Profiles

Femmes Fatales
For a new generation of Quebec writers, sex is about everything but pleasure

Montreal is one of the North American capitals of prostitution and Internet pornography. Once confined to flophouses around St. Catherine and the Main, brothels today are more likely to be apartments in middle-class neighborhoods and five-star hotels. Luxury escorts can command $500 an hour, but a flourishing Internet marketplace provides a wide array of prices. Prostitution is a growth industry, offering attractive part-time work to university students looking to pay their tuition, and young professionals keen on topping up their starter salaries. Spinoffs include a thriving web porn industry, sex tourism, and an explosion in cosmetic surgery fuelled by women in the trade, and others for whom looking like a top model is deemed worth the price and pain.

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In a thoroughly sexualized culture, advertising, film, and television set the tone. Whether the body itself is on offer or merely part of the package, young women are increasingly driven to emulate an image of beauty presented by the media. Smooth, clear, wrinkle- and cellulite-free skin is fast becoming the Western world’s burka, a social imperative masking signs of age, imperfection, and even personality.

If all this sounds like the voice-over for a steamy documentary long on lap dancers and short on hard-core statistics, please note: these views are held by a woman who earned a master’s degree in literature with a thesis on Daniel Paul Schreber, the German jurist whose Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, published at the turn of the past century, was hailed by Freud and Lacan as a pioneering work of sexual psychology. At thirty-three, her novels, published in France by Éditions du Seuil, have won important literary awards, generated considerable buzz in academe, and enjoy sales in the hundreds of thousands. Her views on the state of sex in Quebec are, however, based on primary sources. As a student at the Université du Québec à Montréal (uqam) in the late 1990s, Nelly Arcan worked for a high-priced escort agency, an experience she drew on for her debut novel, Putain, published in New York by Grove Press in 2004 as Whore.

“It’s perfectly normal for a writer my age to write about sex,” Arcan says, responding to criticism that her work is limited by fixation on a single subject. “We live in a world obsessed by sex. There are no taboos acting as restraints. Women are conditioned by the profusion of images in advertising created to arouse desire. Obviously, sex is a source of power.”

Arcan’s first two novels are mesmerizing monologues, stream-of-consciousness outpourings as told to a therapist (Putain) and an ex-lover (Folle), implying strong identification between narrator and author. The publication of À ciel ouvert last fall revealed that she’s also a first-rate storyteller. Set in the recognizable café and condo scene of the Plateau Mont-Royal, her third novel is a taut, briskly paced thriller about two women engaged in mortal combat over the same man, a fashion photographer whose libido feeds on Internet porn. Whereas the earlier novels were anti-cathartic spirals into death, her latest is classical in structure, arriving at a jaw-dropping yet perversely believable ending.

Both a juicy page-turner and an unsettling report from a social frontier, À ciel ouvert marks Arcan as the front-runner in a generation of accomplished young female writers for whom sex is primary material, a currency, a language, a playing field on which the rules are changing fast. Marie-Sissi Labrèche, Heather O’Neill, Marie Hélène Poitras, Irina Egli — like Arcan, they’re beautiful, well educated, and keenly aware of how valuable this combination of assets is in the international marketplace of literature.

A petite, soft-spoken blonde with unnaturally puffy lips and Owl of Minerva grey eyes, Arcan cultivates a complex public persona. Riding the promotional circuit for À ciel ouvert, she complained that the media couldn’t get beyond her Putain past, that sex is only matière and what counts on the page are words and ideas. Yet her weekly column in the giveaway tabloid Ici deals almost exclusively in anecdotes about dildos, condoms, body parts, and trysts — raunchy slices of thirty-something life. Invited to appear on a popular TV talk show, she wore a gown offering a generous view of her famous surgically enhanced breasts, and was mortified when the male hosts refused to take her seriously.

Dressed in a thick grey sweater, hair tucked up under a cap, Arcan doesn’t stand out in the crowd at Café aux Deux Marie. I stand at the bar for a good ten minutes, keeping an eye on the door. When we finally connect, she flashes a faintly nervous smile, as if relieved to be rescued from the isolation of sitting alone. When I tell her I think she’s an awesomely good writer, she’s surprised. Slow to relax into the subject, she seems strangely removed from her writer self, as if the ability to dissect a character’s psyche in fiercely confident prose were no greater feat than tossing off a newspaper column. She wears her beauty uncomfortably, like someone who has overdressed for the occasion and can’t stop worrying about it. I catch myself wondering what the signals would be like if I were a man.

