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Image et Récit

Héliane Ventura
Simone Vauthier
Jean-Michel Lacroix

II. L'image-récit

"Telling Our Grief": Photographic Image in Bronwen Wallace’s "The Scuba Diver in Repose"

Janice Kulyk Keefer


A travers La Chambre Claire, récit que nous fait Roland Barthes de la quête qu'il a lui-même menée pour trouver "l'image juste" de sa défunte mère, cet article examine le rôle de l'image photographique et du photographe dans un texte où l’auteure raconte l'imminence de sa propre mort — il s'agit de "The Scuba Diver in Repose" par Bronwen Wallace, qui a été publié peu après la mort prématurée de celle-ci en 1989. C'est par la narration plutôt que par la réprésentation simple d'images photographiques profondément blessantes que "The Scuba Diver in Repose" nous délivre des affres d'une douleur passive et nous permet d'assumer le travail actif du deuil. Dans cette activité qu'est le deuil renaît la perception indispensable au travail de l'écrivain, qui lui permet de produire une oeuvre littéraire, en face de l'obstacle le plus anéantissant qui soit — la mort même.

Through the lens of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, itself a narrative recounting Barthes' quest for a 'just' image of his dead mother, this paper examines the workings of photographic image and agent in a self-reflexive "narrative of ending"—Bronwen Wallace's "The Scuba Diver in Repose," published shortly after its author's untimely death in 1989. By the act of not merely representing but actually narrating photographic images which wound the viewer with their air of "intractable" but irrecoverable reality, Wallace's text empowers both its narrator and its readers to transform the passivity of grief into the agency of mourning. This agency makes possible both the work of perception on which the writer's vocation is dependent, and also the very production of literary work in the face of the ultimate negation of presence—death itself.

Texte intégral

  • 1 For those unfamiliar with the work of Bronwen Wallace, a few words of introduction will be in orde (...)

1Bronwen Wallace, one of Canada's best and best-loved poets1, died, aged forty-four, in August 1989 — the very month in which she completed her first book of short fiction, People You'd Trust Your Life To. The story about which I am going to speak, "The Scuba Diver in Repose," is the last in that volume; in it the narrator, a photographer who gives up taking pictures after her lover's death, finally confronts not only her grief but also a revelation triggered by an image which literally falls into her hands: a photograph of a five year old boy blowing out candies on a birthday cake. I will say more about this image of an image later on: what I want to do now is introduce through it the text which this paper will interweave with Wallace's: Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida — La Chambre Claire.

2Barthes' haunting meditation on photography is also, of course, a narrative of his own search for a true image of his dead mother: a photograph that will permit "a living resurrection of the beloved face"(CL 64). Death and photography are radically, mysteriously linked for Barthes, like the bodies of Siamese twins: Camera Lucida describes photography as "a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead" (CL 32). And he chooses the word "spectrum" to designate the thing or person being photographed because this word "retains, through its root, a relation to 'spectacle' and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead" (CL 9). I wish to read "The Scuba Diver in Repose" through the lens of Camera Lucida, partly because what Barthes has to say about the reading of photographs illuminates how certain images function in short stories — in particular, those collected in People You'd Trust Your Life To. But I am also using Barthes because of his emphasis in Camera Lucida on two things with which Wallace's fiction is also obsessed: first, the "absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency... the Real, in its indefatigable expression" (CL 4), and second, feeling: that which bruises and wounds, and thus forces itself upon our attention.

  • 2 Although Jill is never presented as a theorist of her art, and Wallace is at pains to show her as (...)

3I first read "The Scuba Diver in Repose" a few weeks after Bronwen Wallace's death, and was almost unbearably moved by it. Though she may not have written this story in the knowledge of her impending death, Bronwen did revise and shape this collection of stories under the full pressure of her dying. By ending the volume with "The Scuba Diver in Repose," I believe she decided to create both a narrative of ending and a way of working through the tortuous sleep of grief into what Barthes terms "the wakening of intractable reality" (CL 119). It is especially significant, I think, that Bronwen Wallace chose to make the narrator of this story a photographier2, rather than any other kind of artist; moreover, a photographier who begins by destroying the images she has created, and who ends by successfully reading a photographic image which, taking her outside her furious grief at her lover's dying, actually returns her to a place within the frame of her own living, from which his death had banished her.

