It was only recently I became aware of the writing of Madeleine Bourdouxhe – Kat at Mirabile Dictu wrote about this novel recently – and I immediately ordered a copy. Around the same time, I happened to see tweets about another Madeleine Bourdouxhe novel also being re-issued by Daunt books.
There may be a couple of mild spoilers in the review below – although the majority of what I talk about is revealed in the blurb of this edition and happens with the first part of the novel.
With a little bit of research, I discovered that Madeleine Bourdouxhe had been a Belgian woman born in 1906. She lived in both France (particularly Paris) as well as Belgium and worked for the Belgian resistance during the Second World War. La Femme de Gilles was Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s first novel, her writing career interrupted by the war. It seems that as well as that other novel – soon to be reissued by Daunt books there was a collection of short stories published in the 1980’s, I believe there are a couple of other novels too, although I don’t know if they are available in English – perhaps they will be in the fullness of time. I can only hope.
This beautifully written, sensual novella concerns the love a young wife has for her husband. Elisa, is a young working class wife, her husband Gilles; a factory worker, is her absolute world. She has two small daughters, twins, and is expecting her third child. The novel opens with Elisa anticipating her husband’s return, there is no doubting her continued passion for her husband, theirs is certainly not merely a day to day existence of chores and exhaustion. Elisa’s happiness is so soon to be over – as the novel opens she is content with her children, her kitchen, the domestic tasks she undertakes everyday while she waits for her man to come home to her. She is a woman in love, happy, sexually fulfilled.
“This always happens a few minutes before Gilles gets back. Overcome by the thought of his return her body, drowning in sweetness, melting with languor, loses all its strength. She imagines rushing towards him, clasping him in her arms – but whenever she sees him actually appear in the doorway, sees the big muscular body and the corduroy work-clothes, she feels weaker still.”
Gilles is happy in his life too, he has been offered a transfer to a French factory – which could give him and Elisa a good life – but neither of them want to accept the move – happy as they are in each other and their young family. However, neither Elisa or Gilles are aware just how fragile their relationship is. Nearby live Elisa’s parents and her younger sister Victorine. Victorine is young, lovely and selfish, she has little conscience and her awareness of her own beauty gives her a sense of entitlement to the attention she loves. Victorine is a constant visitor to her sister’s house, helping with the children and domestic chores.
“Desire takes hold suddenly, out of nowhere. Gilles saw a little red mouth opening every few seconds to let the narrow tongue pass through, saw it licking a small square of paper lightly caressed by two fingers. He was dumbfounded, unable to move. He’d often felt spontaneous desire when looking at Elisa, a desire that surged up in him gently, pleasantly. That was different. This time his whole body was seized by a great wave of panic, and he thought his head would burst with blood.”
One day, Gilles becomes aware of Victorine in a way he never has been before, aware of her brother-in-law’s attention, Victorine takes advantage of it, playing up to his moment of madness. The two begin a passionate affair. The viewpoint switches to that of Gilles – his hopeless, rather pathetic transfixion, his pursuit of the fickle, vapid Victorine – is unpleasant to witness.
Suddenly, Elisa becomes aware of what is going on, senses it in the atmosphere of the room – and the knowledge which so completely devastates her, she feels she must keep to herself. Elisa is terrified that confronting her husband will make him leave. So one winter evening, heavily pregnant, she leaves her little girls sleeping and follows Gilles through the snow. The reader feels completely Elisa’s anguish – the loneliness of her situation, we are enraged on her behalf, as she continues with her daily routine as if nothing is wrong.
“There is that long sequence of days when she anxiously awaits Gilles’ return, days when she is always on the lookout for whatever affection he still feels for her, however small, days when she discovers that he hasn’t been seen at the place where he told her he was going. And there are the nights, indistinguishable from each other, when Gilles is asleep but her suffering keeps her wide awake.”
Elisa keeps her silence, living through weeks of misery – until Gilles speaks to her. Elisa loves him so much she wants to help him, she sees his unhappiness, the misery, verging on madness that comes from loving Victorine. Elisa plans to help the man she loves, heal, so that in time he can come back to her. Elisa becomes Gilles confident – she allows him speak to her of her sister, his pursuit of her, his unhappiness at not knowing where is, who she is with, the torments of his obsession – and as she sits listening to her husband day after day, Elisa is hurt again and again, but must disguise the fact. Gilles – blind to all but his own wretchedness is oblivious to the hurt he is causing – but Elisa endures all for his sake, she believes she can return her family to the happiness they had enjoyed before.
La Femme de Gilles is a wonderful little novel, beautiful and quietly devastating, it has also made me want to read everything by Madeleine Bourdouxhe that I can get hold of.