When a Canadian author’s name is floated as a possible successor to Alice Munro for the Nobel Prize in Literature, that name is usually Margaret Atwood. But this gives Marie-Claire Blais short shrift. The francophone author – who was born in 1939, the same year as Atwood – is one of the country’s most lauded writers, having won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction a staggering four times (Manuscrits de Pauline Archange, 1968; Le sourd dans la ville, 1979; Soifs, 1996; and Naissance de Rebecca à l’ère des tourments, 2008). She has been honoured as a Companion of the Order of Canada, a Knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France, and a Companion of the Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec, among a veritable trophy case full of other awards and distinguished honours. And yet, in English Canada, Blais is more spoken about (usually in hushed, reverent tones) than actually read.
“I’ve always had a rather limited readership,” says Blais on the phone from her home in Key West, Florida, where she has maintained a permanent residence since the late 1980s.
One gets the impression this doesn’t bother her much. As a writer, Blais has never made compromises with the style or subject matter in her work in the interest of pursuing a wider audience.
Born in Quebec City to a working-class family, her debut novel, 1959’s La belle bête (translated into English by Merloyd Lawrence as Mad Shadows), appeared when the author was only 20 years old and detonated like a bomb on Quebec’s literary landscape. The novel sharply divided critics, some of whom thought it was a masterpiece, some of whom thought it appalling in its misanthropy. In the afterword to the New Canadian Library edition, Daphne Marlatt suggests one possible reason the novel attained such early notoriety: “Blais writes with a double edge, reversing reality and fantasy as she reverses purity and impurity, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.” This is done via a highly literary, almost hallucinatory style that was in retrospect little more than a shot across the bow for what was to come.
This July, House of Anansi Press publishes Songs for Angel (translated by Katia Grubisic), the ninth book in English translation of a 10-volume novel cycle that is easily as ambitious as anything published in this country in the past quarter-century. Beginning with Soifs in 1995 (translated by Sheila Fischman as These Festive Nights), Blais has devoted herself to a sweeping history of the past 25 years in America, told through a vertiginous narrative that in total includes more than 200 characters – rich and poor, young and old, criminals and artists and drag queens – and clocks in at some 2,000 pages.
And then there is the style of the novels. Each individual book is written as a single paragraph, sometimes with the benefit of discrete sentences and full stops; in other cases without. The narration drops the reader into the flow of the characters’ psyches like whitewater rafters negotiating a particularly rocky cataract. Perspectives and time frames shift without warning or notice; dialogue, frequently unattributed, is presented without quotation marks. The author has extended this approach across 10 books – the final volume, Une réunion près de la mer, was published in 2018 by Les Éditions du Boréal in Quebec and Éditions du Seuil in France and will be published by Anansi in English in 2023 – that together represent a magnificent, if somewhat daunting, literary edifice.
The Soifs series, which draws heavily on modernist stream-of-consciousness writers like Virginia Woolf, along with the technical innovations of Thomas Bernhard and others, is stylistically exuberant, but clearly not a comfortable reading experience, especially in the context of some of its more violent or politically charged content. Blais seems to recognize this. “I thought my publisher in France and my publisher in Montreal and Anansi in Toronto were very courageous to have published These Festive Nights,” she says. That ambition inspired a 2019 stage adaptation, SOIFS Matériaux, based on material drawn from three of the novels and starring a cast of 25.
One of the difficulties in the novels arises out of what might be termed Blais’s radical empathy (to cadge a phrase originally applied to Zadie Smith): her insistence on viewing her characters, even the most reprehensible of them, as fully human. Songs for Angel features a white supremacist, known in the book only as the Young Man, in jail for a massacre at a Black church. While his manifesto and actions are clearly portrayed as hateful, Blais is also insistent on making sure the reader is unable to indulge an impulse to write off the Young Man as a clichéd monster, the easier to ignore him. “He’s like all monsters in history,” Blais says of her character. “We just want to put them aside and continue our lives.”
Much of the discomfort in Blais’s fiction comes from her resolute refusal to look away. She has internalized Akira Kurosawa’s dictum that being an artist means never averting your eyes. “It’s our duty as writers to penetrate these terrible things,” she says. “As writers, it’s very important to try to understand what’s happening in modern life.”
Having spent more than half a century staring modern life in the face, and having completed work on the cycle that has occupied her for more than 15 of those years, is Blais now ready to step back and enjoy retirement? “Writers don’t retire,” she says with finality. In fact, her new novel, Petites Cendres ou la capture, has been out in Quebec since March 2020 and will appear in France this September. Note to the Swedish Academy: just make the damn call already.