Bedtime stories for insomniacs: To See Out the Night by David Clerson

In 2016, a feisty new imprint, dedicated to introducing English speaking audiences to a new generation of young Quebecois writers, emerged with their first release. Over the past five years, this small Canadian publishing venture has maintained an annual three-title season, their books garnering nominations, awards and international attention along the way. QC Fiction has now introduced their 2021-2022 line-up with To See Out the Night, a short story collection by David Clerson, the same author whose novella Brothers closed their first season.

A work of haunting minimalism, Brothers is a stark fable about the adventures of two misshapen boys who live with their mother in a desolate world—a place that exists somewhere between epic childhood fantasy and post-apocalyptic despair. Together the siblings craft a ramshackle boat and set off in search of their father, a wild dog. The tale that unfolds is one of tragedy and resilience, played out on a stage that is spare, surreal, and yet strangely alive. With broad brush strokes Clerson creates a work of such visual energy that I cannot help but imagine it as an animated film or graphic novel.

His new work, first published in French in 2019, carries some of the same qualities or tendencies as Brothers. Although the characters and settings have greater density—they are fleshed out a little more—but there is still much left unsaid. A porous line separates the real and the unreal. The narratives, if grounded in a more recognizable world, explore the middle ground between primal and modern energies. In keeping with its title then, one could think of the dozen short fables of To See Out the Night as bedtime stories for insomniacs, those caught between waking and sleep. As it turns out, night—alternate dream realities, night shift workers, the exploration of strange nocturnal spaces—feature in many of the stories.

Clerson has a fondness for the socially awkward character, someone who tends to isolate or struggle with finding a balance between the disparate elements of their life. He typically places most of his protagonists in distinctly Quebec settings, both urban and rural, but in most cases a weirdness awaits, one that warps otherwise ordinary existences, perhaps mildly, perhaps stretched far beyond the norm. This may even involve, as with the boys’ animal/human parentage in Brothers, a crossing of boundaries between man and beast. In the opening piece, “The Ape Within,” an unemployed night watchman experiences a compelling sense of connection with an orangutan on a nature documentary and soon becomes convinced he is possessed, from inside, by the ape. On vacation, the protagonist of “Jellyfish” is entered by an aquatic creature that will completely transform his life. In “The Language of Hunters,” the narrator’s encounter with a bear carcass, killed by a hunter but abandoned to the birds and forest animals, leads into an account of the impact his father’s suicide has left on him:

I felt like I couldn’t leave, like I wanted to dig a grave for the bear or take it with me, gut it, cut through its flesh, remove its animal skin and put it on. The hunter hadn’t bothered to take the fur or the meat, and I wondered why we taxidermied animals but not humans, why we tried to preserve animals in some approximation of life but hid the bodies of our loved ones until we forgot about them, until there was nothing left.

In each tale, an oddness of motivation or intent colours the engagements between the characters and the worlds they find themselves in. Clerson’s gift lies in taking apparently ordinary actors, setting them in an environment, real or surreal or both, and twisting the circumstances to see not simply how, but if they will respond. The touch is light, the tone is matter-of-fact regardless of context, be it realistic or fabulist in nature and, beneath the surface, existential questions percolate. Quietly yet consistently off-centre, To See Out the Night offers a charismatic collection of apocryphal tales for our times.

To See Out the Night by David Clerson is translated by Katia Grubisic (who also translated Brothers) and published by QC Fiction.

Everything here is dead: Brothers by David Clerson

My first book of 2017 is not the cheeriest of novels, but all the same, it came as a very pleasant surprise. The story is a dark fable, decidedly not for children, but then, the fairy tales we remember from childhood were much bleaker, gruesome affairs in their original incarnations. So imagine, if you will, a scene taking place just off the edge of a canvas painted by Bruegel the Elder, where two deformed boys play on the shore of a wild sea, dreaming of escape to fantastic lands, and you will evoke the setting—and the mood—of Brothers by Quebecois writer David Clerson.

The third title to be released by QC Fiction, a new subscription-based imprint of Baraka Books, Brothers is quite possibly the Quebec publisher’s most daring and impressive offering to date (I reviewed the first release, Life in the Court of Matane for Numéro Cinq last July). This slender volume with the striking red cover—QC Fiction has chosen a most impressive graphic design for their books—cbrothersontains a world that overflows with mythological adventure, shocking violence, and nightmarish beauty.

Brothers plays with and twists themes pulled from myth and legend. The central character, “older brother” is born of the union between his aging mother and a wild dog. She does not want her son to face the world alone, so she cuts off his left arm and from that limb she fashions a “younger” brother who has two very short arms. The two disfigured boys spend their days running through the fields and marshes around their clapboard house, fishing off the pier, and scavenging oddities that the waves bring in.

One day the sea offers a wreck of a boat, another day a wooden puppet washes up. Together the brothers work to patch the boat as best they can, dreaming of the day that they cross the waters to distant lands populated with monstrous creatures in search of their “dog of a father.” When they find a drowned dog, they know that the time has finally come. With the older brother dressed in the animal’s tanned pelt, one of the puppet’s arms strapped to his shoulder in place of his missing limb, they set to sea, leaving their aging, desiccated mother behind. She has withdrawn from them so completely they doubt she will notice their absence.

The first days it took a long time to get away from the shore. Not by choice, but because the wind kept them there, or they didn’t know how to handle their sail, to make the boat go where they would have wanted. Instead, they followed the coast, in a direction they had never been, not toward the marshes and the neighbouring village, but out to where the coastline fell away steeply, with cliffs sliced by creeks and a multitude of shrieking birds soaring above.

The brothers are ill-prepared for their adventure. Illness levels the younger boy, storms rage, and ultimately, disaster strikes. The older brother eventually ends up alone, on a farm, chained to a doghouse. Yet he finds, for a time, a certain peace in this new existence, save for the torments dished out by the six pig-like children who also live there. He will even experience a mixture of love and lust with a grey dog—the daughter of a dog of a father—whose life has been much lonelier and harsher than his. But this respite does not last, and it does not end well.

If there is a moral here, it is that life is brutal—that goodness and evil are both instinctual survival mechanisms. The former is weak and the latter consumes. Redemption is elusive.

So why read it? The prose, beautifully translated by poet Katia Grubisic, is crystalline, spare, and unsentimental. The balance is just right… it holds you in awe. It is surreal, grotesque and beautiful in turn. The older brother is self-reflective. He notices his contentment, contemplates the stirring of love, and knows he is helpless against the escalation of murderous revenge. The cruelty he has experienced, the violence he has perpetrated, the guilt that haunts him, and the kindness he cannot accept leave their mark, shape him. He has existed at the intersection between beast and man—more whole and complete for the months he lives as a dog, as harsh and mean as they are—but in the end, in the absence of the brother who completed him—he can find comfort only in the company of a murder of crows. And it is insufficient.

This book is not, as I had feared, magic realism. This is not a human tale with a magic element—it is a magical tale with a human heart. Like a folktale for a post-apocalyptic future, Brothers, in all its grotesque surrealism, reflects a truth in which we recognize ourselves, with an equal measure of horror, sadness and shame.

Originally published in 2013 as Frères, this first novel won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault 2014.