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Montreal Journal: The Book of Eve

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I want to call Constance Beresford-Howe and tell her I love her, now I’m on page 135 of her 1973 novel, The Book of Eve. In the novel, an invisible middle-aged woman, in the process of growing up to become a bag lady, visits Montreal’s Atwater library and takes out Middlemarch, King Lear and Madame Bovary. I realize, as I read, that I found The Book of Eve in the same library, and that it too has become a classic, though in an underground vein: that The Book of Eve sits on the shelves Eve visited in Canada’s oldest library; a place with gaslight fixtures and a second floor made of opaque glass and many-paned windows in which the glass has begun to flow and wobble and behave like the slow liquid it is. Somebody asks on the flyleaf, why hasn’t everyone in Canada read Beresford-Howe: what is the matter with us. It’s her name, I could respond: you think the book is going to be about how to make crustless egg sandwiches for the annual protestant picnic. You think that on page 147 Constance will have written some advice to young marrieds on how to scrub their pearls with one of the children’s old toothbrushes. When in fact, after waiting for a bus in air that "smelled of damp biscuits,’ Eve visits this prospective new apartment:
 
 

...I stepped at once up to the eyebrows in darkness and a
smell of dog. Somewhere near by, a radio was blatting out a waltz.
...Gradually I made out the form of an elderly Scottie who seemed
to be wearing a white shirt and shorts. A minute later I could see
his outfit was made of a man’s long-underwear leg.
"He has eczema," explained Madame, when she finally
materialized...





The Book of Eve 
is about a recurring obsession of mine, which I suspect might be a leitmotif of womankind: the failure of the social contract to satisfy or even recognize the hunger of the soul. Eve, on a bus ride through her old suburban neighbourhood:

 

 


On your left, Ladies and Gentlemen, is N.D.G.
, a very neat
suburb of hell. Note those rows of bright, ugly, cheap shops - cleaner’s,
shoe-repair place, Greek restaurant, costume-jeweller, drugstore -
comments, every one, on how limited, after all, are the needs of the
human spirit.


Of course the writer means the needs of the human spirit are limited only by the countless ways we possess of smothering and defeating them. I have said The Book of Eve is an underground book, perhaps a forgotten book, given no one ever mentions it, and that might seem sad, but so much authentic life happens underground as a rule that this could be just part of the general loneliness of it all. Part of the graffiti in the secret Metro des Femmes.

 

I am going to the Atwater library tonight, and am wondering if Constance Beresford-Howe might still be alive. On the jacket, in 1973, she had one of those faces whose age you can’t decipher in a woman, which means, to me, that she is menopausal. She might be anywhere from her mid forties to her early sixties. She is, like her character, invisible, in that her face has no beauty; her vitality is diverted: it comes out in her writer’s voice. I talk to my daughter about her. I rave about this book.

"Maybe Constance," I say, "will be at the Atwater library tonight. Except I think she’s probably dead. I tried to find an obituary but I couldn’t find one."

"Look her up on Wikipedia." Esther says. "That’ll tell you if she’s still alive or not."

So I’m going to do that. But before I do it, while the possibility that Constance is still with us exists if only in my own head, I want to imagine meeting her, and telling her I love her. My window on Rue Cartier is open as I write this. A sound of church bells clangs: real, grand, clanging bells; not an insipid recording coming out of speakers; and the school across Rue Belanger has let its students out for their lunch break and under the bells is a racket of joyous shrieks and yelling and laughter. Are you here, Constance? Are you here in the city of Montreal, hidden, the way you inhabit the backstreets of literature? I’m a writer and I ought to know, and I’m going to know soon. But no matter what I find out, I’m still going to keep talking to you, because I have read The Book of Eve, and I love you.

 

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On September 17th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
"...the failure of the social contract to satisfy or even recognize the hunger of the soul"...??

Right. That's all I need to know. I'm getting this book out of the library toot sweet. Who knows, I may even find it in a charity shop here somewhere. After all, I found River Thieves in Barnardos in St Andrews---whoda thunkit?

Gab xxoo
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On August 18th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
kathleen
I had forgotten about this book I read it so long ago and loved it. I must reread it. Love your journal and live vicariously in Montreal. Which I did in reality in 1964-1968...
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