Posts Tagged ‘Marie-Claire Blais’

The Difficulties and the Delights of ‘A Twilight Celebration’ by Marie-Claire Blais

 

A Twilight Celebration’ by Marie-Claire Blais (2015) – 255 pages       Translated from the French by Nigel Spencer

Again I have read Marie-Claire Blais. She is a highly lauded author originally from Quebec who has written many novels and has earned some of the highest literary awards in French literature. She has even been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of her work has been translated into English including  ‘A Twilight Celebration’ which I have recently read. So how come is it that when I go to GoodReads there is not one review of ‘A Twilight Celebration’ there? Very strange. To remedy that sad situation, I posted this review there this morning.

I have read enough of Marie-Claire Blais to know that whatever difficulties her text presents, it will ultimately be worth my while. First I am going to explain the difficulties I encountered in reading ‘A Twilight Celebration’, and then proceed to describe how this novel finally transfixed me.

Marie-Clare Blais makes no concessions to her readers when in the pursuit of her vision. The entire novel is one long paragraph composed of about twenty sentences. It tries to capture the rapid-fire stream of thoughts that pass through several collective individuals’ minds in what Pasha Malla in the New Yorker calls “dizzying cascades of language”. There are several seemingly unrelated plot scenes, and Blais switches from one scene to another scene in mid-sentence without warning the reader. So you might start one sentence reading about Daniel at his writers conference in Scotland and wind up the sentence reading about transsexual Victroire dancing on stage in San Francisco. Along the way you also may have dealt with Angel’s misfortunes or Petites Cendres’s struggles somewhere else.

Actually Marie-Claire has written a ten-novel cycle about these same characters. I started with one of the later numbers in the cycle because with Marie-Claire Blais, as with Virginia Woolf, plot doesn’t much matter.

If your plan is to read only complete sentences at one time, forget about it. The few periods appear inconspicuously, and you will probably miss them. What really stunned me was that after several of her rare end-of-sentences, she would start her next sentence with “And”. Apparently everything in Blais’ world is connected.

I must say that at first I resented the author for not making her work less difficult for me to follow. I don’t like to have my inadequacies as a reader shoved in my face. I would have much preferred that this novel had been written in the relatively straightforward manner of Blais’ brilliant ‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’. ‘A Twilight Celebration’ does get easier to comprehend and appreciate as you go along.

However, on to the delights of reading ‘A Twilight Celebration’.

‘A Twilight Celebration’ is intense, driven, and heartfelt. I suppose you might call this stream of revelations a reverie, but Blais gets it right – the actions and events that are occurring in front of us intrude on our reverie. This is not a distant reverie but instead an engaged reverie. Some of the reflections as well as some of the actual events are strikingly vivid.

The subjects of Marie-Claire Blais are those who are oppressed in this world, the social outcasts and those marginalized persons who lead rough lives. She deals with political, religious, and especially sexual oppression. One of her subjects is mothers who are left stranded by men with whom they had loveless relationships and one baby or more. The forces of society make it particularly difficult for these mothers.

Here is a good statement of the theme:

we need to get beyond this world that reeks of the worst kind of prejudice,”

Here is a good example of the writing in the novel, this one from the poet Daniel. Of course it begins in mid-sentence.

we are the cantors of a fury too long contained, even asphyxiated, by a hypocritical society that reduces its poets to positions of inertia and impotence, paying them so little heed they end up dying,”

Here is one last example. This concerns the transsexual Victroire as he prepares to dance on stage.

you’re not the lonely fighter you think you are, soon enough you will be teaching the most rigid sectors of society not only basic tolerance but respect, so I’m telling you, Victroire, don’t be afraid, don’t be intimidated by threats and bald-faced blackmail, oh my Victroire, you’ll make love work for everybody, the young are listening to you,”

What if I find it more rewarding to comprehend 60% of what Marie-Claire Blais writes in ‘A Twilight Celebration’ than comprehending 100% of what some other writers write?

Finally, I cannot grade ‘A Twilight Celebration’. My reactions to it are just too complex. This is the second novel that I have refused to grade. The other was written by Jane Bowles.  I encourage you to give ‘A Twilight Celebration’ a try.

 

Grade:    ?

 

 

‘Mad Shadows’ by Marie-Claire Blais – A Fractured Fairy Tale

 

‘Mad Shadows’ by Marie-Claire Blais (1959) – 123 pages Translated from the French by Merloyd Lawrence

After reading ‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’, I wanted to read more, more, more fiction by Marie-Claire Blais, so now I have read ‘Mad Shadows’. ‘Mad Shadows’ was her first novel and was published in Canada when Blais was only 19 years old.

‘Mad Shadows’ is a gruesome cruel family story about a mother and her two children. It has the simple stark intensity of a fairy tale.

After the death of her husband, the mother Louise was left with her two children. She is proud and devoted to the point of obsession with her beautiful younger boy Patrice.

His mother caressed the nape of his neck with the palm of her hand. With a gentle slip of her all-too-supple wrist she could lower Patrice’s head to her bosom and hear his breathing more easily.”

However the mother considers her daughter Isabelle-Marie who is three years older than the boy to be ugly and not worthy of any attention at all.

Louise’s hand clutched the frail shoulder. Her nails pierced the skin. All her contempt for her daughter spurted like pus from her skin.”

The mother sends the daughter out to work in the fields while the mother dallies in the house with the boy. The daughter believes herself to be ugly and is insanely jealous of her brother.

There are two other characters in this cruel fairy tale of a novel. The mother Louise goes off for a short vacation and brings back this guy Lanz who she marries and who temporarily displaces her son for her attentions.

Later daughter Isabelle-Marie meets and marries the blind young man Michael who she thinks loves her as long as he cannot see her.

As in ‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’, some readers might find ‘Mad Shadows’ too extreme, too over-the-top, for their tastes. However the art or talent that I admire in the writing of Marie-Claire Blais is that she deals with powerful deep painful emotions and situations in a highly original way.

I am now hopelessly addicted to this writer, Marie-Claire Blais. I have one of her later novels (She is still producing novels), ‘A Twilight Celebration’, on my wish list for Christmas.

 

Grade:   A

 

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+

 

 

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