In Montreal, it is the women I always notice first. They are lithe, bold and astonishingly lovely. On the bicycle path, girls in tiny skirts float by, long hair curling, thighs spread, toenails polished. Necklines plummet and legs, shapely, tanned, long and beckoning, dazzle the boulevards. Even now, in the biting cold, the streets are filled with half-dressed beauties in shorts and diaphanous stockings. In the far-flung neighbourhoods, away from the escort agencies and strip clubs, restaurants de serveuses sexy are both naughty and workaday: ravenous men hunch over their breakfast specials while women, nude but for their clicking heels and a sheer scarf around their hips, wait tables.
‘Ours is not a landscape for the unassertive,’ writes Clark Blaise in his Montreal Stories. ‘Subtleties are easily lost.’
In a city creased with French–English fissures, seduction has become the default mode of communication. Montreal thrums with a youthful desire, a ferocity even. Among the circling staircases, summer swelter and delicate ornamentation, couples kiss and fight, and women swan in sweetness and in thrall.
Once I asked a friend, where do all the older women disappear to in Montreal? He looked surprised and then agreed that, yes, it was true, on the Plateau, no one ever seems to grow old.
Montreal thrums with a youthful desire, a ferocity even.
Do they vanish into their apartments, I wondered, do they somehow become – like novelist Lise Tremblay’s pianist in La danse juive, an obese woman, too ashamed to take part in the parade of life in a city where ‘fat women are clowns’ – invisible? I think of Nelly Arcan. In her final novel, Paradis, clef en main, a young woman fails at suicide. Paralyzed, oppressed by her mother’s beauty, she remembers her body, ‘ce que j’ai de mieux,’ long, thin legs which could ‘rendre fous de désir les hommes et folles de jalousie, ou de douleur confuse, les femmes.’ Arcan’s young women know that beauty and sexuality can bring them power, but what they cannot imagine are the qualities that will make them free.
Quebecers, people say, have always been more open and sexually adventurous than the rest of Canada. An old story persists here, one that revolves around les filles du roi, the young women sent to populate New France, their passage bankrolled by Louis XIV. Many Québecoise can trace their lineage to these impoverished girls, believed, in the popular imagination, to have been prostitutes. This detail is contested, but the story is a shorthand way of trying to explain – or perhaps highlight – the city’s sensuality, its devil-may-care attitude, which became big business during America’s Prohibition. Pleasure seekers found their way north, basking in the heat of drinks and girls. Fifty years after the Quiet Revolution, this social awakening is not merely celebrated but is a cornerstone of Montreal’s identity. ‘You are a woman,’ Montreal proclaims, ‘and you are liberated!’
Summer is fleeting here. Before the cold comes, with its formless winter coats and strangling scarves, one must act and act decisively.
‘I was a whore before I was one,’ Arcan writes. ‘Just one day in that room was enough to convince me that I’d done it all my life.’ In her third novel, she coined the phrase, ‘la burqa de chair,’ the burqa of the flesh, of the body. When she died in 2009, a suicide at the age of thirty-six, this city lost one of its most provocative and disturbing writers. I mourn, like many others, the stories she might have written later in life, as she grew older, as life changed. Maybe the novelist Réjean Ducharme, in his seminal novel, L’avalée des avalés, describes our conflicted desires best: ‘I don’t want to feel, I want to act. I don’t want to endure, I want to strike. I don’t want to suffer.’
I’ve never lived in a place so beautiful and yet so strangely sad. This week, the province is debating Bill 94, a ban against wearing the niqab while accessing or dispensing government services (things like education and health care), the first such ban to be proposed in Canada. ‘Two words: uncovered face,’ the premier has said. I wonder where he hangs out because, in my six years of living in this province, I have never once seen a woman wearing a niqab.
Meanwhile, the young people stay for a few years and then leave to go to cities with better economies, better jobs. The colleges are endlessly full of the newly free, the just awakening. On their brief visits, tourists remember the feeling of what it was to be twenty-one: all the mistakes they made, all the heartache, all the dizzying transgressions.
Montreal is a good city, a friend told me, to begin making art but if you want to push yourself, you have to go away. Maybe art and sexuality have this question in common: what happens to us after liberation? What path will we choose once the seduction is finished? It’s not only darkness that hides a city and makes it fade, but light, too. In Blaise’s story ‘Translation’ an older woman hovers, sublime, over a man, just before pleasuring him. ‘You were a Québec Catholic once,’ she says. ‘Remember the consolations of melancholy.’ Afterwards, he believes that he would have given away his soul for just ten or fifteen minutes of this intense, fleeting sensation, this transient beauty.