Requiem for a Suicidal Genius (Gordon Sheppard & HA!)

A Toronto WASP writer's magnificent obsession with Hubert Aquin revealed.

HA! A Self-Murder Mystery

Written and Directed by Gordon Sheppard
McGill-Queen's University Press
870 pages, softcover
ISBN 0773523456

This article originally appeared in
Literary Review of Canada VOL. 11, NO. 8
Copyright ©2003, The Literary Review of Canada.
ISSN 1188-7494

HA!. I'd buy the book for the title alone. The title suggests surprise and recognition, laughter if you add another ha or two, suspicion and indignation. The author humorously reminds us that it can also stand as an acronym for Hawaiian Airlines. In Gordon Sheppard's book, H.A. are also the initials of a famous Quebec writer, Hubert Aquin. The letters "h" and "a" are not, then, so much unclassifiable as they are multi-classifiable. Much like HA! itself.

The publisher calls HA! a novel, perhaps to broaden its appeal. If it is a novel, it is a novel in the same way that Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song is a novel: lots of fact and document mixed in with a literary narrative. If it is fiction, it is metafiction and non-fiction as well. If it is a novel, it is also biography, essay, interview and psychological study.

Mailer sometimes brands what he does as non-fictional novels. If Northrop Frye were alive, he would likely classify HA! as an "anatomy." Sheppard writes an anatomy of suicide in the 21st century as Robert Burton wrote an anatomy of melancholy in the 17th and Frye himself wrote an anatomy of criticism in the 20th century.

In HA!, the book is made into a computer screen. HA! is hypertext. (Interestingly, Aquin once defined the self as "an intertext.") You get to wander off into biographical sidebars, take cultural side trails, and go off the main narrative road when you need a picnic or a rest. The page is a stage on which Sheppard controls the actors' exits and entrances. Much more interesting, say, than Emile Durkheim's treatise on suicide, a tome many have heard of, but few have read.

In 1985 Sheppard, with co-writer Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin's partner for twelve years, wrote a book on the suicide of Aquin. Written in French, the book was called Signé Hubert Aquin: Enquéte sur le suicide d'un écrivain. The book consisted of 353 pages with cutout pieces of a photograph of Aquin, a long list of famous suicides in the preface, personal documents, photographs, postcards, letters and extensive interviews with those who knew Aquin.


Illustration by Wojtek Kozak.

Now in 2003, this time in English, Sheppard returns to Aquin's suicide with more interviews, more photographs, more letters, more quotations from famous authors, more songs, more historical and biographical sidebars, and a slightly longer suicide list -- Diane Arbus to Virginia Woolf. Sheppard even includes a soundscape for each chapter, something not provided in the earlier treatment of Aquin in French. In Chapter 4, "Preliminary Inquiries," for instance, Sheppard proposes the theme from James Bond's Goldfinger, Swiss yodelling, Polish polkas, Gilles Vigneault's Gens du pays and Russian liturgical music as a suitable musical backdrop to leisurely motoring through his bookscape.

At 870 pages, HA! A Self-Murder Mystery, has more of everything than its earlier incarnation, but the central structure remains the same as Signé Hubert Aquin: the interview. A dialogue with the living about the dead. A McLuhanesque montage of word and image, of different fonts and typographical typefaces, a docudrama of which Sheppard calls himself both author and director.

The reader is the audience. In some ways, HA! is a work of theatre, a house of voices. It is also a movie theatre, a house of images. It is a rescreening of Rashomon in which the viewer gets to see a murder and hear conflicting stories about it. It is an adaptation of Citizen Kane in which a public autopsy is performed to determine the key word that unlocks a human heart. The book is a courtroom in which Sheppard is the defence lawyer -- his job is to overcome the jury's natural aversion to suicide -- and we the readers become by turns witness, jury and judge. Or, to change the metaphor yet again: HA! is a crime site and we are called upon to be Sherlock Holmes. We know whodunit, but we don't know the causes and motives.

In his "Authorized comments," Sheppard writes, "I cast the book in the form of an investigation because Hubert Aquin's suicide is a selfmurder mystery. Besides, I consider his suicide to be his last creative act, so in recounting the how and why of it I wanted to be true to his credo -- which is that all stories are detective stories and should take their cue from Sherlock Holmes."

For the most part, Sheppard asks the questions in the book, records the comments of Aquin's friends and family, particularly Yanacopoulo, and occasionally riffs on the contribution by someone in Aquin's circle. MM, Aquin's lover, is asked why she was drawn to Aquin and the nature of her relationship with him. Aquin's partner, Andrée, is asked the same general question and gets to read and comment on MM's response. Sheppard the interrogator throughout the mystery murder interrogates, but is seldom interrogated. There is no crossexamination of the defence lawyer; Sherlock Holmes's boss is not called to the witness stand.

