Tag Archives: feminism

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (transl. Faith Evans): Stories about women

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.

I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb: Men can be feminists, too

Cover imageI can’t say I embraced the prospect of Wally Lamb’s new novel entirely enthusiastically: I’d read his first, She’s Come Undone, which was praised to the skies by all and sundry but left me cold, and the blurb mentions ghosts which I found distinctly off-putting. You might wonder, then, why I decided to read it. The answer is that it appeared to be a feminist novel by a man, a phenomenon well worth investigating.

Felix Funicello is a sixty-year-old professor of film studies. Divorced, he adores his daughter Aliza, encouraging her in her journalistic career, and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, setting up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. She tells Felix that he’s been chosen as ‘educable’, playing him footage of significant scenes from his life and occasionally directing him to ‘re-enter’ those scenes. As he watches his family, Felix is hit by a wave of nostalgia accompanied by the benefit of hindsight. He overhears his beautiful sister Simone confide her boss’s sexual harassment to their mother and his mother’s inadequate response; he watches his sister Francis throwing herself into the Rheingold Girls beauty pageant election and her terrible struggles with anorexia. As Lois shows Felix more of his life, the pieces of his own personal jigsaw begin to fall into place until he understands the women in his life far better.

Narrated in the first person, Lamb’s novel is written in a very direct, conversational style. It bowls along nicely, interweaving Felix’s family story with historical context and movie trivia. Those worrying  ‘ghost’ scenes are carried off with humour, smartly avoiding any painful creakiness. Felix’s hindsight allows Lamb to smoothly make points about the tyranny of beauty, the exploitation of women’s insecurities and the casual dismissal of women’s potential and achievements. Aliza’s blog post towards the end of the novel is a neat riposte to her mother’s angry dismissal of ‘post-feminism’ in which she argues that a new generation of feminists is attacking sexist attitudes using a different set of tools. I’ll Take You There is a very rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. I won’t be catching up with Lamb’s backlist anytime soon but this one proved to be well worth my time.

This may well be my last review for 2016. The rest of December’s posts are likely to be taken up with looking forwards and back in that time-honoured fashion for the last month of the year.

Fates and Furies: A much tastier curate’s egg

Cover imageI’m not a natural Lauren Groff fan. The writing I most admire is the pared back prose of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern – Groff’s is baggy, extravagant, almost baroque at times, yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. I read The Monsters of Templeton when working on a magazine, not really expecting to enjoy it but needing to check out whether it was worth reviewing or not, and found myself transfixed. Fates and Furies is the portrait of a marriage and if you’ve read Groff before you’ll know that this isn’t just any run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true, and what a dull novel it would be if it was.

Fates and Furies begins with the glittering image of Lotto and Mathilde, freshly – and secretly – married at twenty-two then switches to Lotto’s story. He’s the son of the beautiful Antoinette and Gawain, tall, hirsute and lonely but rich on bottling Floridian water. Gawain dies young, leaving a grief-stricken Lotto to go off the rails with the local riff-raff – on whom he will never quite turn his back – before being sent off to boarding school. College brings hopes of acting – his aura of specialness and generosity of spirit drawing women irresistibly to him. At his final performance as Hamlet he and Mathilde meet in the most dramatic of circumstances, marrying a mere two weeks later. Their life together unfolds in a series of parties. Lotto’s acting career flounders but another more brilliant future lies ahead. Just over half-way through the novel the perspective shifts to the seemingly unknowable Mathilde whose story is quite different from what we have been led to believe. A childhood tragedy has left her bundled up like a parcel, passed from one distant relative to another, left to find her own surprising way. Lotto’s and her apparent coup de foudre may not be quite what it seems. The smile she always takes care to wear hides something much more complex and more interesting.

The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently perfect marriage seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Shakespearian and fairytale elements sit well in the context of Lotto’s work not to mention the title with its nod to Greek mythology. There’s a healthy seam of feminism running through the book – ‘Somehow, despite her politics and smarts, she had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible’ – and Mathilde’s character is much the more satisfying of the two. It’s also about appearances and reality: there’s a striking image of a passerby who glances into a house and sees the Satterwhite family singing at Christmas in the glow of a fire ‘the very idea of what happiness should look like’ when the opposite is true. There’s a great deal to admire but a few irritations, too: the bracketed interpolations at first seem witty but eventually pall and at nearly four hundred pages, it needs an editorial trim. That said it’s an absorbing, intriguing and satisfyingly complex novel: the self-consciously iconoclastic English teacher’s discussion of drama and comedy at Lotto’s school fits it well. Another curate’s egg, then, but a much tastier one than Up Against the Night.