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Montreal functions like an (unreliable) heart within the body of Clark Blaise's oeuvre: a treacherous, indispensable organ at the centre of his fiction. The writer, so far, has spent just thirteen years consecutively (1966-78) in the Paris of North America. (With its brick tenements, multiplicity of nineteenth-century churches and urban funk, Montreal physically -- spiritually, perhaps -- resembles Brooklyn, even Dublin, more than it does the City of Light.)
Thirteen years. Not a lifetime, but longer than any place else in an accomplished, peripatetic career. Born in Fargo, North Dakota; raised in Florida and Pittsburgh; the son of a French-Canadian father from the Megantic/Maine borderland and an English-Canadian mother from Manitoba, Blaise found home and exile, all at once, in Montreal. The city is his Dublin and his Trieste. The bipolarity of Mo'ray-al/Munntreeall -- electrified him. If the city had not existed, he would have to invent it, as Faulkner would have invented north Mississippi. Of course, this is exactly what each writer did, but both needed to ground their imaginations to the touch of actual earth (or asphalt).
If Blaise characters are certain of anything, it is the significance of place: they usually attempt to explain themselves by giving sets of geographic coordinates (and never simple ones).
Leaving the United States, crossing a border to settle in a city whose fault lines doppleganged his own, was a crucial act for a writer who was already exploring geography as metaphor and motive. In the Montreal stories, Blaise investigated fluid, broken identities, and the terrors and instructions thereof. He sited these on working-class French Canadianstreets of the East End; on Hutchison Street 'with the Greeks moving in'; and just west of downtown, where 'someday Montreal will have its Greenwich Village and these short streets between St. Catherine and Dorchester will be its centre'.
These stories have as protagonists watchful, self-reliant boys, ambitious young professors or middle-aged writers, the latter two imaginable as those boys, two, three or four decades later. I should mention that they all seem part of one unfolding story: Blaise's short fiction has a unity and coherence that make each collection read like the latest instalment of a novel being published, in many volumes, over the lifetime of the writer.
The collection includes two 'chameleon boy' stories set in Montreal in 1950s, a city locked in an icebox. 'Drab ... the interiors and streets, the minds and souls and conversations of east-end Montreal. One big icy puddle of frozen-gutter water, devoid of joy, colour, laughter, pleasure, intellect or art.' (You cannot call Blaise a booster.) The chameleon boys watch their identities (French/English, American/Canadian, Montreal/Florida) spinning like citrus in a slot machine after the handle has been cranked. They are utterly uncertain which combination is going to turn up next, and some version of this helpless, chancy, bleakly funny situation comes up repeatedly in Blaise. The mythology of borders is this writer's medium. He uses it to investigate our terms of existence on this planet, the nature of the lease.
In 'North', a family flees Pittsburgh, routed in their attempt to establish American lives. Arriving in Montreal, they camp out in a relative's East End flat. Québec is still under the wet blanket of Duplessisismo. A boy who had thought himself soundly American discovers, to his horror and fascination, that he is, in Montreal, someone else.
This chameleon, whether he happens to be a native ('I'm Dreaming of Rocket Richard') or a transplant ('North') exists hyper-aware of parental failure, of the doom and slide in life, which is, in Blaise, always associated with the crossing of borders. In 'I'm Dreaming of Rocket Richard' the narrator's alcoholic French-Canadian father gets one weak shot at success American style when his brother-in-law considers hiring him to run one of his Florida dry-cleaning shops. Crossing borders, heading south or north, is as an action as electric, misunderstood and consequential in Blaise as getting married is in Richard Yates, or commuting by train in Cheever, or sex in Philip Roth.
'Unhousement' is the echt Blaisean word. ('Memories of Unhousement' is one of the superb, startling, nonfiction pieces in Resident Alien.) Seen from one angle, Clark Blaise, like Jack (Ti-Jean) Kerouac, is a diaspora writer. Their specific diaspora -- the emigration of millions of French Canadians from Québec and Acadia to the United States -- is otherwise almost completely absent from the literature and consciousness of English Canadians and Americans, even those living within twenty miles of the Quebec/New England border.
