September 18, 2019 | News | No Comments
The career of the French-Canadian writer Marie-Claire Blais had precocious and auspicious beginnings. She published her first novel, “La Belle Bête,” in 1959, when she was just twenty years old. Translated into English by Merloyd Lawrence as “Mad Shadows,” the book is a faintly gothic portrait of a forsaken girl, and her mother’s obsession with her idiot brother—the “beautiful beast” of the title. The novel offers an incisive rendering of family dynamics; it is also disarmingly brutal, with a tragic ending that suggests that all beauty is false and that life’s only truth is suffering. Margaret Atwood, Blais’s exact contemporary, later wrote, “The book made me very uneasy, for more than the obvious reasons: the violence, the murders, suggestions of incest and the hallucinatory intensity of the writing were rare in Canadian literature in those days, but even scarier was the thought that this bloodcurdling fantasy, as well as its precocious verbal skill, were the products of a girl of 19. I was 19 myself, and with such an example before me I already felt like a late bloomer.”
Another early fan was the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who, shortly after the book was translated, began work on “O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture,” which was published, in three parts, in The New Yorker, and, in 1965, as a book. In it, Wilson describes Blais as “a writer in a class by herself,” and suggests that she is, “possibly,” a genius. While he was still working on “O Canada,” Wilson helped Blais secure a Guggenheim Fellowship that sent her to Massachusetts, in 1963. Having already published two more novels—“Tête Blanche,” in 1960, and “Le Jour est Noir,” in 1962—Blais used her time in the States to write her fourth, “Une Saison dans la Vie d’Emmanuel,” a dark and deeply affecting story about a rural French-Canadian family. “Emmanuel” secured her place among Quebec’s preëminent authors. At the time, Quebec was becoming a more liberal and secular place, undergoing a series of dramatic political and cultural changes that is known as the Quiet Revolution. In a foreword to the English edition, translated by Derek Coltman and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in 1966, Wilson hailed the success of “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel” as not just an artistic achievement but a civilizational milestone. “The intellectual life of French Canada is now reaching a long-retarded maturity,” he wrote.
During the next half century, Blais would publish more than forty works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and writing for the stage, and earn many of Francophone literature’s highest international honors. She has been lauded as an heir to Virginia Woolf, nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, and, in French-language literary circles, has become indisputably canonical. Yet she has never attracted a wide readership among her home country’s English-speaking population, and her work is practically unknown in the United States. This is a common problem for French-Canadian writers, who are, as the translator Peter McCambridge once put it to me, “at once too different and too familiar” to interest many English-language readers in North America. But Blais should, by all rights, cross that divide. For one thing, her magnum opus—a cycle of ten short novels, the eighth of which was recently translated into English—is set in Florida, where she has lived for decades. More pertinently, she is, as Wilson was right to proclaim, and as the rest of her career has demonstrated, one of the most distinctive and original living writers of fiction.
Blais grew up the eldest of five children in the working-class neighborhood of Limoilou, in Quebec City. She attended convent schools until the age of fifteen, when she left home to work, and to write. Her first novels, which explore the pain both suffered and caused by children within troubled, complicated families, have a destabilizing and uncanny tone reminiscent of André Breton—or of Dostoyevsky—and they traffic in the same depravities as one finds in the works of André Gide. The books are brilliantly rendered and deeply affecting, but they aren’t for everyone. “The Québec of Marie-Claire Blais’s earlier works may be described as a hellish stage of unreason on which are enacted the horror-filled scenes of human bestiality, rendered in the manner of the Grand Guignol,” a critic for the International Fiction Review once wrote.
Blais has always been prolific: after “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel,” which was published in 1965, she wrote four more novels, a novella, and a play, all before the sixties had ended. She then moved to France for a period, but returned to Quebec in the mid-seventies. Her writing began to change, turning more elliptical and impressionistic, with an increasing focus on interiority. The opening sentence of “Anna’s World,” an incisive study of adolescent friendship that was published in 1982, unfolds over two pages, resisting spatial or temporal location and hewing only to the emotional experience of the novel’s heroine:
The evolution of Blais’s aesthetic approach coincided with a move to Key West, where, in the late eighties, she settled permanently. Her adopted home has inspired two works of nonfiction, “Passages Américains,” from 2012, and a recent study of Trump-era authoritarianism called “À l’Intérieur de la Menace.” (Neither book has been translated.) But the Keys are most vividly present in a ten-book cycle that began, in 1995, with the novel “Soifs.”
The word means “thirstings”—though, when the first book was published in English, in 1997, Sheila Fischman titled her translation “These Festive Nights.” The ten novels in the “Soifs” cycle are less focussed on the horrors of the world than Blais’s earlier books were, and more on the effects of those horrors on human consciousness. The emotional texture of the novels, pitched between anxiety and longing, feels emphatically contemporary, but Blais’s style, in her later years, is mostly indebted to the modernists: the Woolf of “The Waves”; Proust, in his approach to recollection; Faulkner, in his use of polyphony. Blais eschews the fixed point of view that dominates contemporary fiction for a more communal approach to storytelling, and a subjective handling of time and space. The “Soifs” novels, collectively, seem both to encompass entire lives and to take place in the course of a single day; the effect of reading them is not be to be anchored concretely in a fictional universe but to be swept away in a current of language and sensation. In these books, one feels more than one sees.
