Posts Tagged ‘Marie-Claire Blais’

‘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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