those voices erased by the shame or arrogance of previous generations press forth. If an obituary is an account of a life, Scott’s seeks to gather the forgotten and omitted details left to the margins, the ghosts that haunt us and make us who we are." - Abby Paige
"Gail Scott’s long-anticipated novel The Obituary is exemplary of the author’s strengths as a writer, and as a Montrealer. As always – her prose begs to be read as poetry because simply put, it is poetry in its most ethereal, advanced form. Scott’s work readily acknowledges this question on page 118: “Reader, you may be forgiven for asking here what is a novel life?”
The Obituary is beautiful, challenging poetic novel that is absolutely stunning in terms of image, sound, rhythm, merged with compelling characters and an extremely sensory depiction of place and atmosphere. Full of unconventional footnotes, brackets, symbols and crossed out words, the work itself is a complex equation to be cracked, or at least, to be pondered, much like life and identity. The narration is a fusion of three voices which bleed into each other – a woman named Rosine on a bed or bus, an erudite historian and a meticulously descriptive omniscient narrator.
The narrative is situated in Mile End – seeking to capture, (as Scott put it at the launch for the book) “the music of the way people talk in Montreal” and the particular resonance the city and its inhabitants have. She compared this intention to Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers.
Montreal street names that appear in the text are toyed with – transformed to be humorous and fresh. One example is the renaming of St. Joseph as Dada-Jesus. At the launch Scott talked about ‘sense of place’– a vital element of the novel; she has lived in Mile End since 1972 back when it was a working class immigrant neighbourhood, where as she put it, “everyone shared having to get up to go to work in the morning,” something that has certainly changed. The narrative is fascinated with the situation of life in the triplexes of Montreal, the manner in which neighbours tend to intimately know about each other’s lives. This is done in part through following a therapist MacBeth and his patients, who are neighbours.
At the launch the author discussed the integration of Abraham and Torok’s view of psychoanalysis which sees social context as important to shaping identity and psyche. At the book launch, Dr. Gillian Lane-Mercier suggested that the central issue of the novel can be summed up with this quote: “Who am we?” (p. 46) The Obituary plays with the idea that who you are is inextricably linked to who you identify with.
The novel begins with this epigraph: “What haunts us are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others” – Abraham and Torok. Haunting is an important element of the novel that plays out as ghosts of Old Montreal’s politics and ghosts of Rosine’s ancestors. The protagonist/narrator Rosine is distressed by her partly-indigenous family’s “internalized racism” and sense of shame.
The narrative is concerned with hybridity and struggling with identity– avoiding and/or accepting elements and notions of self, place and past. Rosine strives to find an authentic way of speaking. Words that are crossed out show her editing or censoring herself, trying to establish for herself what she is and isn’t able to, or should or shouldn’t be able to say.
Scott responded to a comment that her narrator may be seen as “someone who is falling apart” by saying she sees her as “someone with many seams.” I agree with this statement, though it’s also interesting to note how falling, or rather, carefully pulling apart can often be a precursor to fixing pieces together, to obtaining a sense of wholeness from fractions – which speaks to the structure of the text itself.
Lovely and brave, The Obituary has an uncommonly layered feel. The language is consistently playful, sensuous and tight. The world portrayed is full of vibrancy, an accumulation of delicious details infused with social commentary and facts. Although in one sense the novel can appear difficult to follow, it is ultimately inviting, fun and a pleasure for the reader to inhabit. The Obituary is all the things that good writing, be it poetry or prose, should be." - Lisa Sookraj
"The Obituary is a poetic novel that relies on parataxis - the skillful juxtaposition of images, ideas and questions that build throughout the narrative. Scott's narrator describes this Benjaminian approach as "Any flickering plaetary molecule [+ its shadow, memory]. Animate or inanimate. Capable of unexpectedly impacting any other." With succinct cadence, the tangential story sparks and spirals upon itself with tight descriptive passages full of rich imagery and performance in terms of sound, syntax, semantics, and tone.
