Marie-Claire Blais Blais, Marie-Claire (Vol. 6) - Essay

Blais, Marie-Claire (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Blais, Marie-Claire 1939–

Mlle Blais, a French-Canadian novelist and poet, has won several important awards. Her best known novel is A Season in the Life of Emmanuel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

[Marie-Claire Blais] is one of the best known and certainly the most acclaimed Quebec writers extant. She has published two volumes of poetry and eight novels, has won France's most coveted literary prize (The Prix Médicis, in 1966) and—almost unique among Quebec writers—has been widely translated. Her work has been uneven—few of her novels are handled as flawlessly as "A Season in the Life of Emmanuel" (1966) or carry the total conviction of "The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange" (1970)—but it's a tribute to her powers as a storyteller that no matter how tenuous her tale, she holds the reader to the end like the Ancient Mariner in reverse—her message not one of salvation and forgiveness but of suffering, cruelty and degradation in a world rank with human passions but devoid of grace. (p. 4)

"St. Lawrence Blues" is a satire and many of its portraits verge on caricature, but its central concern is one which has been treated by Blais repeatedly: the problem of human suffering and, especially, the mysterious desire to inflict it. Ti-Pit's world is filled with gratuitous violence and death, but, for Blais, more violence is not the answer.

"St. Lawrence Blues" is not Blais's best book, but it's an important addition to her work. It gives the reader a more comprehensive view of Quebec society than does any of her other books; and, though some of the jokes are necessarily lost in translation, it's very funny. It demonstrates once again Blais's flexibility, her verbal inventiveness, her ability to bend any genre to suit her purposes, and, above all, her truly incredible vitality. (pp. 4-5)

Margaret Atwood, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1974.

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange demonstrated [Marie-Claire Blais's] talent for dramatizing the macabre and oppressive elements in Quebec life. Her protagonists have been abnormally and precociously sensitive: Emmanuel's season begins with his birth. Vulnerable membranes strung out on display, he is a perceiver rather than an actor.

St. Lawrence Blues is, refreshingly, a comedy, although a comedy about poverty, abandonment, death and political and spiritual isolation. (p. 23)

[The] action of the novel is the rising to consciousness of French Canadian nationalism: an uprising. It moves cinematographically through carefully balanced scenes…. The effect of frustration and horror is incremental, culminating in the protest riot of all the disaffected French Canadians—homosexuals, prostitutes, Maoists and Sisters of the Hair Shirt—in Montreal on Christmas Eve. So much for peace on earth and pity my fellow man….

Both the external action and Lemieux's dreams are haunted by themes of French Canadian despair. Poverty, false religion, orphanhood are his story. [Known since his childhood in the orphanage as Ti-Pit, Little Nobody, the protagonist's real name is Lemieux.] Even the climate is a traditional enemy; shoveling the snow is called "clearing the wilderness." Ti-Pit's pity becomes his only salvation, and at the end he embraces his real name and is a better man for it.

Nevertheless this act is so small, so unattended to by others, so ineffectual in altering Ti-Pit's life, that we cannot feel he's grown or even understood much. Adulthood, even normality, seems impossible. Because she conceives of French-Canadian life as stifled or deformed, Blais is stuck with a kind of infantilism in her characters for all their delightful antics: every one of them has just been born. (p. 24)

Joan Joffe Hall, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 5, 1974.

[The] crucial sense of importance—the power of a novelist to command our total attention to his particular range of experience—is brilliantly sustained by the French-Canadian author Marie-Claire Blais in St. Lawrence Blues…. For her earlier novels, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange,… Mlle. Blais earned the praise of the late Edmund Wilson as the supreme interpreter of lower-class life in Quebec—its mean poverty and grim deprivation, the grubby humanity of its born victims and losers. Until now she employed standard literary French, but ner newest effort is written in joual, the French-Canadian street dialect that ardent separatists use for reasons of ideological purity. According to her publisher, Mlle. Blais has written St. Lawrence Blues in joual partly because the form of the book demands it, partly as a mocking gesture against the joualonistes who have sneered that "the perfection of this subtle tongue" escapes her….