Like Jack Kerouac, Blaise, a French Canadian born in the United States, is writing a world that is restless, fluid and on the move. Like William Faulkner, Blaise has myth clenched between his teeth and is technically capable of digging very deep into one plot of ground.
The oddness of a Kerouac/Faulkner juxtaposition suggests Blaise's singularity, his essential unlikeness to other North American writers operating in English. All he has in common with his contemporaries -- Munro, Carver, Dubus and Yates -- is that the stories are unmistakably his and could not have been shaped, or imagined, by any other writer.
His first collection was called A North American Education, but Blaise often reads like a European. Perhaps it is the weight of the past on his present. With his rapt awareness of the social and geographic nexus framing character, he does recall another American expatriate, Henry James. In its deliberate and daring instability of form (is this memoir or fiction?) Blaise's 1970s work anticipates writers like W. G. Sebald. The chameleon-boy stories especially suggest the influence of French New Wave cinema, which Clark Blaise would have absorbed as a graduate student and cinephile at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early sixties.
'I'm Dreaming of Rocket Richard' always pairs in my mind with Truffaut's 'The 400 Blows'.
Blaise's watchful, shape-shifting boys, ambitious professors, and weary middle-aged writers typically experience sudden, violent geographic transplantation. Pittsburgh to Montreal ('North'); Montreal to Florida ('I'm Dreaming of Rocket Richard'), Montreal to India ('Going to India'), upstate NY to Montreal ('Translation'). The signal events in these lives are border crossings, often sudden ones, and usually ('North'; 'Going to India') happening at night.
Blaise people are refugees, always, whether they travel in beat-up Plymouths and Greyhound buses ('I'm Dreaming of Rocket Richard'; 'North') and carry dubious citizenship credentials ('Translation'), or are armed with respectable passports, credit cards and return tickets ('Going to India'). The chameleon boys pore over road maps in the back seat. The professors cannot sleep on their intercontinental flights.
In 'A Class of New Canadians', Professor Norman Dyer, a transplant from the US, pauses to consider the window of an elegant Sherbrooke Street men's shop (the same establishment where, I seem to recall, P. E. Trudeau used to buy his spiffiest outfits). Mentally fondling Montreal's cosmopolitan glamour, he congratulates himself for his connoisseurship in selecting such a city. Hubris. Meanwhile, his English-as-a-second-language class can hardly wait to quit the place, to them a churlish backwater, a port of entry. 'Everyone mixed together and having no money. It is just a place to land, no?' As soon as they grasp sufficient English, they aim to move on, preferably to the US, hoping to launch authentically North American futures.
In the other young professor stories, the narrator and his wife, academics, are also ambitious emigrants in a freshly post-Catholic Montreal, which seemed in its hectic, modernist heyday (1961 to 1970) as thrilling as New York, with as much to say to the rest of the world. The young professor glories in his gifts for teaching, for styling, for marrying well. But look out. Bugs breed under the gorgeous rug ('Extractions and Contractions'), leeches fester ('At the Lake'); cars break down in the middle of night ('He Raises Me Up'). These are the fictions where Blaise perfects a pellucid, almost documentary style. The reader senses a writer pounding at his own life.
In a certain season (the late winter) and in certain areas (those fringes between the city core and the river that makes it an island) Montreal is the ugliest city in the world. Despite its reputation, its tourist bureaus, most of the island of Montreal will break your heart.
More than any other North American city -- except El Paso, Texas? -- the proximity of frontiers juices up Montreal's peculiar energy. And apart from boundary lines on maps, this is also a city where English and French have historically sought to maintain invisible, well-policed borders, physical and mental, between themselves.
Take away Montreal's various borderlines and you have ... a big Quebec City?