The novel situates the reader amidst vivid scenes of everyday life in Montreal. Having lived in Mile End for twenty five years, Scott captures the distinct sound of the city through bits of dialogue between Montrealers, focusing on neighbourly relations and notions of difference. The mention of Breton's sense of the individual as a "labyrinthine structure" is correlated to its examination of the triplex, which symbolizes the layered nature of identity and the test itself. The illusion of triplex, Scott explains, is that each apartment is its own seperate dwelling due to private entrances, yet each unit remains part of a shared external community, which influences the middle space and the complexities hidden there. While Breton's Nadja asked "Who am I?" The Obituary emphasizes the complexities of community, asking instead, "Who are we?"
The narrative explores marginality on numerous levels, based on the principle that "in this land everyone is an immigrant." The protagonist Rosine is Anglo, Quebecois, Indigenous and queer (amoungst other things). She is called a 'liar' by her mother for seeking to expose and accept her family's native ancestry, a source of shame and pain for generations before her.
The Obituary's question, "Are we not all prostheses? Moulded by circumstantial evidence?" is informed by psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok's transgenerational phantom -psychologial traumas and secrets that are passed down to successive generations in a family. Abraham and Torok believed the secret in his poetics of hiding was revealed in linguistic or behavioural encodings; they sought coherence amidst fractured meanings and discontinuity. This applies to Scott's splintered narrative, (strewn with symbols and footnotes), as well as to the novel's unique dialect composed of broken language; the narrator "speaking so fast she brutally destroying syntax."
Questioning "why dirty secrets, given everybody having, still being paraded as mysterious" is one of the novel's many astute insights, at times humorous, at times momentous. The narrator delivers lesser known details about Montreal's architectural, political and social history. For example: "'Bloke' is an old term used by francophones to designate anglos, implying someone a little square. And classic anglo term for franco? 'Pepsi!'" The engaging manner in which this inventory is woven throughout the narrative is one of Scott's most notable accomplishments with The Obituary.
Scott's latest offering further proves her ability to create densely textured texts comprised of clever observations on significant topics. As with her previous novels, The Obituary pushes narrative into unchartred territory. The text possesses a brilliant essence of time, place and flight that pulls the reader in, holds them close and urges them to read between the lines, the impressions, the moments." - Lisa Sookraj
Gail Scott, Main Brides, Coach House, 1993.
"It is a hot June day. A woman sits in a bar in Montreal’s Main, waiting. Pushing down the disturbing scene (the police, a blanket) she saw that morning in the park. To focus herself, she tries to guess the stories of other women who come and go as the day darkens into night: the teenager Nanette; Adele of Halifax, who’s constantly on a train; a woman just back from Cuba; two lesbian lovers (one’s a “cowgirl”); Z., a performance artist; Norma jean from Toronto; the taunting radio voice of a woman promising a tango. Between the portraits, the woman watches and drinks and spins a setting for her “brides.” The question is, why does she keep deferring going home?"
"A woman sits in a restaurant in Montreal smoking and drinking. Atape-recorder plays loud music, often a mamba. Patrons come and go.Lydia watches the sun go down; watches the other women, the“Brides”; imagines their stories. The Brides are all different. Theyare lesbian and straight, beautiful and ugly, young and old, but theyhave one thing in common—they do not get what they want out of life.They phone but no one answers. They wait but no one joins them. Theytravel but never arrive. Lydia watches them put on a front, just as sheputs on a front, aware that she is being watched as she watches. This is a novel with interesting characters and insights; however,neither merits the hard work that goes into reading it. The authorappears to believe that unconventional grammar and punctuation make formore vivid writing. They do not." - Canadian Book Review Annual
"Gail Scott has an extraordinary ability to compress scenic observations... into short, jewel-like notations." — Hugh Hood
"the female gaze. lydia sits at a bar and describes what she sees and imagines, most often: herself, other women. (how’s that for a plot!) a book of portraits, maybe a self-portrait, or maybe a book about portraiture–the ambiguity intentional and often successful as a statement about our success in ever describing completely an identity.
