Marie-Claire Blais Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The power of Blais’s early fiction lies in her thematic obsession with the forces of evil and the suffering of children. Blais treats her characters with tenderness in their solitude, and they find, as she did in her own life, that art is the only escape from madness and death. Her writing has been characterized as bold and inventive, but her vision is profoundly bleak. Her work is in the tradition of the existentialists, who explore the consequences of psychological abandonment and abuse of the young as the crucible in which evil is created.

Her characters’ capacity for evil and cruelty, and particularly the pathological relationships between mothers and children, shocked critics in the late 1950’s. Although it was less of a sensation elsewhere, Mad Shadows, Blais’s first book, created a furor of both admiration and outrage in Quebec because of its macabre and violent story. The theme of both The Day Is Dark and a novella, La Fin d’une enfance (1961), is the suffering and powerlessness of children trapped in emotional and spiritual isolation, even when surrounded by family and dominated by the cult of religious authority. The overbearing influence of religion, always negative and suffocating, is perceptible in the lives of all Blais’s characters; the awakenings of adolescent sexuality, sensuality, and curiosity are the beginnings of an irrevocable “fall from grace.” Poor families, however devout, are overburdened with many children and live in depravity, lovelessness, and intellectual and creative starvation.

Her subsequent novels, especially A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, have been described as “typically Canadian” in their evocation of rural poverty and hopelessness, of the harsh northern winters, and in the sense of dislocation in a country populated by a defeated people. Her passionate, poetic voice is original in its relentlessly realistic exposure of a repressed, dispirited, and intellectually deprived underclass.

Although her first work was dismissed by many American critics as the exaggerated fantasy of an adolescent author, it was regarded as a great phenomenon in France. Edmund Wilson was responsible for bringing Blais to the American literary audience. The most ardent and outspoken of her American supporters, Wilson included Blais in his study O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture (1965):Mlle Blais is a true “phenomenon”; she may possibly be a genius. At the age of twenty-four, she has produced four remarkable books of a passionate and poetic force that, as far as my reading goes, is not otherwise to be found in French Canadian fiction.

Wilson wrote the foreword for A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, a disjointed, often humorous story with a constantly changing point of view about the material and emotional poverty of a large, Catholic, lower-class, Quebec farm family. All the children are devastated by the evil in the adult world. Their innocence is betrayed by predatory priests, and they are brutalized by their family and crushed by the dreary lives to which they are resigned.

Blais was disappointed when many reviewers of this novel focused on its bleakness and the depravity of its characters, missing its ironic humor. She treats her characters with tenderness as they struggle, some with great vitality and creativity, against the wretchedness of their lives. Her style is greatly influenced by the French Surrealists and Symbolists and was regarded as a great phenomenon by the French critics.

Deeply affected by the political climate in the United States during the Vietnam War, Blais found it troubling that people could not see or take action against the clear dangers arising in the world’s social conflicts and ecological disasters or the destruction of the earth. In the 1970’s, Blais’s landscapes changed from those of an undefined time and place to a world inhabited by real people who are struggling to find their vision in contemporary society. Her art is a prophetic cry for sanity and peace in a violent world.

During her time in France, Blais wrote two books exploring and celebrating homosexual love. The Wolf is a study of cruelty and love in male relationships, and Nights in the Underground concerns the sacred and self-liberating aspects of lesbian relationships. Blais drew her characters from life in the gay bars and the streets of Montreal and Paris. They live for love and sex and talk about both without inhibition or shame, celebrating this freedom in otherwise unhappy lives.

Moving further from the gothic inner world of Mad Shadows and some of her earlier works, Blais addressed the condition of Quebec as a “colony” of France and the need for a separate French Canadian national identity in St. Lawrence Blues. Written entirely in joual, a form of French street slang, St. Lawrence Blues is a satiric novel about an illegitimate orphan’s life among outcasts in Montreal’s down-and-out working class. Dedicated to the memory of Wilson, it was regarded by American critics as her best work to date when the English translation was published in 1974. Quebec critics were less impressed and were especially hostile toward her use of a literary form of joual as an expression of “nationalist pride.”

Deaf to the City is an observation of travelers and exiles suffering yet surviving through art. It is another experiment with language, written as a long paragraph in wild poetry and prose. Blais again fused these two styles in Anna’s World in the drugged, suicidal torment of a young woman living in an uninhabitable world. Blais’s vision of the world as a truly terrifying and desperate place is also the subject of Pierre, which was critically acclaimed.

In her trilogy consisting of These Festive Nights, Thunder and Light, and Augustino and the Choir of Destruction, Blais once again explores themes addressed in her earlier novels. Children damaged by lack of their mother’s love, the effects of overwhelming poverty, homosexual love, the anguish of living, and art as escape all appear in the novels. However, she also treats new themes, including lack of justice and capital punishment, the plight of women and nature, and animals as images of innocence and joy, as well as materialism as an escapist measure. The trilogy attests to Blais’s ability to create prose embodied with a poetic force that transforms it into a song.

Mad Shadows

First published: La Belle bête, 1959 (English translation, 1960)

Type of work: Novel

A surreal tale of tortured relationships between a mother obsessed with her son’s beauty and the unattractive daughter doomed by envy and the shallow nature of her mother’s love.

Mad Shadows, Blais’s first published work, created considerable controversy in Quebec. Many Canadian critics disliked it intensely; others thought it was astonishingly original and brilliant. Set in an unidentified time and place, the story begins on a train, as a young girl watches strangers become captivated by her brother’s beauty. The grotesque, erotic pleasure that the mother takes in her son’s physical beauty is matched only by her indifference toward her daughter, and it sets the tone for the tortured relationships that develop. In Mad Shadows, Blais explores what will become a theme in much of her later work: the creation of evil and the suffering of children caused by the failure of maternal love.

The world that Blais’s characters inhabit is dark and loveless. The first critics and readers were shocked by the utter depravity of the relationships between the mother, her lover, and her children and the starkness of the young author’s vision. Yet the power of her vision and poetic style were undeniable; she was awarded the Prix de la Langue Française from L’Académie Française for Mad Shadows in 1961....

(The entire section is 3298 words.)