In Search of North America’s Great Unclaimed Writer
He’s not exactly American. He’s not entirely Canadian, either. He’s definitely not Mexican. After decades of writing short stories that disarm readers through a distinct combination of lushness and anxiety—and which are often focalized through the voice and experiences of a hyper-perceptive kid trying to get along in a succession of new places in the United States and Canada—Clark Blaise might be North America’s Great Unclaimed Writer.
It’s not that major claims aren’t made for and about him, particularly by his better-known contemporaries. John Irving declares he’s the “maestro of our aloneness” and that “No one does heartbreak better than Clark Blaise”; Joyce Carol Oates celebrates his short stories for providing “a dazzling gallery of portraits of North American lives,” lives that “are so palpable, like our own, we understand that they must continue beyond the (mere) ending of a story.” Margaret Atwood calls him “one of the preeminent story writers of his generation” and tells us, in the foreword to This Time, This Place: Selected Stories, that “if you want to understand something about what life was like in the restless, peripatetic, striving, anxiety-ridden, simmering cultural soup of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, read Clark Blaise. He’s the recording angel and the accuser, rolled into one. He’s the eye at the keyhole. He’s the ear at the door.”
With such impressive backing—and after publishing some twenty books across five decades and garnering various citations and honours along the way on both sides of the northern border—how could it be that Blaise isn’t better known, beyond his fellow writers and longtime devotees? It may be that the source of his strength as a writer is also the source of his obscurity: never staying anywhere for too long, whether autobiographically or imaginatively. In the latter context, this tendency is apparent in “The Salesman Grows Older,” one of the major stories included in This Time, That Place. It unfolds from a melancholic, clear-eyed adult’s perspective, and it details the experiences of a boy pulled back and forth across the U.S.-Canada border by his perpetually prospect-seeking father and near-fatalistically patient mother:
What if we’d stayed anywhere? If we’d never left Montreal, I’d have been educated in both my languages instead of Florida English. Or if we’d never left the South I’d have emerged a man of breeding, liberal in the traditions of Duke University with tastes for Augustan authors and breeding falcons . . . What calamity made me a reader of back issues, defunct atlases, and foreign grammars? The loss, the loss! To leave Montreal for places like Georgia and Florida; to leave Florida for Saskatchewan; to leave the prairies for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and, finally, to stumble back to Montreal a middle-class American from a broken home, after years of pointless suffering had promised so much.
While not directly autobiographical, a passage along these lines has clear anchoring in Blaise’s own life. He signaled as much in remarks quoted in the new collection by the writer and editor John Metcalf, Blaise’s longtime literary compeer:
Fate, family and marriage have conspired to make me into a hydroponic writer: rootless, unhoused, fed by swirling waters and harsh, artificial life. In Canadian terms, a classic un-Munro. A Manitoba mother and a Quebec father: an American and Canadian life split more or less equally, can do that to an inquisitive and absorptive child. I never lived longer than six-months anywhere until my four-year Pittsburgh adolescence and fourteen years of Montreal teaching. As a consequence, when I was a young writer, I thought that making sense of my American and Canadian experience would absorb my interest for the rest of my life.
Blaise was proven wrong, however, after meeting and marrying the late Indian American writer Bharati Mukherjee while the two were students at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop in the early 1960s, which in turn led to his later imaginative interests in Indian diasporic experiences. These interests are prominent in the final section of this new collection; ambitious in voice and expert in technique, these late stories nevertheless suffer by comparison to the collection’s other material for lacking the charged, motive feeling at play in Blaise’s North American stories. As for Iowa, this was a place to which Blaise would return in the 1990s after being asked to direct its International Writing Program—one of many appointments as a writing teacher, a role that he also took at Skidmore College; Columbia; NYU; UC-Berkeley (near which Blaise lives, at least at last report); Sir George Williams University, now Concordia, in Montreal; and still other institutions in still other cities.
If that sounds like a lot of places to have been as an adult, it’s nothing compared to Blaise’s childhood and teen years, when, by his count, he lived in twenty-five different cities and attending approximately fifty different schools. This was after being born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1940, to Canadian parents from the English-speaking Prairies and French-speaking Quebec. The title of his first book of stories, A North American Education, published in 1973, announced the expanse of his vision as a writer, and in retrospect, it also hinted at the challenge of finding a place for that vision in modern literary culture.
National lines continue to determine literary traditions and cultures: Whether publishing, marketing, prizing, or teaching, we inevitably organize writers by nationality, or by sub-national categories—metropolitan, regional, local—that point back to national ones. There is also a growing movement in the opposite direction, one that invokes transnational, cosmopolitan, and global contexts to highlight the insufficiency of national categories to reflect the fullness of, for example, a diasporic or migrant writer’s work; someone like the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño has been a high-profile example in recent years.
But nowhere in any of this is there a sense of what we might call a continental writer. National and sub-national literary traditions are far too dense and deep in Europe to create conditions for an irreducibly pan-European writer; the same holds true across Asia, Africa, and South America.
