The Swallower Swallowed, Rejean Ducharme
This novel has been my favorite read of the year. It really made more than just an impression; it sank into my bones, the kind of astonishing, fresh writing that makes you say, “My god I wish I could write this.” Published in 1966, it was the first successful book by Quebec novelist and playwright Rejean Ducharme. Translated as The Swallower Swallowed but practically impossible to find in English, I picked up a Spanish copy from a friend’s library after she recommended it to me. (She’s a cinophile and the book appears frequently in the movie Leolo, which I still have yet to see.)
The language, atmosphere, and lyricism in this novel are astounding; I found that I would re-read entire pages because of the gut-wrenching power of Ducharme’s writing, which transmits, sometimes frighteningly, the enraged inner monologue of an adolescent girl, Bérénice Einberg. Born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother in an isolated wood in Quebec, she is raised a Jew and caught in the continual war between her parents while obsessively, and almost incestuously, longing for the love of her brother, Christian, who is raised Catholic under his mother’s care and supervision.
Bérénice rejects everything around her with unforgivable scorn and the desire for complete alienation: her religion, the love of her mother and father, affection, an identity, everything except Christian and her schoolmate, Constance Chlore. She falls into depressive spells for which she is hospitalized; her rage is manifested in such acts as the poisoning of the family cat and the shoving of an infatuated boy down the school stairs. She lashes out against her parents, her rabbi, any adult figure which attempts to impose authority on her, and she longs for the kind of freedom she glimpses when she is with her brother and with Constance Chlore — the freedom to roam an abandoned town at night until dawn and dirty her new dress, to ride the trolley all night long with the other vagabonds of the city without anyone reminding her what her place should be.
It is difficult sometimes to get a chronological sense of the plot; one day morphs into another within the same paragraph, time is stretched and compressed so that you don’t know whether a week or a month has passed since the previous page. The reader is planted so deeply within the mind of Bérénice that the plotline is of secondary importance to the movement of the inner monologue — its dark philosophical tendencies, its recurrence to abstractions in an enclosed world, its passionate spurning of the organization and meaning that humans have created of life. There are entire chapters that seem like drawn-out distractions of a sickly mind, beautifully relayed, and yet these thoughts remain the preoccupations of a young girl, whose voice is as authoritative and jaded as an adult’s, but whose upsets, rebellions, and self-repulsion are grounded in physical and circumstantial adolescent realities.
Objectively, Bérénice is a difficult character to comprehend, let alone sympathize with, because of her compulsion to act the role of devil child. But there is something ultimately tragic about her story, about the way she sees the world and the way the world reacts to her as a result of this incomprehension. She is a child of privilege, and yet she is denied the freedom to choose how her life will be played out; we can say she is denied the choices that would ultimately lead her onto a path of self-destruction or complete alienation from society. Her misadventures take her away from her brother Christian to New York City, where she is forced into an Orthodox education, and to the Israeli army, where in the end she commits a crime that becomes the ultimate act of selling out: through her dishonesty about the deed, she becomes a heroine to the other members of the army.
Bérénice’s fear is one which relates to the novel title: she rejects all forms of love, deeming it pathetic and a waste of life, and is afraid of being “swallowed” by the systems instilled in society to maintain a semblance of order — the government, religion, family, school. As Benjamin Nugent comments in his article, “Swallowed Whole:” “the novel is about the refusal to be confined, to dwell in any but the most grandiose spaces, to be placed within a category or submit to bonds. But this sounds like Ayn Rand bilge, and Ducharme treats such refusal as a quixotic, deeply problematic compulsion, rather than the keystone of a political philosophy.”
Even so, I can’t help but like Bérénice. Maybe because of the kind of prose that pours from her twisted honesty. Maybe because she is the ultimate epitome of the adolescent who is angrily fighting against a world that couldn’t be any other way, whose credo of hatred turns on herself in the end. I almost shed tears in one of the few paragraphs of the novel where she infuses in her words a profundity of attachment and a possessive, unbound love for her only friend, Constance Chlore, who dies suddenly in a car accident:
Horrible, hostile, mean, ridiculous faces swarm around me in a suffocating mob. I charge ferociously at these faces. I gather strength and, without any consideration, with all my force and weight, I push them, I repel them, I distance them. One of these faces has inclined over the body and makes to hold it up in its hands. I jump at its eyes, I scratch with my nails, I bite at it. In a single motion, without any effort, I’ve gathered the beloved body up in my arms and I run, taking it far away from them. She’s so light, so very light that she carries me, that she makes me as light as those little birds that we used to see hopping along the beach, that she lifts me up the way a balloon lifts up an ice-cream cone, so that I rise up in the air, so that I’m flying.
How can one not love her after such a passage? After all, she is just a young girl, however spiteful, caught among the different wars in her life, who loses every meaningful connection she happens to have. The anti-heroine, the queen of a ruined, one-woman nation.