After an excruciating affair with a French journalist (see Folle), she has been with the same guy for more than two years, a German eight years her junior who lives in Frankfurt and works in public relations. They spend a few weeks together whenever possible. At her insistence, he hasn’t read any of her novels, nor have her parents. “I exposed some very deep wounds in my writing,” she sighs. “I don’t want people close to me to know all that.” Realistically, Nelly, could the man you’re with resist reading Putain? She giggles. “I’m pretty sure he hasn’t. He doesn’t read any books, so why should he read mine?”

Tcharacters in À ciel ouvert and in Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals inhabit more or less the same patch of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and its cross streets as Arcan takes up, though the time frame of O’Neill’s first novel is twenty years earlier, before gentrification hit, before you could get a Botox treatment, Portuguese grilled chicken, a $15,000 sofa, and a hit of ecstasy within a hop and a skip. The world of twelve-year-old Baby and her too-young father, Jules, an addict she both loves and laments, is a white-hot, dangerous place for one so innocent and alone.

During a crazy, transformative eighteen months, the motherless waif turns thirteen and discovers her body, along with the money and dubious sense of validation it can pull in. Like Arcan’s debut, this novel announced an unmistakably original voice. With a narrative pitch as seductive as the well-paced story it tells, Lullabies for Little Criminals is funny and clever, full of marvellous observations from a child savant who wanders into the shadows, arousing the reader’s fear and dread at every turn.

Heather O’Neill was born in Montreal. When her parents’ marriage broke up, she lived a peripatetic few years with her mother in the US before returning to Montreal as a teenager with her father and two sisters. In the flurry of media surrounding her literary debut, O’Neill suggested certain personal experiences had inspired the novel, but regrets it now, specifying that “the novel exists in the childish realm of make-believe.”

Slim and tall, with strong, sensuous features, she favours the casual Bohemian style of Plateau Anglos and plays with her tresses of loose, dark hair as she speaks. There are flashes of Baby’s guileless savvy in her mannerisms, as though some corner of her psyche is still a little girl. She was twenty when she graduated from McGill, and a few months later gave birth to a daughter, launching a difficult stretch as a single mother.

“I worked my guts out in clubs at night and tried to write during the day. It was killing me, burying me alive. My dad lived nearby and would babysit if she was sleeping. It’s odd when you have a kid that young; all your friends are living such a different life. I was still getting a thrill out of buying a pair of foxy boots, and yet I had all that responsibility.” At thirty-four, O’Neill has settled into a serious relationship with fellow writer Jonathan Goldstein, and is weighing the option of maternity once again. In contrast to Baby in Lullabies, the central character of her novel-in-progress is “someone who really likes sex, and that’s kind of fun.” She agrees with Arcan that sex is bound to be central to fiction reflecting the lives of women her age.

“If you’re young and attractive, it’s like having a walletful of money. It gets you things. Some people don’t want to admit it, but youthful beauty is powerful. No one is immune.” Reliable birth control and advances in the science of fertility mean women can play the field for thirty years and then become mothers. “The trajectory of a woman’s sex life is completely different now from that of previous generations. You have a long time to exploit your beauty.”

Lori Saint-Martin, a literature professor at uqam, has published widely on contemporary Québécois fiction by women. She points to Alina Reyes’s erotic novel Le boucher, published in France twenty years ago, as a breakthrough. “Reyes and others who followed made women the focus, not the object of desire, proving that transgression and taboo weren’t essential to the genre. This writing was mainly about having and giving pleasure.” With La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001), by Catherine Millet, the well-known editor of a prestigious Paris art journal, the boundary between pornography and literature faded. Saint-Martin believes Millet’s novel, detailing the sexual exploits of a woman in her fifties, and L’inceste (1999), by Christine Angot, represented forays into a new feminine (though not feminist) discourse on sex, one in which the line between fiction and real life is blurred.

