:: Article

La Femme De Gilles

By Madeleine Bourdouxhe, translated by Faith Evans.

Today he was a little late coming in, and he had Victorine with him.

‘I’ve brought the kid with me,’ he said. ‘She seemed bored at home, and since you go out so rarely now, I thought I might take her for a walk later.’

‘Good idea,’ Elisa said.

She looked proudly at her little sister, so pretty and so fresh; thinking of her own increasingly heavy and misshapen body, she said to herself, ‘I’m glad he’s going to take her out, it’ll make a change for him.’

She was ashamed to have felt that vague sense of unease in the afternoon, and to reassure herself she asked him, ‘Would you like to shovel up the heaps of snow with the spade? I’ve left them on the steps.’

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘I’ll do it right away.’
She looked at him with a big, happy smile.
Whistling, Gilles went out and slid the spade under the first heap, thinking to himself, ‘Can’t see any reason not to clear up the snow if that’s what she wants – means damn all to me.’

Elisa had served supper early so they could get off.

‘I don’t have much money on me,’ Gilles said as they were leaving.

‘I’ll give you some,’ Elisa said. ‘Where are you going, anyway?’

‘Not sure – the cinema probably.’

Victorine, in gloves and hat, was all ready to go, leaning on the table with both hands. He was very close to her.

Turning her back on the room, Elisa stood by the wardrobe and rummaged in her handbag. Money in hand, she was about to snap it shut when, at precisely that moment, anxiety again took hold of her. It was no longer a vague feeling of unease that disappeared almost as soon as she had abandoned herself to it; this time the anguish was heavier, more acute. One by one she fixed her gaze on some of the objects around her, the things that made up her familiar world, then her eyes lit on her own hands as they closed the bag, and she saw they were trembling. Precisely at that moment Elisa knew that behind her back there was another world, a world that was complicated, threatening, unknown. She felt it to be so and she was certain she was not mistaken; she was also certain that it was absolutely essential not to turn round suddenly and confront it.

Disturbed by this mysterious insight, which seemed suddenly to have seized her by the throat, she waited a moment before slowly turning, at first only halfway, looking straight in front of her with faraway eyes, then three-quarters, then at last full face. She looked at them both. They seemed not to have moved: they were in exactly the same position they had been in a few minutes earlier, before she had had her insight.

Elisa walked up to them quite normally and gave Gilles the money, as though nothing had happened. She knew she was going to speak. She didn’t know what she would say, but she knew it wouldn’t be a sentence that dropped carelessly from her lips, but rather an essential sentence, a sentence of which she would be the perfect mistress.

Gilles put the money in his purse, picked up his hat. ‘Shall we go?’ he said, looking at Victorine.
Then Elisa said:
‘I’ve been thinking – it’s not tiring, going to the cinema . . . I think I’ll come with you after all, I’ll ask Marthe to look after the children. Wait for me a minute.’ She slipped on her coat and went to warn her neighbour, not stopping for a moment to see their astonished faces. When she got back all three walked down the slippery, muddy road in silence. The air was bitter, and Gilles pushed up his collar. Both women put one arm through his, their other hands keeping their furs tightly pressed against their mouths. They walked fast. In spite of the weight of her belly Elisa had no difficulty in placing her feet steadily on the stones of the road, and she let her eyes range brightly over the houses as they passed them, looking first right then left, keenly registering everything that came into her vision. She noticed every dirty little icicle that shone in the rivulets against the pavement; she marked the exact point at which the halo round the street-lamps disappeared into the sky. Passing in front of a lit window she saw a woman leaning over a half-cleared table; she had time to observe her face, her hair, her mouth, her gestures, her life. In that one look, which had lasted merely the few seconds that it takes three walking figures to cross a rectangle of light, Elisa came to know that woman. And she knew that the two people who walked beside her – at the same rhythm and on the same road, who saw as she did the icicles, the luminous fog of the street-lamps and the closed doors or lit windows that tinged women’s lives with a sad light – they had no real knowledge of such things at all. Elisa felt a deep sense of pride, untouched by scorn, rising within her and comforting her soul.

They reached the stop and waited for the tram that would take them into town. No one had uttered a word.

Sitting in the dark cinema, Elisa had the vague sensation that she was now in her place: between Gilles and Victorine, in a shadowy unknown that was a part of the threatening world she had recently glimpsed. She didn’t know why she felt this but it provided comfort and succour, released her from the need to delve or understand. She was still in that state of euphoria with which our hearts protect us in the midst of danger.

But later, when they had taken Victorine home and greeted her parents, when Elisa had gone to bed and heard Gilles’ first snores, she felt she was breathing in a world that had returned to normal. Deprived of the feeling that she must act – for reasons both compelling and obscure – she gained the shattering liberty of looking things in the face. Now she could give careful thought to the disturbing sense of malaise that had weighed on her for several weeks; she could strip it right down until it delivered up its secret.

Searching her memory she peered slowly backward in time. Instead of articulating her thoughts she simply allowed the images to file past: Victorine, then Gilles, then Victorine again, then Gilles and Victorine. Some- times, 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. And again the images filed past, fast and irrelevant or heavy, confidential and suddenly arrested, to be submitted to the close scrutiny of the investigator. 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.

From every image there came a new fragment of in- formation, a painful little abstraction. None of these fragments was expressed in words, they were silent and without obvious meaning, but they accumulated in her heart and from this mysterious collaboration there would emerge a simple grammatical proposition to sweep away all the irrelevant images to come. In time, all the fragments would be reassembled in a precise truth – astonishingly short, and wholly contained in a fierce little group of words.


La Femme de Gilles was republished by Daunt Books in 2014. Publisher Laura Macaulay calls it a sensual and shattering novel about infidelity and lust, told through the prism of one woman’s psychological breakdown. The novel was widely praised upon its first publication in 1937 and Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex applauded Madeleine Bourdouxhe for her subtle observation of the differences between male and female sexuality, although it is only recently that feminists began to read her again and to reclaim her for our own times.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe was born in Belgium in 1906. La Femme de Gilles was her first novel. The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted her writing career, and her second novel, A la recherche de Marie, was published by a small Brussels press in 1943. In the mid-1980s her work was rediscovered, and was translated into many languages. A volume of short stories, A Nail, a Rose, first appeared in English in 1989, followed by translations of La Femme de Gilles and Marie. Bourdouxhe died in 1996. This extract is illustrated with a photograph of the author.

Faith Evans is an editor, translator, and literary agent based in London. She is a founder member of Women in Publishing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 20th, 2014.