No matter that Marie-Claire Blais often lets her satiric jousting run on too long, or that [a] death scene slips clumsily from the affecting to the maudlin, or that her arrows are sometimes aimed at targets only a fellow French-Canadian can appreciate. She is a writer of such boldness, vitality and wit that these lapses are trivial. Every one of her characters, even the most pathetic and pretentious, has an electrifying life, the full resonance of authenticity. (p. 14)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), November 25, 1974.

The main characters of the novels of Marie-Claire Blais are always adolescents. It tells us much about her vision that they are inevitably maimed or destroyed by the process of maturation—they die of disease or are "crucified on the cupidity" of an adult world where the familiar constants are frustration, suicide, and omnipresent death. Blais's fictive world has two faces: the tragic and comic alterego of the Greek mask. Her gothic world of rural Quebec (how obsessively it is a waste world of snow!) can be delineated with a bawdy, if morbid humour, the humour of Jean-Le Maigre in A Season in the Life of Emmanuel (1966). Yet more familiar is the hermetic universe of her first novel Mad-Shadows, published in 1959, where all the action takes place against an apocalyptic atmosphere of unrelieved doom. The Wolf, first published in French in 1972, and recently translated by Sheila Fischman, is a product of this latter vision. Blais has experimented before with the nocturnal underworld of pederasty, prostitution, and vice. Here she returns to a familiar figure, the Rimbaud-archetype, child-vagabond, devoted to a chivalry of evil: "They take all the vices floating in the air and absorb them." (p. 120)

How well Blais's novels fit into the predominant archetypes of modern French literature; one thinks of Genet: the fascination with secret anguish, perversion; the victim-slave as holy experience. (p. 121)

Sin is not mentioned in [The Wolf] but there is an ever-present perversity that leads to the continual [corruption] of human dignity. The book is obviously intended as a moral examination of love. Its conclusion? Love fails. It is a dream; "we're wrong to expect any consolation from the other." We are autonomous beings, alone until death. The most we can ask is for a witness to penetrate the glacial solitude by passionate and vicarious suffering with us. A nostalgic image haunts the book—the lost house of childhood but with its divine welcoming doors closed. (pp. 121-22)

The novel is metaphysical in style as well as content. It is an extended monologue with all action abstract and disembodied. It is as though the real world has been totally interiorized, except for the occasional anchor in certain stark physical images, all the more effective as they emerge with hallucinatory vividness from cerebral meditation—a swimming pool, a winter landscape, a mansion in fall, a primitive sculpture. The structure is entirely fluid; there is no action, simply a repetitive stream of lyrical images. This can make for difficult reading. Such a book works better in French than in English which makes more pragmatic demands on structure and language. What can be a fine almost crepuscular style in French can seem introverted in English—the spider weaving from its own entrails. The translation by Sheila Fischman is very fine indeed, capturing Blais's exotic vocabulary with a sophisticated control of nuance. (p. 122)

Rosemary Sullivan, "World of Two Faces," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1975, pp. 120-22.

While the novels [of Marie-Claire Blais] owe much to highly developed artistic traditions, their themes and circumstances place them within the political and social life of contemporary Canada. This is more true of the later novels, the last of which is no less explicit in its politics than Sartre's trilogy or Malraux's Man's Fate. But even her earlier novels depict an essentially Canadian landscape, however concealed by a technique that blurs locale deliberately, rendering in a rather opaque fashion what later emerges with considerable clarity: the political oppression to which French Canadians have long been subjected.

