a review by Peter McCambridge
“Every couple has its pacts, spoken or unspoken,” says Catherine, one of our narrators. “Ours is more twisted than most: I don’t cheat on my husband, he only cheats on me with his models, and then only once, when the painting has been finished. That way it doesn’t count. He owns up, I forgive him. That’s our pact. Sometimes I think it has served us well.”
In a series of alternating monologues, both halves of the couple then go on to examine close to 35 years of marriage. Of togetherness, and of growing apart; of opening up the door to their studios, and of shutting each other out.
On the surface, there’s something comfortably middle class about the years we spend with Philippe and Catherine, two artists still married but long since fallen out of love. Regrets, they’ve had a few. Secrets, too. Their cozy home looks down on Montreal and the St. Lawrence far below, far from the working-class neighbourhoods of Montreal that are perhaps more familiar to readers of Quebec fiction. They eat fusilli with red and yellow peppers and arugula salad. They sip on coffee as they tackle the New York Times crossword. There is talk of travel, and skirts brought home from Stockholm. We are far from the faubourg à m’lasse and pouding chômeur.
This, of course, is no bad thing. All that is remarkable about middle class families is how seldom they seem to pop up in contemporary Quebec literature. As we scrape back the layers, though, problems inevitably creep towards the surface: foundering friendships, betrayal, failing health, a mother who has lost her memory, death.
The theme of infidelity is central to both Les portes closes and Saint-Martin’s earlier collection of short stories, Lettre imaginaire à la femme de mon amant (An imaginary letter to my lover’s wife). But whereas Lettre imaginaire offered such a quick-fire succession of variations on the theme we were often left wondering who was cheating on whom again, and how much we cared, Les portes closes focuses on one husband and wife, with the odd aside from friends and family also struggling to remain faithful.
“Is that a boast or a confession?” Catherine wonders the first time Philippe admits to cheating on her, as he delivers the news to her “like a cat sets down a bloody bird at its owner’s feet.” This duality – both sides of the story – is everywhere, in a world in which girls have grown up “with celebrity divorces and often their parents’ divorces, too. They can’t imagine a party, or a penance, going on that long.”
So, which is it? Party or penance? And who is the victim? As Catherine points out, “There are many of them, only one of me. They move on, I get to stay.” Who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong? Philippe sleeps with his models because Catherine tricked him into having the children he was set against: a first, then twins, to boot! “It was one of the lowest blows of my life,” she concedes. “But not the worst, no, not the worst, just the worst he knew about.”
That’s what marriage is, Philippe concludes, for richer and for poorer, for better and for worse:
“Sitting across from the same person at almost every meal, sometimes as close as can be, sometimes barely able to see her but counting on her all the same, and sometimes seeing her so clearly and hating her so much you want her to shatter into pieces and knowing that perhaps she hates you back. Or that she hated you at a different time when you were looking at her fondly.”
There is a great deal to be fond of in Les portes closes: genuinely profound, well thought-out questions about relationships, characters that stay with us for a long time after we put down the book… In a word, it is impressive. It reminds me of a well-tended garden: considered, but not pretentious. It’s clear that a great deal of thought went into every word choice and yet the writing never feels overdone or self-conscious, just elegant and refined. It’s enough to make you want to call it Saint-Martin’s very own masterpiece. ≈
From Les portes closes
by Lori Saint-Martin
≈ translated by Peter McCambridge
Kneading bread, crushing garlic in a mortar, chopping fish and vegetables, searing meat in a great crackling of oil: I enjoy the violence of the kitchen. Fleeting alchemy, devoured as we go. A woman fumes in her big white kitchen, sets down before her family generous portions of rage and rancour, garnished with a sprig of parsley. Many of us have swallowed our mothers’ anger three times a day: the woman beaten by her husband, the woman widowed too young, the woman who has grown fat and hates herself, the woman who has no time to paint… What a coincidence – but, of course, it isn’t one – that such a practical outlet was found for women’s anger, so nourishing, too! Sometimes I can almost pull it off myself.
Painting is a largely manual affair. The eye plays an almost negligible role. Plenty of people can see: writers see certain things, journalists others; lovers, madmen, and children all see clearly in their own way. What counts is the hand, the work, the endless patience, and the faithfulness to something we once saw, or thought we saw, and wish to save from oblivion.