Marie-Sissi Labrèche, also of Montreal, embraces a loose, colloquial language, veering toward effervescence, which may explain why her breathless account of growing up wild has generated considerably more warmth among critics and readers than have the novels of Arcan. Borderline, published by Boréal in 2000, recounts the troubled childhood of a character named Sissi, brought up by a manic-depressive, schizophrenic mother and an abusive grandmother. Her second, La brèche (a pun on the author’s surname, which means “the breach” ) deals with a young literature student’s tortured affair with her married professor, a power struggle in which abuse seems to works both ways: the lover is described as “a man cornered by a small blonde bombshell.”

Sex is alternately the narrator’s weapon, her obsession, and an escape from the anxiety of a troubled identity. In Sissi’s words: “I’m borderline. I have a problem with limits. I make no distinction between exterior and interior. It’s because my skin is inside out. It’s because my nerves are on edge. I feel like everyone can see inside me. I’m transparent.” At twenty-three, she is desperate for love. The moment a man flashes interest, she opens her legs.

Literature exploiting lived experience is a genre Labrèche and a number of other young writers take seriously. A graduate of the uqam literature program, she wrote her thesis on auto-fiction; her first novel began as a course assignment. Her recently published third novel, La lune dans un hlm, is more conventional in structure. Personal details recur — mentally ill mother, difficult grandmother — but the main character (now called Léa) has gained distance on the past. And Labrèche, now happily married, says, “I’ve made up with all my demons.” A film drawing on her two first novels, which she co-wrote with director Lynne Charlebois, opened in February to great reviews and brisk box office. She has put prose aside for the time being to develop a TV series.

[y]von Rivard is a respected novelist and literary critic. This year, he wraps up a distinguished career as professor of literature and creative writing in the French department of McGill University, during which he shepherded over a hundred theses (written in French) through the academic mill, half of them works of fiction. He counts dozens of published writers among his former students, notably Shanghai-educated Ying Chen, who began writing fiction in Rivard’s course and has gone on to publish six internationally acclaimed novels. Rivard has made it his mission to instill the virtues of storytelling and “finding the bones” of narrative structure. With a syllabus some might consider old fashioned — Raymond Carver, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield — he disdains the poetic novel. Good fiction, Rivard maintains, is “planted in something real.”

“I don’t want to get killed by my male friends,” he says with a grin, “but women are writing the best books. Feminine writing is where one finds originality these days. If I can be permitted to generalize further, I’d say women have a more complex and subtle notion of time; males tend to be abstract. When I look over my classes, I’d say that the hybrids, the fusion of immigrant and old stock, and, yes, the women — they are the future of literature in Quebec.”

His latest discovery is Romanian-born Irina Egli, whose first novel was published by Boréal in 2006. Set in the port city of Constanta, Romania, on the Black Sea, Terre salée is an atmospheric love story charting the destruction of a middle-aged physician who falls into an obsessive love affair with his eighteen-year-old daughter. With a cast of high-strung characters and lush, confident prose reminiscent of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, the novel revisits the Oedipal myth: a clear-eyed young beauty defeats her mother and her father’s mistress in a battle for his love.

Egli lives alone in an artfully decorated loft overlooking Montreal’s business core. She was born in Bucharest and published short stories and poetry before immigrating to Quebec in her mid-twenties, a decade ago. She speaks English fluently but chose to write fiction in French, a language she deems more literary and closer to her native Romanian.

An only child whose parents divorced when she was four, she rarely saw her father after he started a second family. “In most of my personal relations, I look for my father.” Terre salée tackles the missing person head on. The psyche of the lover, Alexandru, merits the most attention; Anda is presented as a poisonous siren who exploits the power of her beauty, but if the poet Ahoe’s sentiments are to be believed, not without purpose: “Men are small. Very small. Only unhappiness can turn them into giants. In their own eyes. Uniquely. Remember that!”

The second volume of her proposed trilogy, tentatively called Ange de passe, to be published by Boréal this fall, follows Anda to Montreal, where she undergoes a self-destructive purge of her demons by way of sexual experience.

“For a curious person, sex is a door,” says Egli. “You go through it — why not? Seduction is always about power, but finally the experience has to lead somewhere else. But where? We’re lost in the modern world, too pragmatic, material. Can we still believe in gods today? The Greeks knew a lot about the subject, the rituals and transcendent meaning of the flesh.” The trilogy, she says, is meant to be an exploration of how the pre-Christian themes of Greek mythology play out in modern characters and situations.

Sex as rebellion, revenge, adventure, boost to self-esteem, cry of desperation, bargaining chip in the quest for love, source of income — the current crop of new novels by young Quebec women investigates an enormous range of motivation. Yet there is precious little interest in pleasure.”

A generation has come along writing novels about sex that aren’t meant to be erotic,” says Lori Saint-Martin. “Quite the opposite, they’re often very sad, existential, inspired not by any sense of the erotic, but by the genre — auto-fiction, writing about yourself. One thing a young woman has to write about is her sex life. It’s a source of identity, a mystery, and of course power. There’s a huge narcissism involved, often self-hatred, and very little interest in exploring eroticism.” And yet, as Saint-Martin points out, publishers are quick to trade on their authors’ youth and sexual appeal, plastering book covers with steamy promises and photos of the writers wearing vixen smiles and provocative outfits. “The whole thing is quite ambiguous.”

In L’homme ligoté, Anne-Rose Gorroz tackles a sado-masochistic relationship. Each time the narrator and her lover meet, he presents her with another version of his desire, a kinky game that horrifies and fascinates her.

The dark side of eros propels Marie Hélène Poitras’s Soudain le Minotaure, published in Patricia Claxton’s translation as Suddenly the Minotaur by DC Books. A spare novella, it probes both the sexual fantasies of a serial rapist and his victims’ quest for healing. But by and large in the works considered here, missing along with pleasure is any hint of the redemptive potential of the sexual act.

The overarching presence of sex as power play may be a natural consequence of youth embracing a decayed taboo with audacity, the palace of wisdom being still a ways down the road of excess. Yet an aura of solipsism, even self-absorption, lingers. Arcan’s latest novel goes furthest in attempting to grapple with the wider social implications of complete sexual licence. In À ciel ouvert, one of the two main characters, Rose, muses on the cruelly competitive world in which women are driven to despise each other and mutilate their bodies in order to land a man. Her diagnosis is essentially material: there are far more beautiful young women on the Plateau Mont-Royal than there are fuckable men—hence the brutality of the game.

This application of marketplace values to the realm of human activity makes for a troubling bit of analysis that even the Marquis de Sade and his legions of acolytes have argued is philosophically, sometimes politically significant. But he was old when he wrote his major works. Chances are we haven’t heard the last of youth and beauty.
About the Author(s)

Marianne Ackerman is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and journalist.

How to Read a Masterpiece
Coming to terms with Marie-Claire Blais

Let it wash over you, the man says. Like body surfing, let the waves take you. Don’t try to touch bottom, and you won’t hit the rocks. A burly guy with a voice like timber, Nigel Spencer is sitting at my kitchen table, talking into my tape recorder, addressing my despair. Weeks into this article about one of Canada’s most celebrated writers, a woman whose name is spoken with reverence in literary circles, whose books inspire a steady flow of commentary, and I still can’t get past the first page of her latest novel. Is it possible Marie-Claire Blais could be—as great minds have proclaimed—a genius, and also be unreadable? Or is it me?

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Spencer’s translation of Naissance de Rebecca à l’ère des tourments will be published by House of Anansi Press this fall as Rébecca, Born in the Maelstrom,Blais’s twentieth novel and the fourth in an ambitious series launched a decade ago with Soifs (meaning “thirstings,” translated by Sheila Fischman as These Festive Nights). A vast fresco involving some 100 characters, the series has received dithyrambic reviews: “The Divine Comedy of our time,” proclaimed Le Devoir. The Globe and Mail opted for “a modernist masterpiece,” and a prominent French critic drew parallels between Blais and Virginia Woolf.

