Clark Blaise is a master of a form on the border of autobiography and fiction--what he calls "'personal'
fiction".1 When you read the first six published books, what is striking is the extent to which they
all seem to be part of one larger, ongoing work. Ranging in form from short stories and novellas to
novels and a travel memoir, these works create a unified Blaisian world. At the centre of each fiction
is a perceiving self, engaged in remembering, inventing, imagining, and presenting the conditions of
his own existence. Blaise's own life supplies many of the raw materials of place and incident, but
remembered situations are transformed and reshaped anew from one story to the next.2 Typically
the stories are told in the first person by a male narrator who looks back on significant events of his
life, trying to make sense of things. This narrator is always an outsider, partly because his Canadian
parents are never quite assimilated into American life. However, the most significant fact about the
parents is their difference from each other. They represent the antipodes of the son's imagination.
The triangle formed by the perceiving me-character and his parents is a recurring design element in
this ongoing Blaisian work.
But what is the reader's experience of reading a Clark Blaise fiction? In Italo Calvino's If on a
Winter's Night a Traveller, readers talk about the kinds of book they would like to read--for example,
"The novels that I prefer...are those that make you feel uneasy from the very first page"--and the very
next chapter is the opening chapter of just that sort of fiction. What sort of description would call
forth a Clark Blaise book? Perhaps "The book I'm looking for is one that creates the texture of a life
poised on the lip of a volcano" or "The books that interest me present a self constantly re-inventing
himself out of the givens of his own experience".
The givens cannot stand on their own, of course. Take the most incontrovertible facts of a life: time
and place of birth. "I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1940" is the first sentence of the
autobiographical fragment "Memories of Unhousement" in Resident Alien.3 The flat understatedness
of this beginning suggests an unselfconscious assertion of identity and belonging.4 However, it soon
becomes apparent that Blaise is never unselfconscious: sentences that sound casual are the result of
deliberate craft. Identity, in particular, cannot be taken for granted but must be strenuously achieved,
as Blaise suggested in an interview with Geoff Hancock:
Blaise has to date published two collections of short stories, A North American Education (1973) and
Tribal Justice (1974); two novels, Lunar Attractions (1979) and Lusts (1983); one autobiographical
travel memoir, Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977); one book in which short stories are sandwiched
between autobiographical fragments, Resident Alien (1986); and one work of journalism, The Sorrow
and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987). With the exception of this
last book, the entire body of work is concerned initially with finding or inventing an identity and later
with deconstructing an identity. Again and again, Blaise goes back to the essential experiences of his
life and rearticulates them, reshapes them, dreams them over again.
Reading the fictions and the autobiography, we are confronted by a sensibility preoccupied with
interpretation. Blaise has taken on the hermeneut's task of penetrating the surface of things and
revealing the secret, concealed meanings. "A writer", Blaise has told Hancock in an interview, "is
always trying to suggest the other side of things".6 And later in the same interview, "[My]
stories...tend towards a kind of confirmation and towards the discovery of that which you wanted to
keep hidden, and to a kind of confirmation of what you hoped was not true".7 In the Blaisian world,
events seem random and lives are subject to chance episodes of pain and violence. As Blaise put it
in an interview with me in November 1988,
But the typical Blaisian persona is driven to interpret--to find the hidden meaning in what seems like
randomness, to push toward some terrifying peripeteia.
The first accident to be interpreted has to do with the mystery of birth and of origins, the theme of
many of his stories. The "only Canadian writer born in Fargo, North Dakota" (RA 165), Blaise has
explored the significance of his "accidental placement inside an emblematically Canadian family" (RA
175). A recurrent episode in the stories and novels is the character who has a sense in early
adolescence that his identity has been tampered with in some profound way when he discovers that
his family name is not what he had always supposed: not T. B. Doe but Thibidault in "The Thibidault
Stories" in A North American Education; not Desjardins but Gardner in "The March" in Tribal
Justice; not Porter but Carrier in Resident Alien. And, we might add, not Blaise but Blais.
