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The anti-Maria Chapdelaine?

August 17, 2016 10 comments

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais (1965) Original French title: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

Blais_EmmanuelFirst day in Montreal and I was in a bookshop. Being abroad and being able to browse through books that are all in French is so unusual that I feel compelled to mention it. That’s where I got A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais. Published in 1965,  it won the Prix Médicis in France. A prestigious prize. I’d heard of Marie-Claire Blais and this one seemed a good one to start with.

Emmanuel is a new born in a household of peasants in Québec, probably at the beginning of the 20th century, although it’s not clearly defined. He’s something like the sixteenth child of the family. His grand-mother Marie-Antoinette is the only one who takes care of him, his mother doesn’t seem interested in him. Gradually, we discover the dynamics and the living conditions of the family. There are so many girls that they are seen as a collective entity rather than individuals. The mother has lost several children and the reader feels that she doesn’t have the energy to take care of this one or perhaps she’s afraid to get attached in case he dies too. One child, Jean Le Maigre is slowly dying of tuberculosis. His favourite brother, Le Septième, runs wild. Their sister Heloïse was thrown out of the convent because she was too exhalted. The father is a brute. The mother is ignorant of her sexuality. The Catholic church has an overwhelming power on the life of these peasants. The priest is everywhere. Children are sent to religious schools where some of the teaching priests are pedophiles. The classic theme saint or whore is present. The church meddles in the people’s sex lives, telling the women they have to accept conjugal duty. As a result, the mother’s sex life is more a succession of rapes than a relationship and she’s constantly pregnant. Neither she or her husband imagine for one minute that they should stop having children because the priest told them that they should accept babies as they come. The priest even pushes as far as saying that they are lucky to lose so many children because God claims them.

To be honest, I didn’t like this book at all. All the religious stuff put me off and made me angry. Strangely, the rates on Goodreads seem split between readers. Good rates come from Anglophones and bad ones from Francophones. I wonder if the translation did something to it or if Anglophones fare better with this hateful mix of poverty and religion. It still puzzles me.

Then comes the beauty of blogging. As I was writing my billet about Maria Chapdelaine, I started to make a connection between the two books. It feels like A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a pamphlet against the idiotic conservatism of Hémon’s book. Instead of glorifying the life of the peasants of the era, Blais shows us another picture. These people were dirty poor. The children didn’t have time to go to school and when they went, they were taught by country teachers with no diploma. They had land but could never make a decent income out of it no matter how hard they worked. The church held people’s minds in an iron fist and used their power in a way that created more problems than it solved. It’s bleak, bleak, bleak. Violent. Desperate. Hopeless. And the winter is crushing. Life in the countryside is made of hunger, cold, ignorance and poverty. The condition of women is appalling: they work, they lay children, they are under their husband’s thumb.

From what I understand, the 1960s were a big change in Québec. Like in most Western countries, you might say. In 1959, Jean Lesage was elected and started the Révolution Tranquille. Major social changes were implemented and the Catholic church started to lose their power. Blais’s book was published in 1965. Considering its context and my reading of Maria Chapdelaine, I can’t help thinking it was written against Hémon’s classic tale of the Canadian settlers. It doesn’t make me like it more but I understand it better. Another novel with an agenda. One was trying to write a edifying tale and the other tries to take this fairy tale down. It makes me think of statues going down after a revolution.

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