Readers may find themselves asking: Why does this man Sheppard, by his own definition a WASP film maker and photographer from Toronto who has an ongoing love affair with the French language and a French Canadian woman, have such a fascination (obsession?) with a separatist writer from Montreal? He wrote on Aquin's life as early as 1969 for the Toronto Telegram in words as prophetically accurate of his death as his life:

What brought M.Aquin to violent revolt was not simply a desire to establish an independent French-speaking Quebec ... It was a passionate love of women colliding with lack of the male pride that can make true love possible.

According to HA!, Sheppard did not meet the Quebec author until 1976, a year before Aquin's death. The meeting must have been fruitful and intense because Aquin agreed to work on a screenplay with Sheppard, a project he never completed. The story-thread had a son murder his mother. Aquin was not ready yet to play executioner to mom.

Sheppard tells us that he has third-stage prostate cancer in the book. His bad cells are not committing suicide as they should in order to let the good cells replace them. At times, the line between Aquin and Sheppard seems to blur. They are both, in André Malraux's coinage, farfelus: dreamers with reckless self-abandon. Is Sheppard dying from the lack of cellular suicide as he writes this book about Aquin's successful suicide? HA! celebrates such ironies.

At any rate, Aquin is a worthy subject for fascination or even obsession. Anyone who has read his Next Episode, chosen by Canada Reads on the CBC as the novel the country ought to read in 2003, or his intellectually savvy essays such as "The Cultural Fatigue of French," written in response to Pierre Trudeau's Federalism and the French Canadians, will testify to Aquin's lucidity and stylistic inventiveness. In a style Le Mondecalled "lucidly delirious" and "wilfully discontinuous," Aquin rises to the level of Nabokov's torqued and inventive speech. And that's one of the problems with HA!

Sheppard is nowhere as exciting in his sentences as Aquin is in his. There is no sentence in Sheppard that compares with the syntactical electricity of Aquin's opening line in Next Episode: "Cuba sinks in flames in the middle of Lake Léman while I get to the bottom of things." Even with a choirloft of voices, one voice in HA! sounds much the same as another. The interview format makes for monotone rather than polytone. When Sheppard includes lines or even short passages from Aquin's novels, they stand out as extraordinary tongue-craft.

Style aside, at the heart of HA! is an inescapable question: why suicide? Why does a famous 47-year-old Quebec writer in reasonably good health, with a supportive partner and a young son, decide to kill himself? There are at least 14 possibilities that Sheppard considers and allows the reader-juror to adjudge.

1. Aquin is tired. Tired of life, tired of himself, tired of his circumstances. His Dionysian self has dried up. "Should one live ?dead'?" Aquin asks himself. "I have lived intensely, and now it is over," he murmurs.

2. He is over his head (out of his head?) in complicated relationships with women, particularly with his partner, Andrée, and his female friend MM. He is stuck. He can't move forward to a new relationship because the memory of the old broken relationship with his ex-wife and the custodial loss of his two sons haunts him. He can't go back because he has already tried suicide in 1971; he has written about it excessively in his novels, he has talked about it obsessively with Andrée, even involving her, an academic specialist in suicide, in the planning of it.

3. He does not want to be his father; he wants to get out at the height of his fame rather than fall into inevitable decline.

4. He is disappointed. The Parti Québécois wins the election. Lévesque does not call. Claude Morin, who gives Aquin hope of employment, does not deliver. Aquin doesn't feel needed. He has been -- at least in his own imagination -- one of the fathers of independence, one of the early revolutionaries ... The phone remains silent.

5. He loses his job(s). First with Roger Lemelin as publishing director, then with Le Jour as editor-in-chief. He is forced to rely on his partner's income.

6. He never wanted to be born in the first place. This is a line of thought that hits the reader hardest. "If I had to do it all over again -- personally I would choose not to be born, such is my pain." It is an infrequently spoken, but powerfully asserted, refrain in the book. In Next Episode, Aquin writes: "Ever since I was fifteen years old, I haven't stopped wishing for a beautiful suicide."

7. He wants to make "a perfect work of art." This is Sheppard at his most Romantic and idealizing. The romancing of suicide. In the words of fellow nationalist and separatist, Pierre Bourgault: "his suicide was the normal conclusion of his literary works ... his works are all about suicide. Instead of writing a book he committed suicide: it's his last book."

