Maxime Raymond Bock is a young Montreal author whose first short story collection, Atavisms, was recently released in English to high praise. His third book, Des lames de pierre, documents the meeting of two men – a young, floundering author overwhelmed by doubt and family responsibilities, and an older, marginal poet who seems to own nothing beyond his unwavering certainty. The novella recounts their meeting and coming to know each other while retracing the older poet’s past from a small-town childhood to a postwar lumber camp to the throes of the Quiet Revolution to a confused and violent Latin American interlude. The fast-paced yet meditative narrative ranges widely but keeps returning to one central concern: What does it mean to set words down on paper? ≈
from Des lames de pierre
by Maxime Raymond Bock
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
Ithink about Robert a lot. I can hear his voice, smell his rank cigarette-and-coffee breath and the greasy stench of his apartment, and feel his frail handshakes and the lightness on my chest of our quick hugs when we greeted and said goodbye. We met a year and a half before he died. Not long in a lifetime, but long enough for an already damaged creature to quickly finish the business of wasting away. Sometimes, toward the end, what he said had only the slightest purchase on our world and seemed poised to fade to silence after the next comma. He would forget that he had already told me certain stories, and on their second or third tellings they would veer off in different directions, but deep down I knew he spoke truthfully each and every time, more truthfully than everyone else. He was the one who made me see the vanity of my own life. When I picture him now, emaciated body and translucent skin, matted beard and sticky hair, always clad in the same worn-out jeans and t-shirts, eternally hunched over his coffee table rolling the cigarettes that ate away at his alveoli and caused him to spit up bloody gobs of phlegm, like full stops after the coughing fits that interrupted our discussions every ten minutes, the present comes into focus for me as a single whole, my senses open up and take it all in with no filter and I concentrate in order to ward off the uneasiness this idea inspires in me – that as soon as the moment unfolds it is over, and we can’t take anything of it with us, except a faint outline that can only be filled in through invention. I walk in the park next to my house, on the sidewalk next to the Rivière des Prairies, where families enjoy the still-warm afternoons though October is upon us. I have fun with my kids, we climb monkey bars and chase each other around the playground equipment and I make an effort to be mindful of it all, to push my consciousness to its limit, soak it all up. It brings a degree of well-being. I feel part of an indefinable skein of meaning, a great force intelligible only through spirituality, a holist intuition that draws me in but which I will have no choice but to give in to once I realize that, of everything that just happened, all that remains to me is a ghost.
At that point, with two manuscripts rejected and a third accepted – subject to an impossible rewrite – by a friend who ran a small press, I had turned my back on poetry. But not on poets. I still went to launches and readings, and sometimes to parties. Since finishing university and having children these were my only chances to see this circle of acquaintances, where I still had a few friends. I was now a minor player. I no longer stepped up to the mic to read. A new crop had arrived on the scene – pretty young poets with a strong sense of showmanship – and they had pushed me to the margins. The esteem certain people had once held me in was rekindled for a while when I managed to publish a small collection of wide-ranging stories of uneven quality. It got a brief review in one of the papers and a few blog posts. Two or three people told me they’d read and enjoyed it.
I was looking for a way to start writing again, and coming up blank. The same words saturated my mind but their meanings seemed to have evaporated. I could no longer read anything beyond what crossed my desk for copy-editing – poorly conceived advertising, business reports written in gibberish, tourism and mechanics magazines, literary manuscripts scarcely better than my own. My kids were taking over my entire life, sucking me dry to the very marrow; it felt like I was withering away for them while they, conversely, flourished. Bags were appearing under my eyes and not even a good night’s sleep, when I actually got one, could make them go away. I lived in terror of my pens. When I saw a moment approaching when I might actually be able to write, on weekends when the kids were at their grandparents’, or during nervous nights when I couldn’t take another second of listening to Joannie sleep, I would squander them fucking around on the internet. When Robert came into my life, one June evening in Parc de Hochelaga where the Poetry Van was making its rounds, I had more or less resigned myself to the idea that I would never write another word.
The poets took turns at the mic in front of the van, reading from crumpled up bits of paper, books, and magazines. I was spending my evening chasing Chloe, my youngest, through the crowd. In between two performances, while I chatted with an acquaintance, she got away from me again and I found her sitting on a park bench next an old man. He was looking at her, smiling, with a smoke dangling from the corner of his mouth. As I rounded up my daughter I said hi to the old man and thanked him, then promptly forgot all about it. Next month I recognized him when the Poetry Van stopped in Centre-Sud. He wasn’t just a park regular drawn by a pop-up artistic performance. He’d been following the Poetry Van around town, a constant presence on the outskirts of the crowd, sitting on a bench, just close enough to make out the amplified voices. He didn’t react to the readings, seemed content to sit there smoking and listening. I approached him and he nodded, asked me why I hadn’t brought my daughter this time. I explained that the family unit could be a bit of a prison cell, and I was out on furlough. He showed me a piece of paper folded up in his tobacco pouch, said he was trying to decide whether to read at the open mic at the end of the event. He didn’t get the chance. Darkness was descending. We went out for a few pints. ≈