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Translated from French by Faith Evans.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy

It’s not very long since I last read Madeleine Bourdouxhe but this little collection from Pushkin Press was just so perfect for #Witmonth I couldn’t possibly hang on to it any longer. I love the cover image – what a fabulous attitude.

Seven of these eight stories have a woman right at the heart of them, just one story concerns a man. Taking place in Belgium and France just before or just after the Second World War, the period during which most of them were written these stories depict ordinary women. Women who are reflective, lonely or locked in unsatisfying relationships. Three of the stories were written much later as Faith Evans explains in her introduction. The occupation overshadows many of these beautiful stories – with two of the stories, the first and the last based quite heavily on Bourdouxhe’s own experiences.

In the title story; A Nail, A Rose Irene walks homeward through the icy and darkness, ruminating on her failed relationship. Suddenly, she is attacked by a man from behind, he is wielding a hammer somewhat half-heartedly. Irene engages the man in conversation – he helps her stem the bleeding, walks her home – he is oddly childlike in his eagerness to please.

“He got out his handkerchief and tried to clean her hair, to staunch the wound. She was standing up, her heart racing. A man was wiping blood from her hair – and although he was doing it gently, she was in pain. He was holding the torch on a level with their faces, and she could see his pale greyish skin and the lock of brown hair that fell on to his forehead. He’d pushed his cap back and his face looked young and very thin. It was the face of an archangel or a fool: that look could belong to either one or the other.”

From here the attacker seems to begin to romantically pursue Irene – who appears less alarmed by this behaviour than one might imagine. The whole story has a bizarreness that can only come from real life. It’s a fabulous opening to an excellent collection.

Five of the stories are titled with the names of their central characters; Anna, Louise, Leah, Clara, Blanche and René. Here we have housewives who dream about the possibility of another life; one of them Anna is fascinated by the woman across the road – who like Anna is living above a garage, serving petrol to travellers who come along, but the other woman has a fancy chignon in her hair. Leah is involved with strikers; Leah finds herself taking drastic action to help the strike achieve its desired ends. Louise is a maid who longs to escape the drudgery of her life, she spends her day looking forward to the evening when she will go out, have a drink and maybe speak to men. She dreams of being friends with her employer – Madame – and tries on Madam’s coat. René is a hairdresser – who has an odd slightly dreamlike, fantastical encounter with one of his clients.

Sous le pont Mirabeau is the longest story in the collection, published here for the first time in English. The illustrations which first accompanied it reproduced with it. It is a story, which like the opening story is based on events in Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s own life.

“There were people everywhere, men, women and children, twenty or twenty five in a lorry, seven or eight in a vehicle meant for four. She was stretched out in the back of a lorry, her tiny baby on top of her, looking straight ahead with impatience in her eyes. She’d brought it upon herself, she thought, getting caught up in this escape – yet she wasn’t really fleeing or abandoning anything, she was merely responding to an appeal. The clarity of her memories guided her like a star.”

Set in 1940, it depicts the desperate flight of Belgians trying to get to France at the time of the occupation. A woman gives birth to a daughter just as the evacuation begins. She has no option, but to take her tiny daughter on the perilous journey, travelling in jeeps with soldiers, staying with kind-hearted strangers along the way.  It is an extraordinary reminder of the times, just what hardships people had to face in the midst of the fear and disruption of occupation. There was clearly much uncertainty and yet despite that, there is hope.

This is an excellent collection – I do hope there is more Madeleine Bourdouxhe novels and stories to be discovered and translated into English. If you’re yet to discover her short novels; La Femme des Gilles and Marie are both wonderful.

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Translated by Faith Evans

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe is a short, beautifully written novella about a woman’s passion for life. In this novella, Bourdouxhe subtly combines, tenderness, humour and sensuality in her exploration of a woman’s experience of life.  

I first read Madeleine Bourdouxhe three years ago, her novel La Femme de Gilles is brilliant, but it’s also a moodier less hopeful novel than Marie – which is much brighter and optimistic, focusing as it does on a woman’s love of life. Marie is a novella that sparkles from the start, a novel about love, sensuality and passion, the central character a realistic creation, who we may not entirely approve of but can’t entirely stop ourselves from liking. A woman who takes a lover and in doing so discovers a whole new liberation for herself.

Our eponymous heroine is a thirty year-old woman married to Jean – who she loves, they live together in Paris, Marie loves Paris – just as she loves many inanimate objects in her life. She loves the light on the sea she can see while on holiday with her husband, the hotel balcony, a boat, a cigarette. Objects appear to have great importance to Marie – and she has a relationship of sorts with those she sees as important.

“However completely people might fulfil themselves in other spheres, if they don’t possess this understanding between their hands and material objects, they can never have more than an incomplete understanding of the world.”

 She is a woman’s whose inner life is full of quiet unexpressed enthusiasms which she likes to think about on her own. While she loves her husband, she is entirely separate from him, we experience them as two individuals rather than the unit that many couples are.     

As the novel opens, Marie and Jean are on holiday on the Côte d’Azur, in the sultry heat of an afternoon while taking a walk with Jean, Marie notices a beautiful young man lying on the beach, they exchange a meaningful look. It seems from here that there is no turning back for Marie – the die is cast for Marie and the unnamed young man. Later, Marie ensures she meets the young man again, just the sight of him, suntanned, muscled and carefree has awoken something in Marie. Bourdouxhe, explores Marie’s burgeoning new sensuality with an honesty and understanding, here is a woman in need of waking up she seems to be saying.

Once back in Paris Marie and Jean settle back into their normal routine, but it’s not long before Marie has arranged to meet the young man from the beach.

“She looked at his town clothes, at the buttoned-up collar of his blue cotton shirt, at the dark, red-striped tie. There was the uncertain, unreal world of the holiday, which she had known, and there was the everyday life about which she knew nothing whatsoever. A daily life, full of signs, that he has only recently left in order to come to her.”

Jean is completely unaware of what is happening in Marie’s life. One day he tells Marie that his job is likely to take him away to Maubeuge for time, and despite the fact that she dreads leaving her beloved Paris, Marie agrees to go with him to a town she knows already she dislikes. Immediately she begins to plan for short periods when she can escape to Paris for a day or two – where she will continue to give lessons to some of her private pupils – and meet her lover.

“They went up in a very narrow elevator where there was only room for two bodies face to face. Young maids in canvas pinafores, organdie bows in their hair, bright red lips in inscrutable faces, slip like spirits through the deserted corridors, respecting the anonymity, the secrets of every soul, and folding up quilts with vestal movements. Muffled sounds, orders given in low voices, words that turn into mysteries, doors that shut without a sound. The peace and safety of a temple, with all the solemn, human poetry of a lodging house.” 

In Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s earlier novel, La Femme des Gilles, the relationship between two sisters is pivotal to the tragedy that ensues. Marie also has a sister – and their relationship is also complex – though less destructive. With her newfound confidence and newly awakened view of her world, Marie has begun to feel more critical of her chaotic sister, who is much less happy than Marie. Marie loves her sister Claudine – and rushes to her side when she is needed – but she is also often furious with her.

I loved this beautiful little novel which has a rather delicious dreamlike quality to it. I now have A Nail, A Rose; a little collection of Bourdouxhe’s short stories to look forward to reading in August for Women in Translation month.

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la femme de gilles

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.

madeleinebourdouxhe

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