May 12, 2017

Melville House Intern Book Club: La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe


Madeleine Bourdouxhe

We Melville interns must regretfully admit that we haven’t exactly read every title on the Melville backlist. There is, however, good news: we—Alexis, Josephine, Hayley, and Oliver—have formed the Intern Book Club to rectify the situation, to read and chat our way through Melville’s titles.

Our first read is La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, translated by Faith Evans. It’s a haunting novel set in 1930s Belgium, telling the story of a young mother, Elisa, whose world unravels when she discovers her husband, Gilles, has fallen in love with her younger sister, Victorine.

(SPOILERS AHEAD: It’s impossible to talk about La Femme de Gilles without talking about the tragic ending, so proceed with caution if you have yet to read this beautiful novel.)


Hayley: I know that we all have strong feelings about La Femme’s introduction, written by Elisa Albert. Why don’t we start our discussion there?

Alexis:  Yeah, Josephine and I had a conversation before beginning the book about how much contrast (in style and tone) there is between the introduction and the actual text.

Josephine: The intro was surprising — not least due to Albert’s more contemporary style (confessional, self-deprecating, alternating between ironic and earnest), but also because of the way she asks whether the text is feminist enough, and whether it offers a kind of salvation.

Alexis: It paints Elisa as a kind of martyr, beginning on page eight where we learn about the affair.

Oliver: I agree! Besides the difference in era and tone, the foreword focused on different aspects of the book than the ones that had jumped out me. Albert’s focus on Elisa’s how total passivity “empowers” readers to feel angry on her behalf painted her as less redeeming and powerful than I thought she was.

Hayley: I enjoyed Albert’s descriptions of the domestic work — she calls Elisa’s understanding of this gendered labor “one of the novel’s triumphs.” I too was struck by the account of Elisa’s exhausting housework. It seems almost radical that the text takes it so seriously, that it takes the time to detail such work, when I still find myself in conversation with those who would diminish or dismiss outright the idea that housewives engage in any type of work.

But Alexis, I’d also like to talk more about the martyrdom you mentioned.

Alexis: I really think Elisa makes the decision to be a martyr in her relationship with both Gilles and her family.

Oliver: Yeah! Elisa’s inaction in the face of Gilles’s betrayal, her maintenance of faith, however misguided, despite Gilles’s gross infidelity — to me, these make her a martyr. Then there’s her actual death — the first and last thing she does only for herself. Until that point, everything is in one way or another an act of self-negation. Suicide, which you’d normally consider the ultimate self-negation, gets flipped (troublingly? compellingly?) into a kind of affirmation. In the afterword, Faith Evans mentions that Bourdouxhe thought of Elisa’s suicide as “heroic.” That really rang true to me.

Alexis:  I don’t want to glorify the suicide as a “heroic” feat. While it may actually be her most self-empowered act, her death serves no real purpose except as an escape from the bitter reality that she’s a nonentity to Gilles and her family. I think it’s a cop-out: her unwillingness to disturb the imagined tranquility of the less-than-perfect lives around her is what makes it necessary.

Hayley: I see how Elisa’s suicide can be read as heroic, although it is obviously important not to romanticize such actions. To me, her suicide doesn’t seem like a cop-out — I’m not sure she’s even aware that disturbing this “tranquility” is an option available to her.

I really think you can trace everything in La Femme back to Elisa’s inability to understand her personhood separate from Gilles.  After he betrays their marriage, Elisa has a crisis of identity and never recovers. I really wanted her to go all Beyoncé-with-a-baseball-bat, but no. She can’t stand on her own because she isn’t her own person.

Josephine: I don’t know if I want to read heroism into the suicide either, and I understand Alexis’s sentiments, particularly when we read her death as an escape from patriarchy. I also think the sentiment that “her death serves no real purpose” makes sense if we understand that Elisa’s purpose in life was to survive. But I want to apply a more Freudian analysis, and think about life in terms of the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

Alexis: *Clap* *clap* *clap*

Josephine: I’ve been reading Adam Phillips lately. He writes that “in [Freud’s] pleasure-seeking picture a life without sufficient pleasure is not worth surviving for (or reproducing). Freud, in other words, like Camus after him—implicitly, but without quite saying so—believed that the only question, if not the only philosophical question, was whether or not to commit suicide. Or, as he suggested: ‘the aim of the organism is to die in its own way.’ For Freud, the questions for the modern person are not just ‘How can I survive?’ but ‘What makes my life worth living for?’ ‘What are the pleasures without which I cannot live?’” Elisa answers these questions for herself, and dies in her own way; which might allow some, like Evans, to read heroism into the act.

