Joseph Blanchard’s ‘Confessions’ leaves many questions
“And then I tell her.” With these words Ian Colford’s new novel, an agonized expression of love and lust delivered by a man deep in pain, comes to a stop. A stop, not an end, for the end is gestured to in the opening pages, but almost immediately thrown into doubt.
The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard starts with a letter, written in 2018, from a lawyer in Victoria, B.C., to an archivist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. It accompanies a found manuscript, apparently the book in our hands. Readers will have to decide if the manuscript was written by Blanchard at his residence, where he went to decline, or if it’s a reimagining of part of his life by a visitor, an occasional short story writer who is the lawyer’s dead aunt and was a work colleague of Blanchard’s, one whom he barely noticed. Sounding much like a defendant’s advocate, the lawyer says, “I don’t know how much responsibility my aunt bears for the creation of this document,” a blatant appeal for leniency. The aunt and Blanchard aren’t off the hook so much as less securely on it.
The novel is about sex and guilt, and then there’s the plot. In Halifax in the early 1970s two figures fall in love: Blanchard, age 37 or thereabouts, and Sophie, his first cousin’s 19-year-old daughter, a pianist who, if you’re of the mind to think fictional characters can live lives beyond the final page, has, as the expression goes, a bright career ahead of her. The guilt stems from Blanchard’s worrying away at the issue of incest (though he doesn’t always believe their blood closeness qualifies as that) and his regret that he’s betrayed the trust placed in him by Sophie’s mother and father. He wonders how they can be open about their relationship without hurting her parents, who are his closest friends, and offending society.
Blanchard is smart enough to be an accountant, but he can’t see how kinship works throughout the world. Would Nova Scotia (or any place) have any population without close relatives getting married or just producing children? When they’re in bed he forgets his qualms since no other woman he’s met acted so lustily towards him. I balked at the notion that this relationship is tainted, for I can count on the six fingers of my left hand how many marriages have close sanguinity without adverse consequences. What’s also difficult to ignore and might be hard for some readers to nod in agreement with is that this tale is, in large part, a male fantasy. Sophie’s happiness at being with a man nearly twenty years her senior who’s not handsome or creative is not entirely credible. She asks little for herself, doesn’t get pregnant, and doesn’t ask for marriage. How convenient. It would be somewhat less fantastic if Blanchard simply enjoyed a fling with a nubile blonde without care of appearances. After all, it is the 1970s.
Almost inevitably, we come to the issue of time travel, as the novel describes actions and places from half a century (and more) ago. Here I have my own confession. The letter at the opening raised the hope that this would be an epistolary novel or at least contain a healthy dose of Modernism. Disappointment reigned in my household from page 9 to the end. What Colford has provided is another historical-realist novel, the kind so beloved in traditional and conservative CanLit.
It has the features of English-language fiction up to 1910. The novel has four parts, something like volumes of novels in Victoria-Edwardian fiction, with no rationale for these divisions. It’s not a separation that Blanchard’s fustian style discusses. (I’ll call it Blanchard’s because, for the reasons mentioned above, I’m not convinced a woman had any hand in this novel.)
The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard contains tired and recognizable themes that are related in lifeless sentences. We require literary fiction to do and tell us things in new ways. What invention does this novel contain? I can’t find anything not seen many times before. Colford says in the Acknowledgements that he “began working in this novel in 1994.” The age shows.