Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Why do we create narratives for ourselves? How do we define who we are through story? Nancy Huston’s Instruments des Ténèbres takes this idea and pushes it about as far as it can go…initially, by giving us a narrator who is actually a writer, whose daily business it is to create a narrative, create a series of characters and give them life. But later, she reworks this same idea into the entire construct of the novel, bringing the novel’s two stories together so they become one complete work.

I use the word ‘work’ here on purpose. Narrator Nadia’s creation – her notes on her own life and the fictional story she creates for the reader in parallel – is a process, un vrai travail, a labor. In essence, Nadia undertakes a painstaking restoration of herself. In the beginning of the novel she admits she is no longer Nadia, but Nada. A nothing, a no one. Through her work, the creation of her Sonate de la Résurrection (a title which alludes to rebirth and transformation), she does the hard work of not only fictional creation, but the re-location/definition/creation of herself.

As I mentioned before, there are two stories – called, respectively, Le Carnet Scordatura and the Sonate de la Résurrection. For the first, she explains that scordatura is a musical term for dissonance but that its root, scordare, means to forget – so, on the one hand this notebook is Nadia’s claim to otherness, her assertion of herself as an element of discord, but at the same time, it’s her method of forgetting, of moving away from the past. The second story, set in France in the 1600’s, is an intensely beautiful story of a set of twins, Barbe and Barnabé.  

One of the aspects of this book that struck me from the beginning is Nadia’s voice. In the first few pages, as she introduces herself to the reader, she is both compelling and repulsive. A dangerously bitter woman:

…la haine est une de mes grandes et belles spécialités intimes, mon coeur renferme toute une université qui n’enseigne que la haine, propose des séminaires en haine avancée, distribue des doctorats en haine.

[…hate is one of my greatest and most beautiful secret talents, my heart houses an entire university which teaches only hate, offers lectures in advanced hate, gives out PhDs in hatred.]

Yet the reader is wise to be wary of her claims – she admits she has a penchant for exaggeration and lying. She claims apathy for all things beautiful and an indifference to love, friends and family. But as soon as she opens her other notebook – the Sonate – and begins her creative work, the story of Barbe and Barnabé, the reader slowly comes to see the cracks in that other voice. This is the same narrator, but she depicts these twins with an incredible gentleness and love. And as she returns to her Carnet, she isn’t able to leave that other narrator’s voice completely behind and suddenly we start to see her who she really is – this is the first clue of how she bridges these two seemingly disparate narratives. Slowly, this mingling of Nadia’s voice intensifies as the novel lengthens and eventually not only Nadia as a narrator can be detected inside the story of Barbe and Barnabé but suddenly, and quite cleverly, Barbe and Barnabé (as symbols, if you will) become the main focus of Nadia’s modern-day narrative.

This is a book which begs to be read and re-read, it contains quite a lot – religion and trauma and loneliness, a reflection on writing process and the catharsis found in writing, in history’s continual influence on the present. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Lastly, for anyone interested, Instruments des Ténèbres was translated by Huston as Instruments of Darkness.


7 Responses to “Nancy Huston – Instruments des Ténèbres”

  1. Steph

    Love the quote, and I’m intrigued! I will definitely seek this one out (and if I’m feeling adventurous, I might even do so in French!). Have you read anything else by Huston?

  2. Stefanie

    This sounds good. I am glad you mentioned it has been translated. I was beginning to worry I was going to have to learn French, a language I tried once and failed at miserably. Of course I was also learning German at the time, but still. 🙂

  3. ds

    This does sound interesting; metafiction with a (French)twist. Would it be available here in the States?

  4. Care

    Yes, I am interested. I was afraid you were going to tell me to learn French first – I’m glad I can get it in English. 🙂 I actually identify with the theme – not the hatred part, but the idea of writing a story about writing a story and how it all intersects. And maybe the exaggeration, too.

  5. Pete

    This looks like a fascinating book and I like the focus on how people construct themselves through narratives. That’s a lovely quote about hatred as well, and I’m intrigued to know more about those instruments of darkness.

  6. verbivore

    Steph – No, this was my first Huston, but I’ll be lining up her novels now to consider reading her complete works.

    Stefanie – I know I sometimes forget to check whether a book has been translated or not before I post about it, but this time I remembered! And I’m actually very curious to read the translation alongside the original, supposedly she does some ‘rewriting’ when she translates her own work.

    ds – I’m pretty sure it’s easily ordered on Amazon or powells and it may even be easy to find in a used book store.

    Care – I agree, I really enjoyed how she wrote about writing and what that process did for her own transformation. I’d love to know what you think of this book if you do get a chance to read it.

    Pete – The musical theme was really strong in the novel, and this idea of music and discord and how people can be instruments in a non-musical way – very interesting stuff.

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