The novelist must suffer, but not constantly

MARGARET ATWOOD September 1 1975


The novelist must suffer, but not constantly

MARGARET ATWOOD September 1 1975


The novelist must suffer, but not constantly


Marie-Claire Blais’ first novel, La Belle Bête, appeared in 1959. The cover of the McClelland and Stewart translation, Mad Shadows, had a picture of a bloodspattered face, and of course I read it instantly. It’s a gruesome tale whose heroine, ugly but passionate, hates just about everyone, including her own child, gleefully shoves her idiot brother’s head into a vat of boiling water, then burns down her mother’s house with the mother in it. The book made me very uneasy, for more than the obvious reasons: the violence, the murders, suggestions of incest and the hallucinatory intensity of the writing were rare in Canadian literature in those days, but even scarier was the thought that this bloodcurdling fantasy, as well as its precocious verbal skill, were the products of a girl of 19.1 was 19 myself, and with such an example before me I already felt like a late bloomer.

The success of La Belle Bête, as well as the fact that it was translated and well received in “English” Canada, irritated some of Quebec’s literati. It seemed unjust that a girl with no advanced education, who had left school to clerk in stores and type in offices and who was reputed to keep her manuscripts in a shoebox, should appear out of nowhere and land dead centre in the spotlight. It was too audacious. Some predicted a brilliant literary career, but others dismissed her as a mere child prodigy who would bum out quickly and disappear, as child prodigies ought to.

In the 16 years since that time, MarieClaire Blais has become one of the best known and certainly the most acclaimed Quebec writer extant. Her work has been translated into 12 languages, and she’s won two of France’s most coveted literary prizes as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her output has been prodigious; it includes one play, six radio dramas, and a television script, in addition to a dozen novels.

Although I had admired her writing for many years, I did not meet MarieClaire Blais till recently. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Based on the content of her books, which deal extensively with human suffering and whose characters repress, torture and kill each other, go crazy, jump from belfries, prostitute themselves, torment animals and shoot dope, while reflecting on the transience of joy, the necessity of rebellion and the sin of pride, she ought to have been either a waif-like creature with doleful eyes or a cross between a nun, severe and doom-haunted, and a Baudelairian romantic, burning with a hard gemlike flame. Talent is frightening, and when you’ve read a particularly grueling and effective book it’s hard to resist the temptation to attribute some of the character’s demonic energies to the author. Of course, Agatha Christie hasn’t committed 50 odd murders, though she’s written about them; and many of those tremulous, pastel-toned nurse novels are written by men. Still, when it comes to so-called serious fiction, the autobiographical fallacy rears its head sooner or later, and we project onto the author, and take as literal truth, those imaginary images he or she has created. I’ve had this done to me so often that I should have been well aware of the difference between fictions and those who make them; still, I must have been expecting the waif of the early press' coverage or the romantic demon-ess of the more outré of the novels. Otherwise I would not have been quite so surprised by the reality.

Initially about me she as was I was almost about as her; nervous understandably, since I was playing interviewer and she’s not fond of being interviewed. (Neither am I, so we spent much of the interview talking about the evils of interviews; after that we both felt better.) At that time she was still living in France, and being trotted around Toronto by her publisher’s representative; she was away from home, on display, and in a foreign country (Ontario). Nevertheless, she was nothing like the images I — with some help from the media — had constructed of her.

Instead I found her a perceptive and lively professional woman with a sly sense of humor. Unlike her heroines, she doesn’t dress in black, limp or set fire to buildings, and if there are smoldering infernos of passion within they are well concealed. We discussed the myth that journalists have created of her, and I finally admitted that I too had expected — well, something a little more like her characters. She is fully aware that people who have never met her expect her to be depressed, frightening or weird (one magazine, doing a story, told its photographer, “Take something serious, you know, no smiles”). She treats this attitude with amused tolerance. “Of course one must suffer,” she said with a mischievous smile, “but not constantly!”

Life wasn’t always as relatively pleasant and easy for her as it is now. The person I met had behind her many years of hard work, some hard times and a diversity of experience. She grew up in a Quebec City working-class family, the oldest of five. She left school at 15, worked at odd jobs and wrote on the sly; she also enrolled as an extension student at Laval, a move that led to her “discovery” by one of her professors and then to the publication of her first novel. Despite her literary success, the material conditions of her life didn’t change much (“Except,” she says, “it gave me hope”). It wasn’t till a year later, when a Canada Council grant took her to Paris, that she was able to devote all her time to writing. And it was a while before her family was able to accept her chosen profession as a respectable one.

