Marie-Claire Blais

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Blais, Marie-Claire 1939–

Blais is a French-Canadian novelist and poet. A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, which won the French Prix Medicis in 1966, is generally considered her best work. In it Blais explores with compassion and delicacy the life of an impoverished French-Canadian family. Her imagery is powerful and compelling, and her prose, even in the description of the misery and horror inherent in the lives of her characters, has a lyrical quality. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Elliott Gose

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Before finishing the first chapter of [Mad Shadows], I had that sinking feeling all composition teachers have experienced reading the intensely subjective outpourings of an adolescent mind. But by the time I had read half of the book, I was caught in the world created by the author's nineteen-year-old imagination. She had proved the validity of Conrad's stricture on the Romantic sensibility, that it must "in the destructive element immerse". Miss Blais has plunged into her nature and written a parable out of what she discovered there. Like other figurative narratives, this novel can be understood on more than one level. (pp. 72-3)

Freud, for instance, would appreciate the mother's love for her idiot son, and the daughter's hatred of both, not to mention her idealization of her dead father: "Far off in her childhood, she could see her father, the austere peasant, the maker of bread. When he tilled the virgin loins of the earth, he was penetrating to the heart of God." The daughter's concern with the farm and with making bread become in this light perhaps a little too obvious, as are many of the motifs that run through the novel. But like Emily Brontë, though Miss Blais may tell, she never explains. As a result Mad Shadows has the convincing irrationality and vivid detail of a dream (and dreams are frequently mentioned in it). Fortunately it also has an imagistic complexity and unity of purpose which elevate it to the realm of art. Its many striking scenes convince, not as having been recreated from observed outer reality, but as having been created for the first time from felt inner reality. (p. 73)

[The images used in the novel] interweave in patterns controlled by an imagination which the sympathetic reader must admire. Striking and readable, Mad Shadows is an impressive first novel. (p. 74)

Elliott Gose, "The Witch Within," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1961, pp. 72-4.

George W. Knowles

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As Alain Robbe-Grillet says in his For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, the nouveau roman is an exploration and an evolution of the genre of the novel. While aiming at total subjectivity, the modern novel should not be a representation of anything but itself. Reality is sense perception and concerns only man in his situation in the world. Sequence of events and narrative are often eliminated, with the result a plotless train of occurrences alternating without warning between present and past.

Such is the style of the extraordinary young French-Canadian, Marie-Claire Blais, the only writer in this hemisphere who has fully mastered the trend current in France. (p. 708)

Through the relationships of the possessed figures in [The Day Is Dark and Three Travelers ], among whom the narrative shifts, Mlle. Blais creates a unique microcosm of her own wherein the characters, isolated from the conventional forms of time and space, are liberated to obey what seem to be the forces of predestination that drive them knowingly and almost willingly to their fates. The mood evoked by Marie-Claire Blais is that of suffering and gloom, yet the poetic imagery … is of such tender and delicate quality...

(This entire section contains 314 words.)

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that the reader, like the characters, must follow the compelling forces to the end. To some, the characters may appear negative and weak, in that they take no positive measures to free themselves from their torments. But they are caught in a predetermined universe which they are powerless to change. This is Mlle. Blais's vehicle wherein she is free to mingle reality and the fantasy of the characters' thoughts. As each personage is gifted with exceptional powers to perceive the objects and happenings around him, the effect Mlle. Blais achieves is almost poetic. (pp. 708, 710)

George W. Knowles, in The American Scholar (copyright © 1967 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 36, No. 4, Autumn 1967.

Joan Coldwell

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When Marie-Claire Blais was asked which writers had influenced her work she named Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, authors who experimented boldly with forms of psychological fiction. In looking over the nine novels Mlle Blais has written up to now one can see signs of that influence in a variety of technical devices. Diaries and letters are used for psychological introspection and analysis in Tête Blanche, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and L'Insoumise, while the stream of consciousness method is explored in the "novel-poems" and notably in The Day Is Dark, where the form appears to be markedly influenced by Virginia Woolf's The Waves. As well as being explorations of the nature of evil and its particular manifestations in Quebec society, these novels are technical experiments in conveying the inner life of the mind and especially of the adolescent mind.

It is in this context that one must approach Mlle. Blais' first novel, Mad Shadows. But whereas the psychological concerns of her later novels are apparent, those of Mad Shadows may be obscured by the unusual form and gothic content, with the result that critics have either written the novel off altogether, as many early reviewers did, or have been tempted to read into it a metaphor of "the world before birth" or an allegory of the Apocalypse of St. John. One simpler way of reading Mad Shadows is as a psychological novel whose method is, like that of Kafka's America, the projection of inner states through fantastic actions. The fantasies enacted here are those of an adolescent girl in her response to sexuality, sex being the turning point between innocence and bitter experience as it is also in the more conventionally structured Tête Blanche.

At first, Mad Shadows may also appear to be a conventional "realistic" novel. Features of a landscape are mentioned: fields, farms, lake, woods, railway, asylum, and the narrative develops in straightforward chronological order, the simplicity of its superficial framework marked by a style which is at key moments as elementary as that of a child's primer…. But these normal situations explode into sensational developments: the jealous sister starves and ravages the spoilt brother, disillusionment in marriage provokes instant separation, the son murders his stepfather, the daughter kills the mother, both children commit suicide. Only Greek and Elizabethan tragedies have exploited so much horror and violence in so confined a space; generally speaking, novelists work on a larger scale where the fearful actions do not hammer obsessively one upon another. It is the number of horrors within a very short novel that threatens credibility here and alerts one to the fact that this is not, after all, a novel of the realistic school.