A related mystery is his parents' apparently incongruous relationship. Blaise's French-Canadian
father, Leo Romeo Blais/Blaise--furniture salesman and long distance traveller--was handsome,
extroverted, charming, and untrustworthy. Described in Resident Alien as one of the "dark, self-destructive, violent sociopaths" (p.27), this father is the prototype for the fictional fathers in Blaise's
stories, the tattoed ex-boxers and wrestlers who like sexy women and flashy cars. The father
represents glamorous, untamed potency. Says Blaise, "it was a legacy I wanted to claim. Myself as
gipsy, as criminal, outcast" (RA 39). In contrast, Anne Marion Vanstone, his upright, resolute
English-Canadian mother from Wawanesa, Manitoba, was one of the "bright, confident, assertive,
informed people" (RA 27). The daughter of a man of substance--a prairie doctor who later became
the driving force behind an insurance company in Western Canada--she graduated in 1927 in art from
Wesley College (now the University of Winnipeg), taught school in various prairie towns, and in the
early 30's became a student of design at the Bauhaus. "To me it's an extraordinary thought", said
Blaise, "that she was this girl from prairie Canada in the midst of the Bauhaus studying interior design
with high functional modernism".9 Fleeing Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power, she went
to Prague, then to London, and then home to Canada in 1937. Called back to Montreal to be head
decorator at Eaton's, she met Leo Blais, furniture salesman on the floor. This was the accidental
encounter that transformed her life and set up the tortured relationship examined in many of Blaise's
Interpreting his own life much as one would a literary text, Blaise looks for the one event that gives
meaning and structure to the whole. He finds it in his parents' divorce when he was nineteen. This
event is also offered as a key to interpreting the stories. It accounts, he says, for the continued
presence of child and adolescent characters in the fictions: "I am dependent on a world made
explicable by my mismatched parents in their desperate marriage. So long as they are together, all
things are possible....I write from an undisclosed adult perspective at a point in time after their break-up, looking back to a time before it happened, when the potential for divorce, the logic for divorce,
the imperative for divorce, was temporarily set aside" (RA 12). The family situation is a microcosm
for the opposition of cosmic forces held perilously, for a time, in some sort of balance. The stormy
relationship between his parents seems to have brought into alignment for Blaise a series of polarities:
French and English; glamour and reliability; the life of the body and the life of the mind; the raw and
the cooked.10 Blaise specializes in writing about a character divided in his loyalties. This character
feels pulled by the opposed forces that are personified by his mother and his father, but he withholds
final commitment. In fact, the typical Blaise character is a compulsive border-crosser.
Blaise himself has been a man on the move for most of his life. Most commentators on Blaise's work
have remarked upon the themes of uprootedness, dislocation, and alienation, which they relate to
Blaise's own experience. That move from Fargo when Blaise was six months old was the first of
many: he moved thirty times before the eighth grade and attended twenty-five different schools. He
spent his childhood in Alabama, Georgia, and central Florida, later in the American midwest,
Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, but always returned to his mother's family in Winnipeg whenever his father
"ran out of work, or was run out of work, or town" (RA 167). So more polarities are added to
Blaise's experience, ready to be exploited later in the stories: swampy south and cold north; all-night
journeys following maps across the great American desert and the homecoming; seedy disreputability
and established social position. The cardinal points of the world of a Blaise story were established
The first was Florida. Blaise spent the years from six to ten in the swamplands of north-central
Florida soaking up images of a fecund, watery world teeming with monstrous life: swamps full of
alligators and primitive lungfish; social orders full of nightmarish cruelty and legendary poverty. He
says, "And so the images of the unconscious were planted early and privately by the peculiar wealth
of southern poverty, and I grew to believe in the coexistence, or the simultaneity, of visible and occult
worlds: duplicities, masks, hidden selves, discarded languages, altered names, things not being what
they seemed" (RA 14). Fertile, raw, and unevolved, the Florida that Blaise recreates as the settings
for many of his stories is a place of buzzing insects, purple-black muck, and underground lakes--it
is the primitive and unhumanized.
Another cardinal point is Canada. In Resident Alien, Blaise recalls how his mother would tell him
stories of an heroic girlhood, walking to school in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, at sixty-three
below zero: "Down in musty Florida, she'd told me the story of walking on crusty snow that sounded
like avalanches, of flinching from footsteps two blocks away, of tasting blood down her throat as
capillaries exploded" (RA 27). Blaise remembers coming to Canada for refuge when he was five,
following an assault charge against his father in Pittsburgh, and again when he was ten, following one
of his father's frequent business failures. Canada is associated with the houses of his Winnipeg
grandparents and uncle: large, formal establishments with libraries and guest rooms, built for
prosperous, accomplished people. Later he associated Canada with the voice of the CBC that
crackled over the airwaves, speaking "of continuity, assured values, a unified voice" (RA 29).
In his stories and autobiographical statements, Blaise describes a child with an insatiable appetite for
facts who is apprenticing as a polymath. The narrator of Lunar Attractions is typical: "Fish guides,
bird guides, atlases, insect books, and star charts all fascinated me in my first ten years. I was helpless
before those lists. I stayed in bed one entire summer attempting to memorize them all".11 The most
important book for David Greenwood in Lunar Attractions (LA 31), for Frankie Thibidault in "The
Salesman's Son Grows Older" (NAE 150), and for Blaise himself in "The Voice of Unhousement"
(RA 10) is the atlas. Starting by memorizing facts--names of countries, capitals, important
geographical features--this child went on to creating his own personal mythology. Here is David
Greenwood, describing his godlike power over his imagined world:
It appears that Blaise the writer deals similarly with the facts of his own experience, sometimes using
these facts without much change and sometimes cavalierly transforming them into new imagined
patterns. Blaise went to high school in Pittsburgh, for example, and so did Norman Dyer in "Grids
and Doglegs" in Tribal Justice, David Greenwood in Lunar Attractions, Richard Durgin in Lusts, and
Phil Porter in "Identity" in Resident Alien. The gritty industrial landscape of Pittsburgh is the setting
for a cluster of experiences represented in different ways from book to book: the retail furniture
business with its insider language of the floor, markets, territory, traffic, and the road; Pirates games,
batting averages, and third string teams in seedy stadiums; clubs for bright adolescents who get
together to play chess and discuss archaeology, anthropology, and astronomy; occult signals from
distant cities pulled from the airwaves by rabbit-ears and directional antennae; sexual discovery with
girls like Wanda Lusiak in Lusts, "the kind of girl who married early".
