Women in Translation month – a French novella

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Translated by Faith Evans
MarieThis gorgeously produced novella with its stunning cover design is turning into one of the sleeper hits of the summer. The cover stood out in the bookshop and I had to buy it – luckily the story inside is just as high quality, (read Jacqui‘s review too).

This was my first encounter with Belgian-born Bourdouxhe. This novella was first published in 1943 as A la recherche de Marie. I must admit that had I known of its original Proustian title, I might have approached it with more trepidation, but let me assure you, no knowledge of Proust is required to appreciate this short book.

Marie is on holiday with her husband Jean. They’re on the beach and Jean goes off for a swim:

Taking advantage of this moment of respite Marie sits down again and looks to her left. She sees someone sitting on a rock; he’s only half visible, but from the rear he looks very young. He is getting ready for a swim. His hair is black and rather untidy, and his shoulders are lean, though firm and strong. Head down, he walks along the pebbles, then he jumps up and takes a few steps up the beach, towards where she is sitting.

He raises his head, and her eyes meet his.

Marie is the first to blink and turn away. … She turns to the left again.

… Slowly, her eyes take in the full extent of his body as he lies there, following all the contours, scrutinising his young flesh. (p7/8)

This encounter throws Marie. She’d never questioned her life before, but it starts something in her that she can’t stop. She is happy, she has her husband of six years, Jean, they have a good life together in Paris. She looks across at Jean as they sit on the hotel balcony:

…in the shadowy light Jean’s face showed up clearly, those rather slack features that could sometimes tense into irritability. … There was definitely strength in his character – or rather, there were bouts of strength. Jean had a way of claiming his due, or more than his due a somewhat egotistical way of deciding, of drinking, of eating, of sitting, of occupying his place. (p9)

Later, in bed:

Moving away from her, he turns round and is asleep. Marie wants to die. Do all men turn round and sleep like this, after making love? They probably do… (p15)

It wouldn’t be spoiling things much, as it occurs on page 20, to say that she goes home to Paris with a telephone number. But will she act on it?

Life back in Paris continues and Marie returns to her Latin tutoring which she enjoys. One of the texts distracts her back to her time at the Sorbonne:

She remembers this same Marie in a grey suit, eyes sparkling, leaving and auditorium at the Sorbonne, looking at her wrist-watch and making her way towards the Centrale. She remembers her love for Jean, the passionate crushing of fragile bones. Then she sees a Marie who obliterates herself, who disappears, turns into another Marie whose eyes are closed to the world, who only reveres a universe inhabited by those two lively, expressive eyes, that fair, springy hair, those two broad shoulders, those two strong hands; a Marie who is painfully tense, who builds up, constructs, protects. (p23)

It is when Jean has to go away on business, that Marie takes the next step and telephones the young man.

Affairs are never straight-forward but Marie is able to put up a perfect front. Everyone else thinks she’s happy with Jean but her mood goes up and down. There are period where her new other life has to be put on the back-burner – when Jean’s company closes it’s Paris office and they have to move to the country for instance. A crisis with Marie’s sister Claudine, who is not mentally strong, however, draws her back to Paris.

Throughout, Marie dreams, remembers and then comes back to reality when she realises her lot as a housewife of the 1930s, subsuming her life and career for her husband’s. It’s clear she loved Jean, and still loves him in a fashion too, but she can’t forgive him for denying her her own career. But in her own way now, she has made a life for herself – perhaps she’s happy?

This novel may be existentialist in its outlook, but it’s not fatalistic. This contrasts with the other Bourdouxhe novella that Faith Evans has translated – La Femme de Gilles in which a woman’s husband has an affair with her sister – I’ve yet to read this that, but I gather it is equally powerful but very dark. Evans adds a fascinating Afterword telling us about the story and its author.

Suffused with longing and desire, Marie pleasantly surprised me. The story manages to achieve balance without melodrama, but plenty of passion as we are exposed to Marie’s inner mind. Charming and thoughtful, another perfect one-session read for Women in Translation month. (9/10)

* * * * *

Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Marie (Daunt, 2016, trans Faith Evans 1997). Paperback original, 160 pages.

8 thoughts on “Women in Translation month – a French novella

  1. So glad to see that you enjoyed Marie as much as I did, Annabel – and many thanks for the link, much appreciated. I think your review really captures that contrast between Marie’s inner feelings and her outward (seemingly happy) appearance. It’s interesting how both of these novellas feature the relationship between two sisters, which makes me wonder whether Bourdouxhe drew on any elements of her own family’s experiences for these stories. I’ll have to re-read the afterword to La Femme de Gilles (also by Faith Evans) to see if it mentions anything about that.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There was a sort of ambivalence to her, an acceptance of her fate – knowing she should/ought/could be happy with her lot – head vs heart. It never felt like duty though, which I did find fascinating.

      I’m looking forward to contrasting with La femme de Gilles – which I ordered straight away!

  2. I’m looking forward to this, particularly after reading both your and Jacqui’s reviews. La Femme de Gilles is a stunning read – a word much overused by publishers, I know, but it really is.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was perfect timing arriving in bookshops just before Women in Translation month – wonderful to read too.

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