Discover more from Richard Goodman's Newsletter
A day in the life of Marie-Claire Blais
Sometime in the mid-1970s, I read Edmund Wilson’s O Canada, An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture. As far as I know, it’s one of the few—if not only—books on Canadian writers written by a major American author.
In his book, I read about writers I’d never heard of before and that probably many Americans do not know to this day. One of them was Marie-Claire Blais. Wilson writes rhapsodically about Blais, who wrote in French. He says she is “in a class by herself” and “may possibly be a genius.” Because of his enthusiasm for Blais, I read the translation of her book, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel. It was published in 1965 and has an introduction by Wilson, who, it turns out, eventually met and befriended her.
I had never read anything like it. It has startling writing about poverty and repression in rural, Catholic Canada. I have since lost the book, but I remember clearly a line about “the smell of the grandmother.”
Years later, when I was living in New York City, I saw that Marie-Claire Blais was going to speak at the New York Public Library. I went. I remember it was at the Mid-Manhattan branch. Why they hadn’t booked her into the main branch, I do not know. They should have.
I went up to her afterwards and told her how much I loved A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, about how much the book meant to me. I told her she was brave to write about these things.
“You have to,” she said. Then, out of the blue, she asked me if I’d like to spend the rest of the day with her, walking about the city. Of course, I said yes. We went down to Astor Place in the East Village, and walked around, eventually ending up at a Barnes & Noble bookstore that was located there. Like the Mid-Manhattan Library, it no longer exists. Blais spoke English, but not as fluently as I expected from what Wilson had written about her. I learned that she lived half the year in Key West.
During that afternoon in the bookstore, she spotted two writers she knew and spoke to them briefly. She was easy to be with, but I can’t say that I grew to know much about her or that we became friends. But it was one of those encounters you treasure in your memory, especially if, like me, you’re a writer and have had the luck to encounter one of the writers you admire in the flesh and had the opportunity to tell them how much you love their work. I felt as if I’d been given a sign. That I belonged in that world.
She died last November. She never received her proper recognition, I don’t think, and so I was glad to see a long-overdue New Yorker piece in 2019 about her, “Will American Readers Ever Catch on to Marie-Claire Blais?” Let’s hope they do.