  • 3 One of the most eloquent, perhaps, is that drawn by Henry James writing in 1888 to Robert Louis St (...)

4As Valerie Shaw points out in her study of the short story, analogies between photography and fiction are commonplace3. "In some respects," she observes, "the short story belongs more, and more lastingly, with photography — in particular snapshot photography, which dates from the same period as the modem short story — than with film" (SS 14-15). What Shaw doesn't emphasize about the connection between the photograph and short fiction, however, is something Barthes insists upon: the duality of all good or arresting photographs; the manner in which epiphany is always caught up in concrete specificity, so that it is the "stubbornness of the referent in always being there [that]... produce[s] the essence" one is looking for. In this sense, I would argue, short fiction, like photography, is "... an antiphon of 'Look,' 'See,' 'Here it is'; it points a finger at a certain vis-à-vis, and cannot escape this purer deictic language" (CL 5).

5The short story I am going to discuss uses both kinds of language — that of impure telling and "purer" showing. Language, as Barthes reminds us, is inherently fictional in nature, unable to authenticate itself, to give us any certainty about the beings and things to which it refers; photography, on the other hand, is "indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself" (CL 87). For a writer like Bronwen Wallace, authenticating the fictional and fictionalizing the authentic were interdependent and inseparable tasks. In her poetry and prose she was intent on writing fables of the commonplace and everyday, making us look at familiar things with love, or terror, and as if for the first time. The "categorical imperative" of her writing is the referent as it functions in the photographic System of representation:

not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. Painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and most often are "chimeras". Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there (CL 76).

6I am not here attempting to deny the mediating role of language in representing the real. But anyone who has read, for example, Wallace's stunning sequence of poems, "Intervals," will know that she is making us confront no option or chimera when she presents the image of a bruise on the face of a beaten woman:

If I were to place my hand on the side of her head, the bruise at her left temple would exactly fit the palm, the heel curving over her left eye, where the rim of the heel of her husband's shoe has left a gash marked out by the doctor's stitches... (SP 63).

7Such images forbid us to deny "that the thing has been there" (CL 77). They and others equally as forceful make us pay attention to a quotidian that is in no need of recharging or redemption by High Art since it is always already full of violent energy and "common magic" (to borrow the title of one of Wallace's volumes of poetry). In their collapsing of borders between High and popular culture, Wallace's texts are recognizably postmodernist; in their unwavering focus upon the referent they exemplify a realism that is fulgurant and disjunctive rather than regularly luminous and static—or, as Barthes would put it, "mad" rather than "tame" realism (CL 119).

8As I have already mentioned, "The Scuba Diver in Repose" is the closing text of Wallace's collection, and it may be useful for me to say a few words about the stories which precede it. First, all are "women-centred," exploring the nuances and headlong trajectories of female friendships, and of relationships between mothers and daughters and sisters. The subjects who narrate these stories or whose lives are disclosed by an omniscient, yet never detached narrator work at unglamorous jobs traditionally designated as "women’s work". Occasionally they cross gender or class barriers, becoming, for example, a bartender, a glass-blower, and in the case of Jill, in the final story, a photographer who supports herself by working as a bank-teller. None of them are academics, and only a few have even been to university. Few would consciously refer to themselves as feminists, though most of the characters who figure in the title story are unthinkable in a pre-or post-feminist world: for example, the woman who takes her two children and flees the husband who has been physically abusing them; the woman who leaves a long-term, stable marriage to live with and love other women; the woman who goes to night school to get her high school diploma once her kids are all past infancy. Most of these women have Anglo-Saxon names, though they are as marginalized within the "dominant group" as would be their Black or Asian or audibly ethnic counterparts. Wallace explores their particularized situations and struggles with the close attention that other writers reserve for the lives of yuppies or the bourgeoisie — in this way she is far closer to a writer like Alice Munro or Sandra Birdsell than to Margaret Atwood or Mavis Gallant.

