This piece originally appeared in issue 83 of Canadian Notes & Queries under the title "Half In Love With Death."
Viktor Frankl, founder of the Viennese school of existential psychotherapy called "logotherapy," wrote that
happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to "be happy." Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.
There is just such an existential void at the core of Exit (Paradis, clef en main, 2009, ably translated by David Scott Hamilton), Nelly Arcan's final novel. Antoinette Beauchamp, who narrates from her hospital bed—left paraplegic after a failed suicide attempt involving a guillotine—has spent her entire life unhappy, dominated by a superficial mother, teased at school, and close to no one but an uncle called Léon, the son of a suicide, himself possessed by a powerful desire to die. Her uncle eventually succeeds in ending his life with the help of Paradis, clef en main, a shadowy company devoted to aiding those determined to commit suicide. As a parting gift, Léon arranges for Antoinette's own assisted suicide to be paid for, should she ever want it.
It's little wonder Antoinette is dissatisfied with life; she has never had a reason to be happy. But Arcan blasts many of the usual assumptions about why people kill themselves. Antoinette has pain in her past, as we all do, but nothing unusual or extreme, and there is no acute trauma causing her death wish. Antoinette is not a coward, afraid of life, and though dominated by her mother, she is not weak. Neither is she particularly selfish, as is often remarked of suicides. Arcan was not a writer to allow easy assumptions to take root, and Antoinette's voice is sophisticated enough to represent suicide as an emotionally and philosophically complex idea.
Antoinette's suicidal ideation is abstract, existential, tied not to events but to the weight and solidity of life itself, which she sees as "a grey brick wall, a view offered to an absence of opening, the lack of a horizon." This wall has no explanation: "I have never known why. No one has ever been able to tell me why." Pain, or even events that cause pain, would be a different thing from Antoinette's depression, because that would carry meaning, and it's that very lack of meaning that oppresses her.
It is to Arcan's credit that Exit doesn't collapse under the weight of Antoinette's angst and frustration. She is actually quite a charming narrator, and at times the novel takes on a quality of the absurd as she relates the surreal cloak-and-dagger escapades she endures to engage the services of Paradis, clef en main. When Antoinette is told how the company was founded, Arcan layers it with a satire of medicine's obsession with the health of the body at the expense of what is best for the soul in a way that's reminiscent of Robertson Davies, though considerably darker. The tone of Exit moves smoothly across a spectrum rather than being a balancing act between extremes, never getting bogged down or letting the reader get too comfortable with any one way of looking at or feeling about Antoinette's longing for death.
Arcan's first novel, Whore (2004, published in French in 2001 as Putain), an intense pseudo-stream of consciousness narrative about a Montréal prostitute calling herself Cynthia, was semi-autobiographical, and leaned heavily on an antagonistic relationship between the narrator and her distant mother. Antoinette and her mother have a similar relationship in Exit, which would in itself be enough to lure readers and critics into speculating about the relationship between the author's life and her work. It would be difficult to say anything at all about Exit without noting that Arcan took her own life only days after completing the manuscript. It seems insufficient to name it a tragedy, as it surely was for those close to her, just as it was also a great loss for Canadian letters. But the manner of her death, as Marianne Ackerman noted on a Montréal website called The Rover, was not inconsistent with either her art or her own search for meaning as she had articulated it elsewhere. Ackerman quotes a column of Arcan's in which she wrote,
Life belongs to the person who lives it. And if it's true that suicide is a terrible legacy that should absolutely be prevented from happening, it's also true that not wanting to make the people around you suffer is no good reason, at least in the long term, to live.
Unlike her creator, Antoinette chooses to live. What she doesn't do, ever, is suggest it's not a choice she has the right to make. What Antoinette takes, and what Ackerman (rightly, I believe) suggests Arcan took back, is control over her choices. Exit is a powerful, at times beautiful, rumination on how limited that control can be, on how we go about looking for meaning, and the complexities of where we find it, whether in big things, like reconciliation with a dying mother, or small ones, like the responsibility of caring for a kitten. It isn't always happiness, but it is something, and as Viktor Frankl wrote, "he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how."