Both Soifs and Rebecca won Governor General’s Awards for French-language fiction, adding to the very long list of prizes and honours bestowed over the past fifty years on a demure Catholic school dropout who was twenty when her first novel, La belle bête, caused a literary sensation in 1959. Published a few months later in English as Mad Shadows, this slim Gothic twist on the idea of the Beauty and the Beast was hailed—and reviled—as a critique of Catholic Church–dominated society, an exposé of mind-body bifurcation resulting from religious orthodoxy. Many of the main themes of Quiet Revolutionary literature soon to be born were present: absent father, suffocating family, the creative soul struggling and failing to be free. If, half a century later, La belle bête fits more surely on the shelf with Edgar Allan Poe than in the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, it remains a reliable introduction to the vast Blaisian oeuvre that followed, in addition to the novels a slew of plays, books of poetry, diaries, and essays. Still, a strikingly original tale told with confidence and verve, though what it means is hard to say. “Meaning? ” Blais’s long-time friend and publisher Barry Callaghan barks when I raise the subject. “Please remember what Susan Sontag said: be careful talking about meaning in literature. It’s always one step away from sociology, the lowest form of measurement.” Over the years, Callaghan’s small press, Exile Editions, has faithfully kept Blais’s early works in print even as she drifted into the prestige category for mainstream publishers. Although sales of her books range from modest to minuscule, there is no doubt in Callaghan’s mind that Marie-Claire Blais is one of Canada’s pre-eminent talents.

“A writer totally in touch with her voice, at the top of her game,” he insists. “She’s a supreme stylist. A writer like no other writer this country has produced. She will be remembered for the total authenticity of her vision.” That she isn’t in everybody’s bedside reading pile in either official language Callaghan puts down to the creeping “domestication” of literature. “People don’t read Marie-Claire because she’s too tough, too good.”

“She’s a monument,” says her Quebec publisher, Jean Bernier, of Éditions du Boréal. Nobody dares criticize her. As I make my way through the Quebec literati, people who know and revere her work, I find few except reviewers who’ve read the recent novels. Despite a brisk academic interest, Anansi expects to sell no more than 1,500 to 2,000 of Rébecca across North America. “She’s one of those writers who’s almost canonical,” says the Toronto firm’s publisher, Lynn Henry. “There’s a prestige involved in publishing her. We’re very aware of her status. I wish she could be a bestseller, but she isn’t.”

When I ask about her own experience reading Rébecca (which she also edited), Henry pauses. “You do have to let yourself go. It’s not a book you can pick up and put down. At the end, I wept, for a combination of reasons, I guess—the effort of reading and the reward. She presents the largest imaginable sense of humanity, a sublime vision of how the world works. There aren’t many writers working at that level.”

I pick up the second volume in the series, Thunder and Light, translated by Spencer. The first sentence of the first page starts two-thirds of the way down with a large capital P, three columns deep, a design concept surely meant to draw the reader in visually. “Polly brushed her head against Carlos’s feet, their soles pink and curved in rubber sandals, for these were her refuge from danger, flailing the air and sand on the beach that was damp from ocean and salt…” By the time the sentence ends—four pages, ten characters and several storylines later—I’ve figured out that Polly is a dog and the words mainly concern what is happening inside various minds, being thoughts and situations that have been going on for a while now, time being far from linear. The setting is a voluptuous Gulf island, although sometimes it’s somewhere else. The consciousness of the novel is splintered. I soon get lost, annoyed, stop reading. On the second attempt, I nod off.

Days later, I begin again with diligence and a pencil, underlining key bits of information, constructing a character chart on the inside cover, like the tool provided by Gabriel García Márquez’s publisher for readers approaching the labyrinth of One Hundred Years of Solitude. There are precedents for this kind of literature, reasons to persist. José Saramago’s Blindness, sparse punctuation a dizzying feeling of being blind. Gertrude Stein’s vertiginous thought stream. Ulysses, a single cacophonic day in Dublin telling all Joyce knew about the time and place of his birth. I make a mental note to dip into some of the other modernists whose works I have lugged around since university. Weeks go by. I realize I am not reading Marie-Claire Blais, and so decide to take a journalistic approach and hunt down the woman herself, to pry into the personal hoping for an entry into her daunting prose.

It’s an American story. Eldest of five children born in 1939 to a working-class family in a suburb of Quebec, educated by the nuns until she drops out at fifteen, moves into town, and rents a room, seeking quiet and time to focus on her writing, already an established passion. Feeds a feverish imagination by reading Rimbaud, the Surrealists, Lautréamont, Dostoevsky. Catches the attention of a modern-minded Dominican priest, Père Georges-Henri Lévesque, who is then vice president of the Canada Council. He secures publication of La belle bête and a year-long grant for her to write in Paris. Upon her return, she is discovered by American critic Edmund Wilson during his grand tour of literary Canada (Toronto and Montreal), and hailed as “a true ‘phenomenon’” in his now-legendary tome O Canada, An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture.

