Friday, September 25, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 5th Review - Mad Shadows

Marie-Claire Blais's Mad Shadows set off quite a bang in Quebec literature when it was published in 1959.  All the traditional platitudes about the strength of the farmers (not that far from peasants at that time if one believes Two Solitudes) are absent.  I don't believe a single priest makes an appearance, and god is conspicuously absent.  The novel is quite short, as befitting a dark fable or a fairy tale without the happy ending, though to say much about the plot goes quickly into SPOILERS, so ...


As in most fables, the cast is comparatively small.  There is the mother, Louise, who truly seems to care only about surface appearances (which is somewhat hard to believe, since she is supposedly keeping a large farm going, though you only once see her doing anything to advance the farm's conditions.  She must have a heck of an off-scene manager.)  She loves immoderately her beautiful but almost unbelievably stupid son, Patrice.  She has essentially nothing but contempt for her ugly daughter Isabelle-Marie, who does much more of the work around the farm.  Isabelle-Marie naturally hates her favoured brother and her mother.  The mother eventually brings a new lover into the mix -- Lanz, who eventually marries her.  It probably should not be a surprise that this upsets the status quo in a number of ways and the resulting nuclear family is anything but stable.

Blais does show a bit of a way out when Isabelle-Marie falls in love with a local farmer, Michael, though the only reason apparently that he can stand her is because he is blind.  When he regains his sight, he is angry at Isabelle for deceiving him about her looks and abandons her, even though they have a daughter together.  (Just how ugly has Blais made her?  And why is everyone in this village so aggressively shallow?)  This definitely feels like a fairy tale where everything goes wrong, since there really doesn't seem to be a reason to "punish" Isabelle, who has been trying to fight her spiteful nature and had achieved happiness with Michael.  After Isabelle's abandonment, Blais moves towards an even more aggressive inward turn to the narrative where the family collapses back down to the original diseased family unit (plus the totally superfluous granddaughter who doesn't figure in the story as more than a doll).  The outcome seems as predetermined as most of the Greek tragedies, though none of the characters had nearly as much nobility as Orestes or Antigone.  (Speaking of Antigone, I think I will try to catch the play this Sat. at Alumnae Theatre.)

I don't think this book will be to everyone's taste, and I don't think I would say I enjoyed it exactly, but it was fairly radical for its time in Quebec literature.  (If anyone would like to find out for themselves, there is still a week to go in the Mad Shadows give-away.  The rules are in this post.)

I think there might be a decent comparative lit. comparing this dark fable to Angela Carter's work, particularly The Bloody Chamber, which are stories that deliberately rework classic fairy tales.  I would also think a comparison to Barbara Comyns's The Juniper Tree would be worth investigating.  This draws on a specific Grimm tale, though the ending is reworked substantially.  However, what does persist in Comyns's version is the notion that some people emerge with their happiness intact (or even increased) and others suffer (perhaps unfairly).  No question it was somewhat unconventional for a Comyns's novel (the mother figure is downright nasty for the majority of the novel, but she is not feckless nor is the narrator feckless, so that is a bit of a change).  I didn't love The Juniper Tree, but it had its moments.

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