Fifty minutes from the United States, the same from the Province of Ontario, Montreal (like Belfast, Nicosia, Jerusalem) happens to be crisscrossed by internal boundaries separating communities that do not see themselves as sharing a common fate, or even dwelling within the same country. (The most dispiriting thing about Montreal is not active animosity along the borderlines, but how weakly the language groups are interested in each other. Amongst other losses, this means that the best writers, French and English, are rarely translated. How tiresome that not one of Clark Blaise's books -- works by a major writer, dealing with affairs crucial to Montreal life -- has ever been published in French in Québec!)
In tourist guidebooks, going back to my 1910 Baedeker, St. Lawrence Boulevard is always named as the line separating French and English, even though the adjacent streets seem always to have been a multilingual borderland: Irish/English on Jeanne Mance Street; Yiddish on St. Urbain Street; Ukrainian and Greek on Park Avenue and Hutchison Street, Portuguese and Central American Spanish on de Bullion Street. There are cleaner examples of the spatial/linguistic divide -- the Montreal West-Ville St. Pierre frontier, say -- the point being that for anyone interested in borders and crossings, Montreal is a case study. So the city was a natural for Clark Blaise. In his stories, the international line forty-five minutes south of Peel and St. Catherine hums with the same invisible, palpable energy that the Blackfoot and Sioux picked up along the Medicine Line -- the United States/Canada border east of the Rockies, where a few stone cairns sited along the forty-ninth parallel radiated enough juju to stop the US Sixth Cavalry in its horse tracks, like those flagged lines that zap trespassing dogs with an streak of electric pain.
Montreal used to be awfully good at mixing things up. In what other city could you buy a fresh-killed chicken at a Notre Dame de Gr[a^]ce Kosher Meat Market? And where else would leading figures in an assertively francophone nationalist movement bear names like Johnson, Ryan, and O'Neill?
(Pundits contrast the city's polyglot character with the supposedly pure laine hinterland of Québec, but cities are always distinct within nations, and in precisely this style. Dissolving the heavy, dreary union of blood and soil, splitting the atom, releasing energy, goosing the race -- this is what cities do.)
A Blaise character, whatever his age, is usually a new boy in a new place. If he is not, he must behave like one. He is compelled to mix things up, taking a degree in the US but a job in Canada, a wife in Montreal but an extended family in India. He must wear his Bruins jersey to games at the Forum.
In several of these stories a French-Canadian father and English-Canadian mother are trapped in an incomprehensible marriage. (The current usages -- Québécois, Anglo -- would be anachronistic to the 1950s and '60s settings and sound too self-integrated, too stable, to be quite real for the Blaisean world; they don't trail messy, bloody roots, as the double-barrels do. In Blaise, every identity has a hyphen buried somewhere.)
There is rarely a scene where the parents address each other. The mother confides in her son; the father confides in no one. There is no physical violence, simply because the parents are not close enough to hate each other. We sense a separation coming, but it's not going to do either partner any good; divorce will only emphasize their individual limitations.
So Blaise -- born in North Dakota! -- dishes up the primal Canadian situation. He gets to our heart of darkness, and beyond. In the tension between mother and père twitches the nervous compass needle of being human in the late twentieth century.
These stories have been profoundly influential in the literature of our country. Like Mahfouz's Cairo, Mistry's Bombay, Price's northern New Jersey, Blaise's various Montreals belong to the world, not merely to readers who happen to give a damn about the spiritual condition of the Great White North. His obsession with the spatial and spiritual geography of our corner of North America intensifies rather than limits his range, which is why these stories would work powerfully translated into Finnish or Urdu (or French!). Blaise -- through his teaching but more importantly, through the strangeness and hectic beauty of his Montreal work -- was one of the portals by which, sometime around 1975, English-Canadian writing stepped into its place in the sun. He demonstrated to a generation of writers that fiction which read like a painfully intimate conversation amongst ourselves could at the same time be speaking to the world. -- Peter Behrens