A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ by Marie-Claire Blais – A Wild, Wicked, Woeful, Wonderful Novel

 

‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ by Marie-Claire Blais (1966) – 145 pages         Translated from the French by Derek Coltman

I discovered Canadian writer Marie-Claire Blais through a recent article in the New Yorker entitled “Will American Readers Ever Catch on to Marie-Claire Blais?”

‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ is a wicked, wicked novel; it is diabolically outrageous and wonderful. I loved it. The way I look at it is that what Joseph Heller did to World War II in Catch-22, Marie-Claire Blais does to the Quebec farm family. Blais exagerates the prevailing attitudes on the farm to the point of ridiculousness. Perhaps it is my small poor farm background which caused me to love this novel.  Gallows humor and biting coruscating irony come to a farm in Quebec. There is not one iota of sentimentality in this novel, and that is just fine with me.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of new-born baby Emmanuel. He was born without fuss today, and his mother is already back outside working on their farm. There are 16 children in this Catholic family, about one a year. Old Grand-mere Antoinette watches over all the little children in the family who are too young to work yet. Grand-mere Antoinette is ancient but she runs the household and she expects to live forever. She is a stern and very religious taskmaster.

Most of the older children are outside working on the farm but Jean-Le Maigre stays inside because he is tubercular and the family knows he is going to die soon. Grand-mere is looking forward to his death because she knows he will be going to a better place then.

There had been so many funerals during the years that Grand-mere Antoinette had reigned in her house, so many little black corpses, in the wintertime, children always disappearing, babies who had only lived a few months, adolescents who had vanished mysteriously in the fall, or in the spring. Grand-mere Antoinette allowed herself to be rocked gently in the swell of all these deaths, suddenly submerged in a great and singular feeling of content.”

Jean-Le Maigre is in his usual spot under the kitchen table with his head in a book. That is the only place he can get some quiet time among all the squawking kids. Jean Le Maigre also does a lot of writing. However his farmer father thinks school and learning and reading and writing are a waste of time.

I had been leaving my Greek prose, my funeral orations, my fables, and my tragedies lying around all over the house for some time before I discovered that my father had consigned them to the latrine as fast as I could write them. What a disappointment!”

Also one of the daughters Heloise stays in her room while the others are all outside working. Heloise is a rabid religious zealot with a love of suffering. Grand-mere Antoinette sends her off to the church in order to prepare her for a life in the convent, but Heloise proves too fanatical even for the Mother Superior to handle.

There is a very different future in store for Heloise which Marie-Claire Blais hints at early on when she mentions that Heloise’s temptations turned more and more to something she didn’t recognize as desire. Let’s just say that Heloise winds up being the one economic success story in the family.

Jean Le Maigre also gets sent to the church school by Grand-mere for religious classes. At the church there is a Brother Theodule who “during the melancholy hours spends chasing little boys around the noviciat’s evil-smelling corridors”.

That man has chosen our sons to prey upon.”


Blais is prescient about the Catholic scandals to come.  Brother Theodule is kicked out of the church school but later reappears around town and is given the appropriate name Brother Theo Crapula.

I had not read a novel that so successfully used grim gallows humor in a long time, but Marie-Claire Blais also uses the humor to make some devastating points about life and religion.

Once in a while I will find an unknown older novel that beats everything that is written today. That is what happened here.

 

Grade:     A+

 

 

2 responses to this post.

  1. I didn’t like this book at all, if I let my emotions talk. Rationally thinking, it’s an excellent novella even if I recoiled at its bleakness. The religious stuff put me off too. There’s a billet on my blog if you’re interested.

    I think that Québec literature is wastly understated by Anglophone readers. If you haven’t read it yet, I really really recommend The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy and The Fat Woman Next Door is pregnant by Michel Tremblay.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi Emma.
      The way I look at is that what Joseph Heller did to World War II in Catch-22, Marie-Claire Blais does to the Quebec farm family. Blais exagerates the prevailing attitudes on the farm to the point of ridiculousness. Perhaps it is my small poor farm background which caused me to love this novel.
      I read your lines on ‘Emmanuel’, and, yes, it is bleak and violent. However it is over-the-top in its bleakness to the point of outrageous humor and penetrating insight into the prevailing attitudes. So the grandmother look’s forward to the boy’s death, because he will be going to a better place, and the deeply religious daughter winds up being a prostitute in town and sends money home to her poor farm family.
      This is my first foray into French literature from Quebec, and was for me outrageously successful.

      Like

      Reply

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