‘Marie’ by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

One of my aims for this year is to try to read things which I might not normally pick.  French modernist literature features incredibly low on on the list of types of book I usually select (nor for that matter, modernism in any language).  Consequently I have no idea how I ended up with Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe on my shelves; Simone de Beauvoir was an admirer and quotes the book in her famous work La deuxieme sexe but for once the internet failed me and I was able to find out almost nothing about this book before I read it.  There was nothing to do but to plunge straight in and expand my reading horizons.

It is next to impossible to try to summarise what exactly goes on in this book in the way of plot.  All that I can really say is that it follows the relationships of the eponymous Marie, some good and some bad, and watches as they unfold.

The original French title of this book is A la recherche de Marie, an homage to A la recherche du temps perdu, suggesting that it is probably full of very clever allusions to Proust which I completely failed to spot, not having read Proust.  In fact, I’m sure anyone who is more familiar with this type of literature would probably find reading Marie a far richer, more involving experience than I did, but as it was I was happy just to drift along, carried by the lovely prose.

This prose is often astute and insightful, and I’m going to have to quote a large chunk of it to give a proper feel for Bordouxhe’s writing:

A few days ago, a young woman in a linen skirt was sitting on a sunny beach.  Today, a young woman plunges tanned hands into soapy water, goes down to the cellar to fetch the coal, cleans the floor, peels the vegetables.  Marie thinks of other young women she knows and smiles at the astonishment they would feel if they could see her now.  What did these other women think of Marie; why does she feel herself to be so different, and why has she never succeeded in really becoming their friend?  Perhaps life is simpler if your world is like theirs, confined to choosing wallpaper or sofa covers, to a luxurious home, to the importance of having a maid, to immaculate receptions, to tea parties with friends where a few ideas are exchanged on the latest books.  If they have a child, they love it not because it is flesh of their flesh but because it has finally given some point to their existence.  They give the impression of being happy or, if they are not, they speak of happiness as an unusable, clearly defined object that need only be discovered and then hung in the apartment like a sprig of mistletoe.  (pp. 30-31)

The writing (and indeed the translation) of this book is skillful, alternating as it does between the faintly vague and disconnected atmosphere that I tend to associate with writing of this period and style, and moments of intense, vibrant, passionate immediacy.  As Bourdouxhe says:

So it was that whole minutes, hours, years passed by — all full, fine and perfect in their way, but essentially artificial, for if Marie were not in charge of them, these moments would not exist; she alone constructs them, with her heart, her flesh, her personal desires.  This was her only faith, and it shone as brightly as the reins she held in her hands.  (p. 60)

Marie herself also switches between these two extremes, sometimes quiet and distracted, as though she isn’t really present on the page, and at others vivacious, opinionated and irrepressible.  She also seems incredibly modern and forward for a woman of this time, perhaps because the book is quite candid about her sexual encounters.  Marie is a truly believable character and the book portrays the meanderings of her mind in such a way that I felt I knew her as much as it is ever possible to know someone (which, as this story suggests, is never as well as you might think).  The final chapter, the only one narrated directly by Marie, is simply stunning.

I will definitely be seeking out more of Bourdouxhe’s work after reading Marie.  It’s a shame that she seems to be so little known, although perhaps this isn’t true of the French speaking world.  I highly recommend her, and at fewer than 200 pages, what have you got to lose?

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, translated by Faith Evans.  Published by Bloomsbury, 1998, pp. 185.  Originally published in 1943.

Posted in Book Review • Tags: , , , Top Of Page

Write a comment