this book’s project as defined by its narrator:
“Lydia (having trouble focusing) returns to her portrait: anecdotal fragments organized–but not too rigorously–with a little space around them to open possibilities” (167).
what saves the book from disintegrating into just fragmentary observations is scott’s fearless and idiosyncratic style. the writing’s syncopated and richly arch music reveals a persistent conflict between empathy and judgment, between a wish to define and a desire to stay open.
some of the best parts of the book come during a chapter whose content is the most traditional: the story of a springtime love affair. besides the quickly flaming and guttering of an april love, the chapter reveals rather strikingly the conflicts within the narrator: anecdotal versus analytical modes; english versus french (“You hate the way being with her makes you think so much in English, you lose the capacity for immediate abstraction that comes with speaking French”); a willingness to be self-critical or vulnerable versus a need to be defiant and judging.
and: the beauty of the writing. scott’s a singular, fierce and unapologetic stylist. at its most courageous it can invoke and then overcome sentimentality. here’s a passage again about that april love affair–a straightforward description of the sweet and deadly swiftness of it:
“Still April. You step outside. The sky is so blue you sense the infinity of dancing air. Around you the jonquils are laughing. Granted, this image is slightly sentimental. You can’t help it, she’s getting you so drunk with the caresses of her big hands, you feel like a giant. You rock your warm crotch against the cold cement, hoping that, with all that affection, she won’t be pressuring you for commitment.
The truth is, already you feel a little trapped. Because of that day she, sitting on the brown sofa in the living-room of that tacky hotel apartment she temporarily rented, knees up to chin, talking on the phone to her lover from Alberta, suddenly declared: ‘I’m in love, Betty.’ You didn’t intend to listen. You couldn’t believe she was putting her main relationship in jeopardy: by no means had you said anything about commitment. Yet, grudgingly, you wondered what makes these young dykes so courageous. Always taking chances. The way she kissed you in that bar, until both of you were floating. Definitely, no fear of flying” (108-9)." - Eugene Lim
"Gail Scott’s 1993 book Main Brides is less a novel than a series of snapshots, taken with the camera of the protagonist Lydia’s eyes. She sits in a café-bar on St. Laurent in Montreal—also known as the Main, which the title refers to—observing the women who come and go. These “women travellers, like sleepwalkers, move unerringly” and are “always packing up, and going here and there”; they are contemporary women in all their diversity, who “exert[…] great control on their existence.” Lydia imagines these women’s life stories and histories while watching them, gathering what she can from their appearances and interactions. She in fact creates their realities, wishing for a “history where anyone can enter”; the narrative actually often moves away from Lydia entirely and enters the reality of the watched women. One of these women is a lesbian who has recently returned home from a vacation to Cuba with her sister, where they unsuccessfully attempted to move past—or perhaps run from and forget—the sexual assault her sister recently faced in their shared apartment. Lydia also watches a lesbian couple, one a cowgirl from Alberta and the other a Montrealer, who is attracted to the cowgirl’s difference yet embarrassed to introduce her to her snobbish Francophone lesbian-feminist friends. The Montrealer is especially embarrassed because, despite her efforts to assimilate into her intellectual lesbian-feminist circle, her cowgirl girlfriend can hear a twist of Albertan in her voice: a reminder that the Montrealer’s mother is actually from Edmonton. Lydia herself also reads as queer: describing Z., a performance artist from Ottawa, her infatuation with this theatrical, “emaciated drag queen” of a woman is clear.
