The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Marie-Claire Blais, Dies Aged 82

Hello Gentle Reader,
When it comes to Canadian literature there is always the dominating titans of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro who cradle the minor pantheon of demigods within their shadows: Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Andre Alexis, and Thomas King; while there are others, who operate like satellites, competing spectres whose ghostly glimmer sparkle away from the shadows: Mavis Gallant, Carol Shields, and Rohinton Mistry; and the still up and coming stars, burning with an independent intensity of themselves: Esi Edugyan. Then there is the French language literature of Quebec, a whole new world (if not universe) of perspectives, yet solely isolated to an island of language. With an inability to appeal to the greater readership of the country of Canada, Quebecois writers have achieved a unique niche within the Canadian literary landscape, a melodious literature blossoming to its own tune, though sadly neglected, and overlooked by the rest of the country. Though these writers did come to gain paramount attention in France and other French literary landscapes. These writers include the gentle and penetrating Jacques Poulin; the Japanese sensibilities and the je ne sais quoi lyrical narratives of memory and secrets of Aki Shimazaki; the transgressive and tragedy that was Nelly Arcan; and of course, the most daring, exciting, and thrilling writer of them all: Marie-Claire Blais.
Sadly, Marie-Claire Blais died on November 30 at the age of 82 years old, but since her literary debut at the age of 20 years old, Blais had made a name for herself as one of the most inspiring and revolutionary voices in the French language of the 20th Century and early 21st Century.
The life of Marie-Claire Blais is always politely described as modest, which translated means: rough. Heralding from a working-class background, Blais’s post-secondary studies were interrupted by a lack of funds, and she supported herself with fulltime work and continued to take night classes at Laval University in the evening, where she came to the attention of the literary critic and academic Jeanne Lapointe and the Rev. Georges-Henri Lévesque a professor of social philosophy, who sought to encourage and nurture the raw talent of the writer at the time. With their encouragement and support, Marie-Claire Blais published her monumental debut novel: La Belle Bête (“Mad Shadows,” in English), which was considered revolutionary in 1950’s Quebec, which was in the firm grips of conservative prudish sensibilities and deeply twisted iron grip of the Catholic Church’s demands of moral protocols. Marie-Claire Blais’s novel confronted such stifling perspectives with a twisted and savage tale of love and affection of an ugly old woman who cherishes and loves her younger brother, who is exceptionally beautiful, but cognitively challenged. In a fashion to Clarice Lispector in Brazil, Marie-Claire Blais became a literary hurricane, a revolution in Quebec Literature.
Marie-Claire Blais gained further support in the United States literary establishment with Edmund Wilson, who heralded as a genius; yet unfortunately, Marie-Claire Blais was not always well received if at all appreciated within Canadian English language spheres of literature; though Margaret Atwood expressed shock, awe, and fear of the young Marie-Claire Blais, as the two writers were of the same age, and Blais published first, and her literary voice was so well formed, a young Atwood had doubts of her own literary talents and ambitions (they were overcome).
Throughout her literary career, Marie-Claire Blais was renowned for championing the vulnerable, the downtrodden, those left to suffer in misfortune and neglect. Her world was harsh, and true to point was riddled with corruption, which included the corrosive moral decay of the priests and religious faculties. Yet, her work was not deprived of hope, or the unyielding spirit as seen in one of her most famous novels: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel (“A Season in the Life of Emmanuel,”) revolves around the youngest child of a large Quebec family, who also happen to live in poverty and are dominated by the over domineering matriarch but refuse to succumb to the misery expected of them due to poverty and illness. The book remains popular and is one of the most read and respected novels to herald from Quebec.
Her masterpiece, however, was the ten novel cycle which recounts the last quarter of the 20th Century and the first burgeoning decades of the 21st Century, it’s a cacophonous chorus rising into a crescendo as reality and watermarks of the time can be spotted, which includes the AID’s scare of the 1980’s and the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks in New York City. The entire cycle recounts more than 200 characters, and yet throughout the stream of consciousness like narrative that recounts the sheer tapestry of life, through all its prisms and electric characters. It is a uncompromising marvelous feat, which records the messiness of the human existence in all its empathetic moments, even with those whose values, ideals, and perspectives are so divergent of our own, yet the power of Marie-Claire Blais has always been an empathetic touch, to envision and flesh out all characters with a complete human elements, including the most despicable measures and traits.
The death of Marie-Claire Blais is sad and disappointing. Her departure will leave a hole and a gap in Quebec literature for years to come. Yet, she remains perhaps the most celebrated writer within its Pantheon. Marie-Claire Blais was the hurricane force which reckoned Quebec out of its conservative parochial constraints and into the revolutionary world of modernity.
Rest in Peace, Marie-Claire Blais.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

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