a review by Peter McCambridge
Roland is happily married. He lives life to the full, trying to juggle his roles as a father, a lover, an employee, a student. Then one day he falls at home. A brain tumour. He’s 30. From one day to the next his life is turned upside down. He’s operated on. The tumour is benign. Then it turns malignant. Aphasia, partial lobotomies, experimental surgeries, and an inevitable slide towards death follow.
And yet the book is all about tone. As the tumour goes inexorably about its work, the author avoids self-pity and melodrama. We, like our friend Roland, go to bed “a little upset.” Because from just a few pages into the novel, Roland is our friend. We care about him, and his wife.
And as the novel goes on, the tone becomes colder and more clinical, dissecting the (lack of) emotions of all concerned. Roland becomes a guinea pig to his doctors, a prize specimen that might earn them a mention in the New England Journal of Medicine. To his wife, he becomes an object that sucks away her energy, something she wants to protect her young son from.
It is a strange balancing act. The novel is set in the 1970s. It is another distancing device and one that adds little to the plot but never seems gratuitous, just lingering there in the background; like most of the novel it just feels right, almost inexplicably sometimes. The writing is not sparse or clinical; it is well dosed and subtle. There are no elaborate descriptions, just well-measured ones, not a word out of place, not a word too many.
This is not a novel of offbeat metaphors; it sticks close to realism, and is all the more touching for it. When reaching for comparisons, names like Graham Greene and Graham Swift come vaguely to mind, though never quite sharply enough into focus for me to really ever be able to pin down why Bertrand’s style seems quite so British, as his publisher points out. Certainly there are few writers in Québec today who write in this style:
“Without moving from his leather chair, Dr. Fauteux watched his patient and his wife leave. When they had disappeared into the corridor, he sank back down into his chair, stretched slowly, and seemed satisfied.”
Certainly at first glance Bertrand’s style appears closer to Graham Greene’s “Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork” (The Heart of the Matter) than to an Eric Dupont or a François Barcelo, say. Unlike Dupont, Bertrand’s prose is bereft of playfulness; it is cinematic, never melodramatic. And unlike a Barcelo, for example, there is more emphasis on tone and theme than on twists and turns in plot development.
By stepping back from his characters, Bertrand manages to touch on some important themes (the decline of a man, the will to survive, how others perceive the sick and dying, the fragility of the human condition, the absurdity of sickness and death, the physical and moral transformation of a man under the knife, bereavement) without weighing down the book. The novel describes the state of mind of a dying man, leaving the reader to mull it all over in our minds long after we have finished reading.
by Nicolas Bertrand
≈ translated by Peter McCambridge
Roland was thirty when he started to die.
One day when he had climbed up onto a stepladder to screw in a lightbulb, he collapsed.
Apparently, for no reason.
≈ ≈ ≈
When he came back round that day, Roland took a while to realize, not without surprise, that he was lying on the floor. A cold sweat dribbled slowly down his back, then a huge wave of fatigue suddenly washed over him. Worried, he closed his eyes to gather his thoughts, but found nothing more than an unpleasant warmness in his pants, along with a sharp pain in his left shoulder, which had been squashed against the floor. Roland’s head had been thrust backwards, his temple in the dust, and saliva trickled from his soft mouth and spread across the floor. His lethargy had already lasted a long time.
Although he did not immediately understand what had just happened to him, Roland went about standing up as soon as he had gathered himself together a little. With difficulty, he grabbed hold of a piece of furniture that was within reach and, moments later, he was standing. At this very moment, the blood cascaded back towards his brain, making him dizzy. Carefully, Roland walked to the bathroom to wash his face and put some order back into his ideas.
The cold water did him good. Calmer, although somewhat unsettled and rather unsteady, Roland remembered he had a son who, a short time ago, had been sleeping. He went to see how his baby was, and the peaceful look on his sleeping face made him feel better. Reassured, Roland went out of his son’s bedroom and into the living room, back where it had all begun. He dropped heavily into an armchair, took a deep breath, and looked around him. His eyes suddenly fell upon the stepladder in the middle of the room, giving rise to a feeling of disgust mixed with incomprehension. Without further delay, he reached out, picked up the receiver, and dialed from memory, turning the dial seven times to make the call.
