French Canadian literary sensation Marie-Claire Blais, who this week delivered a commencement address at Princeton University, died Saturday, aged 82.
Known widely as the mother of Quebec’s next generation of novelists, Ms. Blais’s 20 novels, 10 collections of short stories, and a handful of nonfiction pieces, were highly praised for their inclusive plots and pointed social commentaries on issues of gender and race. Her first novel, Shadows, opened in 1977 with the protagonist, a woman with hair removed by her parents for cultural reasons, taking the place of her dying father. Facing a common predicament with her cultural identities, the child encourages her mother to keep her hair cut short so as to avoid blurring the lines between her life and her man’s. The passage, which centers on Ms. Blais’s encounter with the formidable, and much-in-demand, Lea (played by Audrey Tautou in a fictionalized version of Madame Bovary), paved the way for her fifth novel, Still Life in 1991. Ms. Blais, who once cited the book as her favourite of hers, was also regarded as the first female Quebecois novelist to win the Booker Prize for her novel The Ragarda Ours.
“You won that award for two reasons,” Denys Arcand, a fellow award winner and friend, once said to Blais. “First, you are absolutely fearless in trying to deal with a contemporary society. And second, you make room for people like me on your pages.”
Ms. Blais, who emigrated from Beauce, a rural province in eastern Canada, in the early 1950s, in addition to her wide array of awards and honorary degrees, was also notorious for her flamboyant style — a mixture of irony and self-deprecation, often at the expense of other writers, and frequently at the expense of her own profession. The author spoke frequently of a “generational divide” in the literary world and her desire to enshrine the fiction of an earlier generation, as well as to become a role model for the next generation of Canadian writers. Ms. Blais, a journalist by trade, once said: “To be different in the literary world today is to be unacceptable.”