Oliver: Ah, Adam Phillips! I like that reading — thanks for helping me out of the hole I dug for myself there. To clarify my thinking just a little: I don’t mean to say Elisa’s suicide is “heroic” in the sense that it is ennobling or redemptive or is cause for celebration. I see Elisa’s suicide as “heroic” mostly in the generic sense; that is, her suicide wrenches the novel into the space of Greek tragedy. There is this element of violent disclosure, of making private horror suddenly public (the suicide is so conspicuous), that seems to come straight out of Euripides. Having reread the ending, I agree that I was wrong to characterize Elisa’s suicide as elective — Alexis, as you point out, Elisa doesn’t exactly think of her death as a choice, and she definitely doesn’t experience it as a triumph. But I do think Bourdouxhe frames Elisa’s suicide as a catharsis and a renunciation of the cruel optimism that had come to organize her life.

I found the narrative voice of the book transfixing, and sometimes troubling. The ease with which it moves—between tenses, modes, and subjectivities—is amazing. There all these moments of unexpected, bald intensity. For me there was something terrifying about that early moment of recognition, when we’re suddenly and without warning inside Gilles’ head, gazing at Victorine.

Hayley: This happens again later! Chapter fifteen drops you directly into Gilles’s head as he brutally assaults Victorine. I gasped out loud when I read that chapter!

Oliver: Josephine, your mentioning Adam Phillips made me think… one thing I found deeply satisfying about the book was its depiction of ambivalence: how one can carry utterly opposing feelings simultaneously, how there’s no such thing as a stable self. Elisa’s interior life is just this total welter of contradictions, which for me made her demise all the more real, not to mention torturous.

Hayley: You both make me want to read Adam Phillips. But let’s go back to the character of Victorine, which Oliver brought up…

Oliver: Yeah, I’m really curious to hear what you all thought of the treatment of Victorine’s character, especially with respect to the narrative voice. For my part, I was a little disappointed that she was treated as a kind of wedge, and wasn’t afforded her own interior life.

Josephine: I think Victorine is treated as a source of both desire and repulsion. This really disturbed me, given the way Gilles demeans her.

Hayley: I don’t know if I’m the only one, but as I was reading I started to dream of a Wide Sargasso Sea-style retelling of La Femme from Victorine’s point of view! (If only we knew people who published books for a living…)

Josephine: Oooh!

Hayley: But anyway, yes — I was disappointed by Victorine’s characterization… all the more so when I think about it in the context of how female sexuality is handled in La Femme as a whole. Elisa’s sexuality is presented uniquely, at least in comparison to most of the books I’ve read. Her love for Gilles is highly sexual. She literally salivates at Gilles’s name in the first chapter. She lusts for him, and the book does not shy away from or judge this desire. It isn’t commented on, it’s simply normal. Women, fictional or otherwise, are hardly allowed to be these sexual beings free of any sort of judgment one way or another. I found relief that Elisa was able to exist and express her sexuality in such a way.

But where judgment was withheld in the characterization of Elisa, no such liberties are permitted for Victorine. Victorine’s sexuality not only defines her, but is used to demonize her — and to such extremes. I loved how well-drawn Elisa was; what a contrast to see her sister dismissed as some harlot with a trail of brokenhearted men in her wake. Like Elisa, Victorine is a sexual being; unlike Elisa, this makes her a dangerous and diabolical figure.

Josephine: What do you guys think about the way the book ends? (“‘Yes, of course, Gilles — Elisa’s man!’ Marthe screamed. Elisa still breathed. A long shudder seized her broken limbs as Marthe spoke — the last words she was to hear.”)

Oliver: “Elisa’s man” — there’s something so punishing about that to me. It’s like a really bleak punch line. The way it inverts the book’s title seems to emphasize Bourdouxhe’s reading of the suicide as heroic. But the way it flirts with an idea of shared victory, or even enduring love, unsettled me… of course, there’s none of that here.

Hayley: The inversion of the title, for me, emphasizes the way in which La Femme repeatedly equates love with possession — to love someone is to have a kind of ownership over them. Gilles blatantly wants to possess Victorine’s body, and if he cannot have her he’ll destroy her. But Elisa clearly relies on this definition of love as well. Gilles is her man. She longs to possess him, but also to be possessed by him. “Punishing” is a good word for it; “punch line” too, for that matter…