It rang for a long time before Mathilde, his wife, picked up. Her husband often called her at work, so she wasn’t surprised to hear the sound of his voice. What he said, on the other hand, disconcerted her.
Confusedly, Roland related “the incident” to her. He had climbed up onto a stepladder, had felt unwell, had landed with a bump. Almost ashamed, he also admitted he had wet himself. Now he was feeling a little better, but he was still nauseous and, given his current state, he wasn’t sure he would be able to manage staying alone with Frédéric.
Mathilde, surprised and perplexed, nonetheless did not let fear get the better of her.
“Don’t worry, darling. It’s probably nothing serious,” she stammered in a tone she did her best to keep neutral. “I’m leaving right now. I’ll be there in a half hour. I love you.”
Roland hung up without a word, but felt comforted. Deep down, that was why he had phoned her: he had wanted to hear her say that he shouldn’t worry.
≈ ≈ ≈
When Mathilde closed the door to her apartment behind her, she made an effort to calmly take off her boots and coat before inching her way to the living room where her husband was waiting for her. She found Roland slumped on the sofa, arms lying on either side of his weak body, his head where his shoulders would normally have been, had he been sitting straight, his thighs going beyond the cushion supporting his butt, forming almost a right angle with his legs. His face bore the scars of a violent shock. Frédéric, now awake, was sitting on the floor not far from his father, surrounded by more toys than he needed to keep him amused. Roland had likely plied him with all kinds of distractions in the hope he would leave him alone until she arrived.
During the taxi ride home, Mathilde had felt more and more upset by what her husband had told her over the phone. And yet no clear thought had passed through her mind, as though her brain had been powerless to take in what had just happened.
Without hesitating, she went to sit down beside Roland on the sofa and gently asked him how he was feeling.
“Better,” he replied hoarsely. “But I still feel dizzy, and very tired.”
Mathilde did not want him to explain what had happened an hour earlier: that would have further exhausted him. Instead, she suggested he lie down while she made supper and phoned the clinic. Beset by apprehension, Roland kissed her affectionately, before standing up and leaving the room.
≈ ≈ ≈
Roland and Mathilde arrived a little early for their appointment at the Ahunstic clinic, where Dr. Tessier saw them immediately. After greeting them warmly, the old doctor sat down behind a broad desk upon which his patient’s medical file already sat. He opened it distractedly.
“So, what’s the matter, Mr. Bernard?” he asked routinely, without pondering the meaning of his words.
Uneasy, Roland looked to the floor. He was being forced to revive, only a few hours later, a painful experience he would rather have kept quiet about or forgotten. And yet he had no choice but to hand over to the doctor the clues that would allow him to flush out the causes of his unexpected collapse, a collapse that remained incomprehensible and troubling.
Before long, Dr. Tessier frowned, but kept on taking notes. When his patient stopped talking, the doctor asked a series of questions about his general health. Roland replied laconically that he had never fallen like this before, that he wasn’t taking any medication, and that he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary over the past few days. All things considered, everything was fine.
Dr. Tessier had started to sound Roland’s chest as he asked his questions, and now he tested his visual and motor reflexes. Once he had finished, he went back to sit at his desk, scratching his chin.
“Everything appears to be normal,” he said, shaking his head. “I have trouble seeing why you might have lost consciousness… This unexpected loss of consciousness can likely be put down to overexertion or stress, although it may have been caused (the doctor stressed the word may) by an illness that cannot be detected by a basic medical examination. To be sure, we will need a blood sample, and analyzing it will take a few days. We’ll know more about what might have caused your episode after that. Until then: complete rest!”
Although he had a bad feeling in his heart of hearts, the doctor spoke frankly and objectively. He tried hard, however, to end on an optimistic note:
“Rest assured there is no reason to worry for the time being,” he said in a firm tone that sought to be reassuring. The doctor then signed him off on sick leave for one week, prescribed him tablets, and urged him to get some rest, to relax. He also asked that Mathilde stay with him over this period, until the next appointment.
His prescription in hand, Roland walked nonchalantly through the door of the doctor’s office, still shaken by this unbelievable day. Mathilde was about to do the same when the doctor, hurrying after her, took her by the arm.
“If ever your husband should lose consciousness again,” he said in a low voice, “don’t hesitate for a second: call an ambulance at once.” ≈