Marie-Claire Blais Blais, Marie-Claire (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marie-Claire Blais 1939–

French-Canadian novelist and poet.

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is generally considered Blais's best work. In it she 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. Blais won the Governor General's Literary Award twice: in 1968 for Manuscrits de Pauline Archange and in 1979 for Le Sourd dans la ville.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The novella] The Day Is Dark deals with three couples…. We glimpse the couples as children and as adults, follow their meetings, their separations, and their ultimately tragic adventures in the summer sun or winter cold of Quebec province. Bleak and enormous old country houses, student rooms in the city, frozen forests and blossoming orchards alternate to provide the action with the enhancement of setting.

In [the novella] Three Travelers we move to Paris and into concert halls, theaters, and studios. The story concerns a young Spanish couple, Miguel and Montserrat, and a Viennese pianist, Johann, come to Paris to perform a Mozart concerto. It is a triangle with a tragic resolution.

But although the basic structures of fiction are still recognizable, they have been weakened and distorted to prevent any illusion of realistic dimension or true-to-life anecdote from distracting us from the author's intention. Without warning the narrative shifts from one character to another, chronology is jumbled, events are sometimes contradictory, and the fancied is never clearly separated from the real. By a series of interior monologues Mlle. Blais works along the lower levels of consciousness, and only rarely does she come to the surface.

The world of her revery is the somber, shadowy one of primitive urges and responses. The characters do not know why they exult in life or wish for death....

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Robertson Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Day Is Dark" is a story of death, as it comes to a family of young people—all of whom, for reasons which never become clear, find themselves unwilling to live…. It is not for the reader to reason why. He is made free of their romantic depressions, their agonized soliloquies, their sense of doom, loss and betrayal. He is told particularly of their inability to find any secure relationship with anyone else, but he is not permitted to peep behind the scenes. This author is not interested in psychology. The dark moods of her people are presented as accomplished facts, without a past and with no future but extinction.

"Three Travelers" admits us to the inner world of a playwright and his wife, who encounter and are enchanted by a brilliant pianist…. This is a prose poem, a self-conscious work of art more successful in achieving its aim than "The Day Is Dark." (p. 4)

[Mlle. Blais] is interested in the exploitation of a world of her own, in which people of uncommon sensibility, lacking in will and, in the Anglo-Saxon term, "doom-eager," submit to a romantic destiny. They do not struggle. They feel, and we are allowed to feel with them.

Unless we surrender ourselves completely to these stories, they have little to say to us. If we submit, they carry us a long way into a realm which most of us quitted at the age of 17. As a guide to this lost world of feeling, Mlle. Blais has great abilities. She is fully convinced of the validity of the finespun emotions of her elegant egoists. She establishes them successfully in a closed universe where ordinary considerations of prudence, balance, courage and justice have no place, and where faith, hope and charity are unknown.

She explores that universe with an intense virtuosity that commands our admiration. Sometimes we sense that she thinks its inhabitants are tragic, which they most certainly are not. "Tragedy concerneth a high fellow," and none of Mlle. Blais's characters are high fellows. They are creatures of romantic dream, in love with easeful death. (pp. 4-5)

Robertson Davies, "Elegant Egoists," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1967, pp. 4-5.

Sara Blackburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Poverty, sickness, deprivation and despair form the background of ["The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange," a] lyrical novel about the daily life of its title character, a little French-Canadian girl growing up in a world of institutionalized violence and hopelessness. [Its author] … moves her narrator back and forth from the absurdly repressive atmosphere of a convent school to the homes of her family and friends, where spiritual and physical death compete with one another for victims, and bear almost equal weight in their terrible intensity. Against this hellish context, Marie-Claire Blais has managed to recall and convey something very close to the essence of childhood: Pauline's special loneliness, the fierceness and tenacity of her friendships, those places where fear lies—in short, that whole "other" life which is lived within the secret subculture of children and seems so inaccessible once beyond it.

We grow to like and admire Pauline as she describes, in impressionistic, often heavily metaphorical, fragments the characters and events of her childhood…. In a way, this novel is a celebration of the fact that its narrator was somehow nourished and toughened instead of broken by the world she portrays here. It is her toughness and spirit that sustain this unusual narrative, and make us want to keep reading in spite of prose in which richness often spills over into a kind of super-lyricism.

Sara Blackburn, "Secret Subculture," in Book World—The Washington Post, (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), July 12, 1970, p. 6.

