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Talking About Woman: A review of La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

By Cara Benson.

La Femme de Gilles review

Madeleine Bourdouxhe, La Femme de Gilles, trans. by Faith Evans (Melville House Press, 2016)

“I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in the introduction to her seminal treatise on feminism, The Second Sex. “The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new.” And yet, she stated, “it is still being talked about.” This is a claim she made in 1949, so assuredly it is not new now. And it is a subject that is “still” being talked about in this century. Indeed, issues of feminism, sexism and gender claimed a central role in the narrative for the first time in US history in the campaign for the Presidency this year. Could we have orchestrated a more diametrically challenging opponent for the first woman candidate than the one she faced? Did sexism in the United States defeat her? We would be hard pressed to say it played no part.

Assertion of female empowerment and its seemingly mirrored backlash has its examples worldwide. All over the globe women have made great advancements in personal and collective agency. Tremendous female leaders have risen, from Vandana Shiva to the late Wangari Maathai, as have everyday exertions of female personhood not restricted to a subservient, second position. Simultaneously, clitoris shearings, stonings, kidnappings of hundreds of school girls, domestic abuse, campus rapes and other less violent aggressions are still tragic occurrences at large, not to mention that women continue to be paid less per hour than men worldwide. It is into this milieu that Melville House in the US, on the heels of Daunt Books in the UK in 2014, has reissued Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s 1937 novella La Femme de Gilles, a book de Beauvoir herself references in The Second Sex.

The book is being brought out as part of MHP’s Neversink series whose purpose is to recover and loft abandoned literary works back into the conversation. It isn’t solely that a book was out of print and now available again; it’s that it is time to talk about this particular work, to call attention to it. To this end, the publication includes a spunky foreword by contemporary author Elisa Albert and an elegant and erudite afterword by Bourdouxhe’s agent and translator Faith Evans. These essays go a long way toward framing the work for modern readers and for giving us, perhaps, the philosophy behind this particular choice of literary reclamation.

Bourdouxhe’s story is one of a woman driven to remedy her husband’s betrayal. The wife/woman of the title (“femmes” holds this double meaning, hence the artful choice not to choose which by using the title in the original French for the translation), seems compelled to behave just so in order to covertly manipulate her husband into tiring of the affair and back into embracing their marriage. Simply put: it’s a painful read. We want her to leave the cad. Or, at minimum, to sever emotional attachment even if she is materially and famillialy dependent. On the surface it seems an odd decision in the recent surge of female creators striking such strong and unapologetic stances in the literary and entertainment industries.

The publishers have drawn comparisons with relatively recent works including Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation and Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment in order to forge connections for the new reader. Yes, we are still talking about intimate betrayal. Yes, we are still reading and writing about women whose husbands have the power to wreck their lives. However, in both these contemporary books the betrayed female protagonists choose more immediately familiar and perhaps satisfying routes to respond to the husband’s infidelity. Both become angry. Punishing. Most likely there is some satisfaction for us in these behaviours. Even as both of them, in their own ways, are devastated by the news, they each take action that doesn’t make it easy for the husband. Both women do not let their husbands readily off the hook.

In La Femmes de Gilles, Elisa wants nothing more than to calm and comfort Gilles. She works assiduously to swallow her own despair in order to demonstrate her steady love so that he in turn will remember his for her again. “Her head turned towards the far edge of the bed, she weeps little strangled tears, a handkerchief over her mouth so as not to wake Gilles.” This is a self denial that, while certainly anything but foreign to eons of literary representations of the female, has the potential to rub salt in the historical wound. Elisa’s goal and modus operandi can all too easily be read as the opposite of feminist in a way that contemporary readers may have come to feel their feminism. We can easily imagine the modern reader cringing at some of the advice Elisa foists upon herself: “Beware of a blunder, let him come back to you whatever the reason, don’t show false pride.”

