Home > 20th Century, Canadian Literature, French Literature, Huston Nancy, Novel > The mother who could not be a Mom

The mother who could not be a Mom

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

La Virevolte, by Nancy Huston. Translated as Slow Emergencies: a novel.

Lin Lhomond is a famous dancer and choreographer. The novel opens with a crude and harsh sentence: “This body came out of her”. Lin is giving birth to Angela, her first born. Lin is married to Derek, a teacher at the local university, somewhere on the East Coast of the USA. The first part of the book describes her life as a mother-dancer. The mother was born with Angela and motherly duties absorb Lin and smother the dancer. A second child arrives, Marina. The motherly duties increase. The dancer, the creator in Lin claims some space. The need to create, to express through the dance, the absolute need to feel her body move are stronger and stronger.

Second part of the novel: Lin makes the choice. The one choice that will irrevocably damage lives. She flees away from her family, accepting an assignment in Mexico. She cuts off the bridges. She shuts the mother in her. The second part relates the parallel lives of Lin and of Derek and the girls, how it is to have done the unforgivable, how it is to grow up with a mother who left you behind and preferred the dance to you.

 La Virevolte was published in 1994. I had already read it, and have thought about it regularly since. It’s quite rare that a book stays in mind that way. This one had disturbed me, probably because the idea of a mother abandoning her children for dancing is disturbing. But for Lin, dancing is more than a job, it is a way to feel alive. To quit dancing is to die. She’s an artist. Rainer Maria Rilke said one is a real writer if not writing is synonym to death. Lin is that kind of artist, dance is her art.

 “Yes this is why I was born

And nothing – no nothing

can equal this pleasure to make bodies

move into space

fill the air with movements

embrace the music with chanting silence

leaps and leaps

mute howls of the joys and sorrows of the universe.”

 Lin has done what society cannot understand: being a mother and turning her back on her children. Yet Nancy Huston never judges her or tries to find psychological explanations. She clinically describes the wreckage Lin left behind and how she fully accepts the consequences of her choice. As in the passage I poorly translated before, the flow of sentences is sometimes broken. Her voice is scattered, like a breathing disturbed by dancing or by smothering.

 When Angela was born, the narrator says of Lin:

“She isn’t dead and she has not become someone else. Not only is she always herself but she is a mother. Not only is she always alive but someone else is also totally alive, over there, at the end of the corridor and she feels the life of this little human pull on the fibres of her heart.”

 She loves her daughters but she shouldn’t have been a mother and with horror realizes it deep inside.

 “What did I do?” Lin thinks

Oh my God what did I do

The dance, already so fragile so dependant, which dies at the very moment it was born, the dance already a mortal child of my mortal body and now these two girls too, these moving and breathing little girls, what did I do”

 I had no children when I read it for the first time and it’s been interesting to read it again now that I am a mother too. Parenthood is not something you can imagine; you can read about it, think about it and all the mental construction you will have elaborated will crumble into sand when reality comes. No one can understand this kind of love and relationship without living it. And no one can picture the “no-man’s-life” of parents of under five-years-old children. Lin was glued in that time. I cannot judge Lin though I probably should. Dancing and creating were stronger than anything else. How could she have known that before? Parenthood is a life experience that is definitive. You cannot try to be a parent, like you try yoga and then quit, thinking “this is not for me”. It is a unique experience in life because it is definitive. The only other irrevocable experience I found is death.

 Nancy Huston is an Anglophone Canadian, lives in Paris, writes in French and then translates her work in English. Though she writes in French, her characters and settings are American. I beg her pardon for the poor translation I made of her voice, but I couldn’t find quotes and I wanted to show how she sometimes turns the language as Lin bends her body. I’m always impressed by authors able to beautifully write in another language than their mother tongue. Maybe it is a way to tell things they would dare writing in their native language. Maybe their inner voice, their author voice sounds just speaks another language. That’s a question I’d like to ask her. And I’d like to see how a writer translates their own work.

 I liked this book a lot. I was taken in the twirl of Nancy Huston’s sentences and the story is not one you can forget.

