Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Days of Sand by Hélène Dorion
by Hélène Dorion (trans. Jonathan Kaplansky)
Cormorant Books, 2007 (original French published in 2002)
This is a book I've been holding on to for a long time. I've wanted to read Days of Sand since I read a review when the English translation was first published. Some years later I received it as a Christmas gift, since it didn't seem to exist in any of the many libraries I have access to; it was apparently a difficult book to find. Some time after I started trying to read it. Now, years later, I have finally finished it.
I don't remember exactly what it was about the review that triggered my interest, but it seemed like the perfect sort of read for me right now, where books with a strong narrative or long chapters or a page count over about 150 seem to be eluding my grasp. I love books where the focus is on language, where it is the intrinsic beauty or the rhythm or the feel of the words themselves that hold the reader, not necessarily the plot or the characters (see my longtime adoration of Michael Ondaatje's work, for example, though I'd not say he can't do plot or characters; he just doesn't have to, in my opinion.)
On the surface, Days of Sand is exactly the sort of thing I like. Very short sections, three pages at the most, each focusing a lens on a single idea or memory. Very little narrative, though the cover says it's a novel. In fact, I'd say it's largely prose-poetry, each piece a contained bit of carefully put-together language, designed to evoke some reaction in the reader -- recognition, sympathy, understanding, alienation, memory. But also very much to my taste, the emotion evoked is not manipulated out of the reader. The text trusts the reader to make a connection; it doesn't force it.
And I hate that this book wasn't quite right for me after all. I desperately wanted to like it, and I really did try. It's Canadian, it won the Prix Anne-Hébert in 2004 (clearly someone liked it, or several someones) and I remember the review being full of praise. It feels deeply personal, though it is a work of fiction. It's from a tiny Canadian publisher. It's an odd little book that I expect deserves a wider audience. Except... except.
I don't know if it's the translation, or that the rhythm of the author's original prose works better in French (I suspect both) or if it's just that Dorion's writing just really didn't work for me. I felt I was working against the prose in many places, fighting with it to wring out meaning and connection. I got there at some points. At other points I was just bored by what felt clumsy, pedestrian repetition without any point, and -- get this, coming from me -- an overabundance of commas where other forms of punctuation or none at all would have better served the text.
It wasn't all disappointing. There were moments of brilliance. There is an entire section where the narrator talks about being at the beach as a child -- the section that the title comes from, verbatim, though it has significance throughout the book -- that absolutely shines. There are other delightful little moments, beautiful bits of writing that felt like truth and also like art. The meditations on memory and words and existence are incisive, if not always original, and I think I can safely say that the moments where I did connect to the text were worth the many moments where I did not.
It is possible, too, that I should have read this differently. I maybe should have read it all in one go, or as much as possible, rather than a section here and there, sometimes with days in between. It might be that I need time and exposure to get the feel of the text, and that by reading it in small pieces I never really got to experience the full effect. I do suspect there is something in this, as the few times where I read more than two or three sections at once, I felt much more positive about the whole experience.
I am glad I own this book, because I think perhaps it deserves a second chance at some point down the line. But it is hard to say if I would recommend it, or who I would recommend it to. I'd love to read it in its original French and compare the experience; I'll get back to you on that once I've learned enough French. Until then, I'm saddened that I didn't like this better than I did.