This is by no means the crucial motif in her many novels; it would be schematic to look for such commentaries in Tête Blanche and La Belle Bête, the strange, oneiric novels composed before she was 20. In any case, her talent was evident even then—enough to support Wilson's claim, based on a reading of the first four novels, that she was "possibly a genius" [see CLC-2]. Writing of Mlle. Blais when she was 24, he detected in her work "the desperate cry that arises from the poverty, intellectual and material, the passionate self-punishing piety and the fierce defeated pride of Quebec."…

I would consider [David Sterne and L'Insoumise], along with two novellas of an earlier period, Three Travellers and The Day is Dark, to belong among Blais's minor works. But they are important in what they reveal about her accomplished later books. In none of these novels is the connection between the Catholicism she experienced and the shattered world of her characters made really clear; not until the sequence of autobiographical works does she achieve an orchestrated vision of the causes of a suffering that reminds one, in its bleakness and hidden terror, of Bernanos. (p. 374)

In a sense, The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange represents the apotheosis of all Mlle. Blais's work; the strict, vindictive nuns we have encountered before appear in these pages with a dimension they had previously lacked, just as the adolescent in revolt, now given the capacity to articulate the conditions of her sorrow, endows those who surround her with a proper humanity. Her salvation, contrary to the casuistic explanations of the Church, lies in the loss of innocence…. The novel concludes with a vow that the wound sustained in childhood, "this blood, spilled in unjust violence, would one day be the sap that fed my books, since no one can erase in us the marks of what we once have lived." Here the relation adumbrated in her earlier novels is provided its most explicit illustration; the artist's work is capable of overcoming trauma by means of those very episodes in the child's life which produced it.

In her most recent novel [St. Lawrence Blues], Mlle. Blais has turned away from the repetitive theme of her own struggle against the oppressive character of her origins to confront the larger conflicts in contemporary Canadian life. Directly political, even tendentious, St. Lawrence Blues evokes the depressed underworld of Montreal, the sordid lives of people in rooming houses. But she does not confine herself to the lower classes…. Mlle. Blais has created a canvas impressive in its historical dimension and worth comparison with Zola's depiction of the Second Empire or Flaubert's of 1848 in Sentimental Education. Her portrayal … of a drifter named Ti-Pit is characterized by a remarkable linguistic energy reminiscent of Céline; her protagonist sustains a difficult and complex narrative through well over 200 pages composed in dialect. Like Pauline Archange, Ti-Pit recognizes the power of language and takes pride in his mastery of it. And the language he speaks has a special political significance; his use of it is a means of exercising power over his own circumstances.

The novel's French title, Un Joualonais, Sa Joualonie, refers to the language spoken in the working-class ghettos of Quebec—the word joual is a corruption of cheval. Margaret Atwood … noted the "linguistic alienation" implicit in joual, "a language worn down by the frustrations of an intolerable existence." There has been some controversy in Canada of late over the uses and significance of joual. The poet Gaston Miron called it a non-language, while some others have discerned in its vigor and flexibility a renewal of language comparable to the Provençal that emerged from Latin or the French of Rabelais. In the mid-1960s, a number of writers associated with the left-wing review Parti-Pris decided to write in joual in order to establish the claims of a language essentially québécoise. That dispute informs St. Lawrence Blues, in which much of the dialogue is in joual; that tongue, so vivid in its idioms, is what imbues the characters with such resonant, expansive vitality. Few novelists since Zola have succeeded in portraying as rich a spectrum of types (I don't use the word in connection with its Social Realist meanings), whose common humanity depends upon their speech; even the minor figures who populate this novel, the lost denizens of Ti-Pit's boarding-house, women in bars, a laconic ambulance driver, the family come down from the provinces to participate in the strike, reveal themselves in their idioms. The panorama of urban life unfolds in Mlle. Blais's portrayal no less comprehensively than in the great novels of 19th-century France. At once intensely comic and full of controlled despair, St. Lawrence Blues depicts a prerevolutionary milieu in which the dignity of personality survives despite conditions of political and social hopelessness. In this, it belongs among the works of what Lukács called "critical realism," which illuminate the possibility of social change, drawing on the conspicuous pressures of history to motivate and inform their characters. (pp. 375-76)

James Atlas, "The Impersonality of Art," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 29, 1975, pp. 374-76.