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Marie-Claire Blais, acclaimed French Canadian novelist, dies at 82
Though largely unknown outside Canada, she was often ranked alongside Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro as one of the country’s greatest living writers.

by Clay Risen



NEW YORK, NY.- Marie-Claire Blais, a novelist whose long, elliptical sentences and incisive explorations of human consciousness won her comparisons with Virginia Woolf and a place alongside Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood as one of Canada’s greatest contemporary writers, died Nov. 30 at her home in Key West, Florida. She was 82.

The death was confirmed by Patrick Leimberger, a representative from Agence Goodwin, the company that represented Blais. He said the cause had not been determined.

Blais burst onto the Canadian literary scene in 1959 when, at just 20, she published her first novel, “Le Belle Bête” (“The Beautiful Beast”), which was later published in English as “Mad Shadows.” The story revolves around a girl who is jealous of the attention her mother ladles on her developmentally disabled brother, and it shocked many readers with its depiction of violence, including murder, and implied incest.

The book appeared at the dawn of the “quiet revolution,” a time of rapid secularization and social change in Quebec, and Blais became a standard-bearer for a new, assertive era of Quebecois culture.

“Le Belle Bête” was relatively conventional in its prose, but by the mid-1960s, Blais had begun to shove aside literary conventions, drawing critical attention.

She made astonishingly long sentences a hallmark of her work; the opening sentence of “Le Sourd Dans la Ville” (1979), published in English as “Deaf to the City,” occupied 55 pages. Dialogue might appear without quotation marks. Within each sentence she might shift time, place and points of view, stranding readers unable to go with the flow of her sometimes hallucinatory prose.

“The narration drops the reader into the flow of the characters’ psyches like whitewater rafters negotiating a particularly rocky cataract,” critic Steven W. Beattie wrote in July in Quill and Quire, a magazine about the Canadian book industry.

Raised in a working-class family in Quebec City and educated at Roman Catholic schools, Blais wrote about venal nuns, street-corner philosophers, drug addicts, lechers, prostitutes, farmers and fishermen. Her characters are rarely upstanding and their situations never much better than grim.

Her most famous work, “Une Saison Dans la Vie d’Emmanuel” (“A Season in the Life of Emmanuel”), centers on a family whose members suffer poverty, child abuse, reform school and untimely death. The book was a smash, winning the Prix Médicis, a French award given to rising literary talent, in 1966, the year it was published in French. (It was translated to English a year later.)

Blais was encouraged along her ascent by American critic Edmund Wilson, who called her a “genius” in his 1965 book “Oh Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture,” and later helped her win two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation.

He also introduced her to his literary circle in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, including painter Mary Meigs. Blais and Meigs became both professionally and romantically involved; Meigs illustrated several books by Blais, and they moved to France together and then to Montreal.

The couple later separated, and Blais moved to Key West in the mid-1980s, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. But she continued to write in French, for a Quebecois audience, and while her books achieved renown in the Francophone world, they were less read in the rest of Canada, and she was largely unknown in the United States.

“Will American Readers Ever Catch On to Marie-Claire Blais?” read the headline to a 2019 article in The New Yorker by Canadian writer Pasha Malla. His answer on whether they would was equivocal, but on whether they should, he left no doubt.




Her last 10 novels, the focus of his article, composed a cycle that Blais called “Soifs,” which she translated as “thirst for everything.” They were set in unnamed but obviously American locations, including a stand-in for Key West, and they explored how intimate turmoil led to grand-scale consequences: nuclear annihilation, racism, climate change.

“The ‘Soifs’ novels,” Malla wrote, “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.”

Like William Faulkner, another writer with whom she was often compared, Blais believed that collective human experiences, including evils like white supremacy and world war, were the result of inner personal conflicts, and that it was the duty of the writer to explore them.

“In writing you are obliged to probe humanity’s wounds,” she told The Globe and Mail newspaper in 1985. “It’s not amusing.”

Marie-Claire Blais was born on Oct. 5, 1939, in Quebec City. Her family was poor; her mother, Véronique (Nolin) Blais, had left her job as a teacher to raise Marie-Claire and her four siblings, and her father, Fernando, was a refrigerator technician.

She is survived by all four of her siblings, Michel, Robert, Thérèse and Helene.

Blais attended Roman Catholic schools but left at 15 when her parents ran out of money. She rented her own apartment, worked in a cookie factory and a clothing store, and took night classes in writing at the Université Laval in Quebec City.

She drew the attention of Jeanne Lapointe, an English professor, and Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, vice president of the Canada Council for the Arts, who helped her secure grants that allowed her to write “La Belle Bête.”

Some 50 books followed over the next six decades, including 29 novels, nine plays and three volumes of poetry. She won practically every prize available to Canadian writers, including four Governor General’s Academic Medals, one of the country’s highest literary honors.

She also won praise from fellow Canadian writers. Robertson Davies, one of the country’s leading novelists of the 20th century, called her a “writer with an enormous capacity for imaginative creation,” in a 1966 review of “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel” — though he also faulted her work as morose, saying he wished “that Mlle. Blais had a dash of humor in her composition, so that she could tell a gothic phantom from a Halloween pumpkin.”

But Atwood, writing in The New York Times in 1974, saw in her writing a sense that “suffering unites,” and other critics found a vision of solace, even hope, in her works.

Blais agreed, insisting that it was only by exploring pain and tragedy that one can find an affirmation of life.

The reason she wrote, she explained in her 1968 novel, “Manuscrits de Pauline Archange,” published in English as “The Manuscripts,” was “to go down into that depth of mud and dried leaves to take a last look at all the living and the degenerate dead from whom, more than my birth, more than my life, I had to extract my resurrection.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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