Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, by Marie-Claire Blais

My reaction to this 1966 novel by famed French Canadian author Marie-Claire Blais was similar to my reaction to Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora. Both books seem to belong to an age that no longer exists: there is something so relentlessly serious here, a solemnity to tone that is almost encoded into the craftsmanship of the writing itself. In an age where so many of our authors strive to be not only cute but cutsie, it was so refreshing to engage with novels that don’t even speak that same language.

It would be hard to overstate Blais’s accomplishment with A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, a novel she wrote while still in her twenties. It tells the bleak story of a poor Catholic family in rural Quebec run by its overbearing grand-mére Antoinette. The theme is what you’d expect it to be: the tension between the corporeal needs and desires of the real world and the obligations foisted by religion. But how Blais executes that theme through her characters and narrative structure is quite remarkable. This is the rarest of things – a complex satire with no pretense towards humour. Blais’s intention is to show the dehumanizing heart of religion, especially Catholicism, and to do so through the prism of a morose and exaggerated absurdity.

The results are startling, insofar as how incredibly engaging it all is. The book is engrossing despite the fact that the ‘story’ of this family is told in such a distant, aloof, and almost elliptical manner. And it’s engaging despite the fact that none of the characters – from the young poet in the making Jean-Le Maigre, the damaged young nun Héloise or the boy named, simply and ridiculously, Number Seven – are really all that knowable. This is another example where Blais distances herself from our more contemporary writers here in Canada. There is a pervasive trend in our literature today of making sure that characters are ‘likeable’ or ‘sympathetic,’ that the most impressive thing an author can do is forge a ‘community’ between her readers and her characters. Blais resists this temptation, since it would run counter to the grander thematic vision she has for this book, the statement she wants to make about Catholicism. The results are, paradoxically, more heart-felt and harrowing because she doesn’t simply hold a one-dimensional mirror up to her readers.

The last thing I want to say about A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is how prescient it is in spotting and illuminating the sexual deviancy of the Catholic Church. Written 40 years before stories of molestation and abuse became front-page new, Blais examines the incestuous transgressions of the Church as if they were and have always been common knowledge. But again, she does it with a remarkable sense of controlled distance, an elusive approach to illuminating this aspect of her story.

I’m hesitant to dub A Season in the Life of Emmanuel as a ‘lost classic’, as I’m in no way well-versed in the canon of French Canadian literature or Blais’s place in it. All I can say is that this book, and its writer, came to me as an undiscovered treasure, brilliant in the way it breaks so many of the rules that we take for granted today.

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