A Nail, A Rose is introduced by Faith Evans who first translated Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s stories thirty years ago after meeting the author then in her early 80s. Evans puts the eight pieces comprising this collection in their historical, political and stylistic context, explaining that in the main they were written in the shadow of the Second World War. Bourdouxhe was a feminist writer whose work was much praised by Simone de Beauvoir yet it sank into obscurity until the recent reissue of both La Femme de Gilles and Marie. It’s these spare, striking novellas that made me want to read this collection which spans the years between 1944 and 1985.
Bourdouxhe’s stories are about women. In the eponymous piece, Irene walks home through the blacked-out night shocked by news that her love affair is over. Alarmed at the sound of footsteps behind her, she rounds on her assailant with surprising results. ‘Anna’ evocatively captures the loneliness of a humdrum life, as a woman speculates about her counterpart across the road whose chignon is secured with four nails. ‘Louise’ captures the longing to escape servitude even from the kindest of employers whose act of generosity wins her employee the attention of a man she thinks she loves but finds herself distracted by thoughts of friendship with Madame. Perhaps the most overtly political of the stories, ‘Leah’ sees a woman take decisive and dramatic action when the strike action she’s been covertly working towards is thwarted. In ‘René’, the most fantastical of the stories, a hairdresser’s encounter with an unusual customer evokes a reaction that will overshadow his life, leaving him forever unsatisfied. The final, autobiographical piece, ‘Sous le Pont Mirabeau’ follows a woman who has just given birth as she flees the war, encountering the kindness of strangers and longing for the normality of peace.
Bourdouxhe explores themes of resistance, sexuality, love and the ennui of everyday life in this striking collection. Some stories are more political than others but all are about the lives women lead, their thoughts, wishes and desires. Bourdouxhe accentuates her stories’ apparent simplicity, writing in clean, vivid prose:
Being with Nicolas was just like being with the two tables, the sofa and the radio (Anna)
Love, it’s all the same in the end – it never offers anything new (Anna)
She had a daughter; but though a child might give warmth, a presence and a reason for living, she couldn’t offer relief or help of any kind – she was more of a tender burden (Louise)
Summer was slowly dying. Tomorrow it would be autumn, a long succession of days, and after that a whole lifetime to come (Louise)
Evenings were still, and nights full, light and starry, the sky at peace: in this area, nights had become human again
He shrank into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until distance overtook him and obliterated everything
These are powerful stories. Much is left unsaid, much for the reader to infer, yet Bourdouxhe’s careful economy of style conveys more in a single unadorned image than a paragraph of overworked flowery prose. What a treat for modern readers to have her work revived.