“This was, and is, a kind of genius”: colleagues, publishers, and admirers recall the importance of Marie-Claire Blais, one of the finest writers Canada has ever produced

“She spoke from that seething, fermenting, francophone-Canadian sensibility,” writes Margaret Atwood. (Photo: Quill & Quire)

“She seemed to be eternal.”

That is how Canadian novelist Katherine Govier reacted on social media to the death, at age 82, of renowned Quebec author Marie-Claire Blais. The acclaimed novelist, poet, and playwright died at her home in Key West, Florida, on November 30. The cause of death has not been specified.

Govier was right: there was something about Blais – beyond her prodigious literary output, her steely gaze from behind black-lined eyes, and her wide-ranging intelligence – that marked her as somehow outside of time or conventional ideas of mortality. Readers of her fiction – especially the extraordinary ten-volume Soifs series begun in 1997 and completed in 2018 – knew her as a dynamic and vigorous excavator of human psychology able to slip with ease in and out of the minds and voices of a vast array of characters and situations.

In conversation, she was friendly and generous, but imbued with a fiery determination and drive. Asked earlier this year whether she was relieved to have come to the end of her novel cycle, she said no and gave the impression that the characters and the world she had created were so endlessly interesting to her that she would have no problem writing about them for another ten novels.

“I think it’s fascinating to write about such characters and people in our modern humanity,” she said in May of this year, as part of a phone conversation on the eve of the English-language publication of the ninth book in the series. Des chants pour Angel, translated by Katia Grubisic as Songs for Angel, appeared with House of Anansi in July. Anansi has plans to publish the final volume in the sequence, Un réunion près de la mer (as A Meeting by the Sea), at a date to be confirmed.

“I don’t know how you can switch to the past tense about a writer like her, a voice, a presence like that,” says Grubisic, subtly echoing Govier’s sentiment. Indeed, writing in an email about working with Blais on the translation of Des chants pour Angel, Grubisic falls back organically on the present tense. “Working with her words, speaking with her, can feel so huge, yet she’s not at all intimidating,” Grubisic writes. “She is the ideal artist insofar as she takes her work so seriously, but does not take herself seriously.”

“How I loved working with her,” says Louise Dennys, executive publisher and executive vice-president of Penguin Random House Canada, who in 1981 published the English translation of Blais’s 1979 novel Le sourd dans la ville (translated by Carol Dunlop as Deaf to the City) for her eponymous press Lester & Orpen Dennys. “She was always so gracious, a gentle soul (the backbone of iron notwithstanding), so that it was impossible not to love her.”

Born in 1939 in the working-class Quebec City neighbourhood of Limoilou, Blais was the eldest of five children. After spending her early years in convent school where she was taught by Catholic nuns, she quit high school at age fifteen and got herself an apartment where she spent all her free time writing. Her first novel, La belle bête, written when Blais was all of nineteen years old, was published in 1959. The author was twenty at the time.

It is hard to underestimate the seismic effect La belle bête had on Quebec literary society. The novel – about a homely young woman and her beautiful but idiotic younger brother – is a brutal and unsparing Gothic fable that sharply divided critics in the province. Some thought the book constituted an instant classic; others were outraged by what they considered its virulent immorality. In her afterword to Merloyd Lawrence’s English translation, which appeared in 1960 as Mad Shadows, Daphne Marlatt asserts that Blais “writes with a double edge, reversing reality and fantasy as she reverses purity and impurity, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.”

Soifs, the first volume in Blais’s ten-book cycle of modernist novels (published in English as These Festive Nights), won a Governor General’s Literary Award

One writer who was indelibly impressed by Blais’s astonishingly intense debut was Margaret Atwood. The two are contemporaries and in an essay for Liberté, which is also to be included in the upcoming collection Burning Questions, Atwood recalls feeling both admiration for Blais’s accomplishment and a degree of encouragement at the prospect of a writer being able to publish something so powerful and uncompromising in what was then the nascent CanLit landscape.

