Blais, Marie-Claire 1939–
A Quebec-born French Canadian, now living in America, Mlle. Blais is the author of what Edmund Wilson called "unrelievedly painful" novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
[A] writer in a class by herself [, Marie-Claire Blais] has so far shown herself incapable of allowing life in French Canada to appear in a genial light or to seem to embody any sort of ideal.
Not that Mlle Blais is a realist. Her novels—and this, as I have said, is quite common in Canadian fiction—are not even localized in Canada. The only one that is given a definite setting [Les Voyageurs Sacrés] is supposed to take place in France. Yet these stories could hardly have emanated from any other country than French Canada. 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….
[The] novels of Marie-Claire Blais are the most unrelievedly painful that I remember ever to have read, and one questions, as in Thomas Hardy, the inevitability of so much pain….
Blais tends always toward images of desolation….
In reading the most recent works of Mlle Blais, one sometimes becomes a little annoyed by the solemn and portentous dialogue and a constant repetition of surnames that reminds one of Maeterlinck; and yet she has developed so fast—each of her books has been different from the one before—that she will no doubt soon have outgrown this….
What all of her works, however, do more or less have in common are the familiar Canadian themes of the fugitive or exile from society and the dislocated love affair. The figure of the priest is not present, and we hear nothing of the official cult; but Mlle. Blais has grown up in this cult, and the idea that man is born to sorrow, the agony of expiation, is at the base of her tragic consciousness. Yet her work has more than local interest. It is the refinement to a purer kind of poetry than that of the protesting patriots of the desperate cry that arises from the poverty, intellectual and material, the passionate self-punishing piety and the fierce defeated pride of Quebec.
Edmund Wilson, in his O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1964, 1965 by Edmund Wilson), Farrar, Straus, 1965, pp. 147-54.
Marie-Claire Blais's A Season in the Life of Emmanuel may seem at first to be another manifestation of the existential mood, this time in the form of a throwback to that turn-of-the-century preoccupation with the dehumanizing baseness of peasant life. But what she has written is a lyrical novel, quite free of the rhetoric her materials might invite.
Mlle. Blais's materials could hardly seem less promising: a French-Canadian family lost in poverty, over-burdened with children, nearly hypnotized by death and disease. Emmanuel is the newest child; the first inarticulate year of his life brackets Mlle. Blais's narrative. The true focus is upon four of the approximately sixteen children, Jean-Le Maigre, a precocious adolescent dying of tuberculosis; his larcenous protegé Fortuné-Mathais, known as Number Seven; Héloîse, who drifts from a convent to a brothel; and Pomme, who loses the fingers of one hand to a machine at the shoe factory. In the background are the inarticulate parents; in the foreground stands the remarkable Grandmère Antoinette, holding what of the family can be held together through a Canadian winter. Marie-Claire Blais's triumph is to use this dismal assemblage to conjure up a kind of dream….
Throughout the novel a peculiar radiance attaches itself to the characters. The dying dream of Jean-Le Maigre in Chapter IV and Héloîse's dream in the following chapter give both characters dimensions reaching beyond the grim reality of their lives. At its best, the novel transcends its material in much the same way that Faulkner turns death and decay into lyric poetry in sections of The Sound and the Fury….
In some stricter sense of an overused term, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a haunting novel. Marie-Claire Blais is the genuine article; a writer of original vision, a real loner.
A. Sidney Knowles, Jr., in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 831-33.
If we think it wrong to call "A Season [in the Life of Emmanuel"] a novel, we must also give up calling "The Manuscripts [of Pauline Archange"] a novel, for it is a tale, something spoken and heard, a story recited from a great distance in the history of human feeling. Its formative terms are not, indeed, place and time, society, manners and morals, Quebec or today; it lives upon ancestral memories, natural laws, primitive needs. The world it invokes is indeed temporal, but haggard with the weight of centuries, and wise after the experience of death.
Denis Donoghue, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 12, 1970, p. 35.
[One] Canadian novelist whose fiction is a fully dramatized art is Marie-Claire Blais…. [All] of Miss Blais's novels form a significant part of her art, though A Season in the Life of Emmanuel stands out as her masterpiece to date. The essential drama around which her writing turns is set forth in her first published novel, Mad Shadows (La Belle Bête). Scarcely a novel, Mad Shadows is a kind of grotesque fairy-tale whose plot focusses ultimately on the failure of maternal love. The central figure in the story is the ugly daughter who is rejected by her beautiful mother for her loathsome physical appearance. Out of desperate envy of his beauty, she scars her idiot brother's face and both children, now unloved by the mother, end their lives in madness and suicide. Maternal rejection is an obsessive theme in Miss Blais's writing and in A Season in the Life of Emmanuel its effect is central to a whole complex of miseries. In this story about a family of sixteen children the mother is an exhausted, shadowy figure, almost totally absent from the book. On the day of his birth Emmanuel cries for his mother, but he is told by the old grandmother that his mother has already gone back to the fields to work. The void created by the mother's absence defines the family drama of misery and despair; that void is brooded over by the formidable, larger-than-life figure of Grand-Mère Antoinette whose harshness and compassion are both idealized. From the viewpoint of the central consciousness, Jean-Le Maigre, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel might be seen as a kind of aborted Bildungsroman; but the book is never a memory novel, for the plight of the unhappy family, though narrated episodically, is relentlessly exposed as a continuous action in the present.
A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a particularly Canadian work of art for the sense of winter and of life's limitations (especially defined by poverty) are nowhere felt more strongly. Yet … these physical limitations serve to define the emotional deprivation that is being dramatized. That eroding sense of poverty is never externalized as a social issue, nor is the harshness of the Quebec landscape seen as an existentialist "condition." Rather, in the oblique and relentless manner of her writing Miss Blais remains faithful stylistically to the painful vision of her imagination and in so doing has created both a fully dramatic and genuinely Canadian work of art.
David Stouck, "Notes on the Canadian Imagination," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1972, pp. 9-26.