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Marie-Claire Blais: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel (A Season in the Life of Emmanuel)

Another tale of misery from Blais. This one is about a large poor Catholic family. There have been sixteen children but several have died. Their deaths, while causing some grief to their mother and grandmother are, for some of the others, a good excuse for a party. The parents are illiterate. The mother, too busy giving birth, is barely seen, while the father seems to be a rough and ready sort of man, with little interest in his children. Only the grandmother – Antoinette – pays them any attention and cares for them. There is a well-meaning priest but he is more interested in getting drunk.

Much of Blais’ story is about how the ones who try to get out do not succeed. Jean le Maigre (Thin John) is the intelligent one. He studies and he writes. Sadly, he has tuberculosis and dies. He is closer to le Septième (The Seventh) whom he predicts will die on the scaffold. Le Septième is smart and likeable but also a thief. It is he who gets Jean le Maigre to help him start a fire in the small and poorly attended school, which burns the place down. (They both have to spend time in reform school.) At the end le Septième is working in a factory but still stealing and has just been the victim of a homosexual assault by a priest. Pomme (Apple), whom Jean le Maigre predicts will end up in prison, loses three fingers in the shoe-making factory where he and le Septième work and is clearly going to have a hard life. Héloïse, initially very religious but having difficulty distinguishing sexual from religious ecstasy, ends up, as Jean le Maigre has predicted, a whore.

The rest of the children are seen in passing, eager for their grandmother’s love, as they get none from either of their parents. The dead ones are casually mentioned, as though the death of children was an everyday process and merely the excuse for a good wake. At the end, Emmanuel who is the new-born baby and who is concerned, of course, only with warmth, comfort and food, is reassured by his grandmother, as spring approaches, that all is well, despite the death of Jean le Maigre, the injury to Pomme and the two events of which she is unaware – le Septième’s assault and Héloïse’s profession.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Bernard Grasset
First published in English 1966 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Kirsty Bell