Each novel is a breathless two-hundred-or-so-page deluge of text, without paragraph breaks. Sentences ramble across dozens of pages, whirling through a community of writers, musicians, dancers, drug dealers, physicians, clergy members, academics, petty criminals, socialites, and drag queens who inhabit an unnamed island town that bears a strong resemblance to Key West. The novels consist of around two thousand pages altogether, and they are populated by dozens of named characters, but they are most immediately striking not for their vast scope but for their dizzying cascades of language. Rather than employ a fixed point of view or a series of perspectives, Blais uses a kind of shifting communal narration: the novels skip around in space, time, and perspective, often in a single sentence. Pronouns jump assignments among characters—a “he” at the beginning of a given passage might be a different “he” by its end.
The opening of “These Festive Nights” expresses the tension that Blais locates between her idyllic tropical setting and the swirling anxieties of the book’s characters:
The first seven books explore addiction, sexual abuse, and the threat of nuclear annihilation—and also, in some of Blais’s most exquisite passages, love, friendship, and community. If anything provides a narrative backbone to the project, it’s the faintly meta-fictional through line of a middle-aged author named Daniel, who is at work on his own magnum opus, a book he begins early in the cycle, and struggles with through several volumes. In the eighth novel of Blais’s “Soifs” cycle, “Le Festin au Crépuscule”—published in English, last month, as “A Twilight Celebration,” in a translation by Nigel Spencer—he finally seems to have finished it.
Although it’s the eighth book in the series, “A Twilight Celebration” would not be a terrible place to begin reading the “Soifs” novels. Following the plot of these books, such as it is, is hardly the point, and the novels fold into and weave among one another; whole scenes recur. In the fifth novel, “Mai at the Predators’ Ball,” a group of drag queens who dance at a place called the Porte du Baiser Saloon are “lined up in the street . . . all awaiting the last show of the night as if their flowered and feather selves were for rent for a few hours.” About seven hundred pages later, in “A Twilight Celebration,” we meet the same characters, in nearly the same place. Perhaps it’s the same instant, slightly recast, or the repetition of a ritual on a different night. But what is conveyed most strikingly is less the linear chronology of life than something like an eternal present, or the simultaneity of dreams.
“A Twilight Celebration” belongs mostly to Daniel, who is attending a global writers’ conference at which a Poet of the Year award is being presented, along with a memorial for murdered poets. (It is a sure send-up of the somewhat inflated events at which literary prizes are bestowed.) Daniel, accustomed to the teeming and cacophonous tropics, has left his oceanside digs for a “limitless desert of anonymous hotels” and “a home without smells that was not his own.” The novel returns steadily to his conversations with fellow writers about literature’s fading cultural relevance, and to his own private laments; in the face of ecological and social collapse, Daniel worries that he is writing “for some abstract readership and ruminating from afar, or only for himself.” Meanwhile, Daniel’s son Augustino, we learn, has been writing virulent treatises with titles like “Letter to Young People Without a Future.”
Back on the Gulf Coast island, where Daniel lives, an AIDS patient named Angel is convalescing under the care of the magnanimous Dr. Dieudonné, accompanied by a parrot named Orange; an avant-garde composer named Fleur is settling in for a concert of his latest opus; and the aforementioned group of drag queens is readying its nightly cabaret. Numerous other lives are woven through these main threads; sometimes a name zips by, never to return again. The effect recalled, for me, the sculptural installation “Personages,” by Louise Bourgeois—a series of freestanding, humanistic totems through which one wanders like a stranger at a party. The characters seem wistful and nostalgic, yet there’s something urgent about their gathering, shaded as it is with the melancholy of some imminent and possibly catastrophic ending.
Violence looms over every page in “A Twilight Celebration,” which is true of the earlier books, too, though it is more metaphysical there. Here, the peril is literal: a “horde of masked youths” with machine guns, which only Daniel seems to see, gathers menacingly outside the writers’ conference, threatening, “Tonight, maverick writers, join us at the barricades or we will hunt you down.” The escalation of their protest lends the book a story arc, with the threat building toward an inevitable, if surreal, attack. “A Twilight Celebration” might be the most accessible of the “Soifs” series to appear so far in English: it operates with something like a conventional narrative structure, and shifts in perspective and location are signified, helpfully, with periods.
Yet the book is still very much a continuation of the previous “Soifs” novels. Not only Daniel but all the novel’s characters seem to tremble at the edge of annihilation, clinging to one another for lack of anything else to hang on to. And, as with all of the books, the volume ends not with destruction but with a human connection. We leave Daniel behind and return to Angel, the AIDS patient, now accompanied by his friend Kitty, walking with him down to the edge of the Gulf. As the sun sets over the sea, Angel slides “his hand over Kitty’s in the oversize sleeve of her sweater.” Amid the terrors of the novel, the simple gesture feels like an escape into beauty, or refuge—it’s the sort of tenderness that Blais, early in her career, denied her characters. Here, it’s offered not quite as redemption but at least as solace in an otherwise unforgiving world. For now, the last two books in the series remain to be translated.
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