Marie-Claire Blais Blais, Marie-Claire (Vol. 4) - Essay

Blais, Marie-Claire (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Blais, Marie-Claire 1939–

Mlle Blais is a French Canadian novelist, born in Quebec. Although her fiction is not localized in Canada, Mlle Blais employs the "painful vision of her imagination" to explore familiar Canadian themes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

In approaching the novels of Marie-Claire Blais, there is one widely current assumption that it is important to dismiss from one's mind: the supposition, that is, that her work has anything in common with that of Françoise Sagan…. Mlle Sagan is a highly sophisticated Parisian, who goes in for fast cars and destructive drugs and complicated love affairs…. Mlle Blais, on the other hand, comes out of a bleak bigoted Quebec and is not at home on the boulevards. Her fictions, up to [Une Saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel], have been usually obsessed and tormented dreams that took place—like a number of Canadian novels—in a never identified country. La Belle Bête, the first of her novels, published in 1959 (translated as Mad Shadows), is a kind of tragic fairy tale; Tête Blanche (translated with its French title) of 1960 is somewhat closer to a recognizable social world but it does not quite make connections with the probable behavior of such a world; Le Jour Est Noir of 1962 scarcely makes such connections at all: it is an agonizing phantasmagoria, full of ever-shifting nightmarish relationships that involve the desertion of children, the compulsive abandonment by a wife of her husband and the suicide, obscurely motivated, of another unhappy husband; Les Voyageurs Sacrés, which appeared in 1963 in the collection Écrits du Canada Français, though a narrative, is labelled "Poème," and rather resembles certain productions of Virginia Woolf's. This last has been, up to Emmanuel, the only one of Mlle Blais's books which was given a definite locale: it is supposed to take place in France.

But, now, in Une Saison dans la Vie d'Emmanuel, the writer has made a definite new departure. The clairvoyant's crystal ball that revealed the diminished, remote and somewhat mysterious visions englobed in the early novels has been suddenly darkened and filled with the turbid and swirling sediment of the actual French Canadian world—with the squalor and the squirming life that swarms in the steep-roofed cement-covered houses of the little Canadian towns…. Though the material of Emmanuel is that of an actual milieu in all its prosaic and sordid detail, it is not presented prosaically nor even, in spite of its horrors, sordidly, but infused—and sometimes a little blurred—by the fantasies of adolescence, saturated with the terrors and appetites, the starving and stifled aspirations of these young people in their prisoned overpopulated world…. Certainly, to the non-Canadian, the appearance of such a book as this—so far, it seems to me, much the best of Mlle Blais's novels and the best I have read from French Canada except some of those by André Langevin—would seem to show that French Canadian literature, after producing a good deal of creditable work of merely local interest, is now able to send out to the larger world original books of high quality.

Edmund Wilson, "Foreword" (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1966 by Edmund Wilson) to A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, by Marie-Claire Blais, translated by Derek Coltman, Farrar, Straus, 1966, pp. v-ix.

Marie-Claire Blais is a young French Canadian with some half dozen novels and a book of poems behind her. Her previous novel, A Season in the Life of Emanuel, has at its center an autobiographical sketch by a consumptive child whose writing is a cry of defiance against the misery of his life and the approach of his death. The manuscripts of a suffering child, a structural detail of that novel, are the sum and substance of its successor. The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange take us through memories of almost unmitigated horror rendered bearable, redeemed even, for us as for the novel's heroine, by the fluid, re-creative medium of her prose….

What Pauline remembers does not fall into a conventional plot or lend itself easily to summary. Her life is lived out in the mental and physical squalor of a French Canadian slum, under the tyranny of repressed, frustrated adults who visit their failures in blows upon their consumptive, lamed offspring. To survive is to escape, to rebel, above all, to avoid pity. Pity "stinks of death," and only leads to torture and rape of the victims it cannot help. Pauline writes her manuscripts because, as her family tells her, she "has no heart." Only at such a cost does she live and speak to us.

The novel has its faults. Some of the people we meet in Part 2 (published separately in French as Vivre! Vivre!) seem arbitrarily bizarre. And yet the novel's total effect, its strange world of suffering children preternaturally old, is so convincing that I am not sure that I would not reverse these judgments on another reading.

Daniel M. Murtaugh, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), November 13, 1970, p. 180.

Marie-Claire Blais' David Sterne first appeared in French in 1967, following A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, the most naturalistic and most successful of her books. In the earlier novel she placed her characters in the recognizable social world of rural, church-dominated Quebec though their behaviour and reactions remained as extreme and obsessed as in her previous books, Mad Shadows and Tête-Blanche. But, in David Sterne Mlle. Blais has again left naturalism far behind and created a passionate prose-poem in which her highly sensitive and tormented characters struggle, in an urban landscape full of shadows and nightmares, to break free from their own moral and existential dilemmas….

With David Sterne, Mlle. Blais has placed herself firmly and uncompromisingly in the literary tradition of the French moralists leading back through Camus, Genet and Gide to Baudelaire. The book deals in one way or another with many of the themes explored by these writers, and this makes it somewhat derivative. It owes most, perhaps, to the more abstract and less sensational works of Jean Genet, in which the passionate existential wranglings, the rebellion, the life of crime and sensation are so prominent. The confessional and didactic style of the book will also strike echoes in the reader's mind. Some of the poetic passages have the same broad expansiveness and rhythms, and indeed sentiments, of Walt Whitman. But David Sterne survives and transcends these comparisons. What allows it to do so is the immense compassion and tenderness Mlle. Blais displays for her characters in their whirlwind of struggle and suffering. The hard cold eye she cast on the cruel world of Mad Shadows has grown into one full of pity and profound sadness for the fate of men condemned to do battle with themselves.

With its exploration of abstract existential problems, David Sterne lacks the strong imaginative power of some of Mlle. Blais's other work. It is not her best book, but it is a provocative and moving one….

Brian Vintcent, "In a Landscape of Nightmares," in Saturday Night, November, 1973, pp. 53-4.