If you are reading this post because you are part of the #1965Club, and you haven’t heard of Marie-Claire Blais, you are about to wonder how that can be true. (And if you also haven’t heard of #1965Club, please visit Karen’s and Simon’s sites to learn more.)
Blais has published more than thirty books, including more than twenty novels (plays, poems and non-fiction too). Ten of these are in her Soifs series, the final volume having been published in 2018. (Think Dorothy Richardson, but contemporary.)
Blais has received not only one Guggenheim fellowship, but two. And several international literary awards, including the Prix Médicis and the Prix d’Italie. All while building a career out of pushing the literary envelope.
In his introduction to the first English edition of Une Saison dans la Vie d’Emmanuel, Edmund Wilson writes:
“I first read this book in manuscript and wondered whether it could ever be published in Canada.”
Indeed, it was a risk, because this novel, her third, acknowledges uncomfortable and difficult truths. Blais depicts scenes that others would rather close the door on.
(And certainly there was resistance. Robertson Davies reviewed the book and acknowledged her talent but used the Royal We to express the hope that “she will think better of [this sort of novel] when next she publishes”.)
In an afterword to the novel, Nicole Brossard writes about her experiences reading and, later, rereading, the novel, as a Quebecois woman and writer who experienced both the old and new Quebec:
“What in 1965 I translated as our poverty, our ignorance, our social ills, I see today as the recurrent themes of sickness, death, suffering, and existential vertigo that haunt all of Blais’ work. What camouflaged themselves under the names sin, madness, and temptation are now well-documented as incest, homosexuality, child abuse, prostitution, masochism. Yet what are described as cold, hunger, fever, and dream still keep the same names.”
Because during the 1960s, Quebec changed rapidly and dramatically in what is now called The Quiet Revolution. Control of health and education moved out of the control of the Catholic Church, civil rights were granted to women (who could not vote until 1940, and marriage made them into minors, as described in this Mavis Gallant short story), and the industrial economy flourished. Writers like Gide and Camus and Sartre had been forbidden, but now writers like Hubert Acquin (whose La Prochaine Episode was first published in 1965, too) and Marie-Claire Blais emerged, dared to write of worlds previously denied. Finally, an opportunity to open that door and peer behind.
So, you can read A Season in the Life of Emmanuel because it is important.
And because it is historically revealing.
And because it is daring.
But you can also read it – as I have – because of the grandmother.
I’m certain that, when I first read this book, I was expecting to read about Emmanuel. That titular season of his life, right? Fair assumption. But the novel begins and ends with the grandmother.
“Grand-mère Antoinette’s feet dominated the room. They lay there like two quiet, watchful animals, scarcely twitching at all inside their black boots, always ready to spring into action; two feet bruised by long years of work in the fields (opening his eyes for the first time in the dusty morning light, he couldn’t see them yet, was not yet aware of the hidden wound in the leg, beneath the woolen stocking, of the ankles swollen without their prisons of leather and laces…), two noble and pious feet (did they not make the journey to church once every morning, even in winter?), two feet brimming with life, and etching forever in the memories of those who saw them, even only once, their somber image of authority and patience.”
Everything you need to know about the grandmother is here. From the dominance to the patience, her devotion and her perseverance. But, as you read on, and periodically peer through the gaze of some of the family’s children, there is warmth, tenderness and a deep love. (There are so many children, too many living children to count, too many dead ones to remember. One boy is named Number Seven as a reflection of the rapidly changing population in and around the home – for many of the children are sent elsewhere, to study or to eat, to pray or to endure.)
But getting to know Grand-mère is something you must do on your own. It requires a whole book. And it also requires that you come to know some of the children, along the way. Because her responses to those children shape her world and this, in turn, shapes the reader’s experience of her and of her world. (You might particularly enjoy Héloise, who seems to be the perfect convent-schooled girl but has an active imagination which confession does not dispense with. Or Pomme’s pranks. Or Jean Le-Maigre’s poetry.)
A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is only seven chapters long and even today it is considered an experimental novel but, as you will see from the opening paragraph, the style is accessible and the story is character-driven. This is an excellent introduction to this writer’s work. A worthy addition to #1965Club.
Notes: My original copy of this, which I first read in 2000 is an M&S paperback with an afterword by Nicole Brossard, quoted above. The information about the Quiet Revolution is provided in the introduction by Priscila Uppal in an Exile Editions Classic (I’ve cited her specific examples of French writers in the paragraph above) which contains illustrations by Mary Meigs and a terrific essay about Héloise by Kirsty Bell too. Both of these editions have been translated by Derek Coltman.
There is an interesting photo essay about 1965 at “The Atlantic” here. (With a western bias.) It’s a rich year, from a literary perspective too.
There have been four other works by Blais in my stack this month, not published in 1965, which I am counting towards my Canadian Book Challenge reading.
Mad Shadows (1959; Trans. Merloyd Lawrence, 1967)
Her first novel, which exploded onto the literary scene, Mad Shadows feels like a fairy tale, the original kind, before Disney caught hold of Perrault and folded those old stories into dainty origami forms. Some characters are disfigured, others die and every single one is broken-hearted: a mother with a beautiful son and an ugly daughter, with only beauty deserving love and, of course, beauty is transient. “He had lived for so long with mirrors, in front of mirrors, inside mirrors. All his memories were superimposed, as in a nightmare.” In time, the glass is shattered.
The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange (1968; Trans. Derek Coltman, 1969)
Pauline’s story begins in difficulty, where “poverty believes itself invisible as it huddles down against unheated walls”, where the teachers in the convent (where Blais herself was educated) are sometimes kind and inspiring but often resentful and cruel, and where girlhood friends are as likely to die as they are to survive. Where it was “such a long, such a hard business for me to live”. But Pauline observes and creates her escape, through intimate friendships and creativity. Her survival, she thinks “would perhaps be simply in order 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”. And, yet, she does survive.
St. Lawrence Blues (1973; Trans. Ralph Manheim, 1974)
In her introduction, Margaret Atwood describes this volume as “listening to the many voices of Quebec arguing among themselves”. The characters’ relationships to language are of central importance, reflecting the “colony within a colony within a colony” existence. (The lower classes are “oppressed by the rich French within Quebec and by the English who control both of them, oppressed in their turn by their economic positon via-a-vis the United States”.) The character of Ti-Pit, “Little Nobody”, guides readers through this territory, which is all about voice and character rather than plot, all about surviving rather than thriving. “It was all white and quiet, the wind had stopped whistling, our brothers and sisters were bent over their shovels and we could see boys and girls who seemed to be rowing down the boulevard on their snowshoes.”
Nights in the Underground (1978; Trans. Ray Ellenwood, 1979)
This later novel is preoccupied by answering the question, “But could a woman live by herself for long when everything inside her made her a social outcast?” Geneviève, as artist, recalls the earlier characters of Héloise and Pauline, as she struggles to find a place for herself, to make a space in which her voice can be heard. Meanwhile, relationships with other women take hold and dissolve. “But let her feel suddenly understood and loved and all those other women she suspected were her jailors escape from captivity themselves and quickly gather around to put the finishing touches to her happiness.” This is an atmospheric read, as much about feeling as plot, but still more about character in the end.
These are all the Blais novels I had on my shelves; in the end, I thought I would determine that would be enough of a sample. And it is enough, but only for now. Her focus on women’s lives, the way she peers into dark corners: I plan to explore further in the future.