Gaétan Soucy, the acclaimed Montréal novelist, has died of a heart attack at just 54. Soucy published four celebrated novels in an intense burst of creative output from 1994 to 2002. He was best known in Quebec, but dazzled critics everywhere; Brian Bethune of Maclean’s ranked Soucy’s The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches among the top 10 Canadian books of the first decade of this century. It was one of three of Soucy’s novels translated into English by Sheila Fischman. The award-winning translator spoke to Maclean’s about Soucy this morning from her home in Montréal.
Q You had a close working relationship with Gaétan Soucy, having translated so much of his writing. How well did you feel you knew him?
A I got to know him very well, from the inside, I might say, because everything is in a novel. There’s no hiding from your readers. I was blown over by the quality of his writing, his storytelling, his tremendous intelligence.
Q He produced four ambitious books in less than a decade. Did he seem to be burning very hot to you then?
A Writing was necessary for him. As necessary as waking up in the morning. He had so much to say, so many experiences to share with readers. For a while, though, I think it wasn’t working as well as he would have liked.
Q You mean in more recent years?
A Yeah. Since the publication of Music Hall in French, or Vaudeville as it was in English.
Q I love that thing with the titles.
A Me too.
Q Where do you think he stood among his generation of novelists?
A I don’t like ranking writers but I think he will be remembered as one of the most brilliant voices of literary Quebec, one who had an international reputation.
Q He’s so much better known in Quebec, but didn’t he have at least one intriguing link to English Canadian literature?
A He knew and admired enormously Robertson Davies. I think he once made a special trip [to Toronto] just to shake his hand and tell him he’s great. Apparently, Davies barely responded.
Q For readers who don’t know his books, maybe especially those of us outside Quebec, where might we start?
AThe first one that I translated, which I called Atonement—it’s L’acquittement in French—I think is his greatest novel. It doesn’t have the fireworks of The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, but the characters, who are mainly on the margin, as are all his characters, are just brilliantly realized, as is the situation.
Q Can you sketch that situation for us?
A A violent snowstorm somewhere outside Montréal. A man is coming to revisit a part of the countryside he didn’t really know, and at the same time to visit a woman who had been a musical protégé. The woman is a twin—twins appear in, I’m pretty sure, all Gaétan’s novels. He gets to the house of this woman. She no longer plays piano, he learns. She shows him her fingers. They are useless. Someone has damaged them. We infer that it was the lid of piano that has struck her hands. Although he doesn’t say it perfectly clearly, we suspect someone has wreaked her career, and possibly her entire life, by smashing the fingers on both her hands.
Q What a thing.
A Yes. It’s just about unbearable to read.