Again, why, we might ask, is this book receiving attention now? Is Bourdouxhe’s tale important to recover because this is a woman writing about a woman? Does it not complicate the female experience to have women represented variously? Yes to both questions. Certainly no one person, literary or real, should bear the burden of representing for the gender and all the better to have her in a woman’s hands. Additionally, when we read this book with Bourdouxhe’s other novels, we can see an array of situations in which her female characters have been given the stage to enact their personhood. The narrative does seem to beg this kind of contextualisation to perceive the nuanced levels where this book is doing its work.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe

The writing itself pushes the conversation even further. Bourdouxhe presents her heroine with little analysis or commentary. Elisa is not summed up for us, rather we become engaged with the woman as she “is”. She herself tells us her actions, albeit via third person, but we are privy to her immensely active interiority through her internal dialogue:

No, Elisa, this time you will have to suffer alone. For the first time in your life you cannot draw on Gilles’ love, you must stand up for yourself as if you were quite alone in the world. No one can help you, least of all Gilles. You are alone with the greatest pain you have ever known.

Surely this is feminine strength and determination of a high order. Elisa exhibits great acumen for reading the emotional shades in the others around her. Her constant self-monitoring demonstrates a woman aware of herself, though we can argue it is this that practice ultimately undoes her. Elisa is no female object. She is a thinking, feeling being who is acutely attuned to her environment, even if Bourdouxhe tells us she is a woman “without philosophy”.

It is Elisa’s sensual life that caught de Beauvoir’s attention. Though in The Second Sex de Beauvoir is clearly referring to a previous translation when she writes about the moment when Gilles asks Elisa “did you come?”, Evans’ translation includes no shortage of Elisa’s bodily sensations. She is quite the visceral creature: she shudders in pleasure, her body drowns in sweetness, melts with languor, loses its strength when she imagines her man returning to her. She sniffs Gilles clothes for his scent. Her mouth waters when she speaks his name. Can we blame her for wanting such ecstasy to return?

Elisa is not fragile—her feminine psychology is anything but. She exhibits incredible control and strength of character as a pregnant woman cleaning and keeping her bursting emotions to herself. She does “better” in this than Gilles! She is nearly always one step ahead of her wayward husband, who himself does not prove to be a man of intelligence or restraint. He is described as strong, a brute, even. He is violent with Victorine, the woman he betrays Elisa for but can no longer possess, if ever he did. Elisa has no one in whom to confide. Her own family—sister, mother, as well as husband—all betray her. The townspeople gossip and ridicule, and yet her determination to restore her life to the sensual and relational bliss she once experienced is so vehement, she carries on. Elisa possesses, and is possessed by, powerful and intricate psychological drives and attachments. Can we call this love? She does. At last it is loss of this, not the man himself but the experience within herself, that shows her the true emptiness that precipitates her tragic actions.

The book is incredibly successful for its fierce skill at what we might now call Ferrante-esque immersion in the interiority of its female protagonist. Elisa is not distantly narrating for us, we are plunged within her to make sense of the experience for ourselves. As with much great literature, as with our own lives, we both are Elisa and are watching her. Why does she do what she does? Why do we? Have we not ever under been the influence of the death drive—that annihilation of self that has been described as a component of love, in fact?

It is worth noting that the male figure in the book is no more adroit at disentangling from the pull of his drives than is our heroine. More than that, though, his drive is seemingly less complex and as unsatisfying as Elisa’s turns out to be. He, too, is left bereft of the bliss he once presumably experienced. We don’t know what becomes of him after Elisa makes her final choice. We aren’t given Victorine’s seemingly immature and flippant motives either. For this story, it doesn’t matter. We are all in with Elisa, who exhibits a maturity of method and purpose that defies the usual connotation of another typical adjective for women in similar positions: “scheming”. True, she proves guileful—the usual descriptive of the woman with a plan—but it is further complicated by the circumstances. She is not the devious tempter of another’s spouse, but a woman attempting to restore her own pleasure.

And that, it seems, is still a timely subject.


Cara Benson

Cara Benson‘s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, Brooklyn Rail, Fence and elsewhere. A recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, she is at work on her second book.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 1st, 2016.