The method of Mad Shadows consists of creating action out of normally sublimated emotional responses. Given Isabelle-Marie's jealousy of Patrice as a recognisable normal state, the nature of that passion is then explored, not by interior monologue nor by the author's analysis, but by projecting as external actions the extremes to which, in most people, only fantasy gives free play. The sense of nightmare in Mad Shadows arises from this surrealist technique. The landscape appears to be real, actions seem to be logical, but they are so only on the level of the subconscious mind. "It is all a picture," Marie-Claire Blais herself said, "it is all art while life goes on, it is a picture of the emotions of love or fear."…

The picture metaphor is enforced in the novel itself by references to film: in the first paragraph, Patrice's mental confusion is "like a billowing stormcloud on a screen" and, later, Louise and Lanz have the "artificial depravity of faces in the movies". Most insistently, theatre imagery suggests that this is not reality we observe but an artificial enactment: the characters are described as marionettes or as "grave performers" in a "vast tragedy" and Patrice uses make-up to turn his face into a devil's mask. The culmination of this pattern is the inclusion, late in the novel, of the character Faust, a retired actor who becomes Patrice's friend in the asylum where they are both confined. It is in the Faust episode that the technique of creating "art while life goes on" is most fully explored. Faust, like his legendary namesake, possesses the magical art of living and exerting power by illusions. (p. 65)

The Faust story is only one of several legends, myths or fairy tales evoked in the novel…. More obviously, the strange family relationships recall certain Greek myths: the Oedipus pattern is suggested in the almost incestuous obsession of Louise and Patrice for each other while the two filial murders recall the Orestes-Electra story. The Narcissus myth is introduced not only in Patrice's adoration of his own image in the lake and his death there but in Louise's worship of her own beauty reflected in her son. Metaphor enforces this link with Narcissus: "without him she was lost, shorn of both roots and flowers." (pp. 65-6)

The most obvious echo in the novel, clearly indicated by the French title La Belle Bête, is of the Beauty and the Beast tale, "la belle et la bête", where the beast is under a spell which can only be broken by the love of a princess. Here again illusion is important (the beast is really a handsome prince) but in Mad Shadows the image is turned so that the beauty and the beast are one. Patrice is beast because he lacks reason but his body is divinely beautiful, that of an Adonis. In its origins the Beauty and Beast tale no doubt enforces a moral lesson about sexuality, the physical in man being given sanction by pure spiritual love. The fact that Marie-Claire Blais fuses the two, making the beauty-love figure totally beast-physical; points to one of the dominant themes in this novel, namely the essential destructiveness of human love.

All of the legendary tales mentioned above have sexual connotations and within the novel the echoes of them reflect on a series of relationships which are all self-centered and superficial…. In this novel, love is literally only skin-deep and without physical attraction it does not exist. To provide a visual emblem of imperfection, each of the characters is made physically defective, Michael blind, Lanz lame, Isabelle weak-ankled, Louise hideously scarred and Patrice wholly beautiful but both empty-headed and finally rendered grotesquely ugly. The emblem is reflected in the animal kingdom, with the seemingly gratuitous, surrealistic detail of a one-winged bird flying near the lake. (p. 66)

Before she dies, Isabelle appears to have a momentary spiritual illumination: "She thought it was Louise's land that she was destroying but suddenly she realized it was God's land. Terror rose to her eyes. And shame."… Up to this point there has been very little religious reference in this man-centered novel: only an identification of Isabelle with Eve, a comparison of the asylum to a "cathedral with bars" and, most important,… observations on the character of Isabelle's father in which we may find a clue to her final experience.

[We] are told that the daughter resembled the father, "that gallant dreamer and poet who used to speak of his land as though of a virgin consecrated to God."…

Marie-Claire Blais seems to suggest that only love for God and love for the land are non-destructive; all other human love is corrosive, especially in its sexual manifestations. The only release into humanity is by loss of concern for the body: when Patrice perceives his ugliness and destroys his body, he finds his soul. That pervasive theme of Quebec literature, the dichotomy of body and spirit, is here once more projected, not by allegory but by externalisation of inner impulses.

"My first and second novels are about passions, the emotions which are so dangerous to liberate," said Marie-Claire Blais. Mad Shadows shows the liberation not merely of passion into action but of concealed fantasies into external story. The novel is an experiment in fictional technique, one which is dangerously open to a literal interpretation and therefore close to the absurd and unintelligible. But if read as psychological fiction, an exploration of the dark recesses of the mind, then Mad Shadows may well appear to be, like Patrice's face, "so dazzling that it makes one think of genius." (p. 67)

Joan Coldwell, "'Mad Shadows' as Psychological Fiction," in Journal of Canadian Fiction (reprinted by permission from Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2050 Mackay St., Montreal, Quebec H3G 2J1, Canada), Vol. II, No. 4, 1973, pp. 65-7.

D. Nyren

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Le loup is the story of a lamb who is caught by or, more accurately, captures a series of wolves. It is a study of types of male homosexual love, a succession of character sketches rather than a developed plot or philosophical investigation; it grows by accretion rather than extension.

While Blais continues to write about the less ordinary passions, Le loup eschews the violence of her earlier books and is more suave and nuanced. She has become more perceptive of psychological differences as she has grown from child prodigy to professional writer; however, considerably more development will still be needed before she can be adjudged a novelist of any literary significance. (p. 80)

D. Nyren, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975.

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