Quebec writer Marie-Claire Blais, once the enfant terrible of French Canadian fiction, has died at the age of 82
Groundbreaking Quebec author Marie-Claire Blais, once known as the enfant terrible of French Canadian fiction, has died in Key West, Florida, at the age of 82. The news of her Nov. 30 passing was confirmed by her English-language publisher, House of Anansi Press.
Blais was born in Quebec City in 1939. Her family was not wealthy and she was forced to interrupt her full-time studies to support herself. 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 the critically acclaimed novel “La Belle Bête” when she was 20 years old. The novel was criticized for being amoral, with a level of violence and coarse language that was uncommon for Quebec books in the late 1950s.
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.”
Her reputation was cemented with novels that became classics including “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel.” Both it and “Mad Shadows” (the English name for “La Belle Bête”) became must-reads on school curricula, but they also gained Blais an international reputation.
As a Star article noted in 2002, these works by “the former enfant terrible of French Canadian literature” earned the praise of the late American critic Edmund Wilson in his book “O Canada” in which he called her: “a true phenomenon, possibly a genius.” It was Wilson’s influence that led to her receiving a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation after the publication of “La Belle Bête.”
Her best known book, translated in English as “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel,” won her the Médici and France-Québec awards in 1966 and was made into a movie.
The novel tells the story of Emmanuel, 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 was translated into about a dozen languages 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.”
In a 1993 review of her novel “Pierre,” the Star’s reviewer referred to Blais as “the great Quebecoise writer” and said of her that, “Exploring the underbelly of our society is, of course, nothing new for Blais. In her numerous previous novels the author has often written about isolated and desperate young people alienated by the world in which they find themselves. That she does it with an intoxicating lyricism, neither romanticizing nor condemning, is testament to the imaginative powers of her prose, which shines through again in what seems to be (despite the unforeseen circumstances) another fluid translation.”
Before her death, Blais had finished a 10-book cycle, the ninth book of which, titled “Songs for Angel,” came out in English in July. The 10th book is now available in French from her Quebec publisher, Éditions du Boreal, and House of Anansi will publishing it in English at a date to be confirmed. “A Meeting by the Sea” is the tentative title.
Anansi released a statement Wednesday saying, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of internationally revered author Marie-Claire Blais. The author of more than 25 books, many of which have been published around the world, Marie-Claire was a trail-blazing Canadian writer and an inspiration to authors around the world.”
They added on Twitter that “She was a dear friend and we will miss her.”
Éditions du Boreal published its own tribute on its website, including this mention from the New Yorker, which called her “one of the most distinctive and original living writers of fiction.”
As word of her death became more widely known, English-language social media soon filled with remembrances of Blais, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who wrote that “Marie-Claire Blais’ career spanned several decades — but it was clear early on that her talents and her creativity were unique. She left her mark on Quebec culture and Canadian literature, and I know her legacy will last. My condolences to her family, friends, and many fans.”
Laura Brady, who worked as a designer on Blais’s books, tweeted that: “I have typeset many of her translated books and let me tell you how hard it is to typeset 300 pages with eight sentences, no chapter or paragraph breaks. She was a unique genius.”
Quebec writer Heather O’Neill tweeted, “The first writer I ever went to see read at the library when I was 13, and who had an immense impact on my writing, Marie-Claire Blais has passed away. Au revoir.”
In addition to her more than 20 novels, all of which were translated into English, Blais wrote six plays and several collections of poetry.
She received numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, which she won four times, the Gilles-Corbeil Prize, the Molson Prize, the Belgique-Canada literary prize, the Athanase-David, the Prince of Monaco prize and, in 2007, the Matt Cohen Award recognizing a lifetime of distinguished work, making her the first francophone writer to receive it.
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.
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