But Paris didn’t turn out to be the Mecca she might have been hoping for.

Margaret Atwood is the author of two novels, several volumes of poetry and Survival, a study of Canadian literature.

She lived in one of those old, moldering Paris rooms that are so romantic when you read about them, so chilly and damp when you’re actually in one. Literary circles were exactly that: very circular and firmly closed, especially to young unknowns with Quebec accents. As she points out, the Quebec Literary Renaissance — as perceived in France — had not yet occurred, and Quebec was frankly regarded as too provincial to be worth notice. Things have changed since then, but Parisian snobbery comes in for a few hard knocks in Blais’ latest novel, St. Laurence Blues, where she has an imaginary Quebec publisher refer to the “Paris ‘Let’s-cultivate-Quebec-itoughtto - bring - in - something - someday Society.’ ” Though she had some friends in Paris, they were all from Quebec. In fact, her experiences were similar to those of the English Canadian would-be actors and writers who flocked to Eondon in the Fifties and early Sixties,'only to find themselves living with other Canadians in Earl’s Court. “It was an education,” she says, not without irony.

If Cambridge, life in Paris Massachusetts, was strange, life was in even stranger. She moved there in 1962 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, knowing almost no English. She spent her time writing, reading at Widener Library —everything from Jane Austen to modern American novels — and trying to find people who would talk with her so she could learn the language. (She did this very well, and now speaks good English, though she’ll use a French phrase now and then when she can’t find an English equivalent.) It was at this period of her life that she met Edmund Wilson, who liked her work and praised it highly. Being praised by Edmund Wilson can be dangerous — Morley Callaghan underwent three years of vituperative attack from Canadian academics who were enraged by the fact that Wilson compared him with Turgenev — but it doesn’t seem to have damaged Blais, who has dedicated her latest book to his memory. Cape Cod proved more appealing than Cambridge, as it provided an artistic community of sorts, and Blais lived there until 1971. After the American experience, she lived on a sevenacre farm in Brittany, with a group of friends.

Her long absence from Quebec was not deliberate and certainly not due to any prejudice against her native province, but like some absentee EnglishCanadian writers she’s received a certain amount of snide criticism for not being on the scene.

“It’s a bore,” she says, adding, “Whatever country you are in, your own is perhaps more cruel.”

The second time I saw Marie-Claire, she was very much in her élément. We met in a bar in Montreal, a dark, smoky, noisy den underneath the Queen Elizabeth Hotel near the railroad station. It wasn’t one of her usual bars, she explained, but she was about to take a train. She loves sitting in bars, drinking beer and watching the people, and she was much more relaxed and animated than she’d been in Ontario. The lateness of the hour might have had something to do with it: she’s a night person and seldom goes to bed before eight in the morning. “I’m always in places with shadows,” she said cheerfully.

By this time she’d moved back to Quebec and had settled down to a double life. She lives in a downtown Montreal apartment in an old house and commutes to a 60-acre farm in the Eastern Townships which she shares with friends. This is why she was taking a train. She’s never learned to drive; somehow, there’s never been time. “There must be something wrong with the mécanisme,” she mused after we’d compared all the writers we knew who also never learned.

“Of the car?” I asked.

“No, of the writer.”

She does, however, drive a Vespa. I didn’t know what that was, so she explained it to me: it’s a sort of bicycle with a motor, and I intend to get one. I’ve never learned to drive either.

How did it feel being back in Quebec after so many years? “I’m still dizzy,” she said. She finds Quebec very busy after France; already she’s involved in a cooperative writers’ group — “not a political one” — that’s forming, and she’s hard at work on another novel called tentatively Une Liaison Parisienne, which she says is a semi-satirical study of the French literary elite and the Quebec romantic view of it. Because of all the activity, her apartment, she claimed, was like “the nest of a rat.”

“But a happy rat,” a friend qualified, and she agreed. She’s clearly pleased to be back, and full of enthusiasm for Quebec. “There’s a great joy,” she says, “that you can have from people here.”

For There’s her there the old are one, two characterQuebecs. ized by brutality, suffering, repression, by those sadistic nuns and slightly mad priests, those hulking, child-beating farmers and tubercular urban poor that haunt some of her earlier books, especially A Season In The Life Of Emmanuel and The Manuscripts Of Pauline Archange. This was, at least partly, the Quebec of her own conventeducated childhood. For her it was a society that specialized in judging and condemning. That Quebec ceased to be 10 to 15 years ago. “It’s gone and finished,” she says, with no regret at all.