For Blaise, escape from Pittsburgh in 1957 came in the form of admission to Denison University in
Granville, Ohio. While still a geology major in his sophomore year he took a writing course from
Paul Bennett (to whom his fifth book Lusts is dedicated). Writing "Broward Dowdy" as his last story
for the writing course was decisive. He switched his major to English and began his apprenticeship
to the craft of writing. The same dedication once given to learning the names of fish, birds, and stars,
he began to devote to literature: he resolved to read a book a day, he started a book reviewing
column for the weekly paper, he co-edited two campus literary magazines to which he contributed
his own stories and poems, and he won campus writing awards. What Blaise has since called "the
luckiest move in my writing life" (RA 19) followed graduation from Denison, with acceptance in 1961
to the summer writing class in creative writing offered by Bernard Malamud at Harvard. Blaise
entered the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in February, 1962. The first day in Iowa
City he met the Calcutta writer, Bharati Mukherjee, who had come from India to attend the Writers'
Workshop--"so formal, so proper, so beautiful, I thought of her name as Miss Missmukherjee" (RA
24). In September 1963, he married her. Blaise graduated from Iowa in 1964 with a M.F.A., having
written as his thesis a short story collection called "Thibidault et fils". By the fall of 1964, Blaise
seemed to be settling into the life of an American academic and writer: he was married, had an infant
son Bart Anand, and had started his first teaching job at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
But some unassimilated residue of Canadianness inherited from his parents realigned his life and set
him on a new course that lasted for fifteen years. Later he said, "I don't know what it is that made
Canada so real to me that it became a compulsion to go back to it. But in a sense, in going back, I
reversed the flow of history. I did something that an immigrant shouldn't do".12
Blaise came to Montreal in 1966 and remained for thirteen years until 1978, the longest time he has
ever stayed in one place. In the first year in Montreal he taught night classes at McGill and wrote a
second version of his novel "North America", extant parts of which manuscript are held in the
Calgary collection.13 Later he taught modern fiction and creative writing at Sir George Williams
(Concordia) while Bharati pursued a parallel career, teaching English at McGill and writing fiction.14
Their second child, Bernard Sudhir, was born. Montreal, Blaise says, took "the place of my warring
parents" (RA 30), presumably by providing a similar locus of opposites held together under pressure.
The city seemed to empower Blaise as a writer: "A new kind of unforced, virtually transcribed story
(new for me, at least) was begging to be written....I'd never been so open to story, so avid for
context" (RA 32).
Moreover, Montreal gave Blaise a sense that he had not experienced in the United States of being
part of a community of writers, of what Margaret Laurence has called one's "tribe" of writers.15
Blaise became a member of the Montreal Story Teller Fiction Performance Group, started by John
Metcalf in late 1970.16 The storytellers consisting of Hugh Hood, John Metcalf, Clark Blaise, Ray
Smith, and Raymond Fraser gave their first reading "on a fearsomely cold afternoon in February,
1971".17 During the five years that the group existed, they gave more than fifty readings in
universities, colleges, CEGEPs, high schools, and bookstores. John Metcalf recalls the long car
journeys to and from readings as "taken up with Hugh and Clark swapping baseball trivia... Clark
often detailed yet another financial reversal. On the day he told us his house had burned down, we
all, I think, accepted the news as somehow unexciting and inevitable".18 The Story Tellers promised
to do their best to make their stories both interesting and related to the lives of the hearers. Blaise
often read one of his Montreal stories, "Eyes", which Hugh Hood recalls "used to fascinate audiences
in such settings, especially the menacing closing lines concluding, "and then your neighbours would
turn upon you". These listeners obviously appreciated the contrast between what Clark was
describing, and his quiet, neat, self-contained personal appearance".19 Further describing reading
style, Hood notes:
Blaise's work was first published in Canada as part of Clark Irwin's anthology New Canadian Writing,
1968.21 Blaise's Introduction is remarkable for its apologetic tone (It begins, "It is easier to criticize
these stories than to explain or defend them") and for the elaborate interpretation that Blaise provides
of his own stories. For example:
Blaise had been writing for almost fifteen years by the time he published his first collections of stories,
A North American Education (1973) and Tribal Justice (1974). These two volumes are
interconnected in various complicated ways, both in terms of the history of their writing and in terms
of their themes and concerns. Most of the stories in Tribal Justice were written considerably earlier
than the stories in A North American Education. Blaise has said that the second version of "North
America", written in Montreal in 1968, was the "Ur-manuscript to North American Education and
to parts of Tribal Justice".23 A single manuscript containing many of the stories in the first two
books was rejected by various Canadian and American publishers, who all gave the same response:
the stories were good, but too literary to be commercially successful.24 Published eventually by
