The Cycle


164 pages
ISBN 0-920428-90-8





Translated by A.D. Martin-Sperry
Reviewed by John Charles

John Charles was Rare Books Librarian at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.


Gerard Bessette’s novel is about the Barré family of Montreal. Norbert Barré, patriarch and insurance salesman, lies dead, and in seven chapters of stream of consciousness we learn the thoughts and feelings of his widow Vitaline, his five grown-up children, Roch, Anita, Berthe, Julie, and Gaetane, and his grandson Jacky, as they gather for the funeral.

“The home the family the only firm base the only real protection,” muses Vitaline. But another character disagrees: “There’s nothing more dangerous than the family.” As the novel unfolds Bessette’s view is evident: one never gets clear of family.

All seven chapters reveal stunted lives filled with frustration and resentment. Little Jacky’s obsession with bathroom needs, and his revenge fantasy of urinating on people, is mirrored in the sexual anxieties and fears of bodily functions which permeate the novel. Guilt toward the body, as instilled by the Catholic Church, is almost palpable as the family says their rosaries for Papa while their thoughts wander to sexual / power fantasies over those who dominate their lives. The repressive act of squeezing one’s thighs together occurs repeatedly.

Sooner or later they all think about Julian, the absent son — the favourite, the “unattainable untouchable model” who cast side the stifling role of perfect student to embrace Marxism with evangelic fervour. He now lives with his sluttish mistress Sophie. Julien represents the free life, which threatens the others. And their love for him muddies their feelings further. But when we read his stream of consciousness we see there’s no escape for him either. He’s tormented by guilt at leaving Papa and the family, and consumed by jealousy over Sophie’s possible infidelities.

As the author has a distinguished reputation, and this novel won the Governor General’s Award, it’s sad to report it’s probably the dreariest work in the entire canon of CanLit. Bessette treats his characters as lab animals who exist only to prove his dour thesis, and they remain one-dimensional and unconvincing, failing to evoke either compassion or interest. The literary technique he employs should bring us closer than dialogue would to the characters; instead, they’re presented identically in feverish extremes, and we never feel the surprises, ironies, or coincidences of real life — just the author’s insistent control.

Although no punctuation is used the thoughts fall into tidy sentences which is psychologically unconvincing. And phrases like stage directions are inserted — “tension uneasiness” “revulsion rancor” “sadness nostalgia” — to signal the emotion behind the thought. This proves clumsy, and underscores the author’s failure to create truly complex interior monologues.

Jacky’s opening sentences blatantly recall Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), and the ghosts of other innovative landmark novels loom uncomfortably throughout.


Bessette, Gerard, “The Cycle,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,