Marie-Claire Blais first appeared on the literary landscape fully formed at the age of 20; her debut, La Belle Bête (translated into English as Mad Shadows), caused a furor in her home province of Quebec. The novel’s ferocious intensity and cruelty announced a new kind of writer in the recondite French Canadian cultural sphere of 1959; it has been argued – credibly – that Blais helped anticipate (if not precipitate) the Quiet Revolution that began the following year.
When the author died in 2021, she left behind a remarkable literary edifice that, in the words of her almost exact contemporary Margaret Atwood, “spoke from that seething, fermenting, francophone-Canadian sensibility – formed by decades of repression by the Duplessis mini-dictatorship and also by the Church.” Repression, in fact, might be considered the bête noire of the author’s entire oeuvre, a force she battled against with every fibre of her writerly being. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her last novel, 2021’s Un cœur habité de mille voix, now published in English as Nights Too Short to Dance.
The novel, presented here in Katia Grubisic’s fluent and fluid translation, tells the story of René, a trans man in his 90s. A former activist for LGBTQ+ rights – he was present at the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 in New York City – he is now housebound and confined more or less to bed, where he is tended to by a beautiful Russian transplant named Olga. René’s minder refuses to acknowledge his gender identity, insisting on calling him “Madame,” despite his repeated protestations. René is visited by his close friend Louise, a cancer survivor, who reminisces with him about the old days, most particularly their bohemian circle of friends and fellow rabble-rousers.
Nights Too Short to Dance is written in the late-career style Blais employed in her acclaimed Soifs series of novels: large blocks of text comprising unbroken paragraphs with few full stops. Sentences unfurl over multiple pages, often floating in and out of different perspectives and time frames in the course of a single clause. Lisa Moore, in the introduction to the reprint of These Festive Nights, the first of the Soifs books, refers to this as “proprioception”: the ability to zoom in for an extreme close-up, then pull back to provide a full panorama view. Any reader unfamiliar with this style might find the appearance of page after page after page of unbroken text daunting; what is remarkable is how smoothly a willing reader can become absorbed in the narration without confusion or loss of place.
If Mad Shadows was an angry young person’s novel, Nights Too Short to Dance is the product of a writer at the end of her life looking back on past glories. It is a memory novel that spends much of its time lamenting the loss of youthful vitality and the decay inherent in aging. “[O]ld people talked too much,” René thinks at one point late in the novel, “they rambled, there was no need to be any more like an old person than was absolutely necessary.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the intensity of Blais’s earlier writing is here supplanted by a kind of laconic melancholy; bursts of anger do break through, but the dominant tone here is muted.
The anger that does appear is in opposition to ongoing discrimination against queer people across decades, and most particularly against the trans community, which continues to battle for its very existence. René bemoans his “mendacious body,” with its duplicitous breasts and female genitalia. (There is an irony in the fact that it is cisgender Louise who loses one of her breasts to disease, while René refuses top surgery and must live his life with the constant reminder of his misaligned gender assignment at birth.)
The characters in the novel simply want to live their lives as they desire, without fear of violent reprisal for the crime of expressing who they essentially are. The majority of characters in the book have changed their names: Vanessa Laflamme becomes Johnie, Christie adopts the moniker l’Abeille (the bee) because of her role as queen to a hive of followers, and Anne-Sophie, the daughter of an acclaimed actress, changes her stage name to Doudouline when she begins to pursue a career in music. All the name changes in the book are emblematic of a communal desire to live freely, according to one’s own dictates and regardless of societal proscriptions or disapproval.
“[T]hat was their most glorious achievement,” Louise thinks at one point, “to break with propriety.” From René’s perspective, such a break is absolutely essential in order to live an authentic life: “René was above all a being, regardless of gender.” As René is surrounded in the novel’s final part by the figures from his past (those that are still alive, at any rate), the novel moves away from melancholy toward a tentative hope for the future. René encourages his friends to attend the 2021 Women’s March on Washington as an extension of his activism and a show of solidarity. At the end of a life spent fighting for the right to live as he pleases, René is left with his friend’s defiant invocation: “you have to spread beauty everywhere, you can’t let ugliness win.”