Remembering Nelly Arcan: A Love Letter to a Literary Whore

 

FIONA MAEVE GEIST

 

“the alienation related to beauty is a woman’s story. When I go into a corner store and see all those magazines with photos of sexy teenagers, I can’t bear it: I’m both fascinated by this femininity and panicked by it. I absolutely have to be the most beautiful. If it’s not me it’s them, and then who am I?”

—Nelly Arcan, Interview

 

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(This was originally composed before the passage of SESTA; given the changing landscape engendered by the political stupidity and calculated viciousness of elected representatives against sex workers; it seems more pertinent than ever to write about the contributions of sex workers.)

Some part of me is always dragged towards those who fit awkwardly into the parameters of horror fiction—and yet their works are truly horrifying. Nelly Arcan is a personal obsession. Probably because her legacy and work is so ill served in conversations about literature—especially women’s literature. Despite the literary renown she enjoyed while alive, her work fit awkwardly alongside capital-L ‘literary’ works or the ill-defined not-quite-genre of autofiction. Pertinently, I see Arcan as a writer of horror fiction—her output was disturbing, violent, obsessive, sumptuous, vain, cruel, vicious and occasionally achingly tender, I am getting ahead of myself. Regarding the important question of who Arcan is. As a writer her output divides neatly between quasi-autobiographical reflection (Whore, Hysteric) and later works with speculative elements that deal with her central concerns of suicide, hopelessness, embodiment and women (Breakneck, Exit). Despite her work winning awards for literary merit in French and getting English translations by prestige publishers, discussion of her work has predominantly been within literary circles. This article is a love letter aiming to rectify that.

Nelly Arcan (1973-2009) was a Canadian novelist and essayist. Her works were finalists for the prestigious Prix Médicis and Prix Fémina—both of which are for francophone literature. Despite this acclaim, she remains obscure in the anglophone literary world.

What is striking about Arcan’s career is it’s relative shortness and singularity of vision. She published her first novel in 2001 which was shortlisted for French language literary awards (translated as Whore in 2004). By the time she committed suicide in 2009 she had completed 4 novels (her 4th was published posthumously), a coffee table book about beauty, and several pieces of short nonfiction—mostly opinion pieces. She would have been 45 this 5th of March. [the original occasion for me writing this—ed] Unsurprisingly, suicide was a major theme in her works, which is often remarked upon. Exit (her final novel) is about a boutique suicide service and the memories of a woman whose suicide failed. Yet the centrality of suicide in her work is inseparable from her views on women’s experiences.

 

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Depressingly, for all of her insight about being embodied as a sad condition of femininity; her work is always haunted by her body. Her first two novels (Whore and Hysteric) defiantly use her face on the cover. Both works are quasi autobiographical and concern themselves with the reflections of an escort and the crushing expectations of following up a first novel, respectively. Because she was to some degree present within her works it seems unavoidable for conversations about her writing to slip into discussions about Arcan herself. For example, No one seemed to be able to write an obituary without mentioning her body. A brief selection:

 

“one of the most photogenic faces ever to surface in Canadian literature”
“a reclusive young woman with a fragile, sensual Marilyn Monroe appeal”

—“Sex Symbol Quebec Novelist Nelly Arcan, Dead at 35” (Montreal Gazette)

 

“She was thin and surprisingly busty, and yes I know we’re not supposed to say such things, but Nelly Arcan’s physical presence was too eye-catching to ignore. She would have turned heads on a movie set.”

— “Remembering Nelly Arcan” (Globe and Mail)

 

Even Emily Keeler’s sympathetic retrospective in the National Post, which attempts to extricate Arcan’s ouvoure from her body, winds up primarily talking about her autofiction. Her two later novels vanish within discussions even though both touch on similar themes. Her legacy is almost always about her—tellingly, one of the clear causes of her depression was the inability for readers to extricate her from her writing. Despite similarities between herself and her narrators: she repeatedly drew attention to the exaggerated nature of her narrators and that they were characters rather than authorial stand-ins.

Admittedly, there is something fundamentally disturbing about how she mined her own experiences to discuss the mute, everyday horrors of experiencing being a woman. Arcan herself captured this in her summary of her work being a literature concerned with disappointment:

Disappointment attaches itself to a wide-open field of objects, but in my own universe it mainly affects the impossible harmony of human desires, in particular those that unite (and break up) men and women. It hovers over the world of sexuality and commercial beauty: prostitution; pornography; female rivalry and narcissism; image tyranny fostered by cosmetic surgery, that ultimate practice of self-rejection. Those paths require relentless efforts to reach their goals: the irreplaceable object of desire symbolized by a young body, offering irresistible sex appeal. And they all run into disappointment as we face the reality of what is fundamentally a replaceable dream body, so easy to reach, like a sublime carrot dangling right in front of our noses. The disappointment doesn’t only come from that realization (since we all know it, in theory) but from turning ourselves, over and over, into witnesses to our own disappearance, to our own erasure inside the circle of desire, whether the goal is to triumph over female rivalry or over age.

—Nelly Arcan, “Disappointment” in The Novelist’s Lexicon

What is most remarkable about Arcan’s writing, is not the particularity of her experiences as they are transcribed in her work but rather the universality she sees in her experiences. Rather than a misanthropic recluse rejecting the world, Arcan is remarkable precisely because of her unflinching willingness to delve into some of the ugliest parts of women’s experiences without attempting to redeem them. Her work is less personal memoir and more an attempt to understand the world women are born into through her own experiences.

 

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I love Arcan because her work inspires such a strong revulsion in many readers. Her writing rides a fine line between love and loathing, cruelty and caring and engrosses her readers in humiliation, hatred, competition, and self-debasement. As Arcan’s quasi-stand-in states in Hysteric, writing involves: “showing the other side of people’s projections and it meant being a sadist, to make it work I had to carefully choose who I surrounded myself with and love them with incredible passion, I had to push them to reveal the worst in themselves and try to remind them who they are.”

There’s something refreshing about her outlook, her refusal to compromise—almost invariably her stories rub people the wrong way because they are so thoroughly saturated with thematics of women’s quest for impossible beauty and relentless competition for men’s attention. Yet, enigmatically, she also espoused a great empathy for others. “Killing yourself might be harmful to your health”—collected in Burqa of Skin—deals extensively with the absurdity of censoring information about suicide and erecting barriers to prevent suicide. Arcan argues that it is paternalistic to simply prevent the act of suicide rather than fostering a world in which less people wish to die. The act of loving others in spite of a world saturated in cruelty is a sort of secular transcendence that links together Arcan’s works—the hope against everything that life can be worthwhile despite life being an intolerable burden.

An excerpt of Hysteric with a reflection by the translators is available here

Arcan’s work translated into English is available on Amazon:

Whore

Hysteric

Breakneck

Exit

Burqa of Skin

 

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Fiona Maeve Geist resides in WXXT country with her cat and has a PhD in interdisciplinary philosophy she hasn’t figured out a use for or how to bring up without sounding like a pretentious bitch. Her work has appeared in Lamplight and Trans Studies Quarterly and she can be contacted on twitter @coilingoracle. She would like to thank her sweethearts (tallest to shortest) Daphne, Nihils, Beck, and Hannah for accepting all of the weird shit she won’t shut up about.

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