20 Books of Summer #6 & #7 – Gavalda & Bourdouxhe for #WITMonth

A double-pronged duo today. I can cross off books 6 & 7 from my 20 Books of Summer list and they are both translated from the French by women translators and thus perfect for Women in Translation month, which is hosted by Meytal at Biblibio every August.

Billie by Anna Gavalda

Translated by Jennifer Rappaport

UK cover
French cover

This book is best described as an unconventional love story.  It was a huge bestseller in France where Gavalda is well known and loved, but I’d not encountered her writing until a friend gave me her copy.

The action takes place over one night. Billie and Franck had been hiking in the Cevennes – with a donkey too – see the French cover (and Karen’s recent review of RL Stevenson‘s text!). An accident has left them trapped and injured at the bottom of a gorge.  Billie thinks that Franck may not last the night, so she starts telling stories from their lives to keep calm and stay alive as night comes and the stars put on a show for her:

It wasn’t so much the stars that had made me speechless, we had already seen gobs of them on our trek, it was their choreography.  Pling! They lit up  Gling! one after the other in rhythm. I didn’t even know Ding! that it was possible. …
Suddenly, I wasn’t alone, and I turned to Franck to wipe my face on his shoulder.
Ah, yes, have some decency, you deadbeat. You have to stop snuffling when God lends you his disco ball.

Billie and Franck both have terrible family situations. Neither is popular in school, but when thrust together for an assignment, they form a unique bond which turns into a deep friendship. Both outsiders – Billie describes them thus,

‘I know it sounds like a crappy cliché… the sickly little queer and his Cosette from the garbage dump.’ 

…and Franck puts it into perspective in the terms of the classic text they had been assigned to act out:

‘…the most beautiful part of this scene, you’ll see, comes all the way at the end, when Perdican gets upset and explains to Camille that yes, all men are scoundrels and yes, all women are sluts, but there’s nothing more beautiful in the world than what happens between a scoundrel and a slut when they love each other.’

Billie is a very quirky narrator, her rambling throughout the night is full of colloquialisms, stops and starts, alternating between rose-tinted nostalgia and despair, present and past.  It’s like Billie’s voice had just poured out unedited in Gavalda’s writing, which gives an immediate feel to the text, and is both witty and touching. However, there are some delightful and heartwarming little twists and a great ending. (8.5/10)

Don’t just take my word for it – read Harriet’s Shiny review too, here.

Source:  Own copy (gift).   Anna Gavalda, Billie (Europa Editions, 2015) flapped pbk, 170 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Translated by Faith Evans

First published in 1937, this was Belgian author Bourdouxhe’s first novel.  A couple of years ago, I read Marie – her second novel, reviewed hereMarie was the story of a Parisian housewife who has an affair, and I enjoyed it very much indeed.  Marie and La Femme de Gilles are both translated by Faith Evans in these newish and beautifully produced editions from Daunt Books, and Evans has written an extensive afterword for La Femme de Gilles, which was very interesting indeed, read after this short novel.  (I wish more publishers would use afterwords rather than introductions – as many ‘introductions’ are too spoilery.)

The story is compact and simple.  Elisa is married to Gilles, and she is totally devoted to him, awaiting his return from the factory each day with anticipation.  Her younger sister Victorine often visits, and one day while Elisa is busy in another room, Gilles finds himself unable to resist embracing Victorine who is a real tease. Gilles becomes obsessed with Victorine, and she leads him on, cruelly wrapping him around her little finger.  It is not long before Elisa works out what has happened:

Instead of articulating her thoughts she simply allowed the images to file past: Victorine, then Gilles, then Victorine again, then Gilles and Victorine. Sometimes, as if working faithfully and mechanically to a pre-arranged command, her memory would stop at a gesture, an attitude, or the end of a smile which, taken unawares by an unexpected glance, had lingered stupidly on. […]  Victorine, Gilles and Victorine… And always there would come into her mind, like a leitmotif, that new face of Gilles’, the face upon which Elisa’s anxious eyes, searching for the familiar, had recently seen cruel, illegible signs.

Elisa’s life is overturned. Dare she confide in Gilles that she knows? Despite his infidelity, he still comes home to her; he is still her man, and the father of her children. Gilles eventually confesses, and realising that she could lose him, Elisa finds herself acting as counsellor to her lovesick husband, who is being played by Victorine, who says she is going to marry another man.  How will it all end?

This novella is intensely claustrophobic, tautly told in spare prose which is utterly gripping in Evans’s translation.  It is very dark indeed, The plot of Marie, which is almost a reversal of this novel, seemed positively light-hearted in comparison, although the main woman protagonist is equally self-examining.  Here, although you feel very strongly for Elisa, it is hard to hate Gilles even though his brain was in his pants. As for Victorine, she gives the appearance of being ignorant of the trouble she is causing, but believe me, she knows…   (9/10)

See also: Jacqui’s review here, Guy’s here, and Ali’s here.

Source: Own copy.   Madeleine Bourdouxhe, La Femme de Gilles (1937).  Daunt, 2014, flapped paperback, 160 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

12 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #6 & #7 – Gavalda & Bourdouxhe for #WITMonth

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I really like the sound of Billie. (But how twee is that French cover?!) I seem to keep coming across accounts of recreating Stevenson’s travels with a donkey (To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush is one of my favourite books; I’m partway through Footsteps by Richard Holmes). I even brought my copy of the Stevenson back from America this summer so I can read the original!

    I wish I’d known about La Femme de Gilles when I went to Belgium some years back — I couldn’t think of any Belgian authors to read so ended up reading Dutch ones plus some books set in Europe generally.

    Well done for combining #20Books and #WITMonth.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Billie was sweet. I have read some criticisms of the translation though, but can’t comment!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I did wonder if the location in the Cevennes and the presence of a donkey was a deliberate nod to Stevenson, or just an enduring Cevennes-portering custom, but the donkey was fine!

  2. JacquiWine says:

    I’m so glad you liked La Femme de Gilles. It’s beautifully written, isn’t it, in spite of the dark subject matter. Intensely claustrophobic is a great way of describing it. Interestingly, that book has really stayed with me, whereas Marie (which I read more recently) has faded away. It’s probably a reflection of the intensity of Elisa’s story, especially towards the end.

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