How to Read a Masterpiece

Coming to terms with Marie-Claire Blais
“Let it wash over you,” the man says. “Like body surfing, let the waves take you. Don’t try to touch bottom, and you won’t hit the rocks.” A burly guy with a voice like timber, Nigel Spencer is sitting at my kitchen table, talking into my tape recorder, addressing my despair. Weeks into this article about one of Canada’s most celebrated writers, a woman whose name is spoken with reverence in literary circles, whose books inspire a steady flow of commentary, and I still can’t get past the first page of her latest novel. Is it possible Marie-Claire Blais could be — as great minds have proclaimed — a genius, and also be unreadable? Or is it me?

Spencer’s translation of Naissance de Rebecca à l’ère des tourments will be published by House of Anansi Press this fall as Rébecca, Born in the Maelstrom, Blais’s twentieth novel and the fourth in an ambitious series launched a decade ago with Soifs (meaning “thirstings,” translated by Sheila Fischman as These Festive Nights). A vast fresco involving some 100 characters, the series has received dithyrambic reviews: “The Divine Comedy of our time,” proclaimed Le Devoir. The Globe and Mail opted for “a modernist masterpiece,” and a prominent French critic drew parallels between Blais and Virginia Woolf.

Both Soifs and Rebecca won Governor General’s Awards for French-language fiction, adding to the very long list of prizes and honours bestowed over the past fifty years on a demure Catholic school dropout who was twenty when her first novel, La belle bête, caused a literary sensation in 1959. Published a few months later in English as Mad Shadows, this slim Gothic twist on the idea of the Beauty and the Beast was hailed — and reviled — as a critique of Catholic Church–dominated society, an exposé of mind-body bifurcation resulting from religious orthodoxy. Many of the main themes of Quiet Revolutionary literature soon to be born were present: absent father, suffocating family, the creative soul struggling and failing to be free. If, half a century later, La belle bête fits more surely on the shelf with Edgar Allan Poe than in the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, it remains a reliable introduction to the vast Blaisian oeuvre that followed, in addition to the novels a slew of plays, books of poetry, diaries, and essays. Still, a strikingly original tale told with confidence and verve, though what it means is hard to say. ”Meaning? ” Blais’s long-time friend and publisher Barry Callaghan barks when I raise the subject. “Please remember what Susan Sontag said: be careful talking about meaning in literature. It’s always one step away from sociology, the lowest form of measurement.” Over the years, Callaghan’s small press, Exile Editions, has faithfully kept Blais’s early works in print even as she drifted into the prestige category for mainstream publishers. Although sales of her books range from modest to minuscule, there is no doubt in Callaghan’s mind that Marie-Claire Blais is one of Canada’s pre-eminent talents.

“A writer totally in touch with her voice, at the top of her game,” he insists. “She’s a supreme stylist. A writer like no other writer this country has produced. She will be remembered for the total authenticity of her vision.” That she isn’t in everybody’s bedside reading pile in either official language Callaghan puts down to the creeping “domestication” of literature. “People don’t read Marie-Claire because she’s too tough, too good.”

“She’s a monument,” says her Quebec publisher, Jean Bernier, of Éditions du Boréal. Nobody dares criticize her. As I make my way through the Quebec literati, people who know and revere her work, I find few except reviewers who’ve read the recent novels. Despite a brisk academic interest, Anansi expects to sell no more than 1,500 to 2,000 of Rébecca across North America. “She’s one of those writers who’s almost canonical,” says the Toronto firm’s publisher, Lynn Henry. “There’s a prestige involved in publishing her. We’re very aware of her status. I wish she could be a bestseller, but she isn’t.”

When I ask about her own experience reading Rébecca (which she also edited), Henry pauses. “You do have to let yourself go. It’s not a book you can pick up and put down. At the end, I wept, for a combination of reasons, I guess — the effort of reading and the reward. She presents the largest imaginable sense of humanity, a sublime vision of how the world works. There aren’t many writers working at that level.” 

I pick up the second volume in the series, Thunder and Light, translated by Spencer. The first sentence of the first page starts two-thirds of the way down with a large capital P, three columns deep, a design concept surely meant to draw the reader in visually. “Polly brushed her head against Carlos’s feet, their soles pink and curved in rubber sandals, for these were her refuge from danger, flailing the air and sand on the beach that was damp from ocean and salt . . . ” By the time the sentence ends — four pages, ten characters and several storylines later — I’ve figured out that Polly is a dog and the words mainly concern what is happening inside various minds, being thoughts and situations that have been going on for a while now, time being far from linear. The setting is a voluptuous Gulf island, although sometimes it’s somewhere else. The consciousness of the novel is splintered. I soon get lost, annoyed, stop reading. On the second attempt, I nod off.

Days later, I begin again with diligence and a pencil, underlining key bits of information, constructing a character chart on the inside cover, like the tool provided by Gabriel García Márquez’s publisher for readers approaching the labyrinth of One Hundred Years of Solitude. There are precedents for this kind of literature, reasons to persist. José Saramago’s Blindness, sparse punctuation a dizzying feeling of being blind. Gertrude Stein’s vertiginous thought stream. Ulysses, a single cacophonic day in Dublin telling all Joyce knew about the time and place of his birth. I make a mental note to dip into some of the other modernists whose works I have lugged around since university. Weeks go by. I realize I am not reading Marie-Claire Blais, and so decide to take a journalistic approach and hunt down the woman herself, to pry into the personal hoping for an entry into her daunting prose. 

It’s an American story. Eldest of five children born in 1939 to a working-class family in a suburb of Quebec, educated by the nuns until she drops out at fifteen, moves into town, and rents a room, seeking quiet and time to focus on her writing, already an established passion. Feeds a feverish imagination by reading Rimbaud, the Surrealists, Lautréamont, Dostoevsky. Catches the attention of a modern-minded Dominican priest, Père Georges-Henri Lévesque, who is then vice president of the Canada Council. He secures publication of La belle bête and a year-long grant for her to write in Paris. Upon her return, she is discovered by American critic Edmund Wilson during his grand tour of literary Canada (Toronto and Montreal), and hailed as “a true ‘phenomenon’” in his now-legendary tome O Canada, An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture.

A fall day in 1962: Wilson, a critical titan in his late sixties, is visiting Montreal with his fourth wife, Elena. He summons the young author for a drink at the Ritz on Sherbrooke Street West. Living in student digs near McGill, Blais is caught off guard, throws on a baggy sweater, and is mortified to find a dignified couple whose attire perfectly matches the dark blue velvet wallpaper of a very English establishment. Wilson is surprised, too. In his diaries, he mentions that her photos had led him to expect “a big tall rather coarse-featured country girl.” Instead, he is delighted by “an attractive little woman with well-developed breasts but tiny hands and feet, a sharp nose, a very small mouth, and deep-thinking, gray-green eyes.” She has, he adds, “the good, quiet manners and the very pure French that I suppose she learned from the nuns.”

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1 comment(s)

Nigel SpencerOctober 07, 2009 12:04 EST

Further to Ms. Ackerman's disquieting and honest conclusion, I think more and more as time goes by that Marie-Claire Blais gives us the benefit of how an archeologist from the future would view advance.

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