Although she never had a large following in the United States, she cultivated an ardent readership in the French literary world and was a four-time recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award, one of Canada’s highest honors. . French-Canadian novelist Michel Tremblay called it “one of our greatest national treasures.”
Writing for The Globe and Mail in 2019, book reviewer Jade Colbert described Ms Blais as “the Virginia Woolf of the 21st century”, noting the “stylistic innovation and moments of ecstatic clarity” in her recent novels, particularly in a cycle of 10 books titled “Soifs” (“Thirst”) that Ms. Blais wrote in an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style, with no paragraph or chapter breaks. An English translation of the ninth installment of the cycle, “Songs for Angel”, was published in July.
Her novels – she also wrote plays, radio dramas, television scripts and poetry – were filled with abusive priests, wayward nuns, illiterate farmers and delinquent children, and tackled issues such as white supremacy, AIDS and nuclear war. Animals were tortured, blood was spilled; in her first book, a young woman plunges her brother’s head into a pot of boiling water before setting their house on fire.
“Personally, I don’t like to suffer. I prefer serenity, ”said Ms. Blais, shy in advertising, in a rare interview with the Walrus, a Canadian magazine. “I’m not a dark person at all; in fact, I love it when friends take me away from writing and into a bar, although sometimes I also write in bars. It’s just that so many of my friends seem to have an aptitude for suffering.
Ms. Blais was only 20 when she published her first novel, “La Belle Bête” (1959), a gothic tale about a neglected and resentful young girl, her handsome and simple-minded younger brother, and their widowed mother. Translated into English under the title “Mad Shadows”, the book received a French literary prize from the French Academy in Paris and was adapted for the stage by the National Ballet of Canada.
“The book made me very uncomfortable,” Canadian author Margaret Atwood later wrote, “for more than obvious reasons: the violence, the murders, the suggestions of incest, and the hallucinatory intensity of writing were rare in Canadian literature at the time, but even more frightening was the thought that this bloodcurdling fantasy, as well as her precocious verbal skill, were the products of a 19-year-old girl. I was 19 myself, and with such an example in front of me, I already felt like a late bloomer.
Ms. Blais’ admirers also included literary critic Edmund Wilson, who helped her secure a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963. Two years later, he described her in his book “O Canada” as “a writer in a class apart,” adding: “At the age of twenty-four, she produced four remarkable books of a passionate and poetic force that, according to my readings, is not otherwise found in French-Canadian fiction.
She won acclaim for “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel” (1965), perhaps her best-known novel, about a rural French-Canadian family and the birth of their 16th child. The family is so large that one unlucky boy is simply known as number seven, for his birth order. Her siblings include Héloïse, who joins a brothel; Pomme, who loses three fingers in a shoe factory; and the brilliant but voracious Jean-Le Maigre, who writes poetry on sheets that his grandmother reuses as toilet paper.
Although Ms Blais said she struggled to finish the novel, at times feeling “completely defeated, broken” trying to bring her characters to life, “Emmanuel” won the Prix Médicis in France and was translated into a dozen of languages.
“Somehow [Ms.] Blais manages to oppose and balance an inflexible realism with imagination, humor and a carnal innocence,” wrote a critic of Kirkus. “His book succeeds, incomparably, in capturing not just an existence but a meaning of life.”
The eldest of five children, Marie-Claire Blais was born into a working-class family in Quebec City on October 5, 1939. She was educated in a convent before leaving school at age 15 to work as a clerk and typist.
At the same time, she took courses at Laval University, where her literary talent was noticed by Jeanne Lapointe, professor and literary critic, and Georges-Henri Lévesque, priest and sociologist. Their support helped her publish her first novel and obtain a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, allowing her to start writing full time.
Ms. Blais soon moved to Paris and then to the United States, where Wilson introduced her to a circle of Cape Cod writers and artists, including painter and writer Mary Meigs and feminist Barbara Deming. The three women lived together for six years and Ms Blais remained a longtime partner of Meigs, who died in 2002.
The survivors include two brothers and two sisters, according to his agent, Patrick Leimgruber.
Other novels written by Ms. Blais include “The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange” (1968) and “Deaf in the City” (1979), both of which won the Governor General’s Award. She was also honored for “Thirsts” (1995), which was translated into English as “These Festive Nights” and launched her 10-volume series, set in an island town reminiscent of Key West.
The “Soifs” novels featured hundreds of characters, many of them inspired by the drag queens, barflies, writers and painters Ms. Blais met on the island, where she was part of a community of authors that included the poet James Merrill and the journalist John. Hersey. Near the center of the cycle is a recurring character named Daniel, a middle-aged writer working on his own multi-volume series.
The books were written in long, winding sentences that have become a hallmark of Ms. Blais’ work over the past few decades, inspired in part by what she described as “the acceleration of our lives.” The technique also served to bring her characters together, as Ms. Blais stitched together snippets of dialogue and internal monologues, moving freely between viewpoints.
“I’ve become more and more used to this kind of inner song that goes from you and me to them,” she told The Globe and Mail. “It gives a sense of complete humanity, that we know we’re all the same because we’re all living drama.” She added, “I think it’s important in these books to go in the direction that we’re all so collective.”