9In some of the stories which make up this collection, actual photographs function as starting or focal points. But other stories transmit to the reader the verbal equivalents of what Barthes calls "studium" and "punctum": studium referring to the general element of cultural participation in the scene, and which affects us on the "tame” order of liking; and punctum, which belongs to the "mad" or ecstatic order of loving, and which admits intense delight or pain, since its function is to break the studium. Punctum is the unintentional element, the chance detail "which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces" the viewer with "its pure representation" of event and time that have been (CL 26, 96). Thus, for example, the studium in the story "For Puzzled in Winsconsin" — the whole socio-cultural field of a holiday lodge up north — is disrupted by the detail with which the story ends, a woman's hand on her husband's chest, as she touches the "wide, jagged white scar... which glistened and bulged in the yellow kitchen light, stretched taut... as if the skin couldn't take much more" (p. 85).

10Throughout this collection there are moments when Wallace's various narrators become photographers, as if voice becomes camera; seeing and speaking, one act. Thus Katherine in "Heart of My Heart" sees the lover to whom she is talking over the phone — sees him because circumstances have so conspired to produce this moment of immobility and Barthesian duality:

Now I just see Mike, dark and familiar, standing by the phone, which I imagine to be a plain black wall model, near the fridge. It's got one of those plastic memo pads beneath it and he's taken the pen from its holder, but he's not writing anything, he's just standing there... staring at the phone (pp. 13-14).

11Against the seemingly banal act of a man standing by a telephone is counterposed the singularity of his intention: "As if, if he keeps staring hard enough, he can will it not to ring" (p. 14). What the telephone's ringing will signify is the eruption of catastrophe into an ordinary day: its true referent is the telephone call Mike received some years ago, when the hospital rang with the news that his wife, who had only just stepped out to the corner store, had been killed by a drunk driver.

12At times this effect of duality is created by the technique of switching tense; the effect is to stop the "film" created by the narrative, and to introduce the immobility, flatness and silence Barthes attributes to the photograph: qualifies which allow that species of subversion which occurs "not when it frightens, repels or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks" (CL 38).

  • 4 Jill has appeared obliquely in a preceding story, "Tip of My Tongue"; her sister and cousin figure (...)
  • 5 Significantly she refuses to "cut the guy out of the picture and leave herself smiling, intact" (p (...)

13Pensive is perhaps the most appropriate description of "The Scuba Diver in Repose," a story which achieves the subversion of one of our most entrenched attitudes: "our mythic denial of an apprehension of death" (CL 32). The narrator, Jill Stewart4, has spent six months refusing to acknowledge her lover's terminal absence from her life: finally, violently, she gives in, screaming abuse at him and destroying every photograph she's taken of him or of the two of them together, "tearing them out of their frames and ripping them to little pieces" (p. 171)5 — even smashing her camera against a wall. Barthes would explain that these photographs are so intensely painful because "nothing in [them] can transform grief into mouming"(CL 90). The violence of Jill's action in destroying the photographs is in direct proportion to the violence of the photos themselves: the photograph is violent, Barthes insists, "not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed" (CL 91).

