Earlier this month an expert panel awarded the annual Prospect/Franco-British Council prize for a short story inspired by France. The winning stories are reproduced belowby Prospect / June 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
1st Prize: Emile Nelligan est Mort, by Iona Carmichael
After finding you in his company, I held Émile Nelligan in my hands. Although slim and delicate as a fish bone, he was heavy with a language I didn’t understand. I took him to the bridge. I leant over its side. January’s remains were starved and seagull-grey. The river was a spill of ink. When the leftovers of the day finally coloured the sky, I drowned him.
It began the day the clouds gathered and dropped hints of snow. December held its breath. My brain was restless. I’d retreated to Leaky’s, the only second-hand bookshop I know that serves drinks and home-made soup. I often go there to write. I like the cold and the hush and the smile of the old owner. Life has stretched her thin, skin tight over the gnarls and knots of her joints. I sat at one of the scrubbed wooden tables on the indoor balcony, pleasuring my tongue with real coffee.
That afternoon I gave up on my poem and wandered among the stacks, tightly packed with neglected books and the smell of vanilla-yellow paper. I drew my fingers along the shelves, until I came to a hardback that had edged forward, out of line with the other books. I eased it out. It was a volume of Auden’s poetry. And there was another book wedged within it. Its cover was a deep red, its spine crippled. There was no title. I opened it; a ghost of dust escaped.
Émile Nelligan Et Son Oeuvre. Montreal 1903.
The opposite page bore a portrait of a young man. Below it someone had pencilled: 1879-1941, French-Canadian. Influences: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Poe. Wrote 170 poems aged 15-19, before going mad.
I leafed through the book; the poems were all in French. I turned back. The poet had a mane of dark hair swept away from his forehead. His features were broad and dramatic. But what made him so striking was his vulnerability, the way he wore sadness with elegance.
He reminded me of a muzzled bear, slave to a performance of simple tricks. And beyond all this there was something else. It was there in the dark well of his pupil.
As I re-read the pencilled notes, my thoughts turned to you and your thesis. Your struggle with ‘Identity and Intertextuality in Québécois Literature’ had drained you of colour. I paid fifty pence for the anthology in the hope it might help.
‘It’s in French,’ I said when I handed you the book.
You opened the slim anthology; interest stilled your water-green eyes. ‘Émile Nelligan …’
‘Have you heard of him?’
‘No.’ You flicked to the middle of the book. ‘ “Fantôme, il disparut dans la nuit, emporté par le souffle mortel des brises hivernales.” ’
I waited for you to translate. Instead, you turned back to the portrait. I could see he had your attention.
At first, your interest was innocent: you were a scholar with a new-found subject. I listened to you talk about Nelligan’s life and theorise about his work. Ideas hit you like bouts of fever. You quoted lines of his verse, slipping in and out of French with ease, as if it were a lover. I grew irritated and curious. I searched the internet until I found copies of Nelligan’s poems. I pinned them to the walls of the study, read and re-read them. The poet’s voice rose with a powerful clarity. From bizarre and beautiful images Émile Nelligan emerged like a phantom, a winter creature, lingering at the periphery of his poetry.
December collapsed into January. Another magazine rejected my poems. I read the editor’s letter, and then spent the day in Leaky’s, drowning my sense of failure in coffee.
‘How are you finding that French poet?’ asked the old owner when she served me my third cup.
‘Ah.’ She nodded. ‘You know in French a goldfish is red: le poisson rouge.’
I gave her a weak smile.
I tried to write, but Nelligan paced the edge of my thoughts.
When I returned to the flat, I was surprised and pleased to see your shoes at the kitchen door. I heard your voice. Had you brought someone back? I wanted you all to myself.
The bedroom door was afar. You were stood at the foot of the bed, facing the mirror. You were half-naked and reading Nelligan aloud. I pushed open the door, took a step into the room. You continued to read, until you glanced up – caught my reflection at the mirror’s edge. The room was filled with an afternoon light that brought life to the changing colours in your hair. Did you feel the tips of your ears redden?
You smiled. ‘It’s ok. I got carried away.’ You dropped the book on the bed.
I had the rejection letter clutched in my hand. ‘Is that Nelligan?’
‘He’s a real find. His poems are so naked and honest, yet they have this – this deadly impact … I – I keep forgetting he’s dead. When I read him, it’s like he’s there – laid on the page … I don’t know … he’s just …’
You nodded. ‘He retreated into verse. There was always a struggle between his inner self and outer reality; it created great poetry, but tore apart the poet.’ You paused, surprised by what you’d said. ‘I need to write that down.’ You scrabbled around for a pen. Nelligan had captivated you again.
I went to the bed and flicked through the anthology. Your annotations were closed around his verse. Would my work ever prove worthy of such scholarly devotion?
‘Strange that you can enjoy so much intimacy with someone who’s dead.’
‘You sound jealous.’
‘No.’ You looked up. I shook my head. ‘I’m not jealous.’
Silence opened up between us. I laid the anthology back on the bed.
‘What’s that?’ You indicated my letter.