The Discreet Charm of François Blais
an essay by Anne-Marie Genest *
I don’t want to go shouting it from the rooftops but it has to be said: Mitia and I are going off the rails a bit. It was hard to be sure at first. We were just taking baby steps in the wrong direction, like when you would set out walking on a crust of snow and then, by the time you figure out you’ve gone far enough and you’re coming to the point of no return, you’d turn around and run right back. We were getting further away, sure, but we never actually lost sight of the track. And then one day it was like, fuck, we can’t even hear the train any more. We started off telling ourselves the emperor wasn’t really naked, his toga was just kind of moth-eaten. Then it was more like, ok, the emperor may have no toga on, but at least he’s wearing clean underwear, common decency prevails and what have you. In the end we had to face facts: that bastard was running around with his dick hanging out! Since then we pretend to look away, like everyone else, but it’s all kind of a joke. We devise ever more elaborate compliments for the emperor’s outfit, lay it on real thick. The emperor has no sense of humour so he accepts our compliments as his due, and we’re all nudge-nudge, wink-wink. It’s pretty fun, actually. This is serious, by the way. Our entire life is built around this joke, and it’s all an exercise in futility. Our entire life is an exercise in futility.
The above excerpt from François Blais’ Nous autres ça compte pas is as representative a slice of his fictional world as you’re liable to find. His humour, style, love of literary references, and typical protagonists – an asocial couple who seem to act more like siblings than lovers – all are there, rendered in Blais’ signature style, a disarmingly casual voice that rarely fails to addresses the reader directly.
And I’m going to ask you, dear reader, to permit me a small aside before we cut to the heart of the matter. Know that I too plan to address you frankly, without a trace of formality. We may not have grown up playing tag together but trust me, there’s no better way to get to the bottom of our subject today. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it soon enough, and we’ll soon be better acquainted. It’s the only way I have to handle the stress of painting a portrait of an author I so dearly admire. Believe me, it’s intimidating. When you’ve read every one of his books and loved them all with all your heart, loved them to the point where you want to take out a pen and dot every “i” with a little heart, it is hard to shake the unnerving impression that the author is reading over your shoulder. It can be paralyzing. But, if you are lucky, and the author is François Blais – a man who didn’t balk at starting one of his novels with the opening sentence of À la recherche du temps perdu – you can be forgiven for taking a few liberties, borrowing a few tricks.
Now, gentle reader, let me introduce you to our author, François Blais. He hails from Grand-Mère, Quebec, a town in the Mauricie that merged with Shawinigan in 2002, and the setting of most of his novels. By the author’s own admission this felicitous fact derives more from his intimate knowledge of the locale than from any particular dramatic potential. (Look it up; you’ll see he’s not lying.)
Since 2006 François Blais has published eight novels in as many years. Eight in eight years, I hear you say, that’s a lot. To which I can only reply that at the beginning of every new publishing season, when you feel like you are going to drown in a sea of masterpieces, must-reads, page-turners, and sensations, the thought of a new Blais is like a rubber duck-shaped buoy promising to keep us afloat, our heads above water, promising us that, once we’ve finished our homework, we will be free, at last, to go out and play.
On paper our author may appear to be wholly without shame (to wit, the preface of Sam where he engages in odious emotional blackmail with the Académie des lettres du Québec, defying them to give him the Prix Ringuet award for the year’s outstanding work of fiction). But in public François Blais is terribly shy. Written interviews invariably note the author’s wish to answer questions by email rather than in person. At talks and bookstore appearances he has shown such aptitude for the monosyllable that he is well on his way to becoming the national champion. One might well succumb to the temptation of drawing connections between Mr. Blais and his characters, but I hear you, reader, crying foul, and you’re right: the text is sovereign, let’s keep the author separate from his work. To the novels.
As we have said, François Blais takes perverse pleasure in creating stories centered on fantastically asocial characters. Iphigénie crawls under the windows to avoid her “friends’” invitations (Iphigénie en Haute-Ville); Mitia and Arsène move to a cabin deep in the woods (Nous autres ça compte pas); Pavel and Molie opt for a nocturnal lifesytle to keep contact with other people to a strict minimum (La nuit des morts-vivants). Blais’ characters may be capable of social interaction with select members of the human race – their families, a few friends and neighbours, bartenders – but they show a marked preference for observation over participation. Though we are rarely told outright it feels as though they are in their late twenties. They bear improbable names from the annals of literature and make their living working shitty jobs or collecting social assistance. Perfectly lucid if a touch pessimistic, they know relationships don’t last, our clothing is sewn by Bangladeshi children, and we all inevitably end up hating our jobs. They choose self-deprecation over cynicism and pass their time reading Schopenhauer, or Joyce, or watching horror movies. Their solitude is occasionally interrupted to take long walks, play video games, and return from fact-finding missions on the internet with impressive and utterly useless stores of knowledge.
They are not quite misfits, or misanthropes, or Thoreauvian introspective hermits; no, what Blais gives us are simply normal people who, in the big game of Monopoly we call life, would rather push the boot and the little dog around the board than use totally symbolic currency to buy up plastic houses.
Truth be told, in François Blais’ world the road taken is more important than the destination. Certain readers might contend that several of the novels end not with a bang but with a whimper, or simply go around in circles. And they would be right. But they wouldn’t be telling the full story, for in fact this “quality” is a cornerstone of François Blais’ style; there is an art to these abrupt endings, the assured touch of an author who has studied his craft.
