Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fine Blaise Collection Examines Nationality

from the Winnipeg Free Press, March 1st. Reviewed by David Williamson

CLARK Blaise was born in Fargo, N.D., to Canadian parents and he's grappled with "being caught between nationalities" throughout his lengthy writing career.

This fine collection combines some of his best work on the topic with engrossing views on fiction-writing and writers.

It is easy to see why Blaise turned to his own life for subject matter. His parents came from wildly different backgrounds, he grew up in 30 different American cities, he studied under famous novelists Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, he married the India-born novelist Bharati Mukherjee, and he established himself as a Canadian writer in Montreal before returning to the U.S., where he eventually became director of the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Blaise's mother came from Wawanesa, graduated from Winnipeg's Wesley College, and taught in Manitoba before moving to Europe. She returned to Canada in 1937 as head decorator at Eaton's Montreal store.

As Blaise explains in these witty and charming essays, she met and married Leo Blais (the e was added later), a former boxer, a runner of booze from Montreal into the U.S. during Prohibition, "a salesman, a violent, aggressive, manipulative man specializing in the arts of spontaneous misrepresentation."

"And he was glamorous; short, dark and handsome. As a travelling salesman, he had women in every town; he drank to excess every night, and hit the road at daybreak every morning."

They moved to North Dakota to try to avoid the Second World War, and Clark was born in 1940. Leo's work, by then as a furniture buyer, took them all over the eastern U.S. until Leo's old ways became impossible for his wife to accept, and they divorced.

Many of these details and their consequences made their way into Clark's fiction. His first book, published in 1972, was a collection of autobiographical short stories called A North American Education.

He became well known as part of the Montreal Story Tellers that included John Metcalf, Hugh Hood, Ray Smith and Raymond Fraser. He drew on his wife for his subsequent books Tribal Justice (1974), Lunar Attractions (1979), Lusts (1983) and Resident Alien (1986).

Blaise, Mukherjee and their two sons left Quebec over the issue of intolerance of immigrants, taking teaching jobs wherever they could find them, often being forced to live apart in separate cities. Blaise's position at the U of Iowa gave some stability, but he was required to travel to other countries all over the world.

In 2000 came "the biggest development of my writing life," publication of Time Lord, the story of Sir Sanford Fleming and the creation of standard time. The success of that book allowed Blaise to settle down -- in New York and San Francisco.

The best of the essays on writing is American Fiction. Given originally as a lecture at Meiji University in Tokyo in 1994, it deals brilliantly with the state of contemporary American fiction at the time, highlighting the work of Malamud, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme.

Despite the editorial efforts of Metcalf and Struthers, many points are repeated in these 18 pieces (Malamud's definition of fiction -- "the dramatization of the multifarious adventures of the human heart" -- appears at least three times). Also, Blaise's book Man and His World was published in 1992, not 1993 as stated on page 218.

Selected Essays is a fine sampling of Blaise's non-fiction, especially for anyone approaching him for the first time. It includes an extensive bibliography of his critical and autobiographical writing with an introduction by Struthers.

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