After we hear these fascinating, surreal stories—fragments, really, of these women’s lives—the narrative constantly returns to Lydia, who sits waiting in the bar, drinking coffee and then, as the day progresses, wine. What exactly she is waiting for is uncertain. Is there something in these women’s lives that she needs to discover before she can go home? We also begin to feel uncertain about the veracity of Lydia’s stories: are they accurate? Do we believe her histories of these women’s lives to be true, or not? Is this woman’s life really how Lydia describes, or is Lydia just imagining it that way? Does she have any reason to imagine their lives as one way or another? Scott in fact leaves these questions unanswered; or, perhaps, they are not useful as questions. If we are working with a sense that “anyone can enter,” and therefore change, history, then we have to let go of the safety of fixed identities and histories. Lydia enters, explores, and creates the stories of the women she encounters, presenting the readers with a “smooth and gently moving” history, one that is nuanced, broad, and accessible, rather than mean and categorical. It is this kind of attitude towards history and storytelling that is open to those identities and histories that have been often neglected—like those of lesbian and queer women, but also women more broadly. Lydia’s imagined realities for these women are no less real than their own imagined realities, or her perception of her own life. If you are in a kind of melancholy or meditative mood, and feel like exploding open your own sense of self, I’d recommend sitting down in a bar or café—preferably a dark and dingy place like the one Lydia has chosen—with a glass of wine or a mug of coffee and immersing yourself in the lives of the brides—queer and non-queer alike—of the Main." - The Lesbrary
Jennifer Henderson: FEMME(S) FOCALE(S): GAIL SCOTT'S MAIN BRIDES AND THE POST-IDENTITY NARRATIVE
Gail Scott, Spare Parts Plus Two, Coach House Books, 2002. [1981.]
"A welfare cheque floats down the river, a cowboy spreads the Word of the Lord and crotches tick like clocks: the world of Spare Parts is unpredictable, evocative and vividly distorted. Its initial appearance, in 1981, caused a stir; at a time when linear narrative was the m.o. of feminist writing, Gail Scott had the nerve to fracture and dislocate her stories and her language.
Spare Parts is as vital as it was twenty years ago. Scott's densely textured tales about the world of growing up female in a small town, where violence lurks just beneath the skin, recreate the uncertainty of life. Their incantatory language and tough imagery are as relevant and crucial now as they were then."
"A welfare cheque floats down the river, a cowboy spreads the Word of the Lord and crotches tick like clocks: the world of Spare Parts is unpredictable, evocative and vividly distorted. Its initial appearance, in 1981, caused a stir; at a time when linear narrative was the m.o. of feminist writing, Gail Scott had the nerve to fracture and dislocate her stories and her language.
Spare Parts is as vital as it was twenty years ago. Scott's densely textured tales about the world of growing up female in a small town, where violence lurks just beneath the skin, recreate the uncertainty of life. Their incantatory language and tough imagery are as relevant and crucial now as they were then.
This edition adds two new pieces, including 'Bottoms Up', an essay on narrative which first appeared on the 'Narrativity' website Scott co-edits."
Read it at Google Books
Gail Scott, Spaces Like Stairs: Essays, Women's Press, 1996.
"Written from 1980 to 1988, these essays explore the role of feminism in literature across a uniquely Canadian bilingual context. Through its rich introspection and eloquence, Scott shows the author's journey through a male-dominated literay canon into a celebration of her era, concluding that, "A writer may do as she pleases with her epoch. Except ignore it."
Lianne Moyes, Gail Scott: Essays on Her Works, Guernica Editions, 2002.
"This collection of essays examines the varied and influential work of Montreal writer Gail Scott, the feminist and experimental writer who placed Quebec women's writing on the map. Whether working as a bilingual journalist covering political and cultural events in 1970s Quebec, an anglophone writing with the many languages of Montreal in her ears, or a queer writer whose work with 'new narrative' links her with writers across the United States, Scott transforms the spaces between communities into spaces of cultural and intellectual possibility. These essays explore her novels, essays, and short stories, which engage a range of issues central to contemporary thought including: the porosity of the subject; the body as sensory interface; history as montage; the novel as multimedia installation; the cosmopolitan centre as capitalist and colonialist ruin; and realism as an accumulation of time frames, angles of vision, and events going on simultaneously in different spaces."
