My latest review is of Mister Blue by Québécois author Jacques Poulin. I discovered Poulin last year when I read his Translation is a Love Affair, a slender, whimsical, shaggy-dog sort of novel which, in its sweetly roundabout way, manages to convey quite a lot about human connections and the importance of reaching out to other people–strangers–to find those connections.
Although he is much lauded in Canada and France, Poulin is not (as far as I can tell) well known outside of either country (and honestly, the one Quebecer I asked about Poulin’s work had never heard of him, either), so I’ll direct your attention to his bio in The Canadian Encyclopedia. According to the entry, he “is among the most widely read Québécois novelists of his generation and the most respected by critics”; additionally, his novel Spring Tides (also available in an English translation published by Archipelago Books), is said to be “one of the most profound Québécois novels.”
Poulin’s most recent novel to be translated into English, Mister Blue, didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Translation is a Love Affair, but it was still a very affecting, empathetic, and quirky story and emphasized many of the the themes that were raised in TiaLA. It also opens with one of the best poems I have read in a really long time, by Jean Tardieu (from The Hidden River):
(amiably, standing in the doorway)
How are things on earth?
-Fine, fine, very fine.
Are the little dogs flourishing?
-Oh my goodness, yes, indeed they are.
What about the clouds?
And the volcanoes?
And the rivers?
And your soul?
the springtime was too green
my soul ate too much salad.
My full review is below, or you can read it on Three Percent here.
The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.
Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.
Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.
Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”
But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.
In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.
“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”