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|Anne Hébert (1916-2000)|
French-Canadian novelist, poet, playwright, and short-story writer, noted for her examination of the lives of the Quebeçois. Hébert combined realism and symbolism, and reworked the tradition of the historical novel. In her poems Hébert used free verse with dense, almost surrealistic images. Her novels, of which the most famous is Kamouraska (1970), show influence of the French nouveau roman and postmodern narrative techniques.
"Oh, how I love to walk through the streets, with the image of my virtue just a few steps ahead! Never out of my sight. Eyes peeled, like a prison guard. Always on that image. The Sacred Host in the holy procession. And me, right behind, like a silly litte goose. Yes, that's all a virtuous woman is. A gaping fool that stuts along, staring at the image of her honor . . . " (from Kamouraska)
Anne Hébert was born in the small village of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Québec city. She started to write poetry in her teens under the tutelage of her father, Maurice-Lang Hébert (1888-1960), a provincial civil servant and a distinguished literary critic. Another crucial person in Hébert's life was her cousin, Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau (1912-43), a poet, who died of a heart attack at the age of 31. He was Hébert's frequent companion during her youth.
Hébert attended Collège Saint-Coeur de Marie, Merici, Quebec, and Collège Notre Dame, Bellevue, Quebec. In the 1940s, Hébert was briefly affiliated with the newly established government film bureau. From 1950 to 1954 Hébert wrote scripts for Radio Canada, and then worked as a scriptwriter and editor for National Film Board of Canada (1953-54, 1959-60). With the support of a grant from the Société Royale of Canada, she moved to Paris in the mid-1950s, the location of many of his stories, but made frequent visits to Montréal. Eventually in 1967, she settled in Paris. In her voluntary exile, Hébert often dealt with the themes of isolation, alienation, and repressive nature of small communities.
Hébert's first collection of poems, Les Songes en Éguilabre, was published in 1942. Its romantic tone was far from the violent images of her next book, Le Torrent (1950, The Torrent), a collection of short stories, which was rejected by editors for its violence. In Le Tombeau des Rois (1953), her second book of poetry, Hébert explored her anguish, the stifling responsibilities of maturity, and repression and revolt. Poèmes (1960) earned her the Governor General's Literary Award. In 1960 she was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and she was a Companion of the Order of Canada. She also received several honorary doctorates.
Fantastic elements were present already in Hébert's first novel, Les Chambres de bois (1958, The Silent Rooms), and continued to appear in her subsequent works, such as in Héloïse (1980), in which the title character, Héloïse, belongs to a community of vampires that dwells among abandoned Parisian subway stations and when not drinking Bloody Marys, suck the blood of Métro passengers. Open to many intepretions, in this Hébert's work the vampire can be understood as a metaphor for hidden otherness.
Les Chambres de bois was about a woman whose husband has a horror of sex. The heroine, Catherine, revolts against the marital prison, and breaks out of the rooms of the title. Kamouraska, which began the cycle set in the 19th-century Quebec, was based on historical murder case and stories Hébert's mother had told her. The central character is woman who conspires with her lover to murder her husband. Hébert's narrative changes from first person to the third, she enters the mind of Elisabeth, and reveals her revolt behind her submissive appearence: "A swine! His words, my husband's very words. Yes, that's what he is. A swine. That's just what he is." Kamouraska was translated into thirteen languages. Hébert co-wrote with the director Claude Jutka the screenplay for its film version (1973), starring Geneviève Bujold.
Les Enfants du Sabbat (1975, Children of the Black Sabbath), set in a Quebec convent, was a tale of witchcraft, incest, and intercourse with the devil. Julie, the protagonist, is dedicated to sorcery and lives out a perverse version of the virgin birth. The novel was poortly received in Quebec, but it won the Governor General's Literary Award.
Les fous de Bassan (1982, In the Shadow of the Wind) depicted people in an English-speaking village in the Gaspé. Six narratives relate from different angles rape and murder of two cousins, Nora and Olivia Atkins. One of the narrator is their cousin Stevens Brown, the murderer. Nora also tells her story, and about her sexual awakening. "I know about boys. That sting in the middle of their bodies, while I, I am hollow and moist. Waiting." The sixth narrator is the spirit of Olivia. The book was a best seller in Canada and in France it was awarded the 1982 Prix Femina. "The power in this haunting book - a power that seems in no way diminished in translation - comes from the language, the rich, inventive images, the heated, melodious prose. The winds Anne Hebert stirs up in her readers' minds do not die down until long after the book has been closed." (C. B. Bryan in The New York Times, July 22, 1984)
In the late 1990s, Hébert returned to Canada after learning she was terminally ill. She died of bone cancer on January 22, 2000, in Montreal, Quebec, and was buried in her native village in the cemetery of the Church of Saint-Dominique. Hébert never married and had no children. Her final novel, Un Habit de lumière, about a family torn apart by secred dreams, came out in 1998. Again there is a fusion of contrasts typical of Hébert's work: the day and night, good and evil, life and death.
For further reading: The Art and Genius of Anne Hebert: Essays on Her Works: Night and the Day Are One, ed. by Janis L. Pallister (2001); Anne Hébert: In Search of the First Garden by Kelton W. Knight (1999); Anne Hébert, son oeuvre, leurs exils by Neil B. Bishop (1993); Anne Hébert by Janet M. Paterson (1985); La femme à la fenêtre by Maurice Émond (1984); Anne Hébert by Delbert W. Russell (1983); La quête d'équilibre dans l'oeuvre romanesque d'Anne Hébert by Serge A. Thériault (1980); Entre songe et parole by P.H. Lemieux (1978); Anne Hébert by R. Lacôte (1969); Anne Hébert by P.Pagé (1965)