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Douglas Glover’s Elle

I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

Elle book coverThe history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant who Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant.

Marguerite returned to France and her story became known, maybe even well known. The chronicle of Marguerite’s adventure was first put into writing by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and other elaborated versions by other writers have followed. Douglas Glover, limiting himself to the skimpiest handful of facts, has written the most spirited and strangest story of all.

Glover’s novel opens with this three-sentence paragraph:

Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I am aroused beyond all reckoning, beyond memory, in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland, with the so-called Comte D’Epirgny, five years since bad-boy tennis champion of Orleans, tucked between my legs. Admittedly, Richard is turning green from the ship’s violent motions, and if he notices the rat hiding behind the shit bucket, he will surely puke. But I have looped a cord round the base of his cock to keep him hard.

Clearly, this is a Marguerite de La Rocque we haven’t heard from before. What has always intrigued me about Marguerite’s voice isn’t her charming salacious tongue, but her amazing leaps of thought. Douglas Glover is a skilled writer and one of the things I admire in his work is the unobtrusive way he packs his paragraphs. Most writers, following the instructions of their high-school English teachers, use each paragraph to perform one step, do one thing; Glover can write a paragraph that does a lot of different things at once. He gets his characters and the reader located “in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland” and at the same time engages the reader by presenting a dramatic sexual encounter just as it struggles toward a climax. Indeed, the dull expository fact of place – a gulf west of Newfoundland – is camouflaged by being part of the sexual scene, for the sea is “spumy” and the ship is rolling and heaving even more than the lovers – a conceit that is carried on between the lines as the scene progresses.

Both Marguerite and her lover Richard are in commonplace unheroic pain. Richard is about to throw up from seasickness and Marguerite has a colossal toothache. “My tooth feels bigger than my head, bigger than a house. My tooth has colonized the world.” So in the midst of this bout of lovemaking Marguerite prays to St. Apollonia, the patron of “toothache cures.” (Apollonia was martyred by a mob who smashed all her teeth, and such terrible tortures excite Marguerite sexually.) Marguerite can’t quite get to the climax she’s seeking and Richard, violently ill with his seasickness, has stuffed his fists into his mouth, and can’t use his hands to help her get there. “I recall, not for the first time,” Marguerite tells us parenthetically, “that the learned Democritus described coitus as a form of epilepsy.”

This story follows a woman into solitude and readers are fortunate that she has an exceptionally wide ranging and lively mind. In the midst of this sexual scene she pauses to tell us that “In Orleans, in 1542, there are forty-three tennis courts. Perhaps this is not the time to bring this up, but it makes you think. There are only thirty-seven churches. Yet we burn Protestant heretics (also horse thieves, book publishers, books themselves and the occasional impolitic author when we can get one) and not maladroit tennis players. What one is to make of this odd circumstance, I cannot say.” (That note about publishers and writers is the first of a scattering of similar remarks about books throughout the novel.) Happily for Marguerite, she remembers a certain apostate nun she saw burned the previous summer and that memory drives her to her orgasm “and I come, shouting Hail Mary.”

Not only does no one know why the historical Marguerite was among those sailing to New France under the command of General Roberval – whatever his family relationship to her – also, no one knows what caused him to abandon her with her lover and her maid on a desolate island. As happens in one of the earliest accounts of this event, Douglas Glover has her lover, Richard, leap from the ship to the small boat carrying her ashore. In this version the ardent Richard misses the boat and plunges into the water, but emerges to share her fate, which was his intention.

The author invents freely and believably the circumstances of her being among those colonists in a chapter called What Do You Do with a Headstrong Girl? in which Marguerite describes herself as not only headstrong, but too sensual, too curious, too brave, too forward, and especially as having a too great an interest in books. Her exasperated father wanted to be rid of her and she wanted to escape her home; her going was a convenience for both of them.

Marguerite doesn’t suggest any reason for her punishment beyond bad behavior. As for the nature of the punishment, she says at one point “I am particularly reminded of the Greek princess Iphigenia, whose father Agamemnon put her to death on a lonely beach on the shaky theory that this act would ensure decent sailing over to Troy, where he hoped to win back his brother’s runaway wife Helen (another woman led astray by her heart in a world of men). It’s a male thing, I suppose, not to be persuaded from murder by the threat of revenge, pangs of conscience, pity, justice, the tug of family affection, not to mention the purely unscientific basis of the premise that killing a virgin will cause sunshine and warm, westerly breezes.”

Other aspects of this novel that set it apart are its fascinating surreal passages. Very few novels depicting historical events are also, in part, surrealist fictions. I recall a novel by Curzio Malaparte, La Pelle, that came out shortly after the second world war, a novel in which the real horrors of the war joined easily and smoothly with surreal passages. Douglas Glover makes similar moves in Elle, transitioning from the factual terrors of being marooned on a small island in a merciless Canadian winter to Marguerite’s hallucinations to the presence of a real magical bear – or maybe it’s a real bear.

By the way, the surrealism in Douglas Glover’s novel isn’t just another name for authorial invention. In an earlier brilliant and underappreciated novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., published back in 1993, the author presents a horrific vision of battles in Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, but the nightmarish visions in that book are nailed to the commonplace world of human violence in realist fashion. In both novels, Glover mangles and distorts the facts to get at the truth.

Image of Douglas Glover

Douglas Glover

Douglas Glover is a Canadian writer, but Canada isn’t far from the United States and if you live in a Northern state it’s quite close. Glover resides on both sides of the US-
Canada border and teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Our paths crossed many years ago when we were both teaching in upstate New York. That was so many years ago I cannot recall actual dates, but I was on the faculty of the State University of NY at Albany and Doug was hosting The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program. If it’s possible to remain in contact with another writer simply by reading his books – even when you haven’t seen each other for years — then I can say we’ve remained in touch.

In this little essay I’ve quoted a lot from the opening pages of Elle, because I know of no equally sensuous way to convey the voice of this narrative. Of course, the voice in Elle belongs to Marguerite and is merely transcribed by Doug Glover who has his own voice. And, naturally, it varies from novel to novel and from one short story to another. Though it may be impossible to find the writer’s own personal voice in his fictions, you can meet his literary mind directly in his non-fictional book on Cervantes, The Enamoured Knight. To be precise, the book isn’t about Cervantes but about his novel, Don Quixote – and, actually, and it’s not so much about that novel, as it is rather on Glover’s theory and craft of fiction writing. In addition to writing and teaching, Doug Glover also is the editor of the online literary magazine Numero Cinq which, despite it’s name, is in English. Finally, I must add that Douglass Glover is obscure. Let me quote from the masthead of Numero Cinq:

Douglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.”

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Plenty of opinions here on Critical Pages, plus a lot of facts, but no alternative facts. Please don't misunderstand, we do like alternative facts -- after all, we're all writers here -- but we prefer the word fiction. It's shorter and everyone understands what we mean when say we're writing fiction.