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By Marie-Claire Blais
Translated from the French by Merloyd Lawrence
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960
123 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2013

Without doubt this was one of the strangest books I have ever read. There are five main characters, four of them are just horrible human beings and the fifth is said to be “an idiot,” and is certainly a person having little realistic contact with Earth.

Patrice, the idiot, is an extremely beautiful child, deeply beloved by his mother because of his beauty. She doesn’t seem to notice or care about his mental state.

His sister, Isabelle-Marie, by contrast, is the essence of physical ugliness. Because of this ugliness her mother simply hates her, and because of her mother’s hate, Isabelle-Marie hates herself.

Louise, the mother, is herself quite beautiful and rich. She has a profitable farm which supports her comfortably and is run by others. Her husband has been dead a number of years and she lives with her children.

Into this world comes another beautiful person, Lanz, a younger man, a total scoundrel, whom Louise picks up in some resort, brings home and soon marries.

Finally there is Michael, a blind boy, again, ideally beautiful, who meets Isabelle-Marie. They become friends and she leads him to believe she is incredibly beautiful. In this relationship she finally finds some happiness.

The central issues in this very strange novel are the place of physical beauty, and to a lesser extent, to financial wealth and independence. The view is life with beauty and wealth is ideal and without it, horrible. We follow their lives until four of the five are dead, and this theme plays out in each case.

Author Marie-Claire Blais seems obsessed by this theme of the relationship of beauty and wealth to the possibility of happiness. We read such lines as:

“Louise was like an old doll. She belonged to him. Louise had found an adorer, and Lanz had found adoration, each as futile and ill-fated as the other.”

When the ugly daughter marries we read of her mother and step-father:

“Louise was overjoyed to be losing her daughter . . .

Lanz, too, rejoiced inwardly to see this annoying critic disappear from their lives.”

After doting over her idiot son for more than 20 years because of his special beauty, he is disfigured by his sister. His mother’s response to the howling, injured young man is:

“Patrice, what have you done? . . . Patrice clawed at his mother’s ankles, crying out in pain. But Louise pulled away from his clutches; she was not physically able to bear the sight of such a desperately injured being. . . . Patrice no longer meant anything to her, for her soul was that of a doll . . . Overcome with disgust she fled.”

And that when the helpless young man is in front of her writhing in terrible pain and injury!

While the writing itself was gripping and at times brilliant, I was (am) quite at sea to figure out what the novel is all about. Is it a critique of the place of beauty’s place in our culture, and to a lesser extent, wealth? If so, it does work to almost physically bring that point home to any reader. Yet the characters are so extreme it is not too hard to simply close the book and say: those folks were simply insane, and not be very challenged by the suspected thesis.

A very strange book, for sure! I’m not at all unhappy to have read it, but I don’t see myself running of to find a second book by this author.

Marie-Claire Blais is a Canadian author, born 1939. She now lives in U.S. This was her first novel. She has won quite a few awards in Canada.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett