Avant-garde Quebec author Marie-Claire Blais, formerly known as enfant terrible of French-Canadian fiction, died in Key West, Florida, at the age of 82. News of his passing on November 30 was confirmed by his English-language publisher, House of Anansi Press.
Blais was born in Quebec in 1939. Her family was not wealthy and she was forced to interrupt her full-time studies to support herself. It was while taking evening classes at Laval University that she met two people who would help shape her future: literary critic Jeanne Lapointe and the Rev. Georges-Henri Lévesque, from the university’s humanities department. Their support led her to publish the critically acclaimed novel “La Belle Bête” at the age of 20. The novel was criticized for its amorality, with a level of violence and coarse language uncommon for Quebec books in the late 1950s.
The story of the twisted relationship between an ugly young woman and her simple-minded but exceptionally handsome younger brother has left an indelible mark on many readers and critics, some of whom have written of the book’s “wildness”. .
His reputation was cemented with novels that became classics, including “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel”. The latter and “Mad Shadows” (the English name for “La Belle Bête”) have become essential reading material for school curricula, but they have also earned Blais an international reputation.
As a 2002 Star article noted, these works by “the former enfant terrible of French-Canadian literature” won praise from the late American critic Edmund Wilson in his book “O Canada” in which he called him: “a real phenomenon, maybe a genius.” It was Wilson’s influence that led her to receive a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship after the publication of “La Belle Bête”.
His best-known book, translated into English under the title “A Season in the Life of Emmanuel”, won him the Prix Médici and France-Québec in 1966 and was adapted for film.
The novel tells the story of Emmanuel, the youngest child of a large family led by a dominating grandmother. The story also centers on his siblings and parents, who refuse to live in misery despite the poverty and disease that surrounds them.
The book has been translated into a dozen languages and has spawned over 2,000 books, interviews, theses and reviews.
Blais told Radio-Canada in 1966 that receiving the Prix Médici would not change anything in his writing, but that it was “very important for the heart”.
In a review of her novel “Pierre” in 1993, the critics of the Star described Blais as “a great Quebec writer” and said of her: “Exploring the underside of our society is, of course, nothing new for Blais. In his many previous novels, the author has often written about isolated and desperate young people, alienated from the world in which they find themselves. That she does so with an intoxicating lyricism that is neither romanticizing nor condemning speaks to the imaginative powers of her prose, which shines through again in what appears to be (despite the unforeseen circumstances) another fluent translation.
Before his death, Blais had completed a 10-book cycle, the ninth book of which, titled “Songs for Angel”, was released in English in July. The 10th book is now available in French from its Quebec publisher, Éditions du Boréal, and House of Anansi will publish it in English on a date to be confirmed. “A Meeting by the Sea” is the working title.
Anansi released a statement on Wednesday saying, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of internationally acclaimed author Marie-Claire Blais. Author of more than 25 books, many of which have been published around the world, Marie-Claire was a pioneering Canadian writer and a source of inspiration for authors around the world.
They added on Twitter that “she was a dear friend and will be missed.”
Éditions du Boréal published their own tribute on their website, including this mention from The New Yorker, which called her “one of the most distinctive and original writers of living fiction”.
As news of her death became more widely known, English-language social media quickly filled with memories of Blais, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who wrote that “Marie-Claire Blais’ career spanned several decades – but it was clear from the start that his talents and creativity were unique. She marked Quebec culture and Canadian literature, and I know that her legacy will last. My condolences to his family, friends and many fans. »
Laura Brady, who worked as a graphic designer on Blais’s books, tweeted: “I have composed several of his translated books and let me tell you how difficult it is to compose 300 pages with eight sentences, without chapters or paragraph break. She was a unique genius.
Quebec writer Heather O’Neill tweeted: “The first writer I went to see read at the library when I was 13 and who had a huge impact on my writing, Marie-Claire Blais has passed away. Bye.”
In addition to his more than 20 novels, all translated into English, Blais has written six plays and several collections of poetry.
She has received numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Prize for Fiction, which she won four times, the Gilles-Corbeil Prize, the Molson Prize, the Belgium-Canada Literary Prize, the Athanase-David Prize, the Prince of Monaco and, in 2007, the Matt Cohen Prize for a lifetime of distinguished work, making her the first French-speaking writer to receive it.
As she shunned the spotlight, she was generous in interviews and with her colleagues, and served on committees for several awards.
She was the former partner of American painter Mary Meigs, who died in 2002.
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