Doubleday Canada, the two collections never became bestsellers but were critical successes, got onto
reading lists of Canadian literature courses, and established Clark Blaise as a distinguished writer of
In these two books, central characters variously called Norman Dyer, Paul Keeler, and Frankie
Thibidault present facets of the composite Blaisian character that readers have since come to
recognize. This character with his Florida childhood, Pittsburgh adolescence, and Montreal
adulthood looks back, with an elegiac sense of loss, at significant moments of experience. The tone
of mourning can be heard, often at the end of stories, as the narrator draws attention to his awareness
of "everything else around us crumbling into foolishness" (TJ 104), for example: "I who live in
dreams have suffered something real"25 or "I'm still a young man, but many things have gone for
good" (NAE 161). The title story of A North American Education ends with a celebration of lost
innocence: a fragile but triumphant moment of closeness with the father when the narrator is very
young. Although an offshore hurricane is ready to strike, the narrator Frankie Thibidault remembers
that it was "the best day of fishing we'd ever had, and we walked hand in hand for the last time,
talking excitedly, dodging coconuts, power lines, and shattered glass, feeling brave and united in the
face of the storm. My father and me. What a day it was, what a once-in-a-lifetime day it was" (NAE
The stories are not so much plots as they are arrangements of materials held together by a human
voice or presence. A juxtaposition of details achieves significance in relation to some cataclysmic and
transforming event. Many stories contrast two time periods--the time before and the time after the
central character's recognition of an unnamable horror. Sometimes the character, while still a child,
is put into the role of eavesdropper or peeping tom and learns something about his parents that shakes
his sense of identity. At other times, the event triggering recognition of the terror beneath the surface
may be an encounter with the sub-human world of insects, leeches, or lungfish--disturbing evidence
of the intractable presence of something raw, primitive, unhumanized. In "Extractions and
Contractions", a father notices "glistening shapes staggering from the milky foam" and thinks, "My
child has roaches, his belly is teeming, full of bugs, a plague of long brown roaches is living inside
him, thriving on our neglect" (NAE 56).
Although the first two books deal mostly with the Florida, Pittsburgh, and Montreal experiences, one
story in A North American Education points to India as a source of material--a source that becomes
increasingly important in Blaise's work. "Going to India" centres on the narrator's intense uneasiness
as he prepares to go to India and meet his wife's Brahmanical family. The story opens with the image
of a child on a raft plunging over Niagara. India, it is suggested, will be a similar experience of terror
This idea is given fuller development in Blaise's third book, Days and Nights
in Calcutta (1977).27 Part 1 written by Blaise and Part 2 written by Bharati Mukherjee provide
contrasting perspectives on the family's experiences spending a sabbatical year in India in 1973-4.
The shaping theme in Blaise's section of Days and Nights is the expectation of India as a place that
turns the psyche inside out. Part 1 begins with details that indicate readiness for transformation.
Between December and April of 1973, Blaise fell on the ice and broke his left hand; the babysitter
started a fire that burned down the rented house along with Clark's and Bharati's manuscripts, their
furniture, Indian paintings, rugs, two thousand books, gerbils, and rows of avocado plants; and their
new Volvo was destroyed in a multiple car accident. In Part II, Bharati connects these mishaps:
"Going to India was Clark's idea. I was surprised by his enthusiasm....India, I warned, would be the
fourth and fatal accident" (DNC 168). Blaise, on the other hand, regarded India as a necessary test.
He told John Metcalf in an interview before he left on April 23, 1973, "I'm on my way now for a year
in India to write a book that will show me I can do it [write a novel] now--or never".28
Blaise's part of Days and Nights in Calcutta was not that novel, but it does have many earmarks of
a novel: richly textured settings; a variety of different character types brought to life through telling
detail; the depiction of cultural differences; an overarching design that holds in place the wealth of
detail; and a perceptive centre of consciousness who registers his responses to selected events. As
Blaise remarked to Barry Cameron, "Days and Nights...was a novel for me, very much a non-fiction
novel, with a clear sense of myself-as-character, making me a little more naive than I was, a little
more priggish than I am, in order to, I hope, create a believable transformation of character by the
end".29 Blaise-as-character is shown confronting, with delight, frustration, and bafflement, the
confusion and intensity of India. He says, "I felt engulfed by enough raw significance at every
moment to drive me mad" (DNC 151).
For someone with Blaise's compulsion to interpret and give shape to the raw material of experience,
India presents the ultimate challenge. India, says Bharati at the beginning of her part of the book, "is
full of uninterpreted episodes; there is no one to create heroes and define our sense of loss, or right
and wrong, tragedy and buffoonery. Events have no necessary causes; behavior no inevitable motive.
