fb-pixel Skip to main content

Marie-Claire Blais, celebrated French Canadian novelist, dies at 82

Marie-Claire Blais, a French Canadian author who found wide acclaim with her brutally violent, verbally exuberant novels about suffering, rebellion, intimacy and family, died Nov. 30 in Key West, Fla. She was 82.

Her death was announced by the Goodwin Agency, which represented her but did not give a cause. Ms. Blais had split her time for many years between Florida and Quebec, where she was considered one of the province’s preeminent authors.

Although she never had a large audience in the United States, she cultivated an ardent readership in the French literary world and was a four-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, one of Canada’s top honors. French Canadian novelist Michel Tremblay called her “one of our greatest national treasures.”

Advertisement



Writing for the Globe and Mail in 2019, book critic Jade Colbert described Ms. Blais as “the 21st century’s Virginia Woolf,” noting the “stylistic innovation and moments of ecstatic clarity” in her recent novels, particularly in a 10-book cycle called “Soifs” (“Thirstings”) that Ms. Blais wrote in an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style, without paragraph or chapter breaks. An English translation of the cycle’s ninth installment, “Songs for Angel,” was published in July.

Her novels - she also wrote plays, radio dramas, television scripts and poetry — were filled with abusive priests, wayward nuns, illiterate farmers and delinquent children, and engaged with issues such as white supremacy, AIDS and nuclear war. Animals were tortured, blood was spilled; in her first book, a young woman shoves her brother’s head into a pot of boiling water before burning down their house.

“Personally, I don’t like suffering. I prefer serenity,” the publicity-shy Ms. Blais said in a rare interview with the Walrus, a Canadian magazine. “I am not at all a dark person; in fact, I love it when friends drag me away from writing and out to a bar, although sometimes I write in bars, too. It’s just that so many of my friends seem to have an aptitude for suffering.”

Advertisement



Ms. Blais was only 20 when she published her first novel, “La Belle Bête” (1959), a gothic tale of a neglected and resentful girl, her handsome and simple-minded younger brother and their widowed mother. Translated into English as “Mad Shadows,” the book received a French literary prize from the Académie Française in Paris and was adapted for the stage by the National Ballet of Canada.

"The book made me very uneasy," Canadian author Margaret Atwood later wrote, "for more than the obvious reasons: the violence, the murders, suggestions of incest and the hallucinatory intensity of the writing were rare in Canadian literature in those days, but even scarier was the thought that this bloodcurdling fantasy, as well as its precocious verbal skill, were the products of a girl of 19. I was 19 myself, and with such an example before me I already felt like a late bloomer."

Ms. Blais’s admirers also included literary critic Edmund Wilson, who helped her secure a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963. Two years later, he described her in his book “O Canada” as “a writer in a class by herself,” adding: “At the age of twenty-four, she has produced four remarkable books of a passionate and poetic force that, as far as my reading goes, is not otherwise to be found in French Canadian fiction.”

Advertisement



She received further acclaim for “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel” (1965), perhaps her best-known novel, about a rural French Canadian family and the birth of their 16th child. The family is so large that one unlucky boy is known simply as Number Seven, for his birth order. His siblings include Heloise, who joins a brothel; Pomme, who loses three fingers at a shoe factory; and the brilliant but consumptive Jean-Le Maigre, who writes poetry on sheets that his grandmother repurposes as toilet paper.

Although Ms. Blais said she struggled to finish the novel, feeling “completely defeated, broken” at times while trying to bring her characters to life, “Emmanuel” earned the Prix Médicis in France and was translated into a dozen languages.

“Somehow Blais manages to oppose and offset an unyielding realism with imagination, humor and a carnal innocence,” a Kirkus reviewer wrote. “Her book succeeds, incomparably, in capturing not only an existence but a sense of life.”

The oldest of five children, Marie-Claire Blais was born into a working-class family in Quebec City on Oct. 5, 1939. She was educated at a convent before leaving school at 15 to work as a clerk and typist.

On the side, she took classes at Université Laval, where her literary talent was noticed by Jeanne Lapointe, a professor and literary critic, and Georges-Henri Lévesque, a priest and sociologist. Their support helped her publish her first novel and obtain a Canada Council for the Arts grant, allowing her to begin writing full-time.

Advertisement



Ms. Blais soon moved to Paris and then the United States, where Wilson introduced her to a circle of writers and artists on Cape Cod, including painter and writer Mary Meigs and feminist Barbara Deming. The three women lived together for six years, and Ms. Blais remained a longtime partner of Meigs, who died in 2002.

Survivors include two brothers and two sisters, according to her agent, Patrick Leimgruber.

Ms. Blais’s other novels included “The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange” (1968) and “Deaf to the City” (1979), which both won the Governor General’s Prize. She was also honored for “Soifs” (1995), which was translated into English as “These Festive Nights” and kicked off her 10-volume series, set in an island town reminiscent of Key West.

The “Soifs” novels featured hundreds of characters, many of whom were modeled after drag queens, barflies, writers and painters that Ms. Blais met on the island, where she was part of a community of authors that included poet James Merrill and journalist John Hersey. Near the center of the cycle is a recurring character named Daniel, a middle-aged writer working on a multivolume series of his own.

The books were written in long, meandering sentences that became a trademark of Ms. Blais’s work in recent decades, inspired partly by what she described as “the acceleration of our lives.” The technique also served to bring her characters closer together, as Ms. Blais stitched together snatches of dialogue and internal monologues, moving freely between points of view.

“I became more and more in the habit of this kind of inner song that goes from you and I to them,” she told the Globe and Mail. “It gives a feeling of a complete humanity, that we know we are all alike because we are all living dramas.” She added, “It seems important to me in these books to go in the direction that we are all so collective.”

Advertisement