Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais

So, this certainly was a book. Part of the Canadian 100. Huh. It's...a little overwrought. Strange. Perhaps strangest of all was the introduction (not by the author) insisting that this book was not overwrought, that it was an accurate representation of pre-Quiet Revolution rural Quebec. She was quite insistent, taking Robertson Davies to task for a review where he apparently said that Blais had talent, but maybe she should try toning down the bombast next time.

I am inclined to agree with Robertson Davies. I also felt the need to look up Blais, as this insistence that this is the way rural Quebec really WAS by the writer of the introduction seemed a little...I don't know. It raised the question - was Blais a country girl? Or a city person writing about the country? (Born in Quebec City, went to Laval - so not exactly rural.)

The funny thing was, it immediately made me think of a passage in Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, making me wonder if that paragraph was written in reaction to this book. Looking it up, Fifth Business came out five years after A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, so it very well may have been in response.

The quote goes:

Later it was the popular thing to show villages as rotten with vice, and especially such sexual vice...incest, sodomy, bestiality, sadism, and masochism were supposed to rage behind lace curtains and in the haylofts, while a rigid piety was professed in the streets

That's pretty...accurate. This book is all about incest, rape, prostitution, and the degrading nature of rural life in Quebec. I am not sure it's anywhere near an accurate depiction of what life was like (sorry, Priscila Uppal), but the writing is strong, and the subject matter incredibly dark. This isn't realism. I can't for a second believe you're supposed to think it's realism.

This is life in the country as a steaming sexual cauldron, with circle jerks between brothers at night, predatory priests at the reformatory (although, interestingly, the most predatory is immediately defrocked and thrown out of the church), with a sister whose piety spills over into sexuality, leading her to a life as a prostitute.

Emmanuel is never more than a few months old - this book is about his brothers. What a terrible life he is born into, we're supposed to think. His mother goes back to work in the fields an hour after he's been born. His grandmother doesn't really like him. His brothers and sisters are all more obsessed with staying warm and sex than a new arrival. His father is...curiously, a cipher. We're supposed to think of him as rough and brutish, I think, but he doesn't really act like it, beyond a few statements that are never followed up.

It's...uh...a weird book. Not one of my favourites, probably because I'm not sure where all this is leading. There's not really a point down the road, or at least, one that got through to me. Life in the country is nasty, brutish, sexual, and likely to be ended by TB? Great. That's...interesting?

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