Things simply are, because that is their nature" (DNC 168). But reading Blaise's part of Days and
Night, we are in the presence of an extremely intelligent narrator whose interpretive activity
constantly strives to discover in the confusion some kind of shaped significance. Each specific detail
is chosen and placed to illustrate, clarify, or explain some emotion, some aspect of Indian life. The
contrast between the approaches taken by the two authors can be illustrated by an episode in a story
in Bharati Mukherjee's collection Darkness. The wife Ratna serves her cashew-lamb pilaf to dinner
guests and begins to tell "hesitant anecdotes about pickpockets and beggars" seen on a recent holiday,
but after dinner her husband Graham will "shape and reshape the tropical confusion", showing slides
that extract from the "chaotic greenery...some definitive order".30
The next book was a novel, a form in which Blaise had long said he wanted to write. However,
Lunar Attractions actually reads like an interlocking collection of short stories centred on the same
character. Narrator David Greenwood reconstructs, from an adult vantage point, the formation of
his identity in terms of his relation to his parents, his response to school politics, his initiation into
sexuality, and his development as a writer. So Lunar Attractions is, among other things, a
künstlerroman, an account of the education of an artist.
The book appeared in 1979, became a critical success, and won the fourth annual Books in Canada
award for first novels.31 Readers responded to its rich texture and to the distinction of its prose,
although some had reservations about its un-novel-like structure and what was felt to be its
melodramatic plot elements. The source of the title is a poem "Lunar Attractions" from a poetry
collection by the narrator's writing teacher that contrasts the Apollonian and Dionysian poles of
experience. The book deepens motifs introduced in the two story collections: the focus on the
sensitive child of warring parents; the presentation of a swampy Florida childhood and a gritty
adolescence in a city resembling Pittsburgh; the concern with piecing together an identity; the elegiac
sense that many things are gone for good; and the use of autobiographical elements. Blaise addresses
this last point by stating on the acknowledgement page that "Lunar Attractions is fiction in the mode
of autobiography, but that life was never lived".
The narrator David Greenwood/Boisvert grows up the only son of parents who to him were "not
people, not personalities, but contending principles in the universe" (LA 11). The mother is a pale,
genteel woman with a belief in order and civilization. The father is a dark, handsome, philandering,
outgoing salesman, suited to hot sunbaked Florida and the life of the road. As an ex-boxer, he wants
to make a man of his fat, asthmatic son, but the mother repudiates the violent world that the father
represents: "'This is slaughter', she cries, putting a stop to a boxing lesson. 'You'll never be like
him....This--these gloves--this is all he knows. He had no chance--he used what God gave him and
it brought him here. You must use this'--her fingers brushed my hair and gently buffed it out of my
eyes--'to get away from here and to get away from these people'" (LA 29). The son's unfulfilled
yearning for his father's approval is a dominant theme introduced early. The novel opens with David
Greenwood's memory of himself at the age of five, out in a boat with his father fishing on a Florida
lake. What he sees, or thinks he sees, that day slices apart the placid surface of the lake and remains
in his memory as an obsession:
After that moment everything changed: the narrator's father never took him fishing again and the
"shadow and the silence never lifted" (LA 5).
This early episode with the alligator is the first of several incidents similar for the way that David
incorporates an event from his life into a fantasy world of terror and guilt. Digging in the sour purple
Florida muck behind his house, nine-year-old David uncovers an alien "fin-headed monster"--a
mudfish, it turns out--that he kills with his trowel and then later associates with the miscarried foetus
of his baby sister. As a thirteen year old at the Museum in Palestra (Pittsburgh), he is fascinated and
repelled by a stuffed tableau vivant "Nubian Lion, Attacking Bedouin and Camel" that seems to him
to have the malignant quality of nightmare. As an almost-fourteen year old, he is brought by police
to the scene of the crime of transvestite Laurel/Larry Zwotko's murder and mutilation. These scenes
become mental landscapes of David's attraction to the lunar nighttime world. He comes to the
realization during his involvement with the Zwotko case that he is "on the side of fear, nightmare and
of all unanswered things...on the side of the caterpillers and not the butterflies" (LA 210).
By 1978, Blaise's thirteen-year period of staying put was over. He left Montreal to become a
Professor of Humanities at York University in Toronto. In 1980 he left Toronto, not without feelings
of regret and resentment, to go to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to share a position at Skidmore College,
teaching with Bharati on alternate years.32 The movements of the Blaise family over the next few
years become complex and hard to follow. Between 1981 and 1985, they established a home base
in Iowa City so that their sons Bart and Bernard could finish high school without the constant moves
that had characterized Blaise's own growing up. Clark and Bharati alternated teaching at Skidmore
and teaching in the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City so that until Bernie's graduation in 1985 at least
one parent stayed in Iowa City. To complicate the story further, Blaise spent a semester in the fall
of 1983 as writer-in-residence in Fred Wah's integrated writing program at the David Thompson
University Centre in Nelson, B.C. The next semester in 1984, Blaise was back in Iowa City and
Bharati was writer-in-residence at Emory College in Atlanta, where she wrote almost all the stories
in Darkness. By the fall of 1985, Bharati was teaching in Montclair State, N.J., and Clark would
soon be teaching as an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Program at Columbia. Since 1986 they
have lived in New York City.