Naomi Bliven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Marie Claire Blais's purpose in "The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange"] is to present a person, a child—Pauline, passionate as she is, with the passion children lose as they grow up. Pauline cannot not rebel; nevertheless, her rebelliousness torments her. She constantly worries about sin and her soul. Her manuscripts are the log of a war of personal liberation, and the confessions of a scrupulous conscience—which is probably as French as it is Catholic…. (p. 138)

Pauline reaches her teens and manages—Mlle. Blais does not say how—to stay in school instead of going to work. She acquires a few friends—well-to-do, serious young people—with whom she discusses literature. Their individuality has been encouraged to flourish, as hers has not, and yet their personalities have become merely articulate; their experiences are so limited that their profundities are shallow. Pauline cannot confide in them much of what has happened to her—such as being raped by a disoriented priest, a fantastic and touching character who is brilliantly presented as Christian and mad; she can confide only in her notebooks, which become her reason for being…. She exists because Mlle. Blais writes beautifully. Her work is concise. She does not prose along, although she does take time when she wants to. Her language is sometimes flat and ironical, sometimes overflowing with similes. She does not preach to us about, say, the uselessness of trying to teach Christian humility by enforcing pointless humiliations; we simply feel those humiliations. Mlle. Blais's mastery makes us share Pauline's suffering. It also allows us to share her exhilaration at having survived to tell it. (pp. 138, 140)

Naomi Bliven, "Ah, Wilderness!" in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 46, No. 32, September 26, 1970, pp. 138, 140.

D.A.N. Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [the Canadian town where The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange takes place], torture is the main preoccupation: cats are skinned alive and children beaten until their eyes bleed. Meanwhile, a Genetesque priest makes love to a boy murderer with a vague, cruel smile. As a criticism of a Catholic upbringing, it is too nightmarish to carry weight. It reads like a child's crude fantasies, worked up by an over-literary adult. Its sensuous appreciation of pain, cruelty, and guilt is so unrestrained as to be finally ludicrous. (pp. 40-1)

D.A.N. Jones, "Divided Selves," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1970 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XV, No. 7, October 22, 1970, pp. 38-42.∗

L. Clark Keating

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mademoiselle Blais is in many ways a naturalist, and the word quite properly recalls Zola…. Her characters and situations, with but few exceptions, are hateful, perverse and repulsive. No crime, no meanness, no indecent thought, no deliberate breaking of the Ten Commandments are alien to her characters young or old, male or female. (p. 11)

Mademoiselle Blais' art is as shocking as Zola's or the films used as evidence in the Nuremburg trials. And unlike Zola no remedy [for society's ills] is implied….

In her view love between men and women does not necessarily lead to happiness. The family, at its worst, is little more than a factory for producing unwanted and frightful children…. Education is in the hands of the church, whose representatives are corrupt, sinful, and self seeking. It is an apprenticeship in vice, and a time of malnutrition, sadism, and boredom. Nothing that is taught has any relation to the real world. Religion itself has nothing to do with personal morality. Priests and nuns with but rare exceptions are stupid, sadistic, plain wicked or worse. The moral principles supposedly taught by a religious education are not only lacking but replaced in her characters by a positive viciousness and a hatred of society. Economics is but rarely mentioned, and then only to mention the existence of sweat shops, and the frightful living conditions in the ghettos. This is, in a word, the worst of all possible worlds.

It would be impressive as well as cheerful to end with the statement that Mademoiselle Blais writes in order to reform, and that she hopes by calling attention to evils to end them. So far, such does not appear to be the case. The few do-gooders among her characters are rather pathetic. Obviously she does not believe in simple solutions based on good intentions. Her contribution to our world would appear to be an artistic one, an artistry achieved through pessimism. (p. 16)

L. Clark Keating, "Marie-Claire Blais, French Canadian Naturalist," in Romance Notes, Vol. XV, No. 1, Autumn, 1973, pp. 10-17.

Alan Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Nights in the Underground, the chatter in The Underground, a lesbian bar,] is so good-natured and dull that one wonders how someone as really bright as Blais could bother to be its chronicler.

The explanation may lie in our era of single-issue politics and ever-narrowing identities, within which the simple consciousness of being human is felt to be increasingly inadequate, and fulfillment is sought through all kinds of self-subdivision and specialization.

The camaraderie of the women is touching; and their falling in and out of love, their jealousies, their generosity, and—above all—their solidarity, are made poignant by the chronic impermanence of their relations with each other. One has the nagging suspicion that Blais would like to limit touching and poignant relationships to the special group she is dealing with here….

It is not conducive to clarity, either in a work of art or in a gentle polemic like this book, to find the male written off as a predator, while his (supposed) essence, virility, is the quality most prized in women. But why should one demand clarity when confronted by the ancient practice of inventing reasons for feeling and doing what is, in any case, going to go on being done and felt? We're not onto anything fresh and new in this book, nothing containing promise, but merely another limited version of the repetitive friction of promiscuity available to us all and chosen by many.

The major pitfall of advocacy in an art form is that art loses out. A related effect is that irony and humor (sense of proportion, sense of the ridiculous) also tend to fall by the wayside….

The underground of Marie-Claire Blais has a good deal of somewhat desperate jollity in it, but is as devoid of humour as it is of a general context in the straight world. Her characters make passing references to their occupations "above ground" … but these jobs are relegated to a kind of off-stage unreality. The real world is in the lesbian bar and its nocturnal offshoots.

