Marie-Claire Blais Blais, Marie-Claire (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,"...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)

D. Nyren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.