Picture, dear reader, a train: the train of Quebec Literature. There’s Dany Laferrière, Michel Tremblay, and Marie Laberge sitting pretty in first class. In the rear the cars are crammed with unknown writers trying to hold onto their seats. And there’s François Blais. He’s not quite a popular writer, or some kind of freak, but he’s an underdog, and a superhero, with a whole car to himself. It may appear to be going off the rails, but look more closely and you’ll see that he has found another, gleaming track all of his own. ≈
From Document 1
by François Blais
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
Ihate to be a drama queen, but I think Jude and I are unhappy. I mean, wanting to take off must be the most obvious symptom of unhappiness. I know, it’s dumb, but unhappy people think they can actually run away from their problems. They think they can find happiness elsewhere, make a fresh start, wipe the slate clean, go off and find themselves… all that crap. (We’ll live off the fat of the land and have rabbits. Go on George, tell me more, tell me about the garden, the rabbits and the cages, the cream so thick you can barely cut it with a knife. Tell it, George.)
Anyway, we’re not exactly talking about a fresh start here: all we want to do is spend a month in Bird-in-Hand. But that’s enough for us, because we’re just a little bit unhappy. We’re just a little bit everything, really. When I said that to Jude – “I think we’re unhappy, friend” – he laughed right in my face and told me to stop being such a goth.
“What do you think, then? That we’re happy?”
“God, no. Where’d you get that idea?”
That was when he laid out his theory. Jude says adjectives were invented to describe only a handful of people, the outliers. We use them because it’s convenient, and we’re lazy. If we took the time to think it through we’d realize most people don’t deserve adjectives. We waste our time saying things like “He’s brilliant,” or “He’s a moron,” but there aren’t actually that many truly brilliant people in the world. Not a lot of morons, either. There’s the odd total idiot (just as there are total geniuses) but these virtuosi of stupidity are few and far between – like people born blind, or midgets. The vast majority of the people you come across have never been graced with an original thought in their lives, but that doesn’t stop them from finishing the Sudoku puzzle in the paper. Most people aren’t really ugly, or beautiful either. Most people are average, and to get ourselves really excited about them we need alcohol, or romantic notions, or a bit of both. (That’s what Jude says, anyway. Personally it doesn’t matter how sloshed I get, I still don’t get terribly excited over anyone.) Jude does admit, though, that it’s not an even distribution. You do find more people at the negative end of the spectrum: more morons than Einsteins, more uggles than knockouts. But that’s not our problem, he says. We have a long way to go before we can stake a claim on unhappiness. That makes me feel better.
1. OUR STORY BEGINS (IN WHICH OUR SUBJECT IS INTRODUCED)
Near the end of the 3rd Century A.D., while the Roman Emperor Maximian sojourned in Octodurum (now Martigny, Switzerland), he got a little bored and decided to shake things up by persecuting some Christians. When his Praetorian Guard proved unequal to the task he called in a Theban legion for reinforcement. The commanding officers, upon learning the nature of their mission, refused to obey the Emperor’s orders and halted in the Agaune pass. Maximian then ordered the decimation of the legion, by a double-edged sword known as a glaive. When the remaining troops refused to obey their orders, a second decimation was carried out. After the legion sent a delegation to Maximian to assert their resolve to continue, decimate though he might, the Emperor ordered a massacre.
The courageous officers who chose to die with their men rather than take the lives of fellow Christians went by such names as Maurice, Candide, and Exupère. I don’t know if the latter two were canonized (when your name is Candide or Exupère, you don’t get your hopes up), but we do know that Maurice was added to the liturgical calendar and has today bequeathed his name to a whole slew of villages, communes, departments and one-horse towns all over Christendom. But who had the bright idea of naming one of Quebec’s administrative regions after a 3rd century Theban general? No one. The Saint-Maurice River (and, by extension, the surrounding region of La Mauricie) was named somewhat stupidly for a certain Maurice Poulain de la Fontaine who cleared a tract of land in the 18th century. (Which means I told you the story of Saint Maurice for nothing, but I trust you’ll find a way to slip it into conversation.) One day, contemplating the river after a tough day at the office, Sir Poulain de la Fontaine said to himself, “Well, I see my river still lacks a name. Why not my own? Can’t imagine I’ll go down in history for much else. And while we’re at it, why not throw a “Saint” in front of it. Surely not a sin of pride. There must, after all, be a Saint Maurice somewhere. There’s a Saint Mechtilde, a Saint Euphrasie, a Saint Euloge, a Saint Crispin; it would be an unlikely occurrence indeed if there had not been, at some point, a Maurice or two hacked to bits for the Glory of Christ.” Maybe that’s not what Sir Poulain de la Fontaine said at all. In any event, Maurice named the river, and the river the region.
Two centuries later, people started settling the land in earnest. In 1889, while Jack the Ripper was wreaking havoc in Whitechapel, and the Eiffel Tower was rising, and Germany was crowning its last emperor, Mr. John Foreman built a hydroelectric power plant near the township of Shawinigan to power his pulp mill. Lacking capital, he was forced to partner with three Bostonian gentlemen, John Edward Aldred, John Joyce, and H.H. Melville (the same who in 1897 would found the Shawinigan Water and Power Company). We don’t know which of the three had the bright idea of calling the village “Grand-mère,” after the rock which forms a small island in the middle of the river, but one thing is certain: it’s an American’s fault that we’re now saddled with the second-most ridiculous place name in the province of Quebec. (‘Sup, Saint-Louis-de-Ha!-Ha!). Those Americans sure have a way with names. That’s one thing we learned travelling the length and breadth of North America. ≈