Well before Blaise left Toronto in 1980, he was working on his next novel Lusts.33 He told Hancock
in 1979, "I think of Lunar Attractions as the final work of my personal quest for identity. Hereafter
I will be taking up questions very removed from autobiography, very removed from identity and
locale. The novel I'm now working on has nothing to do with childhood, adolescence, or being
Canadian, or French, or English".34 An article in Quill and Quire quoted Blaise as saying that his
second novel is written in the third person and comments that the book "appears to be somewhat of
a departure".35 We can only assume some radical revisions were made to the text because the novel
published in 1983 is essentially a first person narrative, despite its epistolary form. English Professor
Rosie Chang has published a notice announcing that she is writing a biography of the late poet Rachel
Isaacs (Durgin) and wants to hear from anyone with information about her. Ex-writer Richard
Durgin contacts Rosie from his exile in Rajasthan, India, initiating a correspondence that consists of
brief letters from Rosie and thirty-five page letters from Richard. The purpose of this correspondence
is to uncover the mystery of why Rachel killed herself--the cataclysmic event that turned everything
inside out for Richard and silenced him as a writer. To provide a context for Rachel's death, Richard
tells Rosie his own story, starting with his working-class childhood in Pittsburgh as a carpenter's son,
continuing through his years as a scholarship student at an elite Kentucky university and his meeting
with Rachel while at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa, and ending with their married life as writers in
New York City. Like Blaise's earlier narrators, Richard tends to take an elegiac perspective on
events, for example: "For most of my life I've been an accidental observer of a passing order" (L
41)36 or "our lives are really a series of breaks, falls, bubbles, and crashes. Life refuses to assume
a predictable shape....It's not so much my day-to-day diminishment (graying, balding, sagging) as it
has been a series of sharp, sudden, unforeseen breaks that brought me here" (L 145).
As Richard tells his story, we begin to understand something of the complex attraction that drew
together two people who are such opposites. This is Blaise's interpretation of his characters:
Although some readers of Lusts have sensed the presence of Sylvia Plath's ghost or detected
similarities between Richard's marriage to the eminent poet Rachel and Blaise's own marriage to
Bharati, Blaise himself says that the need for the novel is his parents' relationship: "I realized more
and more that it's a portrait really of my parents....In a sense, [Richard] was a lot like my father. In
a very Americanized way, it's more a portrait of my father than it is a portrait of myself. The same
thing, I think, drove my father to be that kind of a violent person".38
A further source of interest in the novel is the question of writing itself: the education of writer; the
nature of biography and autobiography; and the relation of biography to fiction. We are given
samples of Rachel's autobiographical poems, Richard's autobiographical short stories, and Rosie's
biography. Moreover, various characters provide comments of a literary critical nature on their own
and each other's work. We hear about Richard's fiction: his first novel about innocence and ambition
in Pittsburgh called Will You Be Coming out Again After Supper?; his sixties campus novel called
Smoke about the American dream "turning to nightmare and spitting you out the bottom" (L 52); and
an unpublished novel Missing in Action "about a modern marriage between two decent artists, that
ends tragically" (L 50). After Rachel's death, Richard gave up writing fiction, but the account he
writes becomes the novel of redemption that he needs to write--"a novel-despite-itself" (L&nb141).
Rosie comments on this collaboration with Richard, saying that "the line between autobiography,
biography, and fiction is a matter of emphasis that must continually be redefined: I am writing a
biography of Rachel's life, incorporating your autobiography and a little of my own--and together we
might be writing a novel" (L 50).
Blaise's sixth book, and possibly his best to date, gives further consideration to the boundary between
autobiography and fiction. Introducing Resident Alien, he says "This book is a journey into my
obsessions with self and place; not just the whoness and whatness of identity, but the whereness of
who and what I am. I call it an autobiography in tales and essay, though it contains some of the most
thoroughly invented stories I have ever written" (RA 2). Two so-called "autobiographical
fragments", "The Voice of Unhousement" and "Memories of Unhousement", begin and end the book,
enclosing the middle section made up of four short stories about the character Carrier/Porter.
Readers can therefore trace the shifting autobiographical and fictive forms taken by such motifs as
the Florida childhood, the narrator's love for his father, or the final break-up of his parents' tortured
relationship. At the same time, they will notice many elements in Carrier/Porter's experience, such
as his French Montreal Education in "North", that are totally imaginary. When I asked Clark Blaise
what he could tell me about the writing of Resident Alien, this was the answer:
Some portions of Resident Alien were written in 1983 while Blaise was teaching in the writing
program at the David Thompson University Centre. Because teachers were expected to produce
writing each week to share with students, Blaise wrote short autobiographical pieces such as "A
Passage to Canada"40 and "Mentors",41 which ended up in somewhat revised form in "The Voice
of Unhousement". He also wrote the story "North" in Nelson, B.C., a setting that he says affected
him as follows:
A short-cut to conveying the flavour of the Porter/Carrier stories might be to talk about their titles.
