Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tete Blanche by Marie Claire Blais

Tête Blanche / Marie Claire Blais; translated from the French by Charles Fullman.  (New Canadian Library No. 104)
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1974, c1961.
136 p.

This is an older book; it was the second novel by Québécoise author Blais. She's still writing and publishing regularly - her latest, Acacia Gardens, was just released.

Tête Blanche, though, is clearly an early work, and one that seems influenced by France-French literature. The introduction to my New Canadian Library edition, by Philip Stratford, points out that this book is similar to Francois Mauriac's La Pharisienne, in its plot points and themes, so that the influence can be seen fairly closely.

And there is also a more France-like sensibility than I'm used to from a Quebec novel. Tête Blanche is a young boy who is sent to a boarding school, alongside other boys who are pretty much neglected or orphaned. His mother is a struggling actress who is ill, and who never comes to visit him. They do exchange letters, and while it's an interesting choice stylistically, it's also quite a stretch to believe that this pre-adolescent is also preternaturally eloquent. He writes in a literary, emotionally wrought style, and 'confesses' his crimes to his mother. He's not a nice little boy - his behaviour goes from mocking and teasing weaker boys all the way to killing a cat. That's a real deal-breaker for me in fiction, unnecessary animal cruelty, and I had a hard time bothering with this disaffected young man afterwards.

There are a lot of things I didn't like - this cruelty, his love for the 14 yr old sister of a classmate (which is also both precocious and creepy, as he sees her as his mother, sister and a lover in turns), the inconclusive ending which indicates that he's gone over to his dark side.

I really don't know what to say about this one. It fits with Blais' darker eye on humanity, but I found the characters dismal, dreary, and unpleasant, and there was not enough in the plot or the writing style to really rescue it for me. So this is one of those "glad I read another Canadian classic, mostly because I won't have to read it again" books. Oh well. On to some more modern Quebec novels next!


  1. Sounds like the plot of a dark movie that could really creep viewers out if done correctly! --

    1. Actually, that's a good point -- it would make a good French film...atmospheric, with ennui and an edge...

  2. I've read only one of her early novels too, and it sounds similiar in some ways. Nonetheless, I do appreciate her style and tone, but perhaps have stumbled into it when I could have used something "lighter". When I heard about Acacia Gardens, I considered going back to the beginning of that series (saga? it doesn't seem quite a series exactly), but I'm rather torn on the idea.

    1. I think she's tough for me to get a handle on. The darkness, the stylistic choices she makes -- it's harder work to engage with. I tried Acacia Gardens, but I don't think I was in the right mood/mental space for it. I couldn't make it work.


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