Marie-Claire Blais : Cultural Context
by Marie Couillard
The year 2004 will mark the 45th anniversary of Marie-Claire Blais' career as an author. She first appeared on the Quebec literary scene in 1959 when, at barely 19 years of age, she published her novel La Belle Bête [Mad Shadows]. Six years later, literary Paris awarded Blais the Prix Médicis for her novel Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel [A Season in the Life of Emmanuel], a work that is at once a fairy tale, an experimental novel and a denunciation of a particular Quebec society. The award helped make the novel a literary classic in Quebec and Canada and propelled its author to the forefront of world literature, where, thanks to her ever-evolving writing, she has remained ever since.
Since 1985, through a number of acquisitions, Library and Archives Canada has been able to create a substantial fonds dedicated to Marie-Claire Blais, which brings to light her many talents as an artist and allows us to witness her writing practices. The Marie-Claire Blais fonds can be broken down into three distinct categories: her personal journals or "notebooks", as the author calls them; manuscript notebooks; and preparatory documentation such as typewritten drafts and manuscripts of novels, poems and plays, and correspondence.
The personal notebooks are by far the most varied and colourful category of the fonds. There are fifteen such notebooks, all handwritten by Blais during her stay in the United States -- first in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then during the years she lived in Wellfleet, Massachusetts -- as well as during her travels to France, Portugal, Great Britain, Morocco and her stay in Sulniac, Brittany (France). Her most recent notebooks recount the years she spent between the Estrie region of Quebec and Key West, Florida.
Early on, Blais documented her studious living on a day by day basis: her readings of great writers and thinkers like Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Camus, Kafka, Proust, Woolf and Plato; and her learning of languages (English, German and Italian), music, in particular the flute, and drawing and painting. We can examine her drawing and painting because her notebooks contain some two hundred illustrations -- abstractions, landscapes, profiles and faces, anonymous for the most part -- inspired by Matisse, Chagall, Nolde and Picasso, and created in a range of mediums including ink, pencil, pastels, water colours and gouache. The illustrations spill into the margins and fill the pages, breathing life into texts that are rich in ideas.
The personal notebooks relate, among other things, the young writer's conversations with the people she saw everyday and her jaunts to Provincetown or Boston and elsewhere in the world, as witnessed by the unused portions of tickets for planes, trains, ferries and subways attached to or simply inserted between the pages. She discusses the shows and concerts she saw or heard, as well as her worries about her health, material concerns and problems with publishers . . . and critics. The more recent notebooks, however, relate the everyday details and concerns of a writer at the pinnacle of her art.
The personal notebooks are also a journal of Blais' work. In them, Blais commented on her writing projects and the texts she was writing at the time: the challenges, the creation of her characters, what she really wanted to express and how she intended to do so. We can thus participate, as it were, in the writing of novels such as Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel (1965), L'Insoumise [The Fugitive] (1966), the trilogy of Les Manuscrits de Pauline Archange [The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange] (1968-1970), Le Loup [The Wolf] (1972), Un Joualonais sa Joualonie [St. Lawrence Blues] (1973), L'Ange de la solitude [The Angel of Solitude] (1989), Soifs [These Festive Nights (1995), the play L'Exécution [The Execution] (1968), as well as other novels that would not be published, notably Le Testament de Jean-Le-Maigre and L'Amour oisif ou Les ironies.
The notebooks also contain accounts of Blais' encounters with renowned American literary critic Edmund Wilson, his wife and their friends, and Blais' fascination with their culture and the scope of their knowledge. This is contrasted with her amazement of the "hardship" of living in a country marked by violence and her confusion and dismay about the ravages of war, in this case the war in Vietnam. These are the thoughts she would go on to explore in Parcours d'un écrivain : Notes américaines [American Notebooks: A Writer's Journey] (1993), a series of articles first written for the paper Le Devoir, then published as a collection, for which the manuscript is also part of the Marie-Claire Blais fonds. In the articles, Blais ponders her first years in the United States, an incredibly productive period, a period of learning marked by deep reflections about her writing, as well as by an ongoing struggle for freedom and a universalist consciousness that permeates all of her writing. The cover of the book reproduces a watercolour by D. Heiskell, painted in Wellfleet in 1961 and entitled Chaise rouge devant l'océan, which Blais discusses in the book.
The next category of works in the fonds is the pocketsize manuscript notebooks in which Blais compiled preliminary notes, thoughts and remarks. Some of the notebooks show the development of the novel she was writing at the time, while others contain the seed or main idea for a future novel. The fonds contains handwritten notebooks for Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel, David Sterne, Le Loup, Un Joualonais sa Joualonie, Visions d'Anna [Anna's World], and Soifs, and a few notebooks for Sourd dans la ville [Deaf to the City]. The notebooks are rarely dated in any precise manner and the handwriting is often hard to read. They are essentially notepads on which the author jotted down her thoughts and observations, without bothering to develop or organize them, and which were used to fuel the writing process for future works.
The last category of works in the fonds, the drafts and manuscripts, is undoubtedly the most important category from a purely literary perspective. The file for Visions d'Anna ou le vertige, also known as Le Vertige or "Portrait d'Anna", is particularly interesting in this respect. It contains a collection of documentary photographs and press clippings on teenage drug use and suicide. The documents served as the starting point for a series of reflections written in a number of small handwritten notebooks, reflections that would later be developed into a narrative revolving around characters. The pages of the typewritten manuscript detail all the writing work that went into the novel, including the many corrections to the sentences. Some pages were rewritten some ten times before Blais achieved the style of writing that characterizes her novels, a sinuous, meandering style that allows us to penetrate the minds of one or more characters. The background of Visions d'Anna is both local -- the story takes place in Montréal -- and universal. The novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Anna and her friends, who struggle with drug-induced mental and physical wanderings.
Among the drafts and manuscripts are the manuscripts for over sixty poems from Blais' youth, some from the late 1950s but most from the early 1960s; short stories; novels or fragments of novels; plays, mostly unpublished, and the manuscript for the speech the writer gave when she became a fellow of the Académie royale de langue et littérature française de Belgique.
The Marie-Claire Blais fonds at Library and Archives Canada represents a substantial contribution to our cultural heritage. It documents over forty years of literary life in Quebec, Canada and the world. As the life, learning and career of this unique writer is unfolded before us, we are allowed to participate in the creation of a work from its first idea to its embodiment in a published work. We are also invited to follow the development of an author who is, unfortunately, better known abroad than at home.