Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119
Marie-Claire Blais (blay) was born on October 5, 1939, in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, the first of five children of Fernando and Veronique Notin Blais. She began writing at the age of ten, an obsession that was discouraged both at home and at school. As the oldest child in a large working-class family, she was burdened by the need to help her family financially. She began her secondary education at a Catholic convent school but left at the age of fifteen, at her parents’ request, to attend a secretarial school. From the age of fifteen to age eighteen, Blais worked as a stenographer for many different employers. Writing, though, was her passion and solace, and she continued to work in the evenings at her parents’ home, which was always crowded and noisy. At nineteen, Blais moved to a rented room in Quebec City. She studied French literature at the Université Laval, reading Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, and the Surrealists and Symbolists, such as Arthur Rimbaud. She also made the acquaintance of Jeanne Lapointe and Père Georges-Henri Lévesque, both of whom would be instrumental to the success of her literary career.
Lévesque was impressed with Blais’s early stories and urged her to continue writing. Blais completed La Belle bête (1959; Mad Shadows, 1960), and through Lévesque’s influence and belief in her promise as a writer, Blais’s controversial novel was published in Canada. Because she was so young at the time of her first success, Blais was considered something of a precocious schoolgirl. Mad Shadows elicited both admiration and outrage in Quebec. A nightmarish fable, the violent emotions of envy and hatred and the consequences of the failure of maternal love are vividly dark and poetic. Tête blanche (1960; English translation, 1961) is another story embracing the theme of a childhood of isolation and despair, told in rich, poetic language.
Blais received a fellowship from the Conseil des Arts du Canada in 1960 and spent the following year in Paris, where she continued her education through literature and film. In 1962, she returned to Quebec and completed Le Jour est noir (1962; English translation published in The Day Is Dark and Three Travelers: Two Novellas, 1967). In 1963, with the support of the highly respected American critic Edmund Wilson, she was awarded the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships, which allowed her to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she lived and wrote for several years. While in Massachusetts, Blais wrote Les Voyageurs sacrés (1966; English translation published in The Day Is Dark and Three Travelers: Two Novellas), an attempt to combine music, poetry, and sculpture. L’Insoumise (1966; The Fugitive, 1978) chronicles the disintegration of a family; David Sterne (1967; English translation, 1973), influenced by her feelings about the Vietnam War, is a cry against violence. Neglected by critics, these novels reflect the troubled decade of the 1960’s, a time when Blais’s vision moved from the tormented inner world to the outside political and social realm.
In Cambridge, Blais met the painter Mary Meigs. A deep friendship developed, and Blais moved to Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to form a community with Meigs, who was living with her companion Barbara Deming. Meigs’s lifestyle and work were to have a profound effect on Blais; at the refuge in Wellfleet, she produced Une Saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel (1965; A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, 1966). Translated into thirteen languages, it established her international reputation and was considered her most original and important work. It is a bleak, often humorous story about the lives of damaged children in church-dominated, impoverished, rural Quebec, and in 1966 Blais was awarded both the Canadian Prix-France Quebec and the French Prix Médicis for A Season in the Life of Emmanuel.
She received critical acclaim again in 1969, when she won her first Governor-General’s Literary Award and Livres et Auteurs Canadiens magazine’s Best Book Award for Manuscrits de Pauline Archange (1968; The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange, 1970). During the same year, she published her play L’Exécution (pb. 1968; The Execution, 1976).
Deeply troubled by the Vietnam War, Blais and Meigs moved to France in 1971, where they lived for four years. Dividing her time between Montreal and Paris, Blais explored homosexual love as a literary theme. In Le Loup (1972; The Wolf, 1974), she explores love and cruelty in her young male characters’ homosexual relationships. She returned to the theme of homosexual love with Les Nuits de l’underground (1978; Nights in the Underground, 1979), in which she explores the sacred, self-liberating aspects of lesbian love.
During the 1970’s, Blais’s themes shift focus again, from the inner world of emotions and the suffering of individuals to the conflicts of national identity, long a struggle in provincial Quebec. While in France, she wrote Un Joualonais, sa joualonie (1973; St. Lawrence Blues, 1974); it is written in joual, Montreal’s French street slang. She continued to explore these political themes in Une Liaison parisienne (1975; A Literary Affair, 1979). Le Sourd dans la ville (1979; Deaf to the City, 1980) earned Blais a second Governor-General’s Literary Award. Part poetry, part prose, it is another study of anguish and of art as a means of salvation. Continuing to move her vision outward and to combine poetry and prose, Blais produced Visions d’Anna: Ou, Le vertige (1982; Anna’s World, 1985). Another dark vision of the modern world, Pierre, la guerre du printemps quatre-vingt-un, appeared in 1984 (Pierre, 1993). Blais’s work centers on the complexity and inherent pain of human life as she searches for a vision of the ideal, exposing the harshness of the reality that she has lived and observed. Blais was awarded the Prix David in 1982 in recognition of the major contribution she has made to the literature of Quebec.
In 1989, Blais published L’Ange de la solitude (Angel of Solitude, 1993), in which she portrayed lesbian love. Then in 1995, she published Soifs (These Festive Nights, 1997), for which she received another Governor-General’s Award. This novel was the first work in her trilogy, which also includes Dans le foudre et la lumière (2001; Thunder and Light, 2001) and Augustino et le chur de la destruction (2005; Augustino and the Choir of Destruction, 2007).
Blais was chosen Cambridge International Woman of the Year (1995-1996) for her contributions to literature and creative writing. In 1997, she was the recipient of the American Biographical Institute Decree of International Letters for Cultural Achievement. In 1999, she received the Prix d’Italie, in 2000 the W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize, and in 2002 the Prix Prince Pierre de Monaco. In addition to her fictional works, she has published Parcours d’un écrivain: Notes américaines (1993; American Notebooks: A Writer’s Journey, 1996) and her autobiography Des Rencontres humaines (2002). Blais continues to be recognized as one of Canada’s most significant and talented writers and as a writer of international importance.
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