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Shades of the Sixties
by Keith Nickson

Time: Late August, 1963. Dusk. Place: Sand dunes on Cape Cod. Surf washes up nearby. Event: Writers, musicians, and painters gather and socialize in sixties style. They comment knowingly on the crepuscular light. They drink. They talk in hushed tones of the dreaded "New York critics"; of the taste of fall in the air. Enter: Marie-Claire Blais, twenty-something.

I see her as a pale waif, in jeans, with a shock of unruly hair. She sits in shadow, just outside a pool of harsh white light, where celebrity writers gossip, laugh, and feed on the adoration. Blais is fascinated, records everything in her mental notebook. Sometimes she turns and whispers to another young woman, who passes her a rather fat, homemade cigarette. Mary McCarthy or Edmund Wilson beckons her over, but Blais only digs her running shoes a little deeper in the sand, smiles and waves them away.

Looking back over Marie-Claire Blais' almost forty years of writing, it's now clear that she has always hung back from the literary limelight and clung to the shadows.
You may recall that in 1963 the American man of letters Edmund Wilson shone a singular beam of light on the little-known Blais, whose first novel's morality had scandalized Quebec. Mad Shadows, published in 1959 under the title La Belle BÍte when Blais was twenty years old, was later issued in England by the prestigious firm Jonathan Cape. It also caught the attention of Wilson, who was researching a book on leading Anglo and Francophone writers in this country, which was published as O Canada: An American Note on Canadian Culture. Blais' American Notebooks begins in May of 1963 with two seminal events: she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship along with an invitation to share "a glass of whiskey" at Montreal's Ritz Carleton Hotel with Edmund and Elena Wilson.
Living the hard life of an apprentice writer, Blais is both dazzled and disturbed by the Wilsons:
"Edmund and Elena, who appear to understand everything, who have read everything and can discuss everything, from music to foreign literature, seem to have descended from those Olympian regions where one can only admire them from afar with occasional fits of anger."
Always wary of aristocracies, always sensitive to social injustice, Blais is leery of Wilson and his wand that may turn her into a Cinderella figure. Still she succumbs-and who could resist such a magical offer?
Wilson grandly announces that her "difficult period is over." Plans are made for her to live in Cambridge, Mas-sachusetts, for a year, where she can devote herself to writing and visit the Wilson's retreat on Cape Cod. American Note-books is a series of fifty-one notebook entries, each only a few pages long, that evoke Blais' life in Cambridge, Cape Cod, and Key West during the 1960s. This book is not an unburdening of personal demons and triumphs, however. Blais fixes her considerable powers of observation on the writers, visual artists, musicians, and social activists she meets, and only incidentally does the focus fall on herself.
In Cambridge, Blais is surrounded by revolt. In a basement apartment she reads James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, while black youths riot outside. Harvard students demonstrate against the impending escalation of the Vietnam War. She works at a small card table on A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, a book that will be published in thirteen languages and come to be considered her finest novel. In a Cambridge park far from the unrest, she sits beside Edmund Wilson, who imparts his knowledge of Virginia Woolf. Blais is the attentive acolyte, Wilson the high priest of literature: "Confronted with such erudition, I, whose mind is not yet cultivated, whose literary career is just beginning, must remain silent." Nevertheless, Blais the nascent feminist is impatient with Wilson's "proprietorial tone, so rigid and smug, the tone, in the sixties, of male critics...analysing works by women." Later, she will present Wilson with drafts of a novel in progress and wait silently for his verdict.
Although the famous do cameo turns in these pages-Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, John Hersey, Annie Dillard, and even Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, all pop up-it is the obscure apprentice artists who engage Blais' sympathy. Robert, for example, is a young black writer full of bile and brilliance, whose two books have been praised by those god-like creatures Blais mentions many times, "the New York critics". Robert worships James Baldwin and William Faulkner, but is now exhausted by the fight against segregation. Several notebooks are devoted to him over the course of the narrative, and he emerges as a mysterious and tragic figure. He scandalizes his liberal friends on Cape Cod by flagrantly betraying his white lover, Jane, who is seriously ill. In plain view of the ailing Jane, he conducts a relationship with the eighteen-year-old white daughter of a professor friend, and so fathers a white child. Like Baldwin, he flees the racism of the U.S. and lands in Paris-after he finds mother and child dead, the result of a murder-suicide. Robert will publish five novels, yet always consider himself invisible in the U.S. A heart attack in New York City will end his life early.
The painful, sweet, and elegiac tone of Robert's story is carried over into most of the entries. Again and again, Blais mourns the approaching deaths of a sculptor, a painter, a musician, writing at one point: "It is death hiding in the distance, yet already feels so close." Barbara Deming, the writer and activist, becomes emaciated from her hunger strike in a Southern jail and dies years later from ovarian cancer. With her writing on Deming and other social activists, Blais suffuses the book with an eloquent grieving for the 1960s itself, a decade of tumultuous optimism that seemed poised to eradicate all kinds of injustices. It is Deming along with her partner, the painter Mary Meigs, who provide Blais with feminist role models. Blais writes of them nestled in the dunes of Cape Cod:
"I don't think I can imagine anything more beautiful, more noble, than this kind of freedom where, by mutual consent, each woman with all her fierce individualism, is passionately, fervently absorbed in the expression of her creativity. I know that Mary is a painter and Barbara, a writer. I also know that they live without any concessions to the society they were born into... . Barbara and Mary's way of thinking, of being, as independent women, proving that they can live without men, is more than progressive-it is seen as a shocking provocation."
This is one of only a few allusions to lesbian sexuality. We know from books by Blais' friends and from her own works, that she later embraced homosexuality in an open way. In these notebooks, however, her sexual identity, like the rest of her inner life, is invisible. The light shines intensely all around, but seldom on Blais herself.
As with Blais' entry on Mary Meigs and Barbara Deming, most of the notebooks are marvellously constructed miniatures. Each paragraph is a tightly wound spiral of poetic prose; they lock into place one after the other, creating elliptical, beautifully cadenced character studies. Since Blais jotted down the original versions of these notebooks as the events were unfolding, there are notes of 1960s idealism that now, inevitably, sound naive. For the most part, however, her method conveys a bracing immediacy. The reader quickly identifies with a young artist struggling to find her way in a very crazy, over-stimulating decade.
The sub-title A Writer's Journey is important; Blais gives many clues on the writer's role. She herself is industrious and persistent, using everything in her life as material for her writing. She is heavily influenced by visual artists. For Blais, the writer must always be a radical, watching intensely from the sidelines, ever wary of the middle-class mainstream. Writers cannot be didactic but should exhibit a natural, muscular sympathy for the outcast and the underdog. And yes, the shadows, natural home of the subversive, are always preferable to the limelight.
American Notebooks, like several of Blais' recent books, has been again published by a small regional house. In the 1960s, she was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York (the leading fiction house in the U.S.) and McClelland & Stewart in Canada. She has published steadily since her sixties stardom, but her status in Canada has now shrunk to that of a "writer's writer" with a correspondingly small audience. This memoir is as perfectly crafted as a string of miniature lanterns strung high across a deserted beach. My only regret is that it hasn't been granted the hardcover-"this is an important writer"-treatment by the likes of a national publishing house.
Blais may prefer the shadows but her books still deserve the limelight.

 Keith Nickson is said to teach in the shadows at George Brown College in Toronto.


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