That said, Atwood also recognized that Blais arose out of a very specific franco-Canadian situation; her first novel was contiguous with the cultural and social reforms that would come to be known as the Quiet Revolution and Blais would be on the forefront of those changes. “She spoke from that seething, fermenting, francophone-Canadian sensibility,” Atwood writes, “formed by decades of repression by the Duplessis mini-dictatorship and also by the Church with its policy of the revanche des berceaux, with its mandated fifteen-children families.”

Though Blais did not see herself as a political writer, her early work is inextricable from the social and cultural milieu in which it developed. Speaking with the CBC’s Phillip Resnick in 1967, Blais located a certain rebelliousness in the writing of young Québécois writers, aligning herself with contemporaries such as Réjean Ducharme. “I am afraid of a political involvement with literature,” Blais told Resnick. “But some committed persons are very good writers too.”

Blais benefited early in her career from the intercession of two high-profile figures. George-Henri Lévèsque, at the time vice-president of the Canada Council for the Arts, helped the young writer get La belle bête published and advocated for her as a recipient of a Paris writing scholarship. But it was American critic Edmund Wilson who would prove an invaluable friend and early champion. Wilson discovered Blais while writing his 1963 book O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture. He was so impressed with the writer that he recommended her for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial fellowship; in the event, Blais secured two of them. Wilson wrote that Blais was “in a class by herself” and that she was “possibly a genius.”

“What was amazing about him was he really encouraged women writers,” Blais said about Wilson earlier this year. “At the time I met him, he was in his seventies, maybe, and he was travelling all around the world. He was so curious.”

The other person Blais singled out from her early days as being very supportive and influential is the late Toronto writer Scott Symons. “I think there’s something not understood about his personality among his fellows,” she said. “He had no idea how extraordinary he was when he was very young. He believed in the relationship between French-Canadian and English-Canadian writers. He was one of the first to believe in that.”

As someone who came of age in the context of Hugh MacLennan’s two solitudes, it is not surprising that Blais would latch on to an anglo writer with a desire to bridge those chasms. While her own writing has never been exactly comforting or middlebrow, she confided in conversation that she felt lucky in her early career to find support from people like Wilson, Symons, Atwood, Barry Callaghan, and others. As she matured, her work took on a much more technically challenging modernist aspect and her audience in English Canada shrank to the extent that she felt Anansi was “courageous” in agreeing to bring out Sheila Fischman’s translation of Soifs (which appeared in 1997 as These Festive Nights).

The novels that form the ten-volume Soifs cycle are indeed intimidating edifices: each written as a cascading single paragraph running some 200 pages apiece, some given the added guideposts of sentence breaks, others without. In total, the series runs to some 2,000 pages, features hundreds of named characters, and spans decades of American history from the vantage of an unnamed locale that closely resembles Florida’s Key West, where Blais maintained a home from the early 1980s. It is not uncommon to find the narrative point of view shifting within a single sentence; the polyphony and stream-of-consciousness approach has led to favourable comparisons with the high modernist writings of Virginia Woolf. It also led Marianne Ackerman, writing in The Walrus, to ask, “Is it possible Marie-Claire Blais could be – as great minds have proclaimed – a genius, and also be unreadable?”

The short answer to Ackerman’s query is no – at least, not if one understands how to read the novels. Ackerman quotes frequent Blais translator Nigel Spencer as saying, “Let it wash over you. Like body surfing, let the waves take you. Don’t try to touch bottom, and you won’t hit the rocks.” This is a sentiment, and an approach, with which Lisa Moore, who contributed the introduction to Anansi’s 2018 A List reprint of These Festive Nights, agrees. “It’s kind of a torrent of language, of images and characters, and if you accept that – which maybe it takes a few pages to do – it’s accessible,” Moore says.