"South" and "North" refer to the cardinal compass points of Porter/Carrier/Blaise's journeys
represented by Florida and Quebec. "Identity" is about a turning inside out that occurs when the
narrator is twelve and discovers that he is not what he has always thought himself to be. When the
Porter family flees Pittsburgh for Montreal in the middle of the night after his father assaults a man
at work, the narrator is told that his real name is Philippe Carrier, not Phil Porter as he has always
believed. The story ends with the family crossing the border into Canada as the mother says, "You
can be anything you want to be". "Translation" probably refers to a lot of things, among them the
literal translation of Porter's autobiography Head Waters into a French edition Les Sources de
mémoire by Carrier as well as the metaphoric translation of life into art and past into present.
One powerful theme in both the biographical and the fictional portions of Resident Alien is the
stripping down of an identity. In "Translation", Blaise gives Porter the disease of epilepsy in order
to suggest the provisional nature of our sense of self and sanity. In "Memories of Unhousement", the
same theme of the precariousness of identity is suggested by the Alzheimer's disease that reduces
Blaise's grandfather from the grand patriarch who built up Wawanesa Mutual to an old man who
doesn't know his own name. Alzheimer's is the "family disease" (RA 178) that has since claimed
Blaise's mother, who died in February 1987 in Winnipeg. Just as Blaise has treated his own childhood
experience as "emblematic" of Canadian experience, so he uses his family disease as emblematic of
a twentieth century experience of wiping out memory and identity, the progressive loss of both
personal and cultural memory.
Blaise has not flinched from topics that are painful, and painful in a personal sense. In The Sorrow
and the Terror, Blaise and his wife collaborated on a book on the Air-India tragedy of flight 182, in
which 329 people were killed by a terrorist bomb. As the Introduction puts it, "As Canadian
immigrants ourselves, with twenty years' involvement in the Indian-immigrant life of North America,
we were driven to write this book as citizens bearing witness".43 The authors began research in
January 1986, some six months after the disaster, motivated by their concern that this tragedy was
being "unhoused"--treated by the Indian government as an overseas incident and considered by the
Canadian government as an Indian event, despite the fact that the victims and the victimizers were
Canadian citizens. The book they wrote, based in part on interviews with the bereaved families, is
an elegy for the individual victims as well as an indictment of Canada's immigration policy.
What next? Two new books are written and await publication and a third is in the planning stage.
According to Blaise, the two completed books differ substantially in their intended market. Embassy
is a Graham Greenesque adventure novel about a corrupt embassy on a Caribbean island. Man and
His World is a tortured book of stories whose themes include Alzheimer's disease as well as the
various dislocations and violence of this century. The third book, a novel with the working title
Brothers and Sisters, is about a man sans identité. Behind this book, says Blaise, lies the "sombre
realization that a very few of us are denied an identity and denied a community or a country or a
history that is truly our own. I'm a little more interested in the demolition of an identity than I am in
the establishment of a painful accretion of shards of identity. I'm going to take someone who seems
to have a very clear sense of identity and systematically strip him of all layers of assumed identity or
assumed purpose. So it's going to be a reversal of Lunar Attractions. It's a little bit like what
happens to the character of Carrier/Porter in Resident Alien".44
A Canadian by choice as much as by parentage, Blaise has taken as his main theme the central
Canadian dilemma of identity. The self, caught between the poles of father and mother, French and
English, energy and order, continues to reinvent itself in stories that confirm, despite all the losses,
a human presence and a human voice.
1. Blaise uses this term in John Metcalf's "Interview: Clark Blaise" in Journal of Canadian
Fiction (Fall 1973), p. 78: "I think the real reason I'm fond of 'personal' fiction is that two
things move me in fiction--texture and voice. Texture is detail arranged and selected and
enhanced....By voice I am referring to the control, what is commonly referred to when we
mention the 'world' of a certain author, the limits of probability and chance in his construction,
the sanctions he leaves us for our own variations, what we sense of his own final concerns and
2. Ann Mandel is writing about A North American Education, but she could be speaking of the
whole Blaise canon when she says, "a rich presence of place and physicality of imagery
becomes possible when the self is freed again and again from one story to the next, to see
itself there, and then here, when each story is imagined again". "Useful Fictions: Legends
of the Self in Roth, Blaise, Kroetsch, and Nowlan", The Ontario Review, 3 (Fall 1975-Winter
1976), p. 30.
3. Resident Alien (Markham, Ont: Penguin Books Canada, Penguin Short Fiction Series, 1986),
p. 165. Henceforth abbreviated to RA.
4. Readers who come upon the sentence "I was born in Fargo, etc." have to consider that less
than fifty pages earlier Blaise has made his character Philip Porter speak slightingly of those
"self-biographers who began their books with the fatal words, 'I was born...'" (RA 117).
5. Geoff Hancock, "Clark Blaise on artful autobiography: 'I who live in dreams am touched by
reality'", Books in Canada (March 1979), 31.