Read it at Google Books
"Gail, the first thing I noticed about The Obituary is that it feels like such a wonderfully seamless continuation of My Paris, only this time, set in Montreal, in Mile End, in particular. Further, I note that you have perfected your representation of a kind of thinking and writing: sentences laid and overlaid with syntactical gesture and flaneurial texture...but more basically, my first question is about the face in the window--is it simultaneously the face in the window in 1980s Montreal and 90s Paris and Mile End in 2003?
- I feel that I am ever reaching toward the question of how to write in the moment the writing is written. Each novel offers a new challenge in terms of how to grasp, as much as possible, the moment at hand, that is both the everyday and full of the conversation with others about thinking (writing). Since starting to write prose « fiction, » I have, like so many contemporaries, written with the awareness that both spoken and written, lines, phrases, theories, are borrowed, Kathy Acker was my first mentor in that respect. Formally, or even stylistically, speaking, I take what is punctually useful to me, often to cast it off or to give it diminished importance later. What is left accumulates into the writing subject "I" am becoming over time. I feel, with The Obituary, that I have achieved something I have been reaching toward as concerns novel time, as well as the question of who speaks when one speaks, which is the real puzzle of the novel. A way of moving forward with voices coming in from everywhere including the past. Very à propos, I like to think, in the particular context that is Montréal, is that this book totally sounds like Montréal now. They sentenced me to 20 years of… (trying) to misquote the Cohen song about taking Manhattan.
Can you elaborate a little on what you mean by “novel time” and what this novel has taught you about it?
- There is a false idea of how time moves forward in being and in consciousness that impacts the way people are taught to read novels, or to expect from cinema narrative, etc. This notion of narrative is changing in all forms of culture, but a lot of criticism has not yet noticed. A lot of novel critics still obsess with what a work is about, and forget to look at the question of what has been done to the sentences, for example. In My Paris, I invented a sentence based on present participles that allowed time to go back, yet “forth” through the present within the space of each sentence or section. This became the time of she who dissolves into the crowd, who seeks no or minimal agency, which seemed a useful contribution to the whole business of travel writing. Those little sentence fragments, motored as they were by present participles, had the effect of diminishing the speaking subject as well as rendering the verb less forwardly active. One of the ways The Obituary is an extension of My Paris has, precisely, to do with how different layers of time work together (somewhat nurtured by Walter Benjamin’s brilliant notion of how the past under only certain precise circumstances [revolutions, or sudden moments of awareness] gets productively telescoped into the present). I already knew when I started this novel, whose main question is “who speaks when we speak,” that I was not interested in a unary narrator because that implied a certain notion of time (memory, ”history”) that I felt wrong. I learned in the early drafts of The Obituary that breaking Rosine into some of her parts was a way to help to re-distribute novel time. There is the woman on the bed or in a city bus; she is allowed brief moments of nostalgia, but is also, via her bus trajectories, going somewhere. There is the PC lesbian at the bottom of the page citing historical documents. There is virtual time via the cop hacker lurking in the stairwell and occasionally capturing fragments of Rosine’s diary or letters on his monitor. There is the antic dance of the hyper-erotic Rosine animus, a horny “fly on the wall”; and so on.
This book was a long time coming. It's also a book that reaches further back in time than your other books do, and if I may say, it seems more personal, or more specifically historical. I keep coming back to the photographs over the table, for example, and the haunting (and revisiting Spare Parts I read echoes of course). I know that your work is particularly embodied and political at the same time, but here the haunting seems, if not personal to you, then somehow more personal to your character.
- To write a novel that, in its exploration of language, does some of the work of poetry, yet also some of the work of the novel, is to get pulled in different directions until one finds a way to write over the top of the gaps. When I was a journalist, I wrote an article a day and it was good writing and people would pick up their newspaper and read a few paras and throw it away. It seemed too hard on the trees, and a waste of writing time. I decided to become a « real writer »--that meant in my mind to explore the question of writing in its relationship to time--only to find myself surrounded by people grinding out a book a year. Okay, if you are essentially writing bedtime stories, people need to fall asleep, but it seems wasteful otherwise. Of course, no sooner do I say this, than I think of delightful exceptions, people like Nathalie Stephens, Catherine Mavrikakis, to name but two, who write incredibly fast, and who really think in their writing, writing that would not be as good if they put on the brakes.
