Celebrated Quebec-born novelist and playwright Marie-Claire Blais dead at 82


MONTREAL – Celebrated Quebec-born author, poet and playwright Marie-Claire Blais has died at the age of 82.

Agence Goodwin, the agency that represented her, said she died Tuesday in Key West, Fla., where she had lived in recent years.

“Our whole hearts are with her family and her numerous friends, colleagues and admirers, here and abroad,” the agency wrote on social media.

Blais was born in 1939 in Quebec City and published her first novel, “La Belle Bête,” when she was just 20 years old.

That early success led to her receiving a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation at the suggestion of celebrated American critic Edmund Wilson.

Her best-known book, translated in English as “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel” and written with Wilson’s support, won her the Médici and France-Québec awards in 1966.

The novel tells the story of Emmanuel, who is the youngest child in a large family headed by a domineering grandmother. The story is also centred on his siblings and his parents, who refuse to live in misery despite the poverty and illness surrounding them.

The book, which was translated into about a dozen languages, is one of the most widely read Quebec novels in the world and spawned over 2,000 books, interviews, theses and critiques.

Blais told Radio-Canada in 1966 that receiving the Médici prize wouldn’t change her writing but was “very important for the heart.”

The author came from a family of modest means and was forced to interrupt her full-time studies to support herself. However, it was while taking night classes at Université Laval that she met two of the people who would help shape her future: literary critic Jeanne Lapointe and Rev. Georges-Henri Lévesque, from the university’s social sciences department.

Their support led to her publishing “La Belle Bête,” which was critically acclaimed but also criticized for being amoral due to a level of violence and coarse language that was uncommon for Quebec books of the era.

The story of the twisted relationship between an ugly young woman and her young brother, who is simple-minded but exceptionally beautiful, left an indelible mark on many readers and critics, some of whom wrote of the book’s “savagery.”

In addition to her more than 20 novels, all of which were translated into English, Blais also wrote six plays and several collections of poetry.

Some of her novels were made into movies or TV shows, including “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel” in 1968 and “Le Sourd dans la ville” in 1987.

She received numerous awards, including the Belgique-Canada literary prize, the Athanase-David in 1982, the Prince of Monaco in 2002, and in 2007 the Matt Cohen Award recognizing a lifetime of distinguished work, making her the first francophone writer to receive it.

In later years, she split her time between Florida, Montreal and Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

While she shied away from the spotlight, she was generous in interviews and with her colleagues, and served on the committees for several awards.

She was the one-time partner of American painter Mary Meigs, who died in 2002.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.

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