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Gérard Bessette: L’incubation (Incubation)

Gordon Blackwell is a Canadian who worked in the Intelligence Service in London (England, not Ontario) during World War II. His work was mainly paper-shuffling but he worked long hours. He was in London during the period of the Blitz. One day, when the air-raid warning sounded, he dashed into the underground railway, tripped on the step and almost fell into the arms of a young woman. This young woman was Antinéa (despite her name, an English woman) and the couple started a passionate affair. Both worked long hours. Antinéa worked in an administrative capacity for the Red Cross (she was afraid of the sight of blood). She was able to get a lift from an ambulance driver, who drove her to meet Gordon, often through the bombing (of which we get a few descriptions). The affair continued for the duration of the war.

Both already had relationships. Gordon was an English teacher in the university in the small and wittily named Narcotown. He was engaged to Maggie, she of the perfect chest and perfect manners. Antinéa was married to Jack. She had lost her mother when young and rarely saw her father, so Jack was her way out. If she had ever loved him, she did no longer. Jack was serving in the army in North Africa. During the course of their passion, Jack was wounded in the head and returned to London. To Gordon’s disgust, he was introduced to Jack and then, when Antinéa, pleading too much work, rarely visited Jack, Gordon took over the responsibility, frequently visiting him and listening to Jack’s tales of his bravery under fire and how, when he recovered, he was going to join the commandos.

However, Jack did not join the commandos, as he died from his wounds. Antinéa had a nervous breakdown. Gordon waited around to see if she would get better, all the time receiving letters form Maggie asking why he did not return, as all the other Canadian officers were returning. However, Antinéa did not seem to get any better, so Gordon went back to Canada and his job in Narcotown, married Maggie and they had two children.

The novel starts when the narrator, whom we know only by his surname Lagarde, is with Gordon. They are old friends, Lagarde being a librarian. They are currently out drinking and getting steadily drunker. The reason for this is that they are to meet a train and on the train is Antinéa, who has recovered from her breakdown and come to Canada to renew her relationship with Gordon, unaware of his marriage. Gordon, in particular, gets steadily drunker and when Antinéa arrives, he soon has to disappear into the toilets, where he spends a long time, enabling Lagarde to get to know Antinéa. Indeed, Lagarde is mildly surprised to see Antinéa, as he had half-expected her to be a figment of Gordon’s imagination.

However, things do settle down and the two men are now faced with a problem – where can Antinéa live and can they find her job. One of Lagarde’s regular customers, Weingerter, is an old German man, whose wife, Sara, was killed in a concentration camp. He spends a considerable amount of time studying old German books in the library where Lagarde works. He soon befriends Antinéa and she goes and lives in his house. But clearly, for Maggie, for Antinéa and Gordon, this is not going to work out on any long-term basis.

What makes this book interesting is the style in which it is told. It is entirely narrated by Lagarde, in stream-of-consciousness fashion, who, of course, is getting some of his information second-hand from Gordon and from others. He tells it at a frenetic pace. Much of it consists of long sentences – often pages long – which seem to run on interminably. (Apparently, this is less so the case in the English translation.) But he also has a technique of not using just one verb, one adjective, one noun, but a series of two or three together. For example, in the section where Gordon first meets Antinéa, he says Gordon avait failli manquer une marche se tordre la cheville failli tomber dans les bras d’une jeune femme [Gordon had almost missed a step twisted his ankle almost fallen into the arms of a young woman]. There is no punctuation and these two-three words can be synonyms, related words or, as in this case, successive stages in the story. It all adds to the frenzy. In the first part, while they are waiting for Antinéa, on their crawl of the bars, and Lagarde is telling their story, the sense of the increasing drunkenness is very much enhanced by this technique. Even later in the book, when they are all sober, you generally get the effect of the plot driving on, though, perversely, when not much is happening it can also have the effect of dragging things out.

As Gordon comments, love and sex are complicated, and, as he also comments It’s a goddam mess (with the English phrase used in the French text). Certainly, the style Bessette uses is an interesting one, even if his story is an old one. The novel had a considerable reputation and won the Governor-Generals’ Award for French-language fiction in 1965, though now seems to be out of print in both French and English, perhaps because, fifty years later, it seems a bit dated.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Librairie Déom
First published in English 1967 by Macmillan Co. of Canada
Translated by Glen Shortliffe