On 15 March 1977, the acclaimed Quebec writer, Hubert Aquin (HA) born 1929, blew out his brains on the grounds of Montreal's Villa Maria, a convent girls' school, where his first wife had been educated and only steps from the Westmount home that he shared with his psychiatrist partner, Andrée Yanacopoulu (herself now a writer of medical history) and their nine-year old son, Emmanuel. Yanacopoulo had known of the suicide plan well in advance and, as part of a pact, had agreed not to stop it.

Through a series of interviews with family, ex-family, friends, lovers, colleagues, secretaries, students, and cleaning ladies, mostly between 1977 and 1983, Sheppard conducts an "investigation" to determine why Aquin ended his life at that time and in that way; and why his partner allowed it. Only a single interview seems to have been conducted after 1985. Each chapter is preceded by an extensive citation from one of Aquin's four novels, followed by stage direction notes for music, sound effects, and mood, and comprised of situated testimony written as dialogue for a film script.

Just as many explanations for Aquin's suicide emerge from this inquiry as there are witnesses. The causes range from the political, through the physical, psychological, social, symbolic, and emotional, to the spiritual. For each witness, they are the truth. They include 1. the failure of the recently elected separatist government to declare Quebec to be a sovereign nation; 2. Aquin's much publicized dismissal from a newspaper job, which he had counted on for a prominent editorial opportunity; 3. the failure of one (or several) love affair(s); 4. the collapse of two marriages; 5. estrangement from the two sons of his first marriage; 6. chronic ill health due to alcoholic epilepsy; 7. unresolved conflicts with his parents; 8. the result of his own writing which displayed a longstanding fascination with sex, death, violence, and suicide; 9. the result of writer's block; 10. a "classic" capitulation of a "québécois" male to the tyranny of women, either a "québécoise" mother or--(take your choice)-- a non-québécoise lover; 11. a covenant with 9 year-old boys crossing several generations; 12. the destiny of a man with a death wish, a chronic predisposition to self killing, who, according to one engaging friend (Jacques Languirand), had probably already committed suicide in a previous life as a late Antique Roman, and would likely do again--perhaps already has.

Sheppard dedicates his book to more than one hundred suicides from Sappho to Kurt Cobain. He shapes the responses of his subjects by his pointed questions and the juxtaposition of their answers to advance his overriding theory that Aquin's suicide was his finest work of art. All the varying explanations co-exist peacefully within Aquin's immortality, which resides in the minds of those who remember and grieve for him. No single interpretation is more plausible than another. Sheppard explicitly links these multiple "truths" to the early film work of Kurosawa; we are also reminded of Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio (see this database).


This book was difficult to classify. Is it fiction or not? A memoir? Sheppard himself calls it a "documentary novel" (former web site). However, as the book relies on what appear to be verbatim transcripts of dated interviews of recollections it could be a treatise. The interviews retain a number of French words for flavor and to emphasize the fact that the testimony has been translated. They are amplified by extensive quotes from literary and cinematic works deemed relevant, if only tangentially, to Sheppard's analysis and by numerous illustrations: maps, elaborate facsimile letters complete with envelopes, and many photographs of the characters, Montreal, fine art, and Hollywood films. The result is a fat book that strives hard, almost too hard, not to be a book. It is a self-conscious reminder of several recent attempts to do the same: see for example, the publications of Vancouver's Raincoast Press, such as the popular Griffin and Sabine series, or Barbara Hodgson's The Sensualist.

Sheppard is a film director, as he tells us often, with artistic successes to his credit, including "Eliza's Horoscope" (1975). Just before the suicide, he had been collaborating on a new film script with Aquin, but not very effectively, because Aquin doggedly disappointed the filmmaker on numerous occasions. Writing himself into the plot, Sheppard scarcely misses an opportunity to air his theories, his linguistic talent, and his supposedly vast erudition. Many passages entail his allusions to classic literature or his instructions for Aquin's mourners in the possible causes for his death; he also records their surprise and praise for his insights.

Like a small boy who enjoys pulling legs off spiders to study the effects, he seems to delight in suggesting to Aquin's grieving lovers that they led him to kill himself. He revels in a tawdry act of breaking news of a sexual affair with a "spiritual" friend to his widow; we are treated to her dismay as the news alters the meaning of the suicide for her. Clearly, he is not trained in the art of clinical listening, and his self-absorption becomes tedious. Some of these sections would provide morbidly fascinating examples for students of how NOT to conduct a medical interview.

But Sheppard's purpose is not medical--it is Art, and it has a few star turns. Offended though we may be by his probing and manipulation, the presentation is seductive. We read on voyeuristically about the widow who washes bits of brain off her car before her son returns from school, or about her dismay when confronted with the hidden affair. For example (and also suitable for excerpting) is an extensive passage of imaginative testimony from the shades of dead writers, introduced by an annoying talk-show personality and contextualized by their own modes of dying (pp. 633-636).

Sheppard draws us to Aquin's Montreal haunts, his restaurants (some of which are still going), and his places of living, dancing, drinking, hiding, and death. He demands a reconsideration of artistic Quebec of the 1970s, which is especially appealing for those of us who lived there then. He strives for an in-your-face kind of cinema "verité," revealing, for example, that he is an uncircumcised, cancer patient taking hormones and father of yet another nine year-old (p. 858).

For all its pretensions to naked truth, Sheppard's investigative work comprises one more unsolved mystery--and perhaps that is his own artistic objective. Back in 1985, he published a book, in French, co-authored with Yanacopoulu, Signé Hubert Aquin (Montreal: Boreal Express, 353 pp). The entire content and the style of that other book appears here, in translation, with the addition of transcripts of other interviews and with only a flicker of acknowledgement--too little, too late (p. 859). That book was journalistic nonfiction, this one, a "documentary novel." Why?

Curiouser and curiouser, Andrée Yanacopoulu now "disassociates herself" from this amplified English rendition of her words (back of title page, small print).

Why did Sheppard become so absorbed in this death? Why produce this behemoth of a book-a second version of something already completed two decades ago? Why refer to it now as fiction? Is it an over-the-top attempt to elevate the quasi-religious, conflicted, unreliable, and original Aquin to the level of a transcendent being in the consciousness of a people who have hither-to-fore ignored him and his brutally challenging art? Or, is Sheppard simply demonstrating, with this one intriguing example and its multiplicity of truths, the stark fact that we can never really know why people kill themselves. Qui sait? Alors, attendons donc à la Prochain Episode.


McGill-Queen's Univ. Press

Place Published

Montreal and Kingston



Page Count