14And yet, Barthes suggests, the terrible "weight of the image" can be erased--not through indifference "but love, extreme love" (CL12). It is out of this extreme love that Jill, like the narrator of Camera Lucida, becomes involved with the search for "a just image, an image which would be both justice and accuracy" (CL 70) of the dead beloved. While her lover, Jimmie, was still in good health, Jill had created a series of "just images" of family, friends and acquaintances. Refusing to pose her models, to manipulate light and shade, and sticking firmly to her intention to shoot her subjects "when they were unrecognizable in all the usual ways" (p 177), Jill produces her best work ever: "It was a surprise, every time, what came up. And I began to see that very often people were most themselves when they didn't look it" (p 177). Likeness, Barthes insists, is what one doesn't want in a photographic portrait: we call something a 'likeness' because it conforms to what we expect of it whereas what we want is "a subject — in Mallarmé's terms — 'as into it-self eternity transforms it'" (CL 102-3). Many of the subjects of Jill's photographs do not recognize themselves — or are angry when the photographs force them to do so. Yet what she has so successfully done, Jimmie tells her, is to show up "all our secret and difficult and hard-to-get-at places. And then... [to] put us all together so that we have to see that each of us is like that. As different in ourselves as we are from each other..." (pp. 178-79).

15The most important photographic portrait Jill attempts is the one of Jimmie, whose real life, she tells us, consisted in the attempt to truly see whatever occupied his field of vision, a field rendered unstable, unpredictable by his scuba diver's 'underwater' perspective. In this photograph, she captures Jimmie

leaning on the windowsill of our apartment... looking down on something in the Street. I'd shot him from behind and to the side, so that you saw his profile, partly, and a scraggly halo of hair, his shoulders hunched as he leaned forward, his arms hanging over the sill. There was a stillness to it all that was more like movement, if you know what I mean. I don't think he knew I was taking the picture at the time, but that doesn't matter because whatever he was looking at was what mattered to him, all that mattered to him right then, and somehow I’d managed to get that in the picture (pp. 176-7).

16Some time after Jill destroys this photograph she receives what seems to be an earlier version of it, a snapshot taken by an amateur, a parent:

He looks to be about five here. It’s his birthday party and he’s just about to blow out the candies, leaning forward, his face partially hidden by the other kids, partially blurred by his own movement, intent on that (p. 191).

  • 6 Wallace twice quotes from Diane Arbus a phrase that illuminates this story like a lightning flash: (...)

17What is restored to her is not the lover she has lost, but "the truth of the face [she has] loved" (CL 67) in the form of something she has never seen before, but can instantly recognize6. The snapshot becomes an image of Jimmie's distinctive way of seeing, the peculiar intentness of his gaze. This doubling, whereby the original 'professional' photograph is shown to be, in fact, a belated version of the amateur snapshot, and whereby the effects of the destructive violence associated with death and grief are undone by an act of "common magic" — Jill's finding the snapshot in a birthday card sent her through the mail by Jimmie's parents — does not frame the events narrated in the story, but rather shoots out of them like Barthes' arrow. With the receipt of this artless snapshot cornes an understanding which floods the wound which the punctum of a child's blurred face has opened.

18Earlier, Jill had attempted to eradicate every trace of her dead lover by "shovell[ing] out" (p. 172) her apartment, and getting rid not only of the one piece of Jimmie's clothing she'd kept — a jeans jacket she occasionally wore to keep some trace of his physical presence with her — but also his scuba diving equipment, which has become merely a signifier of Jimmie's irremediable absence. Yet only when she has removed every familiar object or image connected with her lover can she recapture a sense of that "presence" of his which she’d captured in her own photo (p. 176). By this italicized word, presence, she means both Jimmie's intensity of experiential gaze, and his ability to make others pay the same rapt attention to their own perceptions.

19The importance of presence would seem to be under scored by the very transition of the text from past to present tense. One of the complexifies of "The Scuba Diver" has to do with how the narration of events, though moving us backwards and forwards from the opening sentence, appears to lock us into the past: thus from a point six months after Jimmie's death, we move to the moment in Jill's youth when she was first given a camera, then forward to her relationship with Jimmie through whose influence she makes photography her vocation, and finally to an account of Jimmie's illness and dying. Yet near the very end of the story we come upon a section which splinters the frame of time past: a section which moves us to a point in time subsequent to the events narrated at the story's beginning. In the last five pages of a twenty page story, we move forward — though the past tense is still employed — to a few months after the destruction of the photographs, when the narrator remembers how, on her first birthday without Jimmie, she'd lacked the courage to go to work and had, instead, taken to her bed. She then goes on to recall her first meeting with Tina, a neighbour who has since become as much of a friend as Jill will allow. In making an innocent remark about Jill's reputation as a photographer, Tina prompts Jill both to relate and to relive the trauma with which the story began:

the rampage, everything. I could feel the words spilling out from that same hot place inside my chest, getting bigger and hotter. But this time I was inside there, somehow, calling out (p. 190).