  1. September 27, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    I like the point about parenthood not being like yoga–you can’t just try it so see if you like it. I should probably change that to say that ‘you’re not supposed to just try it’–with the emphasis on ‘supposed’.


    • September 27, 2010 at 2:55 pm

      I meant that you can genuinely believe you’ll perfectly fit in the parent outfit and realize that you’re not built for that. And there’s no coming back. That’s what happened to Lin, I think.


  2. October 8, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Nancy Huston’s interesting. I read her Nord perdu : suivi de Douze France (translated to: Losing north : musings on land, tongue and self ). Thanks for your review of La Virevolte 😉


    • October 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm

      Funny you should pick this post after reading the one on Romain Gary. Nancy Huston likes Romain Gary a lot and wrote an essay about him. (Tombeau de Romain Gary)

      I also read Dolce Agonia, which is good too. I have Lignes de failles (Fault Lines) at home, so there will be another review one of these days.


  3. December 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    This is a wonderful post. I am not a parent but, yes, you are so right, it is a definite thing, once you are in, you are in for life. I can understand Lin’s choice intellectually, I just think for people, like me, who think there is something much more important in their lives that defines them more and would prevent them from being good parents, they should better not have children. Apparently some people do have no idea before it happens. I can understand this too.
    I would like to read this book, it does sound very interesting and she is a great writer. At one point your review reminded me of Véronique Olmi’s, Bord de mer. Although it is the story of a depressed mother, it is also the story of a mother who puts herself in the center of everything. It did make me very angry (did you read it?).


    • December 17, 2010 at 8:08 pm

      Lin’s choice is special. If her art had been painting or writing, she could have waited or done it at home. But her art is dancing, and you can only do it during the same years as the ones your children are young and need you. Afterwards, your body is too old. She made the wrong choice because she thought she could live without dancing. She could have had both if she had waited to be 35 or 40 to have her children.
      Intellectually, I understand her too, like I understand that someone can steal or be driven to murder. It doesn’t mean it’s right or forgivable. I’m always shocked when adults make very selfish decisions that can only inflict on their children wounds impossible to heal.

      I haven’t read Bord de Mer but I’ve ordered it. Max has written a great review on his blog Pechorin’s Journal. His review and the following comments made me want to read it too. I haven’t received it yet, my order is delayed by a book that needed to be ordered to the publisher. I sounded terrible and bleak.


  4. December 17, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    I grew up with a mother like the one in Bord de Mer… Naturally I had quite a strong reaction and was annoyed with some the reviews I read… I still thought it was very well written.


  5. December 17, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    I don’t think you would be annoyed with this one. There is no judgement and a lot of humanity. That’s why I enjoy reading Pechorin’s Journal. Sense and sensibility.


  6. November 22, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    This sounds fascinating, and an intriguing accompaniment to the von Arnim. Huston is brilliant at tackling these difficult topics because she finds such a good neutral perspective to write from. And you are so right about motherhood being something you cannot envisage before it happens and cannot escape once you have. It must be a prison sentence for many women who thought it might be paradise.


    • November 23, 2011 at 11:33 am

      It is a disturbing book, as Fault Lines is a disturbing one too.

      I can’t imagine what it must have been before contraception. Having a child unprepared. Having more children that you’d want to.
      The situation is the same for men; they can’t imagine what it will be to be a father. But the society judges them less severely if they move on and leave their child behind.


  7. April 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Thank you for a great blog!

    I have read several of Nancy Huston’s books, mostly in French. Her books are thought provoking and often disturbing. I introduced her to my book club with “The Mark of the Angel” that I had read in French first and then in English. She writes very well in both languages. My book club has decided that I am the club’s source of dark disturbing books since besides, “The Mark of the Angel” I have introduced them to “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind, “Never let me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro and “Five Quarters of the Orange” by Joanne Harris. They haven’t kicked me out yet!


    • April 22, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Hello, thanks for your comment.

      In disturbing & bleak but good, I recommend Novel With Cocaine by M Agueev.


  1. April 7, 2012 at 10:17 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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