an essay by Pablo Strauss
The long line for the Salon du livre has been shunted off to the side, down a staircase, and back up again, but we eventually find our way into a thronged hall where I never quite know what to do with myself and literature feels like big business. Hundreds are waiting to meet “Quebec’s Stephen King.” The “francophone world’s bestselling author” has flown in. The buzz approaches a roar.
One writer I don’t find at this salon is Philippe Haeck, who has quietly and not so quietly published a book every year or three since 1974. There are poems, criticism, personal essays, journal entries, and most often some combination of all of the above. Each is part of a single entity, as Haeck’s translator Antonio d’Alfonso has noticed 1: the notes of a man born in Montreal in 1946, making sense of the world he lives, reads, and writes in; notes “stitched together” 2 into books.
“Writing is demanding, difficult,” Haeck tells us. “We put ourselves on the line a little. But that’s where the pleasure and the knowledge come in. We can no longer live as before. Our writings remain, our memory spread out before us, our entire life this tangle of writings.” 3
Though much of Haeck’s work is about literature, the word “criticism” isn’t quite right. Every foray into the abstract is shot through with personal, concrete details of the author’s daily life. One seeking to learn about twentieth-century Quebec writing and its reception has much to glean from such generous books as La Table d’écriture : Poéthique et modernité and Naissances : de la littérature Québecoise. Here and in the appreciative asides throughout his work Haeck points us toward famous or little-known voices worth revisiting. Instead of evaluating, he speaks clearly and tenderly about the books he loves. The reading is vast but the approach is light; he addresses readers as friends. These writers speak to me, he says. Find those who speak to you. They may or may not be the same. Just don’t stop looking and listening.
I wrote Philippe Haeck a letter years ago. He answered, recommended books. Our correspondence waxed and then waned; it happens. I once visited his Rosemont home where he showed me his basement office: double writing desk, 8,000-volume library, Ping-Pong table. He won hands down. Just keep it on the table, the older man told the then-young man. I don’t much like to go away on holiday, he said. I don’t like being away from my books, from my desk. And there’s so much to see in Montreal. I still haven’t gotten to the end of it. I have my walking routes, do my round of used bookstores…
The evidence suggests Philippe Haeck is essential to a group of dedicated readers, and this group is small. I am one but can’t say for sure you would be too. I did not come here to convert but to remind you of the many authors you won’t meet at the Salon du livre. You’ll find them at that other salon, the one that is open year-round. As soon as I set foot on the cracked vinyl tile and finger the books’ dusty spines I know I am home, here where the wanted and unwanted commingle and the lost and lonely sift through the remains as if dipping cast iron pans into a stream, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later they’ll come up with small flecks of true gold. ≈
- Philippe Haeck. The Clarity of Voices. Trans. Antonio d’Alfonso. Guernica, 1985. ↩
- “Le livre rassemble les étincelles de voix que vous avez sauvées, qui vous ont été données. Il coud ensemble morceaux de clarté et d’ombre.” Philippe Haeck. Je ne sais pas, p. 146. VLB Éditeur, 1997. ↩
- “L’écriture est exigeante, difficile, nous y jouons un peu notre vie. Mais c’est là notre plaisir, notre connaissance. Nous ne pouvons plus après vivre comme avant. Nos écritures restent là, notre mémoire étaléee, notre vie tout cet enchevêtrement d’écritures.” My translation. Philippe Haeck. L’action restreinte de la littérature, p. 50. Éditions de l’Aurore, 1974. ↩