20Thereafter, Jill begins to really look at Tina, to see her as would a photographer, and as a viewer discovering the punctum of a photograph:

I could see Tina's face. It was all I could see and it seemed that everything was there. For a minute, everything sharpened up. She had a little splash of freckles around her left eye, sort of a half-moon as if someone had sprinkled cinammon there to emphasize her cheekbones (p. 190).

  • 7 These sections are marked by gaps rather than asterisks or numerals.

21The final section of the story7 begins in the present perfect and ends in the present, a significant shift from the pluperfect of the opening sentence. Yet Wallace ends "The Scuba Diver" with a passage combining past and future tense, in an image which summons both the wound of the punctum, and a possibility of healing change through "extreme love". Recollecting Tina's face, Jill relates:

That crescent of freckles, those beautiful bones. Right now, I can see them perfectly. Maybe not from now on, but right now, I can see them, perfectly. It hurts my eyes. Just as I know it will hurt my hand a little, the first time I touch her. The first time I take that face in my hands to tilt it, just so, into the light" (p. 192).

22Earlier, I suggested that Jill does erase the terrible weight of the image through her love, both for Jimmie, whom she finally concedes to be forever gone from her, and for Tina, whom she has just allowed into her life. I'd like to extend this suggestion by arguing that, through the use of photographic image and the punctum which creates in it a "blind field", giving the sense that the person who emerges from it continues living,"(CL 57) Wallace reintroduces, through narrative, the dialectic which Barthes had denied to the "intense immobility" of the photograph" (CL49). The photographic image cannot, he insists, be transformed but only repeated under our insistent gaze (CL 49). "And if dialectic is that thought which masters the corruptible and converts the negation of death into the power to work, then the photograph is undialectical: it is a denatured theatre where death cannot 'be contemplated', reflected and interioriz-ed..." (CL90).

23Yet it is the photograph of the five-year-old Jimmie which prompts Jill to move from grief to mourning, a condition that will permit her to start, once more, taking photographs. Or, more accurately, it is Jill's narration of the effect of this last photograph upon her that brings about the bouleversement of the events with which the story began. For though, as Barthes makes clear, the photograph cannot say what it lets us see (CL 5), I would argue that apt narration of a photograph can convey something that both disturbs and fills our sight: that concedes the fact that nothing the photograph offers can be refused, and yet insists that we, the listeners, can be transformed by it.

24To make this point more clearly, I want to turn to those passages of this story in which the snapshot of Jimmie is narrated. We have been prepared for the wounding effect of the snapshot by what we have been previously told of Jimmie's dying. Jill observes Jimmie alternately raging at and weeping with his family as though she is studying a series of photographs, registering the punctum of each--for example, the cornflowers embroidered on Jimmie’s mother’s apron, as Jimmie, who has just screamed abuse at her, "grabbed her around the hips and buried his face in her belly..."(p. 183). "Details like that. They filled up everywhere,"(p. 184). Jill spends hours in the garden, photographing an extravagance of bloom, in order, she tells us "to get my mind on things, on Jimmie. I was trying to focus. But... Jimmie kept shifting and fading, faster than I could keep up" (p. 185).

25What Jimmie is doing is to enter his dying:

He said that dying was a lot like being underwater — drifting, watching everything drift. He said it was like learning to breathe the first time you dived, how you had to trust the equipment, not be afraid of being underwater. That way you could pay attention to everything around you.... He kept trying to get me to understand. See what it was like.
And I tried, I really did. But he was dying and I wasn't. I saw his pain, I worried about making him comfortable.... I saw what the living see, I guess, as much as I could stand, and it was too much. I wanted it over.