(One of the pleasures of Sheppard's narrative is that he does not push any particular motive to the exclusion of others. To some extent, he playfully deconstructs his own position: that Aquin's suicide was for art's sake. One of the boxed quotes, from Wilhelm Stekel, declaims, "Nobody kills himself unless he wants to kill another person or wishes another's death." Is it possible that in killing himself Aquin wanted spitefully to kill someone else? All the mothers of his life?)

8. He has feelings of impotence. Perhaps not sexual impotence, but psychic impotence, personal impotence. Nothing he does seems to get him anywhere. As Quebec writer Jacques Godbout summarizes, "he was in a hole ... He had tried the life of a writer. He'd tried the life of a stockbroker, professor, filmmaker, administrator, literary director ... I think his suicide was the only thing left for him to try." Maybe Aquin lived the wrong life: "The life I'd like to have lived would have been to be rich, to own a Ferrari, to qualify as a Grand Prix driver ... and then one day to disappear! like an angel."

9. He has epileptic fits from time to time, he is an alcoholic, he has homosexual tendencies. Is any one of these factors or a combination of them a contributor to suicide?

10. Aquin claims he was raped as a child. Some wounds you just don't recover from.

11. The impossibility of repetition. He wants to relive the life he has led, but cannot. Curiously, MM is 36 when Aquin meets her; the same age Andrée was when he met her. MM, like Andrée, is a foreign professor; she, too, is married at the time and has three children. Coincidence?

12. The general malaise in Quebec, a feeling of impotence, a feeling that Quebec can neither fully integrate itself into the rest of Canada nor fully separate from Canada, just as Aquin can neither fully integrate with his partner nor leave her for another woman. At times, Aquin does not seem to separate the collective from the individual, self from society, the personal from the political. As farfetched as the theory may sound, in Sheppard's deft handling the theory is given a degree of plausibility. He writes (speaks):

Since the Conquest ... the French-Canadian male has felt "conquered" vis-a-vis other men ... humiliated vis-a-vis French-Canadian women ... who ... guaranteed the survival of the race by being domineering and fecund mothers ... To give themselves the impression of being the equal of all other men and thus of at last feeling at ease with their women ... many of the best and brightest French-Canadian males have pushed for political independence. Meanwhile, many of them have fled from, or forsaken, the French-Canadian women-mothers, and linked up with foreign-born women ...

Sheppard cites the cases of Aquin, humourist Yvon Deschamps and songwriter Gilles Vigneault, "pure" French every one, and each drawn to "foreign" women.

He goes on: "It's thus very coherent that he would say that his last thoughts would be of his mother ... because in killing himself he was killing the Mother that had haunted and blighted his existence, the Mother as represented in the first instance by his own mother. And he killed himself in the gardens of the Villa Maria, the school of his first domineering wife-mother and the convent of the Mother of Christ."

Sheppard quotes George Bernard Shaw: "Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman."

13. He is afraid of having to abandon his son, Emmanuel, when Andrée knows the full extent of his shenanigans with MM. He has already lost two children in a previous marriage. He cannot countenance the possibility of losing a third child. Does he commit suicide "to save" his son?

14. He feels there is no possibility of renewal. The screenplay with Sheppard is unfinished, the new novel he is writing has reached an impasse, he is financially dependent on Andrée. Renewal by love seems out of reach.

Sheppard writes: "Now, certain artists who, like Hubert, are in love with love, don't necessarily have to have a new relationship in order to renew themselves, but they may have a psychological need to feel that it's possible for them to have such a relationship. My view is that Hubert, deprived of that psychological possibility, felt incapable of renewing himself and of creating once again."

HA! may not be everyone's mug of beer. For some, the book will be too long, too demanding and too obsessive. For others, it may turn out to be a cult hit along the lines of Harold and Maude, a film that, among other things, spoofs the idea of suicide. Quite possibly the book will become -- it has the size and reach -- a kind of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for suicide: not easy to find in every bookshop, but a valuable treasure when discovered.

With all its flaws -- irrelevant information about Aquin's car, the unnecessary opening primer on Canadian history and geography, and the monotony of the interview format -- HA! is the deepest and broadest probe into suicide, and the most thorough-going exhumation and interrogation of a dead body, that I have come across in my reading.

Sheppard has astonishing knowledge of and sensitivity to Quebec, particularly in the connection between gender politics and the drive for independence. He manages to make a dark subject light. He reveals the suicidal heart of a gifted literary figure. In HA! he has written a strange, quixotic work: brave, bold, extravagantly experimental. It deserves a place in Canadian letters.

J.S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality.

Last update: