Who Was Clark Blaise?

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

Once upon a time, Clark Blaise was a Canadian writer. He was admired above all for his short stories; his first two collections, A North American Education (1973) and Tribal Justice (1974), were highly regarded. He proved successful in other genres as well. Two accomplished novels, Lunar Attractions (1979) and Lusts (1983), were preceded by Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), a collaborative work of non-fiction written with his wife, Bharati Mukherjee. The son of parents with family ties to Canada, Blaise spent an unhappy childhood in the US; he has described himself as the only Canadian author born in Fargo, North Dakota. In 1966 he moved to Montreal, becoming a Canadian both by law and by sensibility, and still later he moved to Toronto. Mukherjee, an Indian author—she and Blaise met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—also acquired Canadian citizenship, but her unhappiness with life in Toronto led to a scathing account, published in Saturday Night magazine in March 1981, of the city’s racism. The year before, the couple had decamped for the US, where they remained. Mukherjee died in 2017, and Blaise now lives in New York. His writing is not utterly ignored in the country he left, but neither is it the subject of unabated attention.

For a period, however, Blaise’s stories were widely anthologized, and his works were examined in detail by various commentators, including Barry Cameron (Clark Blaise and His Works, 1984) and Robert Lecker (An Other I: The Fictions of Clark Blaise, 1988). Blaise crossed the border between Canada and the US, and his stories and novels blurred an analogous distinction between fiction and autobiography: he epitomized a voguish set of critical concerns pertaining to national identity and postmodern style. But times and fashions change, and Blaise has not lately attracted much scholarly notice. In Nick Mount’s Arrival (2017), a history of “the CanLit boom,” Blaise is mentioned only a few times, although A North American Education is praised, and the title story of that collection appears in a list of “fixtures in CanLit classrooms.” The low ebb of Blaise’s reputation means that two important anthologies edited by J. R. (Tim) Struthers—Clark Blaise: Essays on His Works and Clark Blaise: The Interviews—are likely to be received quietly. They serve nonetheless to advance scholarship on Blaise and his numerous and sundry books.

The volume of interviews includes eighteen conversations with Blaise, eight of which were conducted by Struthers himself; nine of the interviews are published for the first time. (It is a minor nuisance that the interviews, which took place between 1973 and 2013, are not presented in chronological sequence.) The volume of essays contains sixteen studies, an autobiographical note by Blaise, and a useful “Checklist of Works.” Seven essays are reprinted from other sources—a review by Margaret Atwood of Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac (2011), for instance, and a chapter from Lecker’s An Other I—and although the republished statements may already be known to connoisseurs of Blaise’s writing, it is convenient to have them assembled in one place.

Two essays stand out. W. H. New’s “Subcontinental Drift” is a memoir of Blaise and an account (primarily) of Days and Nights in Calcutta. It begins charmingly and with novelistic flair:

New Year’s Day, 1977: Clark Blaise was living in New Delhi, and by chance my wife Peggy and I met him then for the first time, the morning of our first day in India, in the lobby of Claridge’s Hotel, along with Eli and Ann Mandel, who had also recently arrived. Clark was candid, gregarious, welcoming, observant: I was overdressed for the January heat. I would need to change. Yes. I would not be the only one.

New’s essay is a compelling demonstration of the vitality of Blaise’s writing. He concludes with the perceptive and generous remark that a

state of in-between is Clark Blaise’s subject and perennial metaphor. As readers, watching over his shoulder and listening in while conversations multiply and drift, we’re invited to be companions through the precise details of personal trait that he chooses to cast as fiction, the cycles of style that he shapes into narrative, and behind them, always, the politics of place and time.

Such assessments persuade the reader today that Blaise’s neglect is decidedly unwarranted. New’s contribution to the Essays complements his “Remembering India,” from a special issue of Essays on Canadian Writing on Eli Mandel (45-46, Winter-Spring 1991-1992).

Stephen Henighan’s “Mitteleuropa Mothers in Montreal,” a comparative study of Blaise and Mavis Gallant, is meticulous and provocative. It attends to the city’s formative influence on the two authors—“For both Gallant and Blaise, adult life in Montreal was an experience of their twenties, the decade that places an indelible stamp on identity”—but suggests quite rightly that the binary oppositions of English/French and Canada/US are insufficient to account for the complexity of the cultural forces that affected the writers’ lives and works: “The missing influence is that of the two writers’ mothers,” who had strong connections to “Mitteleuropa, the richly syncretic arc of interlocked cultures and territories with large minority populations” that came to exist in “nostalgic memory as a lost proto-multicultural paradise.” Henighan shows that the biographies of acclaimed writers, even those as celebrated as Gallant, stand to be corrected, revised, and enriched as new information is unearthed and original interpretations are devised. He seeks, in this case, to know more about Gallant’s and Blaise’s mothers, but his interest is not merely Freudian: as he proposes, literary works register the familial and historical circumstances of their authors’ lives in manifold ways.

Blaise is a fine writer. Perhaps he will be taken again into the fold of Canadian literature; perhaps he will linger instead on the margins of the ever-changing canon. Time, as always, will tell. His loyal readers will be thankful regardless for the Essays and Interviews, and for Struthers’ editorial labours.

This review “Who Was Clark Blaise?” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 168-170.

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