The Obituary does deal with a more personal past. I needed to figure out, formally, how to get voices coming into the story that had essentially been mostly repressed in my family and in society, or, at least, that came in slant. This repressed story is, of course, relevant inasmuch as it has happened in so many families on the continent. I absolutely did not want to do a roots or a quest novel. I’m not against the airing of identity issues in writing, I believe even writers who claim not to do it, do it on some scale. But what struck me about this narrator with the partly repressed past of her family was her difficulty in establishing a sense of community in the extremely ghettoized city that is Montréal. I wondered if people with hybrid or multiple strands in their ancestry often seem to need to choose sides. Otherwise they find themselves dancing in two different directions at once. It was painful to think about all the what-ifs in my ancestry and interesting to find a way to shape that into some kind of telling.
I was thinking about the trajectory of your engagement with the novel, roughly speaking, from Heroine to Obituary the sentences/syntaxes become increasingly self-conscious. After your reading last night (at Drawn & Quarterly), Eileen Myles mentioned the dome-like structure of the reading (you read “The Crypt’s Tale”). I was noting too, the way the sentences seem to assemble in the air like wires. And if one closed one’s eyes one could bleed into pure sound—almost. But more directly, one can’t be in Montreal and not be cognisant of the electrical grid and how it acts like a net, a very loose net, but a net overhead. This grid feels allegorical. Not as oppressive as the net of wires that seems to keep Center City in Philadelphia firmly rooted to the ground, but it’s an interesting analogy where your writing is concerned (in wealthier neighbourhoods the wiring is buried, right?). Put another way, one encounters Obituary as an elaboration of knots. One has to feel one’s way through the sentences piecing together the speakers, the subjects, and in doing so one can be very richly rewarded.
- The word self-conscious is virtually impossible to translate into French, and can be a bad word in English. Which would imply that self-consciousness is an issue in English, a non-issue in French. It’s true that the focus in my recent prose is somewhat sentence to sentence. I like to think of each sentence—as much as possible—as a performative unit. A call. The space between the sentences is where the audience or reader bridges with her energy, and in her way, the gap. My debt to poetry has to do with resisting the passive reader. But if I’m not writing in poetic lines, it’s because the sentence is also in immediate relation to what comes “next”. It is in in some kind of relation as well, to the voices of “the real,” be they scraps of conversation from the street or textual citations. And all these sentences are moving into a pattern that hopefully ultimately will expose a moment in time. I do like the idea of electricity, somewhere in the novel I say ours is, relatively speaking, the most lit-up city on the continent. But all that electricity does not keep these pseudo ghosts pinned to street level, the sky is present and very close and busy with bird and cloud and weather. At any rate, the grid pattern you suggest might initially challenge a reader who wants a classic narrative progression. But more and more readers are tired of that. Readers who spontaneously read with their ear will hopefully find music, then a mystery, then a story. Eileen’s suggestion of a dome pleases me because it is a shape that gathers toward the sky.
I find your relationship to Montreal, Canada, and New York particularly interesting: on the one hand you are clearly writing Montreal, and a particular Montreal at that, but you also seem very much outside of Montreal, and Canada, in aesthetic conversation with a group of writers situated primarily in New York and the Bay Area. How does that work?