A fall day in 1962: Wilson, a critical titan in his late sixties, is visiting Montreal with his fourth wife, Elena. He summons the young author for a drink at the Ritz on Sherbrooke Street West. Living in student digs near McGill, Blais is caught off guard, throws on a baggy sweater, and is mortified to find a dignified couple whose attire perfectly matches the dark blue velvet wallpaper of a very English establishment. Wilson is surprised, too. In his diaries, he mentions that her photos had led him to expect “a big tall rather coarse-featured country girl.” Instead, he is delighted by “an attractive little woman with well-developed breasts but tiny hands and feet, a sharp nose, a very small mouth, and deep-thinking, gray-green eyes.” She has, he adds, “the good, quiet manners and the very pure French that I suppose she learned from the nuns.”

In her memory of the meeting, recorded in American Notebooks, Blais compares Wilson to the “powerful (and avuncular)” Winston Churchill, but reserves her lyrical attention for the “stunningly beautiful” Elena, noting her strong, irregular features; her high cheekbones that seem permanently flushed by cold; her smile, etc., etc.

A huge fan of La belle bête, Wilson had promoted the author for a Guggenheim Fellowship and offered an open invitation to visit his grandiose home in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, at the time the hub of a lively artistic circle that included poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, and novelists Mary McCarthy (Wilson’s ex-wife) and Philip Roth. The Ritz encounter, as they say, changed her life. She rented a basement apartment in Cambridge, and during a fiercely lonely first year, surrounded by a language she barely spoke, struggled through what many consider the best of her early novels: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

The sixteenth child of an impoverished rural Quebec family, Emmanuel is born on a winter morning, handed over to his grandmother so his mother can return to work that day. A breathless, Dickensian plot, Günter Grass without the war, the story careens in and out of various characters’ heads, presaging Blais’s penchant for multiple points of view. Published in 1965, the novel won the Prix Médicis in France and was translated into thirteen languages. Wilson wrote a laudatory introduction to the American edition. The novel still seems audacious, presenting candid descriptions of adolescent sexuality in religious schools, and a central female character who ends up happily supporting her rural family by working at the village bordello.

With the exception of one extended return to Quebec in the late ’70s and several summer visits, Marie-Claire Blais has spent most of her writing life in the United States and France. Begun as a mind-broadening experience, her American sojourn soon turned personal. Through the Wilsons, she met Mary Meigs, a wealthy New England painter, and her partner, political activist Barbara Deming, both a good twenty years older, who shared a house in Wellfleet. One day, while Meigs and Blais were walking in the woods, a tree branch snapped back and hit Blais in the eye. Blinded and unable to work, she moved in with Meigs, who took care of her. At the time, Deming was in jail in Georgia for her involvement in a civil rights protest. Upon her return, the three lived in a ménage à trois for a while, until Deming withdrew. Meigs and Blais formed an enduring if rocky alliance, the details of which fuelled the novelist, prompting Meigs to write three fascinating volumes of autobiography, politely pointed efforts to set the record straight.

Edmund Wilson’s early book Axel’s Castle had solidified his association with modernism, but his patience with experimentation didn’t last. By the time he met Marie-Claire Blais, he wanted fiction that reflected the times and incited readers to take up arms. He scorned Blais’s experiments, advising her to read Walter de la Mare. Physical love between women, he lectured, was like “a glove made for the left hand worn on the right.” In her diaries, she agonized over whether she could continue to respect a man who did not adore Kafka.

The mentor-acolyte relationship stalled on aesthetic grounds, but it failed elsewhere, too. Wilson harboured a protective passion for Meigs. He was furious when “the little bitch” fell in love with a French author (believed to be Irène Monesi), and convinced Meigs to sell her Cape Cod property and move with them to Brittany. He warned Meigs to nail down her fortune and keep a close eye on the spendthrift Canadian. (Of the three books to result from that drama, Meigs’ memoir, The Medusa Head, is the most interesting.)