So we turn to North America. While there’s certainly a tradition of borderland writing when it comes to fiction set in the American southwest and northern Mexico, as with Sandra Cisneros and Cormac McCarthy, these stories tend to resolve into a frame with distinctly national characteristics. Meanwhile, on the northern side: Saul Bellow and Jack Kerouac both drew on Canadian (and specifically Quebecois and Quebec-based) family experience in their work, but no one is going to claim either one as a Canadian writer, just as the dystopic American setting of the nowadays ubiquitous Handmaid’s Tale is not going to lead anyone to claim Margaret Atwood as something other than a Canadian writer.
Whereas, precisely because his life and work have perpetually moved back and forth between Canada and the United States—primarily along an arc from Florida, up along the eastern seaboard, into Quebec, and from there westward towards the Canadian Prairies and the Great Plains of America, with Californian detours—relatively few, and primarily Canadian, critics have substantively claimed and situated Blaise as a writer belonging to their own nation in particular. In fact, his most keenly observed and felt stories, wonderfully represented in This Time, That Place, resist national categorization, sub-national categorization, and the gonging invocation of the global. These stories, like their author, embody and enact a continental sense and sensibility: They reflect generations of ordinary people who have moved back and forth between Canada and the United States, leaving and returning and along the way creating families on both sides of the border while spending little time worrying and dreaming about their identities because they’re too busy worrying about the bills and dreaming about the next big thing.
The title story from his first collection, included in This Time, That Place, is representative. The vantage is that of a young boy aware of his family’s North American beginnings in the early nineteenth century, which saw the arrival to the continent of his grandfather, a middle-aged Parisian day-laborer and widower who settles in Montreal and remarries. The story the boy tells is about the intergenerational, trans-continental power of simple human persistence, and its ultimate inefficacy. He remembers seeing, once, an 1895 picture of his grandfather, standing on a ferry, beginning to make his way in his new land. The man is “bearded, straw-hatted, buttoned against the river breezes. . . . As a young man he must have been, briefly, extraordinary. I think of him as a face in a Gold Rush shot, the one face that seems both incidental and immortal guarding a claim or watering a horse, the face that seems lifted from the crowd, from history, the face that could be dynastic.” This memory of a photograph lost to time comes to the narrator shortly after his father suddenly decides to move the family from Montreal to Florida in the hope of making it big as a travelling salesman: “It is 1946, our first morning in Florida. It isn’t a vacation; we’ve arrived to start again, in the sun.”
Could be dynastic; start again: These are the terms of trajectory for people throughout Blaise’s fictions of primarily eastern, up-down North American life: husbands and wives who pick up and go in the middle of the night, who change first and last names just before speaking to border guards, who forget or remember, retrieve and then deploy selective bits of family history and suddenly crucial connections, because each new place for them is an old place for someone else—someone they’re relying on for a little help: a job, a spare room, a willingness to accept the latest story without asking questions. Blaise’s characters are always barely one step ahead of landlords and bill collectors and a few steps behind the tanned and brawny winners in boom-time America. At the same time, his protagonists are too hungry, too hopeful of getting back to that Florida sun to find common cause with their French-Canadian relatives, resentful, watchful people forever crowded in dark cold-water flats overhung with rosaries. More often than not in Blaise’s stories, a marriage either fractures permanently or formally breaks up; the wife heads home to the stability and solidity of small-town life on the Canadian Prairies while the husband dangles loose in Montreal, Pittsburgh, and points farther south or middle-west.
The watching, listening child is caught between the adults, stretched across their growing gap, left in one place to get through another new school and make fast but temporary friends while remembering or preparing to make a move to another place, another school, another set of friends, another place to go fishing with his father. And, in Blaise’s rendering, all of this stretches and stretches one’s sense of self and world tighter and tighter, like a tuned-up drum. See the competing elements of identity pulled together by this tension in “A North American Education”: Things didn’t work out for the dad in Florida for reasons that remain obscure, but which the narrator can feel:
As I grew older and we came back North (but not all the way), I remember our Sundays in Cincinnati, standing shoulder to shoulder with a few hundred others around a clay-banked tub lit with arc lamps. Scummy pay-lakes with a hot dog stand behind, a vision of hell for a Canadian or a Floridian, but we paid and we fished and we never caught a thing.
By unspoken agreement, the father and son decide to keep fishing in vain, a resonant scenario Blaise evokes with precise, tangible details. In other stories, we come upon “mounds of lavender-crusted oranges” outside Orlando; the light and smell of a wintertime visit to library in Pittsburgh “where steam rises from the piled up coats and scarves” and “long-necked lamps” are “flooding the tables with a rich yellow light under bright green shades”; and “the new world of the French eighth grade” in Montreal, with “pens and tie and white shirt for school.” This capacity for the telling cosmopolitan detail speaks to an irreducibly continental sensibility, the sort that would lead a person to point out that going north from Florida to Ohio isn’t really going North. And this is where we might stake a claim for the fiction of Clark Blaise, which tells us in a singular voice that for the ordinary men and women and children who are perpetually moving in and through a membranous Canada and America, there’s always more to seek out—or hide from, or escape, or grab hold of—well above and well below wherever you find yourself, or have been found, living something between respectable and rough, living somewhere and then somewhere else, and then continuing on to some elsewhere in North America yet again.