26And then it was (p. 186) Jimmie dies peacefully, in his sleep, while Jill watches him slowly stop breathing. His absolute immobility makes her hold her breath, keep utterly still, even as "everything else started moving again" (p. 187). She tells us she is still holding her breath-afraid to try and really see; afraid to be anywhere but in Jimmie's past, and then attempting to destroy that past by ripping up the photographs which ratify its very existence.

27It is only when Jill looks at the snapshot sent by Jimmie’s parents, and recognizes the intensity of her lover’s gaze, that she perceives what, in his dying, he'd been trying to tell her:

You weren't paying attention. To us. Anymore. You'd already moved on to check out something else, over there, you were already moving through it.... When you surfaced, it was only for a moment... and it was up to us to be there, ready. To say what we had to say, to do it, alone, with you, for the last time.

28That is what you gave us, what we saw, each of us, in our own way (p. 191).

  • 8 This action of taping the photo to the wall recalls Barthes's emphasis on the fragile materiality (...)

29This fierce paying attention--and equally important, this "moving through" — is the gift Jill is finally able to take from her lover. In a reversal of her previous anger, she takes the snapshot — "right now... the only one I have in the world" — and carefully tapes it to the wall (p. 191)8. And she completes the action by thinking of how she will photograph Tina's face. For unlike Barthes, who dismisses the photographer as a mere operator, privileging the viewer's relation with the spectrum, Bronwen Wallace insists on the convergence of operator, viewer and spectrum in one concentrated moment of paying attention, and of producing from this intentness of vision something lasting enough that it can have a transformative effect on others.

30One of the most moving passages in Camera Lucida has to do with the Chemical and physical procedures operative in photography--the action of light on certain substances, so that

[t]he photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will reach me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed (CL 80-1.).

31I have been talking for the last half hour of photographic images referred to in a narrative which, however it uses sign or image, is still constructed of language and thus cannot, in Barthes' terms, "ratify what it represents". No writing, he says, can give us the certainty of the photograph, attest to the fact that "what I see has indeed existed..." (CL 82). Yet it seems to me that even though language is by nature fictional, the voice which speaks through certain forms of narrative has in it some grain of the actual, is that "emanation of the referent" which Barthes so cherishes in photography. And that while, as Barthes argues, photographs cannot restore what has been taken away from us forever, narrative can, in making us not only see but also hear, provide that connection between the dead whom we, living, cherish and mourn.

32Can we say that Barthes himself acknowledges this by the very fact that, instead of staying locked in his room, silently poring over his beloved photographs, he has narrated to us his passionate engagement with the magic they perform? Part of that magic is something he calls the "air" — the expression or look — of the photographic subject. "The air," he says

is a kind of intractable supplement of identity, which is given as an act of grace, stripped of any 'importance'... In this veracious photograph, the being I love, whom I have loved, is not separated from itself: at last it coincides. And, mysteriously, this coincidence is a kind of metamorphosis... Thus the air is the luminous shadow which accompanies the body... It is by this tenuous umbilical cord that the photographer gives life; if he cannot... supply the transparent soul its bright shadow, the subject dies forever.(CL, 109-10).

  • 9 Constance Rooke, Fear of the Open Heart. Toronto: Coach House 1989.