6. Geoff Hancock, "An Interview with Clark Blaise", Canadian Fiction Magazine, 34/35
7. Ibid., 55.
8. Catherine Sheldrick Ross, "An interview with Clark Blaise" (Guelph, Ontario, November 12,
1988). Blaise was in Guelph to participate in the conference "Coming of Age: John Metcalf
and the Canadian Short Story", organized by J. R. (Tim) Struthers at The University of
Guelph. Henceforth referred to as Ross Interview.
9. Ross Interview.
10. For an excellent discussion of the raw/cooked tension in Blaise's stories, see Robert Lecker,
"Murals Deep in Nature: The Short Fiction of Clark Blaise", Essays on Canadian Writing,
23 (Spring 1982), 27-67.
11. Lunar Attractions (Toronto and Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1979), p. 13.
Henceforth abbreviated to LA.
12. Ross Interview.
13. The first version of "North America" was written between 1961 and 1963 and destroyed one
night in Iowa City in an episode described in Resident Alien, p. 24.
14. Bharati Mukherjee has written four books in addition to the two that she co-authored with
Clark Blaise: two novels, The Tiger's Daughter (1972) and Wife (1975); and two collections
of stories, Darkness (1975) and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988).
15. Commenting on the sense that Canadian writers have of being part of a tribe, Blaise said that
in the States "there's no community of writers. That sense of a tribe of writers or a
community of writers is not present. Every one is an individual with their own career in mind.
There's not a sense that you are creating the consciousness of your race". Ross Interview.
16. For an account of the origin of the group, see Hugh Hood, "Trusting the Tale", in The
Montreal Story Tellers: Memoirs, Photographs, Critical Essays, edited by J. R. (Tim)
Struthers (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1985), p. 9.
17. Hugh Hood, "Trusting the Tale", p. 12.
18. John Metcalf, "Telling Tales", in The Montreal Story Tellers, pp. 24-25.
19. Hugh Hood, "Trusting the Tale", p. 19.
20. Hugh Hood, "Trusting the Tale", p. 16.
21. New Canadian Writing, 1968 (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1968). Four of Blaise's stories were
included: "The Fabulous Eddie Brewster", "How I Became a Jew", "The Examination", and
"Notes Beyond a History".
22. New Canadian Writing, p. 68.
23. J. R. (Tim) Struthers. "'Expressions of your breath': An Interview with Clark Blaise"
(Guelph, Ontario, November 12, 1988). Henceforth referred to as Struthers Interview.
24. John Metcalf, "Interview: Clark Blaise", Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2, 4 (Fall 1973), 79.
25. A North American Education: a book of short fiction (Toronto and Garden City: Doubleday,
1973), p. 37. Henceforth abbreviated to NAE.
26. In fact, during his first visit to India in 1970, Blaise was confined to bed with hepatitis for two
months of a three-month stay.
27. Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee. Days and Nights in Calcutta. Toronto and Garden
City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1977; reissued by Penguin Books with a new epilogue "How
It All Turned Out", 1986. The penguin edition is cited hereafter as DNC. The title echoes
Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray's film title Days and Nights in the Forest.
28. John Metcalf, "Interview with Clark Blaise", 77.
29. Barry Cameron, "A Conversation with Clark Blaise", Essays on Canadian Writing, 23
(Spring 1982), 23.
30. Bharati Mukherjee, "The World According to Hsu", Darkness (Markham, Ont.: Penguin
Books Canada, 1985), p. 38.
31. "Blaise of Glory: Breaking from a strong field, Clark Blaise gallops home to win the $1,000
purse for the best novel of 1979", Books in Canada (April 1980), 3.
32. Blaise has explained the reasons for moving: "Life in Toronto was simply unbearable in the
late 70's. It was a matter of having to choose between my home and what empowered me as
a writer, which is Canada, the idea of Canada" (Struthers Interview). See also Bharati
Mukherjee's article "An Invisible Woman" in Saturday Night (March 1981), 36-40, in which
she explains how she left Toronto in anger at the racism that she experienced there directed
33. Michael Ryval, "Confessions of a reluctant patriot", Quill and Quire (April 1979), 21.
34. Geoff Hancock, "Clark Blaise on artful autobiography", Books in Canada (March 1979), 30-31.
35. Michael Ryval, p. 21.
36. Lusts (Toronto: Doubleday & Co, 1983; Markham, Ont.: Penguin Books Canada, 1984).
The Penguin edition is cited hereafter as L.
37. Struthers Interview.
38. Struthers Interview.
39. Ross Interview.
40. Books in Canada (June/July 1985), 15-16.
41. Canadian Literature, 101 (Summer 1984), 35-41.
42. Struthers Interview.
43. The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (Markham, Ont.:
Penguin Books Canada, 1987), p. ix. The title echoes Marcel Ophuls's epic documentary film
The Sorrow and the Pity, about French collaboration during WW2 with the Nazi occupation.
44. Struthers Interview.
The Clark Blaise papers: first accession and second accession. An inventory of the archive at the University of Calgary Libraries. Compiler: Marlys Chevrefils. Editors: Jean F. Tener [and] Apollonia Steele. Biocritical essay: Catherine Sheldrick Ross. [Calgary]: University of Calgary Press, 1991.