13 September 2019 | Staff | Globe and Mail
On an evening cool by Caribbean standards, I meet the 21st century’s Virginia Woolf in a bar off a boisterous street on an island 160 kilometres from Cuba.
Marie-Claire Blais’s recent writing has all of Woolf’s stylistic innovation and moments of ecstatic clarity. Her first novel to use this new style, These festive nights, opens with a long epigraph from Woolf’s The Waves, a novel in which six interior monologues together form a song to companionship in the face of death.
Blais’s novels, too, are songs of individuality and connection, presented in stream-of-consciousness sentences fluid in their motion from mind to mind, with wavelike crests in rhythm. The Waves is often described as one of Woolf’s more experimental novels. In These festive nights, Blais showed her desire to take the experiment further.
One of Canada’s most decorated authors in either official language, Blais, 79, might still be best known among English readers for her explosive first novel, Mad Shadows, which she published at the age of 20.
Blame it on the Two Solitudes: In la francophonie, her 60-year publishing career has earned her the title of Quebec’s greatest living writer. In the lineage of writing by LGBT authors in Canada, she is an elder. And her project of two decades, a 10-novel cycle titled Soifs (“thirsts”), is the most ambitious thing attempted by a literary writer recently.
This summer, Anansi published the English translation of the eighth book in the cycle, A Twilight Celebration. In subject matter, Blais’s latest novels are awash in the world’s great injustices from the Second World War to the present.
The Holocaust and Hiroshima, the Global North’s military misadventures in the Global South, white supremacy, AIDS, the climate crisis – Blais’s work acknowledges this bleak reality, despite which her characters find joy and connection. It’s her engagement with these issues that makes Blais’s Woolfian stream-of-consciousness feel fresh and new and also Blais herself a writer of our time. Another comparison to be made: In creative output, Key West gives Bloomsbury a run for its money.
I met with the Québécois author there in March, Blais’s long-time home and the inspiration for the island at the centre of her novels about hope and despair in the late 20th and early 21st century. It was the writers who drew her to the island in the first place.
“I became friends with the poet James Merrill and all the people around him. I came to the city to give a reading and I thought, ‘This is so extraordinary.’
Elizabeth Bishop was before I came, but still all the wonderful writers were here, like John Hersey and James Merrill.” To give a sense of the milieu: Journalist Hersey, best known for his book about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, was a founding member of the Writers Compound, on a side street from where Blais and I meet.
Hersey’s co-founders were Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison, poet and Divine Comedy translator John Ciardi, and the second poet-laureate of the United States, Richard Wilbur. Wallace Stevens, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Shel Silverstein and Judy Blume – this is just a sample of the writers who have made Key West home.
Blais describes herself arriving at the end of the 1970s, as being “a little bit like a baby: You’re young enough to absorb so many things. At the same time, all these people I loved so, they were older.” As her friends began to disappear, she wanted to immortalize them in her books. “Sometimes you have to make two or three characters into one, but I always try to be faithful to the writer or the painter as I met them. I hope to show them as they are.”
In addition to writers and painters, Blais’s novels depict practitioners of more ephemeral arts, such as drag. Several of the Soifs novels she dedicates to “Sushi, a remarkable artist.” Sushi, a.k.a. Gary Marion, presides as house queen at 801 Bourbon Bar.
“Usually I try to meet all the people I write about,” Blais says. “It was important for me to speak about unique people who are really living at night and doing these marvellous things that disappear, come back, disappear, come back.” In her characters who perform at the Porte du Baiser Saloon, she says, “I tried to illustrate Sushi’s life at night, but not alone, with all his friends. And their compassion, because some of them died young.”
Initially, she thought the cycle would be a trilogy, “and then I got so involved,” finding more elements to return to in book after book, the cast ballooning to hundreds of characters.
Written over two decades, the novels cover an equally large time span: Children from the early books by the later ones are grown adults with children of their own. “I like that,” she says, “because I like to describe the grammar of the time we live in.”
