4 February 2014

Marie-Claire Blais: Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel (1965)

Marie-Claire Blais's Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel won the Prix Médicis in 1966, although it was seen by some in Quebec itself – the author's home and where the book is set – to show the province in a negative light.

The novel has a somewhat unreliable title as there is very little here about Emmanuel: it begins when the child has just been born in a very cold winter and ends with the coming of the warmer spring, although Emmanuel himself plays a very minor part in it. It is set in a nameless small village in Quebec and the narrative revolves around a family without a surname.

It is not only the weather that is bleak. It is the beginning of the 19th century, the family is very poor, the house has no electricity and modern appliances are frowned upon. The mother and father work in the fields and are unsympathetically portrayed. The mother has given birth to sixteen children and child or infant death is a common part of their existence.. Emmanuel seems to have been born with an intuitive world-weariness. While the parents are in the fields the matriarchal Grand-Mère Antoinette – who has a passive acceptance of death and poverty as the norm – looks after the house and the children, although she seems to view another mouth to be fed in a rather unwelcoming manner.

But by no means everything is negative, and a number of the characters are seen in a sympathetic light. The adolescent Jean le Maigre is tuberculous and will certainly die soon, although he is Grand-Mère Antoinette's favorite: he is gifted and spends most of his time reading and writing. His learning is – unexpectedly, and wholly contrary to the father's wishes – encouraged and much appreciated by Grand-Mère Antoinette, who is eager to see him join the noviciate.

Although unlike his younger brother le Septième, who wastes his time at school, Jean le Maigre enjoys drinking getting drunk with le Septième and masturbating him in the bed they share with two other brothers.

At the noviciate Jean le Maigre also sexually satisfies the other boys at night, although he soon dies there, Grand-Mère Antoinette devouring his writings.

The novel also concentrates on the strong religious behavior of one of the daughters – Héloïse, whose religious fervor later turns to sexual feelings – the brothers discover that she masturbates alone, for instance – and she goes to live in a larger village where she earns enough money through prostitution to regularly send back home.

The brothers le Septième and Pomme get a job in a shoe factory which makes 1700 shoes a day, Pomme cutting the soles and le Septième glueing them. Unfortunately Pomme loses three fingers while doing this and has to continue his 'career' selling newspapers.

Le Septième develops a taste for the learning he missed in his youth and goes to see Théo Crapula, who is in fact the disgraced Father Théodule, now teaching in the slum he lives in. Crapula doesn't charge le Septième for lessons and seems more interested in other things. He takes the rather reluctant le Septième for a moonlight walk, although the adolescent runs away when Crapula asks him to whip him. Crapula catches up with him and le Septième believes he's going to kill him, although he awakens alive.

Grand-Mère Antoinette thinks it's going to be a lovely spring, but regrets that Jean le Maigre won't be around.

If this account makes the book sound odd, that's because it is. But it's probably the oddness that makes for part of the appeal: its vision is pessimistic, but that's not the attraction as there's something endearing – in an essentially strange kind of way – in the characters. It was also turned into a film and translated (according to the by no means always reliable Wikipedia) into twelve languages.

My other Marie-Claire Blais post:

Marie-Claire Blais: Les Nuits de l'Underground

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