Marie-Claire Blais profiled in the New Yorker. Why is she not a bigger thing in America?
The career of the French-Canadian writer Marie-Claire Blais had precocious and auspicious beginnings. She published her first novel, “La Belle Bête,” in 1959, when she was just twenty years old. Translated into English by Merloyd Lawrence as “Mad Shadows,” the book is a faintly gothic portrait of a forsaken girl, and her mother’s obsession with her idiot brother—the “beautiful beast” of the title. The novel offers an incisive rendering of family dynamics; it is also disarmingly brutal, with a tragic ending that suggests that all beauty is false and that life’s only truth is suffering. Margaret Atwood, Blais’s exact contemporary, later wrote, “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. I was 19 myself, and with such an example before me I already felt like a late bloomer.”