- There is a network of formally radical writers across the continent that is comprised of writers from both Canada and the US. I can’t help but notice that Christian Bök, Lisa Robertson, Rachel Zolf, Nathalie Stephens, Steve McCaffery, many Canadian writers spend a great deal of time in the US. You also, Sina, have spent some very productive years in the US. My earliest writing influences were québecois, energy coming out of the very radical period that followed the Quiet Revolution, and gathered into such great writing as Prochain Episode, and subsequently Brossard’s Picture Theory, the France Théoret of Nous parlerons comme on écrit, etc. These latter two I have worked closely with. There came a moment, however, where I needed to speak with other writers in English about what I was doing in my writing, and the experimental prose networks were growing exponentially in the US, while we were connecting more with directly exploring identity and regional issues in Canada. . The two are not necessarily contradictory, by the way, as queer and new feminist writing have shown eloquently. It was my friendship with Carla Harryman that initially led me first to San Francisco and all the amazing prose writers living there. But were I living in an English-language province, no doubt my itinerary in prose would have been different;it was the radical experiments happening in québécois writing that somehow, paradoxically, meant I would end up talking to people in the US. I think of myself as basically a Montréal writer. I should add that, particularly of late, I have become very interested in Indigenous writing, there is so much amazing work being done, one of the best-kept secrets north of the 49th, since a lot of it is not getting the exposure it merits.
Erin Moure suggests that your work on the sentence is the most important since Stein, the most original. This is notable in My Paris, but here you seem to move beyond those easy comparisons into a realm of your own engagement. The Steinian play is there in language, syntax, layering and unlayering, but it also feels like a kind of end-game--or that you've achieved your goal. Where do you see your investigation going from here?
- Very kind of Erin Moure to give my sentences such high praise. I would say the overall challenge in writing for me is to get the sentence to do the work of poetry, yet to take on, in its shape or its relation to other sentences, some of the work of prose. In terms of sentences, My Paris was easy compared to this project and I did fear that the syntax of that novel risked becoming an end-game, that is, that I would never move forward from the syntactical devices I used in My Paris. Then I fell back on my usual approach of taking what I learned from one project to apply to the next one without painting myself in a corner of henceforth writing in present participles. The syntax is quite varied in The Obituary, the different takes on sentences linked to different shards of Rosine, but also to family speech patterns, to the surveillants in the stairwell, and various other ghosts, all enunciating together, I hope, as counterpoint. Stein went all over the place with syntax of course, learning in part from Picasso, who painted in so many different ways, to go with the flow of the moment. She is one writer who definitely did not allow herself married to genre, nor any particular device, as is evidenced by her ever evolving sentences and formal experiments. All her work was fed by a radical aesthetic ethos which may have had something to do with her lesbianism, since her politics were otherwise not particularly radical. But there was absolute commitment to a radical, experimental, aesthetic, and it is one many of us share.
In terms of texture, how do you decide how much history will puncture a narrative and for how long? You like a slow boil, and I assume one can say you like a slow boil in the reading process too. That the reader will wade through, attaching images and words as she or her acclimatizes to the amplified perspective you achieve in your prose. I’m thinking of the relationship between Scott the former journalist, Scott the mystery writer, and Scott the experimental author: where and how do you negotiate your relationship with your reader?
- If history (but what is history?) seems to puncture the narrative as you put it, it implies something not only about the writer, but also about the expectations of the reader: a reader's desire for seamlessness, for example, which I’m presuming is not your case, since that would be a fairly conventional approach to the question of the novel. Or a kind of anxiety about narrative time that some readers have. Somebody once told me that the best way to read My Paris was to get on a subway somewhere in, say, Brooklyn, and sit reading til the utmost stop on the uptown line. Rachel Levitsky has taught My Paris in prison. It’s only work to read if you approach it as work. My Paris and The Obituary are both books you can step into and sample a few pages at a time, for the language. My hope of course is that eventually the reader will read it from end to end and that it will be an experience of pleasure and discovery. I like the idea of books that can be read over and over and over, each time delivering up some new treasure, some new meaning. The relationship between the different kind of Scott writers is a mystery to me. Journalism taught me to observe, to listen, and to use language economically. Scott the Noir writer is a purveyor of doubt. And Scott the author cares most about language and how it works. Thank you for your very perceptive questions." - Interview by Sina Queyras
Interview by Amelia Schonbek
Bina Toledo Freiwald: “Towards the Uncanny Edge of Language”: Gail Scott's Liminal Trajectories (pdf)
Gail Scott's web page