We meet at Mangoes, a restaurant-bar on Duval Street, the heart of Key West’s nightlife. On this evening several blocks of the street have been pedestrianized, making patios all the better for people-watching. Midway through our conversation, an emergency vehicle crawls by. In the pause for the blaring sirens, we both laugh ruefully. Blais says, “It’s always like that.”
That sense on the street of conviviality mixed with sadness and pain running to emergency permeates Blais’s novels. Asked if she began the Soifs cycle to capture a time and place, Blais replies, “recapturing this wonderful time, yes, the political freedom and the revolution. It was a kind of paradise and at the same time there was all this human tragedy.”
An irrefutable fact of both the place the author writes from and her fictional island community is the mark left by AIDS. “It was everywhere, but here it was very concentrated,” Blais remembers. As the Washington Post reported in 1989, Monroe County – of which Key West (then a population of 27,000) is the seat – experienced a higher rate of reported AIDS cases than either San Francisco or New York.
The southernmost point in the continental United States at the end of a long archipelago, Key West’s isolation from mainland society long made it a place where people who didn’t fit anywhere else – gays and lesbians included – belonged. Blais remembers many young Canadians who found community here, as well as how the epidemic ripped through the town “like a tornado”: “They came from everywhere to have more sexual freedom. The sad thing is, because they were free, they died. It was so cruel. It was terrible to associate love and sex with dying, especially for very young people.” She lost a lot of friends. Those who know both the town and her books will recognize the Key West AIDS Memorial in Blais’s cemetery by the sea.
From this painful time she also recalls joie de vivre and “a great community feeling” as people came together to open a hospice so their friends could receive the best care and not die alone. Consider how many of the titles in this cycle juxtapose levity with darkness or menace: festive nights, thunder and light, a choir of destruction, birth in a maelstrom, a Predators’ Ball.
“I think it was Sheila Fischman,” the translator of the first book, “who found the title for These festive nights. My book in French was Soifs, which means ‘thirsty for everything’ – spiritual, physical. I think the title in English, These festive nights, is remarkable because there is the festivity, but there is sadness.”
And now another chiaroscuro title, A Twilight Celebration, in which Daniel, a writer, travels for a conference in a small Scottish town that fetes international writers in a forest at dusk. With this book, “We are very much in the inner soul of the writer,” Blais says. It is a novel haunted by absences. At the conference: Daniel’s yearning for his estranged son, Augustino, also a writer; writer friends from the island now dead; writers missing from the celebrations, “disappeared” by their home countries.
Meanwhile Fleur, a young composer, travels to Rome where his symphony is to be performed, only to realize the conductor doesn’t comprehend the experiences, including homelessness, at the symphony’s core. Fleur misses those who kept him warm on the beach at night. Back on the island, the newest performer at the Saloon cabaret is Victoire (“Victory”) a trans woman expelled from the military and stripped of honours, welcomed warmly by the queens but understandably chagrined that her unemployment has lead her to work among female impersonators.
Whether you choose to start with the first or the latest book in the cycle matters less than that you jump in with both feet. Shortly before beginning These festive nights, Blais developed a distinctive style of long sentences lasting several pages, punctuated by commas. There are no paragraph or chapter breaks. This style serves several purposes, the writer says. At a time when each of us is preoccupied by “twenty-thousand things,” the sentences “give the feeling that we are running.” Influenced by both Woolf and Faulkner, this stream of consciousness is “obsessive, the way we are. We go and come back, the movement of our thoughts.”
It can pose a challenge to get used to. Some advice: If you concentrate too much on trying to break apart the sentence, you will only end up frustrating yourself. Instead, relax your mind and listen for the rhythms of the sentence. Let its waves and swells carry you along its surface.
It is common in these novels for two characters to have a conversation, only for one to get lost in thoughts about a third and their interaction with a fourth. “I became more and more in the habit of this kind of inner song that goes from you and I to them. It gives a feeling of a complete humanity, that we know we are all alike because we are all living dramas.” She adds, “It seems important to me in these books to go in the direction that we are all so collective.”
Original Link: Quebec writer Marie-Claire Blais is the next Virginia Woolf