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Marie-Claire Blais: Tête blanche (Tête Blanche)

Not sure why the title of this book has not been translated – it means quite simply White Head. But then the meaning of that name is not too clear. Tête Blanche is the name given to Evans, the boy who is the main concern of this novel. At the start of the book, we find him at a boarding school, where he feels, naturally, somewhat alone. He is nine years old. We learn that his father is an abusive drunk and that his mother is a stage actor. We later learn that she has TB and she eventually dies from this disease.

Much of the book is in the form of letters – letters between Tête Blanche and his mother, while she is alive, and then between Tête Blanche and Emilie, the sister of one of his classmates with whom he is in love and, finally, with Mr. Brenner, his by now former schoolmaster. While his mother is still alive, we learn from her about the problems with his father, who eventually leaves, and the problems she faces, particularly from her illness. Tête Blanche, naturally, is at a loss to explain why he is abandoned in this way. From him, we learn about the school and his classmates. In particular, there is Pierre, also dying from TB and who will die after Tête Blanche‘s mother and also Claude, who is not close to Tête Blanche but whose sister Tête Blanche becomes close to and falls in love with. We also learn that Tête Blanche can be cruel and malicious, recounting tales of killing birds and cats and playing nasty tricks on his classmates. He tells his mother of these events in a matter-of-fact manner, neither boasting of nor apologising for them.

After his mother’s death, his affections turn to Emilie, Claude’s sister. They go out walking together when Emilie’s mother visits Claude. (Emilie’s father is no longer around and the mother has a boyfriend.) Tête Blanche is invited to spend the holidays by the sea with them but when it is revealed that Emilie’s mother is pregnant, Emilie returns home with the mother and the relationship seems to end. Tête Blanche moves off to another school and we gradually see him getting more mature, as he communicates with Mr. Brenner. The old ways of tormenting animals and classmates have almost disappeared but he still misses Emilie.

Blais’ intention is clearly to show the difficult relationship between adults and children. Tête Blanche has difficulty getting through to his mother. The boarding school he attends, while not in any way cruel, has a series of pupils who seem to have been abandoned by their parents for reason that are not always clear but are obviously often to do with divorce or separation. Poor Tête Blanche is trying to reach out, to gain love and is rebuffed at every turn. Cruelty is one way he responds to this. Hard work (he is a keen and skilled mathematician) is another. But, at the end, he is left missing Emilie, unable to connect with her.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Éditions de l’Homme
First published in English 1961 by Little, Brown
Translated by Charles Fullman