Books·How I Wrote It

Kevin Lambert's novel Querelle of Roberval is an erotically tragic look at class struggle and sexual politics

Querelle of Roberval is a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The $60,000 prize recognizes the best in Canadian fiction.

Querelle of Roberval is a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

A composite of a gray book cover with yellow text next to the book's author, a sandy haired 20something man.
Querelle of Roberval is a book by Kevin Lambert, pictured, and translated from French into English by Donald Winkler. (Biblioasis, Gregory Augendre-Cambron)

Kevin Lambert is a writer from Quebec. Originally from the Chicoutimi borough of Saguenay, his fiction focuses on sexual politics and class struggles.

Lambert's first novel, Tu aimeras ce que tu as tué, published in French, was a finalist for France's Prix Médicis. It was published in English as You Will Love What You Have Killed. His second French-language novel, Querelle de Roberval, won the prix Ringuet from the Académie des Lettres du Québec, France's Prix Sade and was shortlisted for both Le Monde's literary prize and the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal.

Translated to English by David Winkler, Querelle of Roberval reimagines the late French novelist and playwright Jean Genet's antihero of the same name in the 1947 novel Querelle de Brest. Querelle of Roberval involves a young person named Querelle who moves to the northern Quebec lumber town of Roberval and sets off a chain of events involving sex, passion and violence during a millworkers' strike.

Querelle of Roberval is a finalist for the 2022 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The $60,000 award recognizes the best in Canadian fiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022.

Lambert spoke with CBC Books about writing Querelle of Roberval.

Found in translation

"I worked closely with Donald Winkler for his English-language version of this book. Not much was lost in translation. It was weird, it felt like I was meeting my book in another dimension. But even in this other dimension, it's still the same. I could still hear the original voices of my characters.

Not much was lost in translation. It was weird, it felt like I was meeting my book in another dimension.

"I found it very interesting in that I could find the voices of the characters even in another language. I know it's a common thing about translation that you're not supposed to hear the original language.

"But I found the musicality and the rhythms of these regional French characters felt the same."

A great inspiration

"Jean Genet is one of the first real writers that I read. I was in my early 20s. It was an important discovery, particularly his novels. His career is separated between writing novels and writing theatre. He writes marginalized people and queer characters in a way that make them feel sublime, almost divine.

"His writing style and structure mixes different levels of language with different levels of reality, often in the same sentence. I was enchanted by the themes and by how he portrayed queer characters with so much generosity and sacred admiration. This queer style — a precise and precious way of writing — affected me just as much as his characters.

What struck me the most was in how he writes marginalized people and queer characters in a way that that make them feel sublime, almost divine.

"But I don't see Querelle of Roberval as an homage. That word feels too clean and polite. The novel examines the seeds of meaning of that book and internalizes it to create a new work. Archaeologists sometimes find seeds that are 1,000 years old but they are still good — you can still plant them and they still grow.

"It's the same with creating writing based on older texts."

Culturally Quebec

"All of my books start from a political question. Querelle of Roberval is set in Quebec. It is about the landscapes and the geographies where I grew up. It's a place where many people work for these large multinational companies that exploit the local resources. It gives a weird atmosphere and structure because you never see the faceless bosses of these companies but everybody works for them.

In this story, there are no gods, but their fight against capitalism is as desperate as the fight of all classic tragic characters.

"I was interested in figuring out how one might fight against these structures — who is the enemy? The characters in the book go on strike to improve their working conditions. They think that their enemy is with their immediate boss. But they soon discover that it's much broader than this — the enemy is our social structures.

"That's why it's written as tragedy. Because in tragedy, characters fight against the gods. In this story, there are no gods, but their fight against capitalism is as desperate as the fight of all classic tragic characters."

LISTEN | Kevin Lambert discusses his literary success:

Québécois writer Kevin Lambert may only be 28 years old, but his dark novels have already made him an award-winning author. Lambert joins guest host David Common to discuss his recently translated debut novel 'You Will Love What You Have Killed' — and his newfound success.

Questioning queerness

"I wanted to question the relationship between patriarchy and homophobia. The working environment that Querelle is in is very macho, masculine and heterosexual. The heterosexual pact works by opposing homosexuality: if heterosexual workers want to joke and playfully slap a co-worker's behind, it only works if there is no desire or innuendo involved.

I wanted to question the relationship between patriarchy and homophobia.

"That's interesting to me; the heterosexual group dynamic needs to exclude homosexual groups to work. Adding the character of Querelle to this mix messes things up as he is passing as a homosexual male, which puts his sexual companions in a weird position.

"It forces them to consider what the sexual differences actually are — and provokes ideas around gender identity."

Message and meaning

Querelle of Roberval isn't about hope or morality. I wanted to create a sensation of resistance, or an ecstatic reaction, versus a boring message about 'we can change things if we all work together' or anything like that. Also, I hope readers discover a part of Quebec that is not the one often presented in fiction. 

I hope readers discover a part of Quebec that is not the one often presented in fiction.

"It's a book that can give complex and conflicting feelings. I wanted to write a book with different points of view and the reader is invited to the conflict.

"When you are in conflict, you get to find your own ideas — and form your own opinions in relation to the characters."

Kevin Lambert's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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