Let my joy endure
- Nigel Spencer (Translator) and Marie-Claire Blais (Author)
The Exile and The Sacred Travellers. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Marie-Claire Blais (Author)
These Festive Nights. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cedric May
Forty years a writer, with over thirty published works to her name, Marie-Claire Biais retains the innocence, restless energy, and faith in words as a charm against despair that characterized her earliest work. The titles reviewed here offer writing from the whole of her output, from 1962 to the mid-nineties. Throughout, great variety in theme, technique, style, intention speaks a single voice, quiet, irreverent, defiant, tender, ageless. This is the thread sustaining Marie-Claire Blais’s universality, holding in tension all that a human conscience, alert, sensitive, can hope to encompass.
"The Sacred Travellers" is the text of 1962, first published in Les Écrits du Canada français. Biais offers an extended metaphor of the painful divisiveness of cultural self-absorption, the pull of rival passions as the characters seek and lose each other against a backdrop of concert halls and European cathedrals. But there is much more than this in The Exile and the Sacred Travellers. All Marie-Claire Blais’s styles and favourite characters are represented in these ten short stories. The first might well have become a sequel to Une Saison dans la Vie d’Emmanuel (1965), the same sardonic, truculent viewpoint, the same procession of bare-foot, flea-ridden waifs held together by clan loyalty, abandoned by parents worn down with brutish toil, neglected by inadequate priests, and championed by the visionary Judith Prunelle, determined against the odds to school her charges. In turn, Marie-Claire Biais offers us sensitive portraits of the priest tormented by the poverty of his compassion faced with a dying child; the alcoholic roughsleeper; a pair of lesbian lovers snatching the fleeting comfort and warmth of their fevered intimacy; the veteran protester whose secular asceticism and studied neglect of herself surely contribute to the cancer that carries her off; the black out-of-work waiter flaunting his fierce beauty, struggling to survive while refusing to sell himself short; the exile of the title; a father and daughter trapped in the unreality of an inauthentic relationship, the girl over-protected yet ill provided for; the draft-dodger, haunted by images of the Vietnam war, escaping into an ugly world of drug-dealing and prison; the aesthete an unconscionable time a-dying, surrounded by the loving attentions of his boys. The Exile and the Sacred Travellers is, of these two titles, the better introduction to this multi-talented author and her protean genius.
These short stories, exquisite miniatures, when read in juxtaposition with our second text, demonstrate how well These Festive Nights represents the summation of forty years of writing. Behind the carefully maintained façades of prosperous southern Florida and the uneasy luxury of the villas, lie the popular quarters with their large families, the public places terrorized by skinheads on their roller blades, a world patiently researched by Biais. This is the setting for the lonely death from AIDS of the academic, an expert on Kafka. We encounter several other of the characters in our earlier portrait gallery, but this time seen more loosely within a much more ambitious social setting, a much more extended narrative. Nothing has prepared us for writing on this scale. The reader has to work hard. There are no pointers to patterns of interpretation, few full stops to punctuate the relentless flow of words. The stream of consciousness (the epigraph is from Virginia Woolf ’s The Waves) has a shifting focus. The prose is not broken up into chapters that might allow the reader to draw breath. Woolf ’s waves wash on, although the otiose gentility and the studied randomness of Woolf are largely absent. The pogroms of Warsaw, the ethnic cleansing of Treblinka, the vicious retribution of Hiroshima, the torches of the Klansmen striking terror into the innocent poor (all references here) have occurred since Woolf inaugurated modern women’s writing with A Room of One’s Own.
The opening pages of These Festive Nights need careful reading. Claude and Renate might be a wealthy couple, escaping to the Caribbean from the pressures of work. But she is an attorney and he is a judge, and both are haunted by the cases they have heard. This is Woolf revisited by Kafka, reflecting Marie-Claire Blais’s concerns with the death penalty and the many testimonies of the young in Florida penitentiaries, testimonies she has listened to. Her characters enjoy gratification and fulfilment in proportion to their ability to pay, their access to well-being and leisure, and their degree of protection from the vicious effects of acute social inequality. Culture and civilized life depend on an uneasy truce threatened by race, crime and death in the street. Cuban boat-people are knocking at the door but not before children have drowned or died of exposure.
Blais’s characters have a restless, driven quality. It is a pity the French title, Soifs, has not been retained in some form. Renate has had a lung removed, and she is an inveterate smoker; her thirsts are partly assuaged by whisky and the gaming tables and by brushes with low life. Music is a constant leitmotiv, but if it’s Schubert then it’s Death and the Maiden and Mozart offers us Dies irae, tempered somewhat by occasional references to Jesu, joy of man’s desiring represented by the translation of the French words "que ma joie demeure." The three days or less that the narrative occupies may be nominally festive nights and "days of delight," but as seen by Bosch and Ernst (mentioned in one breath).
We live in apocalyptic times, and Marie-Claire Biais, with a mixture of compassion and dread, is their supreme chronicler.
- Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Douglas Ivison
Books reviewed: 19 Knives by Mark Anthony Jarman, The Fall of Gravity by Leon Rooke, and The Pornographer's Poem by Michael Turner
- Le voyage réorganisé by Daniel Vaillancourt
Books reviewed: Noëlle à Cuba by Pierre Paul Karch
- Survivre by Mélanie Collado
Books reviewed: Léonie Imbeault by France Vézina and Ultimes battements d'eau by Martyne Rondeau
- Widening the Margins by Peter Dickinson
Books reviewed: The Ethics of Marginality: A New Approach to Gay Studies by John Champagne, Queer View Mirror: Lesbian and Gay Short Short Fiction by James C. Johnstone and Karen X. Tulchinsky, and Plush: Selected Poems by Jeffrey Conway, Sky Gilbert, Courtnay McFarlane, David Trinidad, and R. M. Vaughan
- Lourd secret by Elise Salaun
Books reviewed: Les enfants Beaudet by Isabel Vaillancourt
MLA: May, Cedric. Let my joy endure. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 123 - 125)
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