Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Published in French in 2018 and now appearing in English, Querelle of Roberval has garnered enormous international praise—from Le Monde and Télerama in France to Le Devoir, La Presse, and L’Actualité in the author’s native Quebec—and has been a finalist for numerous literary prizes, winning a couple of them: the Prix Ringuet in Quebec and the Prix Sade in France. The Sade, named for the Marquis de Sade, is awarded to an author who seeks to “undo the shackles of literature as well as those of politics.” Well, in Querelle of Roberval, author Kevin Lambert certainly does that.
Querelle of Roberval is only Lambert’s second novel, and he admits that it is “a pornographic, violent book.” That is a bit of an understatement. The sex—gay sex to boot—and violence is over the top, way over the top.
Lambert was inspired by French author Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle de Brest. In both books, the main characters are sexually ravenous homosexuals with nasty violent streaks. But Lambert diverges from Genet’s work and goes much, much farther. So much so that any comparison with other authors falls short. Lambert’s almost rapturously detailed violence brings to mind not another novelist, but a film director: Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s penchant for excessive and graphic violence in his films is well known. That Lambert adds extreme sexual intensity to the mix merely pushes the limits of prose farther outward.
Tarantino gets away with his excesses by being a very disciplined artist. And it pays off. His films are well-written, beautifully filmed, and tightly structured, with talented actors delivering superior performances. If he weren’t so demanding—of others and himself—his films would likely have devolved into grade-B shlock, or worse.
Like Tarantino, Lambert runs a big risk with his choice of subject matter, but he pulls it off because of the formidable control he exerts over his writing.
On the surface, Querelle of Roberval is the story of a group of workers striking for higher wages at a lumber mill in Roberval, Quebec, on the shores of Lac St-Jean. (Lambert grew up in nearby Chicoutimi, so he knows the area and its people well.) The title character, Querelle, is new to the mill but joins the strike anyway. He is a young, very attractive man who likes to have sex with boys. And he is very open about his homosexuality, which makes many of the men at the mill uncomfortable, as Querrelle likes to brag about his conquests among the local youngsters. So Querelle’s non-sexual male relationships are limited. But he does form a friendship with Jézabel, who, along with her sister Judith, is one of the few female workers at the mill.
So far so good. But Lambert wants to break the ossified rules of what passes for literature, so he makes an audacious choice: he structures his novel like a Greek tragedy. The sections of the book are labelled accordingly: Prologue, Parodos, Stasimon, Kommos, and Exodos. And he follows their dramatic pattern to build his story.
True to form, however, Lambert adapts this classical structure in a decidedly modern way. As a chorus, Lambert creates a trio of young gay men who punctuate the drama, not with song, but with rampages of sex and violence. Lambert even inserts himself briefly into the narrative at one point, as sort of an omniscient and authoritative presence, but also as a bit of playfulness, just to keep the reader off-balance.
Querelle of course means “conflict” in French, and that is indeed what this novel is about. As the strike drags on, though, it is the internal conflicts of the characters that take centre stage. Personal identity. Gay or straight? Purpose in life. Are you a working person if you are not working? As if to underscore this, the sex and violence intensify as time passes.
Given his self-consciously literary approach, Lambert’s characters tend to be symbolic and thus are often thinly developed. Querelle, in particular, remains a rather one-dimensional symbol of rebellion, both sexual and political. Jézabel emerges as the most nuanced character, gradually stepping to the forefront late in the book. Though there, too, more detail would have been welcome.
This is not a book for everyone. The sex and violence are extreme, and the writing, though brilliant, is overly stylized at times. Barbara Pym, Lambert is not. And that’s not a bad thing.
In a way, Lambert resembles a child prodigy pianist. He executes with perfection but tends to hit the keys a bit too fast and a bit too hard. Nevertheless, Querelle of Roberval is a prodigious work, even exhibiting genius at times. And Lambert is still young—he is only thirty—so one can only assume that his talents will ripen with time. Something all readers should look forward to.
Querelle of Roberval is published by Biblioasis.