Tag Archives: Madeleine Bourdouxhe

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.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in October 2015

Cover imageBit of a thin month on the read (but not reviewed) front thanks to the sheer door-stopping size of one of the two books I finished. Philipp Meyer’s The Son was raved about last year – fulsome tweets were legion and it was a Waterstones Book Club choice, although presumably only for thoroughly committed readers or those with time on their hands as it’s well over 500 pages of tiny print. It’s the story of Texas told through the voices of three people: Eli McCullough, kidnapped by the Comanche with whom he lived, and grew to love, for several years; his son Peter caught up in his father’s battle with Mexican settlers, and his great-grand-daughter Jeanne who presides over the multi-million dollar oil business the family ranch has become. It’s undoubtedly good, although not for the faint-hearted – there are some stomach-churningly violent scenes – but far too long. I found myself desperate for it to end but unable to give it up.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s feminist classic La Femme de Gilles was a useful antidote in terms of size although not emotional impact. First published in the 1930s it’s told from the point of view of Elisa who realizes that her beloved husband Gilles has become besotted with her sister. Elisa isCover image quietly distraught and all the more so when she gathers that she’s the source of gossip. She decides to take the extraordinary step of becoming the love-struck Gilles’ confidante. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, translated by Faith Evans whose illuminating afterword demonstrates her passion for the book. Well done Daunt Books for reissuing it. Seems to be a bit of a trend in bookselling. My own local, Mr B’s, has set up an imprint under which they’ve reissued one of my favourite books: Tim Gautreux’s The Next Step in the Dance.

And the 900-page plus City on Fire? Reader, I tried but it was all too much, and Squeaker wasn’t impressed either. Try holding that kind of weight aloft as your cat shifts uneasily in what she considers her rightful position on your lap. I wanted to like it with its appealing 1970s New York backdrop but for someone whose preference is clean, spare prose it was never going to work – nothing, it seemed, is left unsaid.