33This air, I would suggest, is also the air of narrative, the very sound of 'air', encoded, as it were, in the longer word. I would like to end this paper with a reference to the "bright shadow" with which this story is imbued--the shadow of its dying author. For this story, which deals so movingly with a woman grieving over her lover's death, expresses my own grief at its author's dying, as well as that author's own farewell to her art, to her life, to the vision she related so stubbornly and with such integrity to the vulnerable, resilient, perishable human body. And this raises questions of how we read both image and narrative, when our reading takes place in an emotionally charged context: when we read, as critic Constance Rooke describes, with an "open heart"9 as well as with an interpretative, analytical eye. This is particularly important when the text in question deals with the subjects of death and dying. The intensity of our response to such a text will have to do with our recognition that in it "[our] own death is inscribed" (CL 93). I do not think it amiss to acknowledge that my reading of "The Scuba Diver in Repose" shortly after Bronwen's death, and my present analysis of the story here, several years on from that death, are inflected by my sense that this last story of hers is not only a product of her art, but is also produced by magic. To adapt Barthes' words, in reading Bronwen Wallace's last narrative, I have seen in it not a "copy" of reality, but "an emanation of past reality "(CL 88) — the intractable process of her dying, and the transforming gift of her meditation on her own impending death. If Barthes at last found that true image of his dead mother which "led [him] to that cry, the end of all language: There she is!", then in this story of Bronwen's, I and any reader who encounters it can find that voice, "that intractable supplement of identity" which is the one thing that can console us for her irremediable absence among us.


List of Abbreviations for Texts Cited

P: Bronwen Wallace. People You'd Trust Your Life To. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.

SP: Bronwen Wallace. The Stubborn Particulars of Grace. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1987.

CL: Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography tr. Richard Howard. New York: Noonday Press, 1981.

SS: Valerie Shaw. The Short Story: A Critical Introduction. London: Longman, 1983.


1 For those unfamiliar with the work of Bronwen Wallace, a few words of introduction will be in order. The author of four books of poetry: Bread and Chocolate/Marrying into the Family [with Mary di Michele] (1980) Signs of the Former Tenant (1983) Common Magic (1985) and The Stubborn Particulars of Grace (1987) she has been acclaimed by such canonical figures as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Dennis Lee for the power and unblinking intelligence of her work. More than most literary writers, she is known outside academe: People You'd Trust Your Life To was, for many months after its publication, on the Canadian bestseller list. Wallace can be placed within a group of Canadian writers who, although they began their careers as poets, and may occasionally return to that medium, have 'lit out" for the territory of prose: not only Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, but Jane Urquhart, Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt and John Steffler, to name only a few. In Wallace's case, this would seem to have been a logical shift, for her poetry is characterized by an over-whelming narrativity rather than any lyric bent. This is not to say that her poetry is prosaic, for she makes complexly patterned use of anecdote, speech rhythms and passionate argument, and her images--which often have the sudden, startling effect of shooting stars--are all the more memorable for their rarity.

2 Although Jill is never presented as a theorist of her art, and Wallace is at pains to show her as feeling herself to be on the same level as, rather than superior to, the subjects she photographs, we do learn that she is familiar with the work of Diane Arbus and Jacques-Henri Lartigue; she is no idiot savant of the camera.

3 One of the most eloquent, perhaps, is that drawn by Henry James writing in 1888 to Robert Louis Stevenson: "I want to leave a multitude of pictures of my time, projecting my small circular grame [the lens of the camera obscura] upon as many different spots as possible"(quoted in SS, 12).

4 Jill has appeared obliquely in a preceding story, "Tip of My Tongue"; her sister and cousin figure in other stories in this collection.

5 Significantly she refuses to "cut the guy out of the picture and leave herself smiling, intact" (p 171): one of the reasons for this, we learn, is that Jimmie's dying has "displaced" her from the centre of his life, turned her into "one of those guests at some big do who isn't really a central figure, someone you don't care about, whether they're in the frame or not" (p 183).

6 Wallace twice quotes from Diane Arbus a phrase that illuminates this story like a lightning flash: "It's what I've never seen before that I recognize"(p. 182).

7 These sections are marked by gaps rather than asterisks or numerals.

8 This action of taping the photo to the wall recalls Barthes's emphasis on the fragile materiality of photographs which "belong to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape... desire and its object..." (CL, 6).

9 Constance Rooke, Fear of the Open Heart. Toronto: Coach House 1989.


University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993

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