Alan Brown, "Toujours gaie, toujours ennuyeuse," in Books in Canada, Vol. 8, No. 7, August-September, 1979, p. 16.

Linda Leith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Nights in the Underground, Marie-Claire Blais has written] a quiet and poignant account of her heroine Geneviève's love for two women….

There are no fireworks here, none of the violent imagery and events that colour her most famous novels…. The experiment here, and it's a courageous experiment, is simply to write as well as she can of the joys and sufferings of love between women. Some self-indulgence aside, she succeeds to a remarkable extent. She uses the brashness and humour of the talk in the bar to offset the intensity of feeling in Geneviève's affair with Lali, and then shifts into the new style of writing so that the scenes in Paris and then back in Montreal … are simply and gently expressive. (p. 29)

Linda Leith, "Rights of Memory," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. 59, No. 692, September, 1979, pp. 28-9.∗

Shirley Mann Gibson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For lesbians, still out of sight and out of mind, Nights in the Underground is a novel that is several years overdue. (pp. 54, 56)

Blais probes the psyches of her characters, carefully establishing that love between women is as joyous and painful as any other kind. (p. 56)

Blais fills her pages with superb description and dialogue….

Nights in the Underground is a dense and challenging novel. Blais brings to it all the skill and confidence of the accomplished storyteller, but in this book she does more than tell a story. She has a subtle but urgent message to convey…. Hers is a quiet voice, melancholy rather than militant, and throughout the book her intelligence as well as her passion is always in evidence. The novel—and it is a novel, not a tract or manifesto—leaves many questions unanswered, perhaps because there are no answers, yet even while disputing Blais's point of view the reader listens with respect.

This is a book that details physical love between women, but voyeurs of every sex will be disappointed. Blais is one of the few Canadian writers at ease with the erotic, and she expresses in one phrase or gesture more sexuality than a page of explicit push and pull. Nights in the Underground is unquestionably a major contribution to homosexual literature, but its appeal is wider than that. Marie-Claire Blais has deployed all her talents to show us not how women do it, or even why they do it, but the spirit in which it is done. At a time when spirit seems more important than method or motivation, she has something to tell us all. (p. 57)

Shirley Mann Gibson, "Inside the Lesbian Underground," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 94, No. 7, September, 1979, pp. 54, 56-7.

Madeleine Gobeil

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Literary Affair will not convince us that Marie-Claire Blais's talent has come to maturity. The novel] describes Mathieu Lelièvre, a young Québécois writer who travels to Paris on a Canada Council grant in search of fame and self-discovery….

It is not the deliberately grim atmosphere that is embarrassing. Examining the novel for its literary quality, one is confused by its systematic character, its gratuitous extravagance, its falseness and emptiness. It is not the first story of the provincial or unknown artist seeking fame in the big city. Literary examples are numerous, as Mathieu Lelièvre knows, and one has in mind Balzac's and Proust's descriptions of the young writer trying to make it among the chosen few….

What is disappointing in A Literary Affair is that Marie-Claire Blais never gives us the feeling of Paris and its literary circles and the movement of ideas there. More important, she's unable to express the reality of the young hero's self-discovery. The milieu representing France is a grotesque caricature, and the crude opposition between the "good" and unpolished young Québécois and the "bad" and even monstrous [social] … milieu is simplistic and boring….

If Mathieu Lelièvre lacks humour and charm, if one is unable to identify with such an empty and sullen creature, Marie-Claire Blais still has talent with words. (p. 40)

Madeleine Gobeil, "An Innocent Québécois in Decadent Paris" (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 94, No. 9, November, 1979, pp. 39-40.

Emile J. Talbot

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Le sourd dans la ville may be Marie-Claire Blais's] most difficult book yet. Couched in a convoluted style, with minimal punctuation (there are fewer than a dozen periods in this single-paragraph text), this novel is a dark meditation on suffering and especially death through the interposition of the kinds of unusual characters we have come to associate with Blais's fiction.

In this her fifteenth narrative Blais … constructs an intertwined, unbroken monologue shared by a half-dozen characters who appropriate segments of it an uneven intervals. Consciousnesses appear, disappear and reappear without warning. It is readily clear that they are all prisoners of an overpowering fate which renders...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Marjorie A. Fitzpatrick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After more than a decade [Marie-Claire Blais] has at last recaptured in Le Sourd dans la ville the ring of profound human truth so intensely present in Une Saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel, to which this novel will surely be often compared. The run-on syntax with which she flirted somewhat awkwardly in Les Nuits de l'Underground is mastered here, with stunning results. In one long paragraph containing no more than perhaps three dozen full stops, Blais brings to life—and then to death—the inhabitants of the gloomy little Montreal hotel that serves as the novel's setting. Like voices in a fugue or threads in a well-made tapestry, their lives weave in and out through each other to form a harmonious...

(The entire section is 622 words.)