“Very well, good-bye.” The new Quebec, she thinks, is a far different place: vibrant, alive, a good place to be. “Quebec is a very free society now,” she says. “The problem is not censorship . . . but to be understood.”

The new Quebec is also very politically aware, but when I asked her about her own political views she drew a firm line which the writer crosses, it seems, at his peril. “A writer is a témoin, a witness. You can take a moral position; but if you are involving yourself in political life you have to be a natural politician Dogmatism closes a writer off.”

Having read a passage in one of her novels in which some fanatical women’s libbers storm the local men’s pub, I wondered whether her feelings toward women’s lib ended with satire. Not at all. Although she can see the ridiculous side of anything — “That is human nature” — she has great admiration for the movement. She has a high opinion of Quebec women, who are, she thinks, very “tough and practical” compared with their European counterparts. She feels that it’s now possible to have men as friends and to discuss the issues openly, with some chance of getting a sympathetic hearing. “Yes, there is a war, but you have to speak of it or else you die ... the amazing thing is that you can now speak of it.”

In her work, Blais is almost unique among “women writers” in that many of her protagonists are men — one is even a male homosexual — and of the women, none are housewives. I asked her about the male protagonists. She explained that when she’s writing a novel in the French novel-of-ideas tradition, concerned with philosophical concepts rather than social texture and events, she prefers a male protagonist to keep the issues “pure.” If she had a woman protagonist, the book would have to occupy itself more with women’s special problems. Also, she finds it almost impossible for other people to regard her as a writer, not as a “woman writer.” She doesn’t like categories that she finds limiting or arbitrary, and in a sense her work defies them. I inquired, tentatively, about the homosexual in The Wolf the thief and rapist in David Sterne. One male interviewer had already asked her how she could write about such things without having experienced them; had she, by any chance, ever been a homosexual thief? “Not yet,” she told him with a twinkle, “but that will come, no doubt.” More seriously, she said, “Surely it is not impossible to project your imagination into the mind of someone else” — a very succinct definition of the art of fiction writing.

Which brought us inevitably back to the books, that huge mound of books... how does she do it? She works in short bursts rather than steadily. Longhand or typing? “Ah,” she said, “I touch-type. You must not forget I worked as a dactylo-stenoV’ She’s subject to distraction, which is one reason she tries to live in fairly isolated places. Writing is for her a joy, but an exacting one; it takes time and concentration, and there are no secret tricks. If writing is a joy, what about the unhappiness in her books? It took me several tries to frame this question, and we talked our way through its implications at some length. She certainly feels that misery is part of the eternal human condition, though only a part. Did she feel, then, that happiness was always and necessarily an illusion and that her books presented a depressed or depressing view of the world? Perhaps, she ventured, the novel is a tragic form and by its very nature requires a tragic view of life. Ah yes, I said, but what about Jane Austen? Marie-Claire felt that since her time the world has become more tragic — and that unqualified happy endings would be a form of literary dishonesty. What about happiness, joy, celebration? “Surely,”’ she said, “one celebrates in living.”

The wasn’t third celebrating; time I saw she her, was she being celebrated. She was at a dinner being given in her honor by Atkinson College at York University, which was to grant her an honorary degree the next day. She was also supposed to give a speech; however, the thought of this had made her too nervous. She’d written the speech in French, but Barry Callaghan, her longtime friend, was going to read it for her, in translation. This evening he was shepherding her about protectively through the crowd of admiring Anglos.

She was surrounded by a lot of people she didn’t know and who knew her only through her books. It was the old problem: were they expecting her to be one of her own characters? Did they think she was going to shove Barry Callaghan’s head into a vat of boiling water or set fire to York University? What do you say to an image? Worse still, what do you say to a lot of people who think you are an image? Most of the women were in long gowns with bare shoulders. Marie-Claire was wearing a simple denim pantsuit, as she had been every time I’d seen her, and she looked dismayed.

When she saw me she looked even more dismayed. “Why are you here?” she said. She obviously felt this sort of socializing was not what a writer should be doing.

“You invited me,” I said remembering my own honorary degree received in an inappropriate pantsuit.

“But I did not think you would come.” “I’ve been through it,” I said. =£>