Friendships founder, lovers betray, death steps in, and our health up and leaves. But Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Eyck, Vermeer, and Rothko remain. Splashes of colour on a flat surface conjure up space and depth. Painting is indifferent to us, but it does speak. Those who sometimes reproach Catherine and me for not being more socially connected fail to understand that we’ve already made our connection, that that’s what we do every time we hold a finished canvas up to the slow violence of time. What we paint has been; what we have painted will not be forgotten.
≈ ≈ ≈
Another morning at the market, another café, more Sunday morning errands, early, before the crowds. We buy the New York Times and divide it up. She gets the arts, I get the main section and travel; she keeps the magazine and the wonderful crossword for later. Routines, unspoken agreements, no need for argument or negotiation. We prattle on about politics, the weather. Aaron’s wife is ill, Pierre is having problems, already, with his young girlfriend. She wants a baby (surprise!) and he doesn’t. The lives of others.
All the things we know about each other, all the anecdotes, all the allusions understood by us alone. Nobody, other than she and I, can remember the bottle of Frascati polished off all too quickly one day during a New Orleans heatwave or the race back to the hotel to make love. Nobody else can remember the cries the children made when they were born, the two policemen, one with brown hair, the other blond, standing outside our door in the middle of the night, soon half a lifetime ago.
I notice how we fold the newspaper and each take up no more than our fair share of the little round table. A courtesy among many others, automatic now. A table, a bed, time after time. Sharing them an infinite number of times – there would be a precise number, but we’ve long since lost count – makes you a couple. It’s mysterious and very simple all at once.
A table, a bed, an old, happy marriage, all things considered.
≈ ≈ ≈
The only child of a mother with no memory, I envy Philippe and Caroline locked away in his studio. I no longer have anyone to trudge back through all this misery with, but the farther away it is, the harder I work to remember it. In the name of what unwholesome delight, what misplaced pride – I had a gift, nothing can be less expensive than a gift – do I feel like reminding myself that my mother could spend half an hour undoing, one by one, the knots in a six-inch piece of string that “could still be good for something”?
Philippe’s, a family of lunatics; mine, of nonentities. Caroline, in the doorway in a turquoise, pink, and orange dress, a turquoise buckle in her hair, held out both hands to me and twirled me around the way Anna Swann used to, when we were thirteen or fourteen.
I had just the one friend, Anna Swann, and what a surprise she chose me, Anna who had an Ethiopian mother – the only black person in our small town – and a Norwegian father. He had come to run the pulp and paper mill so I didn’t know if Anna would be mine for long, Anna with her caramel skin, her delicate features, and huge mouth, Anna who lived in the big house on the hill, Anna who used to play the piano for me, Anna who loved to read like me, who was exiled like me, the difference being that I had been born there, in this small town with nothing going for it but a mill.
As I remember it, we never played, just talked and talked. Around us was a circle that set out our own private space; nobody came up to us and we were happy that way. Then one day Anna’s mother declared that she needed friends “she had more in common with,” a doctor’s daughter, a lawyer’s daughter, not the little match girl. It was all settled over a cup of tea with the ladies, and Anna’s mother told her: tell that Catherine girl you’re busy, you can’t see her any more. And Anna, the next day, asked me into the little grove that was part of the school grounds, where, beside the fence, lilac bushes grew, and it was there, in among the gentle purple perfume, that she told me. She was such a good girl, and so was I, that we didn’t think to challenge her mother’s orders. As soon as the words left her mouth, that was that. She handed me a branch of lilac she had torn off and turned away.
And Denise and Chantal, afterwards, were everywhere, everywhere. The three of them would walk around, Anna flanked by her jailers. We did try to talk, but they were always there, and so we could only make small talk, and then nothing at all. I ended the year alone.
Then the end of elementary school changed things, and we found each other again in high school. Anna’s mother had given up on controlling whom her little girl could be friends with, or Anna had stopped listening, and we talked again, talked and talked. One day we showed each other our private parts to compare how much hair we had, we bought novels to read and talk about together.
And Anna spoke of distances to me. She had lived in England, in Switzerland, even in Japan as a child, although she could no longer remember. She gave me an atlas for my fifteenth birthday – I still have it, and it has fallen well behind the times – and I spent ages poring over it, each map a possible life. Anna got pregnant at sixteen and her family left shortly after that, I lost all trace of her. In any case, what’s the point in looking for her, catching up, trembling with emotion, and then writing to each other once a year, summing up our lives half boasting, half poking fun at ourselves on a little page that anyone might read?
But Anna gave me an atlas and broke my heart for the first time. For me, betrayal will always smell of lilac. ≈