I’ve been gloriously wandering through Gail Scott’s Heroine for a month. I brought it with me to Norway where I created a temporary reading space in order to make my residency be something social. About twenty of us were seated in the beautiful room silently reading for a few hours. At the midpoint of our activity, about a thousand young people began marching right below us framed by a wall of windows that faced the lake in the middle of Bergen. Their cheers distracted us and we happily looked up at one another and then some of us actually got up from our chairs and looked out, standing by the window.
The spirit of that moment (and I knew it then) is the perfect flow through to Gail, whose writing is one you want to tell things to. The only way to read Heroine is to be in it. A few days later I was in London and I made a note to tell Gail (the book) about the people praying in the cafe this evening.
So what I mainly want to assert is that Heroine is more a work of reading than of writing, it is all studio, by which I mean it’s something fabulously risky and alive. It’s literature and the possibility of it. Though I might do better stating it in the more eloquent and humble way Gail Scott does:
Refusing to explain how I’m using this place for an experiment of living in the present. Existing on the minimum the better to savour every minute. For the sake of art. Soon I’ll write a novel.
And that is her character speaking, in the book.
Heroine exists between these quick references to the existence of, the anticipation of “the novel,” the utopia of it and its delay strewn here and there in order to cinch a moment, to punctuate thoughts, or to simply make an exit, scene to scene, and always offering a soft ending to the book which occurs multiple times in a heaven that’s always “here.”
Though the actual ending of this book is one of the best I’ve ever read.
The narrator of what Scott calls “my most novel-like novel” is of course the young Gail Scott. She wrote it from 1982 to 1986, so she’s in her thirties. I guess. The Heroine has a playful, thoughtful, self-deprecating, and idealistic character and she’s not above making a drug joke:
“I have to pull myself together. To get a fix on the heroine of my novel.”
The writer had once been a journalist. The writer of Heroine is in between. Between women and men, between activism and lying in her tub.
She’s a perfect … let’s say a Claire Denis character. A woman zigzagging between the affections of women and men—in the time of the novel more affiliated with men but actively engaged in the widest definition, most contemporary version of feminism, which of course included sex (with women).
And this is all occurs in two languages, mainly English but enough French that I’m constantly on my phone getting some very awkward translations. I want to jump you. Huh.
I finally emailed Gail Scott to get a handle on the politics and the linguistic world of Heroine and its time and who are you in that, I asked.
First she spoke in general terms. Gail Scott reported perhaps about her entire career:
Sometimes I think of all of my work as unbelonging (but not in a faux outsider way; just too many threads to take sides).
Her narrator, it struck me, would speak with such conviction, being so much more entranced by living.
She explained that she, Gail, is an anglophone writer, a condition determined ultimately by which language you speak at home. But where’s that?
I’m thinking of the novel now because politically she was also living in French, being engaged then as she put it:
with a group that was a faction of the independentist left, in other words not nationalist per se but believing independence from Canada was the best way to have enough control over our affairs to establish a socialist Francophone society.
And in tandem with that having several French-speaking and male lovers. Now this was pretty radical to me.
Meaning that rather than encountering an early work by a major female Canadian author from their naughty lesbian phase, instead we are rambling through the more conventional corridors of that same author’s historic normative relations with men. It is not her adulthood, it’s late youth. The described experience is certainly romantic but also in effect constitutes research into the political history of women and men (a.k.a. Patriarchy). Delightedly I conclude that our heroine grew up and away from all that.
The Heroine’s relationships with women here are more or less affiliated with feminism, conversations thereof tinged with implied sex always dangling like a paradise or the carrot of the novel, and these relationships are inherently more intense because one was a woman and those relationships had a different capacity to split her open whether they were sexual or not. Women just have a way to look deeply, critique and challenge, hug, massage, conciliate, and shrug. It’s a more complicated machine. Whereas with men the relationships are deeply comfortable in a fleeting, provisional way. Each time it’s a little bit like catching rabbits—opening the cage and holding the creature in your hands, looking into their pink eyes and wondering if I really want this one.
And then you might look out the window (in the novel) at the startling fact of the world:
The tree skeletons have melted into the beautiful night sky.
… the blackness of the leaves hanging so heavy over the sidewalk that the Hebrew school with the Star of David across the street is obfuscated. Barry’s on the waterbed. His head leans against a crazy piece of plaster-moulded flowers on the wall. (Their all-white, old-fashioned flat is full of crazy details, typical of Montréal houses from the early century.)
Her camera heaves closer and closer into rooms and back out into the street. And even further. Who is the mysterious black photographer, a tourist, who is sometimes seen shooting the world of Heroine from above, standing seemingly on one of the hills or the hill that Montreal is named for.
Heroine leads me out of itself to think about other books that also managed in their way to deploy the real experience of living in a precise time, whether that was their intention or not. I think of Joe LeSueur’s memoir Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, which was LeSueur’s rejoinder to Brad Gooch’s City Poet, which was my generation’s exploration of the O’Hara myth. LeSueur meant to set the record right and what he accomplished Gail does in spades here. She’s obsessed with time, cultural and local. If the fifties were a coterie time and the sixties were immersive and the seventies were a decade setting up networks but still kind of in shock that the totalizing previous thing (the sixties) had truly passed, what Heroine reveals about the eighties is so much cultural standing in the mirror and wondering if it was real or not, fitfully beginning (just as it was beginning to end) the obsession with decades. Everybody, whether they were engaged in political action in the streets, or in bed, or at dinner with their friends was also standing in the mirror holding one another and trying not to do it wrong, whatever the present is. Because that present (and this is the unique almost fibrous knowing Heroine is made of) could see in a very non-techno way its own collective aura fleeing. So Gail’s novel-like thing, this masterfully transitional book, is the quintessential medium to be looking through at that. Which it is.
Act British, she admonishes herself while being watched by her lover and his other lover (a woman) as she steps dripping out of the shower. It was so matter of fact. In this book we know Gail’s ass. Like she knows it.
And the tub is cited in Heroine just as often as the novel. I’ve got to get out of the tub right this minute. Perhaps it’s the novel’s more earthly counterpart. Thank God for the tub.
And for clothes.
Over the faded olive jumpsuit (it’s a bit silly to dress so badly) she puts on the old fur jacket. Then steps out onto the front steps covered with green turf rug and a layer of snow.
She is movement. In cafes and cars with friends and standing out in the street observing the many hookers who also come into the cafes. Hookers are the chorus of this book. There are homeless people, too, a single gray woman who returns again and again, but the hookers, all of them, are her other.
The hooker is radical. Her political other. Gail’s collective shadow. Exactly caught in the gate of capitalism, dancing, changing her clothes trying to be invisible, making a deal while being the most visible one of all, and somehow always they not she. Has the nonbinary nature of sex work ever been explored. The notebook is here and open.
Eileen Myles is a celebrated poet, novelist, and art journalist. They are the author of twenty-one books, most recently Evolution.
From Eileen Myles’s introduction to Heroine, by Gail Scott, published by Coach House Books.