“She wrote such wonderful, haunted novels that, for me, bridge the gap between experimental writing and the Gothic, linking the avant-garde work of her contemporaries, including older writers, like Sheila Watson and Hubert Aquin, with those that followed, including writers like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and even Tony Burgess,” says Brock University professor Gregory Betts. He associates Blais’s influence with those writers “who let language and landscape bear the trace of threat and even horror.”

For Dimitri Nasrallah, author and editor of Véhicule Books’ Esplanade Editions, Blais’s influence on Québécois literature is “unquestionable.” Nasrallah calls Blais’s writing “foundational” to the province’s literary culture, while also noting that throughout her career she operated as an exception to what was going on elsewhere within that culture. “Her work has been with us for so long that for several decades she was even taken for granted, and only in recent years has the reading public been reminded again of the sheer scope of her contribution and the timeless vitality of her challenging aesthetics.”

The French-language version of Rebecca, Born in the Maelstrom (Naissance de Rebecca à l’ère des tourments) won Blais her fourth Governor General’s Literary Award

A certain part of the reading public, that is. While Blais’s following in English Canada is fierce in its devotion, it is also small in number. “I’ve always had a rather limited readership,” Blais said, though one gets the impression that never really bothered her much. While she has been published abroad and translated into many languages, her audience outside of French Canada remains almost cult-like in its size and adoration. Writing in The New Yorker in 2019, Pasha Malla laments that Blais “never attracted a wide readership among her home country’s English-speaking population, and her work is practically unknown in the United States.”

The boutique nature of Blais’s audience belies the reverence with which she is held in the literary community. She won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language Fiction an astonishing four times, her 1966 novel Un saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel won France’s Prix Médicis and was adapted for film by Claude Weisz, she was a member of the Order of Canada, a Knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France, the only francophone writer to date to win the Writers’ Trust Matt Cohen Award, and the inaugural recipient of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix, among a score of other awards and honours.

“She certainly was not the kind of writer who was good at self-promotion,” says Linda Leith, publisher and founder of Blue Met. “She was both daring and bold in her work and in her life, but she was also very quiet and retiring and even maybe timid in some circumstances.”

Timid is not a word anyone would reach for to describe Blais’s fiction, and especially her early work, which remains as shocking and defiant today as when it first appeared. The Soifs series, with its agglomeration of artists and writers and drag queens and addicts and AIDS victims stands as one of the most extraordinary fictional edifices ever produced in Canada. For her radical empathy, her ability to inhabit a staggeringly extensive array of characters and diverse psychologies, her enthralling use of lyrical language, her sharp-eyed encapsulation of francophone Quebec culture and, later, contemporary American society – for all of this and more, she deserved the Nobel Prize. She still deserves a much wider readership than she has been afforded to this point.

All of this despite – or maybe even because of – the difficulty, individuality, and unclassifiability of her writing. “How to sum up a career like this?” Atwood asks in her essay. “It’s quite simply impossible. The richness, the variety, the inventiveness, the intensity are unusual in Québécois literature, or Canadian literature, or indeed any literature.”

Perhaps Lynn Henry, former publisher of House of Anansi Press and currently publishing director at Knopf Canada Penguin Random House puts it best in describing her reaction to Nigel Spencer’s Governor General’s Literary Award winning translation of Augustino et le choeur de la destruction, published in English by Anansi as Augustino and the Choir of Destruction:

I still remember reaching the final line of the first draft of the manuscript and sitting there, weeping, stunned. Part of the weeping was for the sheer effort of reading the single sentence that comprised the book, a sentence that pierced and stitched and wound its way through not only 200-and-some pages but through the beating heart of a universe of characters; and part of it was for the inexpressibly powerful reward of that reading, of finally giving yourself over and allowing yourself to be washed away and broken apart by such a sentence, just as her characters gave themselves over and were broken apart (and sometimes reassembled) by the onward flow of life itself. This was, and is, a kind of genius.

“This was, and is, a kind of genius”: colleagues, publishers, and admirers recall the importance of Marie-Claire Blais, one of the finest writers Canada has ever produced