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  • Figuring Musical Motifs and Textual Polyphony in Nancy Huston's Prodige: Polyphonie
  • Patrice J. Proulx

Nancy Huston, originally from Calgary, Alberta, has been living in Paris and writing in French for nearly four decades.1 During this time, she has become increasingly well known in France and abroad for a thought-provoking textual production that testifies to her interest in experimenting with generic and narrative form and includes novels, plays, essays, literary criticism, and children's stories, as well as two volumes of correspondence. Throughout her works, Huston has been engaged in a critical questioning of the complex relationship between women and the artistic vocation, focusing in particular on issues surrounding the thematics of pro/creation2 and of mother-daughter relationships. In La Virevolte (1994), for example, the protagonist must ultimately choose between her family and her career as a dancer, while in Instruments des ténèbres (1996), the protagonist - whose mother had been a talented violinist forced to renounce musical performance after marriage - refuses maternity in order to devote herself to her writing. The figuring of musical motifs and female protagonists as musicians provides an additional point of intersection between many of Huston's texts, [End Page 179] including Les Variations Goldberg (1981), Huston's very first novel, and Prodige (1999), written nearly two decades later. Les Variations Goldberg, like Johann Sebastian Bach's composition of the same name, is comprised of 30 variations and two arias, and the musical variations correspond to personal reflections made by a diverse "cast of characters" listening to a harpsichord recital of this piece performed by protagonist Liliane Kulainn. David Powell cogently describes the foundational nature of music in Huston's work as a whole, calling attention to the critical significance of her innovative narrative forms: "Ses récits constituent un tour de force magistral où, grâce à des renvois musicaux, l'on peut voir s'enchevêtrer de nombreux fils narratifs. Avec chaque nouveau texte, elle fait comprendre d'une façon pénétrante et en variant constamment son expression musico-littéraire la complexité de cette polyvalence métaphorique" (113). In this essay, I plan to examine the importance of music as a leitmotif and a structuring device in Prodige, looking specifically at the ways in which multiple narrative voices are used to provide an intimate portrait of the main characters through the inscription of their individual reflections on life and on artistic inspiration.

Prodige,3 while reprising many of the same themes of artistic creation to be found in Les Variations Goldberg, does so through a less rigidly structured narrative form in which the time frame itself is more fluid and open-ended. Again, however, the emphasis remains on the way in which music structures the lives of the characters, as the text limns the personal relation of each character to the creative process. Huston's novel, which bears the subtitle "polyphonie," is constituted of eight narrative voices that intertwine and play off one another, while at the same time maintaining their individual identities throughout the narrative.4 Anne-Rosine Delbart, in an insightful discussion of Huston's use of polyphony as a lyrical and structural element in her text, underscores the salient link between musical and narrative form, positing that: "Par son [End Page 180] sous-titre Polyphonie le roman Prodige propose donc explicitement un concert de voix dont un deus ex machina (l'auteur) gérerait les interventions à la manière d'un chef d'orchestre désignant les instrumentistes ou . . . d'un metteur en scène réglant les entrées et les sorties des acteurs" (51).5 As in a polyphonic musical composition, various motifs become established as the text progresses, and certain voices resonate more strongly at different narrative moments.6 The following passage, in which one of the characters traces out the unfolding of a musical fugue, emblematizes the multi-layered texture of the novel itself: "et puis les différentes voix qui débarquent les unes après les autres et se mettent à danser entre elles, à faire des trilles et des accords, ça devient plus fort, elles insistent, chacune veut avoir son mot à dire" (132).

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