Anna Leventhal wrote the story “L’Horloge” for the Summer Supplement, “À la prochaine fois”: 1995 and Literature in Post-Referendum Quebec” in The Puritan Issue 30. The story is set in a retirement home in Laval in the 21st century.
I wasn’t sure at first how to approach writing about the ’95 referendum. I was a teenager in Manitoba at the time and don’t have any personal experience of it to speak from; I could have put myself in the shoes of someone who did, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the repercussions of the referendum (and separatism in general) in terms of Quebec national identity today, and what that means, if anything.
I decided the best way to do that was to write as an outsider. My previous stories set in Montreal were insiderish, to a certain extent. Even though the characters were a mix of Quebecois and from elsewhere, there was a general feeling of insularity, maybe even cliquishness—a sense that everyone belonged in some way to a broad, shaggy, but still cohesive civic structure, even as they often felt estranged or alienated from it. There was a shared vocabulary or set of touchstones that were maybe obscure enough that they felt like they came from, if not an “authentic” Montrealer (whatever that means) then at least from a fairly successful sleeper agent. For this newer piece, I took a bit of distance and used a narrator whose perspective is that of another kind of person who’s a big part of the “Montreal experience”: an anglophone emigre who stops here for a bit on her way to somewhere else. For a lot of people, especially young anglophones, Montreal is a kind of Neverland, a sandbox they play around in for a while until they mature and get on with their lives. And it’s a place that’s so thick with myth, so brimming with the ideals and expectations of generations of people with very different backgrounds, it can be hard to figure out what it really is. Of course, the Neverland thing is part of the mythology too.
Anyway, the narrator of this story is one of those people who kind of knows she’s just passing through, and she’s sifting through layers of other people’s identities and their ideas of what Quebec is, and their expectations of it, their demands and pleas and resignations. To me that’s what the referendum is about: your expectations of what a place can be, your highest hopes and brightest ideals, which are always bound in some way to your fears and darker impulses.
The Horloge residence itself is inspired by a trip I took to Laval. The building is a real place, though I never went in, only had it pointed out to me from a car window. I liked the idea of writing a Montreal story that mainly takes place in Laval. It’s very un-Richler, un-Roy, un-O’Neill. It’s not gritty or urban or diverse or picturesquely desiccated. It’s not even actually Montreal. I also wanted to capture those situations that are both too intimate and somewhat alien, where you don’t quite have enough information to figure out what’s going on; all you have is inference, conjecture, and half-caulked guesses. A care home in Laval seemed as good a place as any to do that.
Originally from Winnipeg, Anna Leventhal lives in Montreal and writes fiction and nonfiction. Her first book of short stories, Sweet Affliction, was published by Invisible Publishing in spring of 2014, and is available in bookstores across Canada, and online. You can follow her on Twitter at @annalevz.