30 May 2015

Marie-Claire Blais: Les Nuits de l'Underground (1978)

At first I couldn't see in what way Marie-Claire Blais's Les Nuits de l'Underground bore any resemblance to her Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel (1965), although it's clear that the interest is in the outsider, in those who don't have an effective voice. Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel isn't a comfortable read, although I found Les Nuits de l'Underground far less so: frequently, long drawn-out sentences are used, often unrelieved by paragraph breaks, and a French-speaking person from anywhere other than Québec would probably have problems with the pigeon English in this novel.

The pigeon English is used by Lali, an Austrian medical doctor living in Montréal who usually speaks in this variety of English, also using a sometimes slightly tortured form of French. For a time, she's the lover of the protagonist Geneviève, a sculptor who seems to spend her time between Montréal and Paris. (But if Geneviève was so fond of the Brontës she wouldn't have referred – three times – to their brother Branwell as 'Bradwell': surely Blais's error there?)

The Underground of the title is a night club in Montréal where lesbians tend to hang out until the early hours of the morning, and this being set in the 1970s means that the sexual orientation is considered louche, something against the the norm. This is very much a novel of internal exile, a wail against the turmoil of the dispossessed: not in a financial, but in an existential sense.

The expression transformations d'être (literally 'transformations of being') is used at one point in the novel, and I thought of its aptness to this book, which describes such transformations so fluently. This novel is profoundly sensual, it delineates minute changes of temperance, carves out a voice for the sexually oppressed and depressed, and views both the present and the future with a kind of despair.

I'm sure I'll revisit this novel sometime and come up with a different verdict: maybe I read it at the wrong time, but it disappointed me.

My other Marie-Claire Blais post:

Marie-Claire Blais: Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel

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