Category Archives: Bourdouxhe, Madeleine

A Nail, A Rose: Madeleine Bourdouxhe

“One part evil is always much more powerful than one part good. Evil has a habit of leaking, spreading out, overlapping.”

a nail a rose

I came to author Madeleine Bourdouxhe a few ago via the film Gilles’ Wife– a great, if somewhat depressing film. The book was a stunner. I also read Marie which I found disappointing. So on to a short story collection from Pushkin Press: A Nail, A Rose. Here’s the contents, and there’s an excellent introduction from translator Faith Evans who provides a bio of the author, an analysis of her work and a recollection of meeting the author.

A Nail, A Rose

Anna

Louise

Leah

Clara

Blanche

René

Sous le Pont Mirabeau

For those who’ve read Madeleine Bourdouxhe before, it shouldn’t come as a revelation that some of these stories depict the toxic, brutal relationships between men and women. In A Nail, A Rose, it’s WWII, Irene is walking at night, recalling her lover Danny:

Danny and Irene: that she did understand, she understood it perfectly, and she thought it meant she could understand the rest of the world as well: Danny and Irene, and the whole world. But she would never understand the line that ran between them, like an arrow with a sharp point at either end. And the whole world was now this line. 

Her memories include the times of their “savage” “love-making” full of “hope and despair,” when she’s suddenly jolted back to reality by an attack from a hammer-wielding assailant. She confronts her attacker, and suggests that they divide the contents of her handbag. One thing leads to another and then he’s holding her with an obvious erection. The next day, the assailant, Jean, shows up at her house to check on her:

What a strange episode this man who’d not been afraid to return. Neither perfection nor eternity; some good, some evil. And while she waited, the mould was rising in layers, in the world and in her heart.

The stories have a dream-like quality to them as though the women featured here drift through their experiences. If you’ve read, Gilles’ Wife (or watched it) you know what I mean, and while Madeleine Bourdouxhe writes about the inner life of women, we repeatedly see women who exist on a physical level while their minds hook them, by the necessity of survival, into a different realm. In Blanche, for example, the main character is “an absent-minded woman” who “often forgot things” and is considered “stupid” by her bore of a husband.

It was then that Louis had passed the kitchen door with his hat and coat–“Goodbye, Blanche.” She waited for the layers of air to re-form themselves and be healed, for them to join up again and for the air to be one, without fissure or tremor, and for peace to inhabit her.

The gem of the collection is Sous le Pont Mirabeau. There’s something special about this story, something different, shimmering, and perhaps that’s because it’s based on the author’s own experience. In this tale, a young woman gives birth to a baby girl the day the Germans invade Belgium. Loaded into a lorry with her newborn, she makes the hazardous journey to France. Many people, seeing the mother and baby, give assistance, and the story, set amidst a moment of human tragedy, glows with hope and strange, surreal experience:

In the evening, the roads were dark yet they thronged with people, bumping into each other, still hoping to find somewhere to spend the night. It was full of people and quite dark, until the great green and red arc lights shone out over rooftops, walls and faces. 

She stayed still for a moment, the child in her arms, overawed. Above her was the beauty of the guns. A second of immobility was enough to embrace, and reject, the beauty of the guns, denuded, useless, miraculous, valuable only in their own right. But what if this beauty was meant to become embedded in the secret of all things, to flourish on the greens and the reds of nature and the rhythms of the earth? Or perhaps to be exploited, warped, faded, false as the beauty of the helmeted warrior and his steel blade false as the beauty of the dead hero–kissed, corrupted, rejected? Above her was the beauty of the guns.

Translated by Faith Evans

Review copy

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La Femme de Gilles (Gille’s Wife) by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

“You are alone with the greatest pain you have ever known.”

The novella La Femme de Gilles is a tragic tale of adultery. Set before WWI, the story focuses on Elisa who is happily married to factory worker Gilles. Elisa and Gilles have twin daughters, and when the story begins, Elisa is pregnant with a third child. She’s still deliriously in love with her husband, and life seems simple–yet rich and satisfying to Elise. But one day, she begins to notice a vague change in her husband’s behaviour, and after observing him closely, she concludes that he’s having an affair with her younger, flighty sister, Victorine.

Just how Elise responds to this devastating information is the heart of this perfect, tragic story. Author Madeleine Bourdouxhe details each shatteringly painful stage of Elise’s gradual recognition of her husband’s adultery, and also explores the consequences as Elise submerges her rage and jealousy: “her monotonous existence, which had once ran quite naturally on a course of happiness, now ran, just as naturally on a course of misery.”

Gilles’ blind selfishness and Victorine’s spiteful willfulness are in contrast in Elisa’s struggle to keep Gilles no matter the cost. Elisa struggles to maintain a semblance of the life she used to have, and desperately tries to gain “an outer equilibrium in a world of household objects.” Bourdouxhe recreates Elise’s mental state with incredible detail while implementing her minimalist style. The result is a startling tale of the contrasts of love–Gilles’ selfish, mad physical passion for the elusive Victorine and Elisa’s quiet self-destructive sacrifice. All of this mad passion is set against the external world–frozen landscapes and quiet French countryside. As Gilles’ affair with Victorine enters various phases, Elisa finds herself cast into various roles–all undesired, and all equally painful, and her deep love, satisfying marriage and peace-of-mind are lost forever. Translated by Faith Evans, La Femme de Gilles is must-read for all those who enjoyed the marvelous film adaptation–Gilles’ Wife. If you enjoy the novels of Jean Rhys, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy La Femme de Gilles.

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