Since the ’80s, Marie-Claire Blais has lived in Key West, the geographical if not the spiritual setting of her magnum opus. A social animal who keeps up many friendships in far corners, she dragged her friend Michel Tremblay down for a visit in the early ’90s. He ended up buying a house there, although they travel in different worlds. Tremblay brings friends from Quebec; Blais is ensconced in the local nightlife and arts scene.

The lush coastal landscape of Key West is sensuously evoked in Soifs and the novels that follow. I finally found my way into that symphonic universe, where water metaphors dominate, the prose style an ocean of worlds with many plot tributaries, nothing solid, nowhere to touch bottom. Yet in many ways, the community presented evokes the one first encountered by a high-strung young provincial who was thrust up against the New England intelligentsia of the ’60s. Political activism versus art is the central conflict facing the main characters, some of whom are based on people Blais has identified from her life. Far from Emmanuel’s squalour, theirs is an often-festive occasion teeming with ideas, theories, observations, descriptions—the heady dinner table conversation of erudite, creative people.

On one of her visits to Montreal, Marie-Claire Blais chooses the time and place to meet. It is late afternoon in the grandiose, ultra-trendy Sofitel Hotel bar on Sherbrooke Street West. A tiny woman with thick, dark hair threatening to hide her face, she is perched on the edge of her chair. She has ordered a glass of Chardonnay and will swallow less than an ounce while we talk, her voice so soft I’m sure the tape recorder will be useless, her gaze so intense I’ll be unable to read my scribbled notes.

“Personally, I don’t like suffering. I prefer serenity. I am not at all a dark person; in fact, I love it when friends drag me away from writing and out to a bar, although sometimes I write in bars, too. It’s just that so many of my friends seem to have an aptitude for suffering. You know, Sylvia Plath—really, it could happen to anyone. The world is a terrible place, but we have the tools to change. We have just to wake up. Yes, Obama, but I would really have loved to see Clinton. It’s good to know she’s still there.”

At the end, she writes her phone number in my notebook and insists on paying for the drinks, the first time in my experience as a journalist this has happened. She is, as those who admire her say, generous, friendly, easy to like, and at the same time utterly mysterious, obviously composed. A cheerful emissary for all she has written. I could imagine her cutting loose in a karaoke bar, Robert Charlebois or Lynda Lemay. Yet there is something of the nun in her demeanour, a body filled with otherworldly thoughts.

“Marie-Claire writes from her own need,” says Michel Tremblay. “She writes for herself.” Poet and translator Émile Martel, president of pen Quebec, says it’s true not many people read her, “but they buy her books. That’s half the battle,” he quips. An army of academics and critics has effectively canonized Blais in her lifetime: some eighty theses written on her work, plus a thick bibliography of books and articles; honours, prizes, literary jury duty, frequent appearances and readings. A cult, says Martel. For three consecutive years, PEN Quebec voted to put her name forward when the Swedish committee came asking for their advice on Nobel candidates.

My eighth grade teacher gave our class a brief and highly effective course in speed reading, a series of techniques, how to skim a page, hang on to the beginnings and endings of paragraphs, scan for key phrases, and squeeze meaning out of prose without having to mouth each successive word. This skill proved extremely useful around exam time. Its value has endured into researching magazine articles and reading books for review, but proved a huge liability in the face of the extraordinary literary achievement that is Soifs and the two connected volumes leading to Rébecca, Born in the Maelstrom.

There is only one way to read the latter novels of Marie-Claire Blais. Slowly. One word, one phrase at a time, and then the next. Preferably in a quiet place where there is no phone and no deadline. Ideally, in two or three long stretches, when you can fall asleep and then begin again in the morning, until the absence of punctuation finally becomes an absence of noise. The ends of disconnected threads begin to reappear. Familiar names pop up, voices, like conversations overheard on a journey. Once it all starts to make sense, you feel utterly grateful and deeply connected, in tune with humanity, mesmerized, ready to go on and on. These are truly books of our time, if, maddeningly, perhaps sadly, not for our time.
About the Author(s)

Marianne Ackerman is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and journalist.

Richard Hahn created the comic book series Lumakick.