October 2008

C L Jansen


Hail the Three Maries: Fables, Feminism and the Fantastic in Contemporary French Women’s Writing

The terms "women’s writing" and feminism, when uttered in the same breath, are usually met with a groan. These are difficult times for women writing; as Zoe Heller incisively remarks in a recent issue of Vogue magazine, “when women write ‘ooh I love clothes it’s into girlie hell go you.’” The cynicism surrounding "women’s writing" prevents women writers from turning to traditional female-oriented interests; they risk being interpreted as anti-progressive or trite. Yet when they handle ballsy themes, war, destruction, satire- in short, "boysy" areas, they are labelled bunny-boiling bra-burners.

The heavily stigmatised "genre" however, is being deconstructed from the inside. A trio of Maries, writing in their French mother tongue, have emerged on the literary scene, and have proved that they can break out of the gender mould, whilst remaining defiantly feminine. These talented women have relaunched the French novel on the international stage, and are forcing the critics to retract their draconian judgments.

France has produced some of the most renowned feminist writers of the 20th century -- and some of the most eccentric. In the 1960s, Simone de Beauvoir and Helene Cixous released their utopian manifestos that proffered two very different kinds of feminism. Whilst Beauvoir’s was based on equality in the workplace and at home, Cixous wildly declared that the pen itself was a phallic symbol, and called for a radical re-think of the way women write. A wave of writers would hop on to Cixous’ bandwagon, ridiculing the penis and shouting about their periods, their sexual experiences, their inability to perform as men demanded. Though there was a genuine agenda to the cause of Cixous & co, the proliferation of copy-cats using shock tactics and bad words would soon render that vein of writing slightly ridiculous.

The schismatic atmosphere of the late '60s and '70s spawned a new generation of female writers, determined to escape comparison to their predecessors, embarrassed by their fervent dogma. It is certainly something that Marie Darrieussecq is conscious of. Darrieussecq declares she "feminist, atheist, European." However, her fictional debut, Pig Tales, published in 1996, she claims to be "anything but feminist." The controversial novel follows the story of the anonymous narrator, a solitary, unsympathetic character, who descends into a seedy world of sex workers and politicians. Both a result of her lack of self-respect, and a product of the abusive society she lives in, she is gradually turned into a pig. Acerbically observed, Darrieussecq opens almost every can of worms possible, attacking right-wing corruption, powerful men and submissive, body-conscious women. The over-sexed vanity of modern society lurches nauseatingly towards the reader in this fierce dystopia, in a graphic language that is unexpected. You won’t find apple-cheeked bashfulness of Judy Bloom or Jilly Cooper here. Darrieussecq abhors the "truisms" propagated by today’s society, illustrating with clarity the dangers of beliefs such as the harmony of the mind and the body -- something that Cixous & co. promoted. Her dystopic world is vivid, forceful and absolutely engaging, blending soaring metaphor with urbane reality. This is the "fundamental style" that Darrieussecq believes binds her novels, which treat vastly different themes. Her novel of 2000, White, is a futuristic novel set in the South Pole, inspired by Andrea Yates and 9/11, Darrieussecq does not shy away from "masculine" themes. It is the fantastical strand that allows Darrieussecq to transcend the world of obligations as a "female" writer. The revival of the Fantastic in women’s writing has been embraced too by the two aforementioned femmes; Marie-Claire Blais and Marie Ndiaye.

Blais’s early work focused on the theme of lesbianism, but her most recent novel, Thunder and Light, translated by Nigel Spencer, the second in a trilogy confronts the apocalyptic atmosphere of our times -- the wreckage of war, abuse and poverty -- but she embraces them with a distinctly feminine freedom. The novel has been lauded for the originality and daring of its style, a free-flowing stream of consciousness that barely pauses for breath and transports the reader directly into the minds of the characters. The Canadian author, who divides her time between Quebec and Florida, conjures a phantasamagical world not dissimilar to Darrieussecq’s in White; its enigmatic style is alluring and intriguing. Blais is already a well-established French writer, with a myriad of prizes to her name, but this recent work has revived interest, and has reinforced the idea of women writing about weighty issues, in their own style.

The mysterious, elusive style Blais employs refuses to be defined, it seems, in part, to turn in circles, and in this way, in almost returns to the theory and practice of Cixous. The highly imaginative "fabulization" of the modern world thinly belies a real concern with the issues of our times.

Marie Ndiaye, is as yet, unavailable in English, and remains a relative unknown on the international scene. The glittering acclaim her work has received in the francophone world, however, will no doubt mean that translations are in the pipeline. Ndaiye, like Blais and Darrieussecq, favors the shorter novel, and, like them, she proves she can execute an entertaining story with élan. Her writing is remarkable. The mastery of language, the clarity of her descriptions of suburban reality and the restraint of her style, signal a new generation in women’s writing. She returns to traditionally female topics -- motherhood, the conjugal home, loneliness -- but with a thoroughly modern approach, that avoids the usual vehement reprisals. Instead, her children turn into birds that fly away, leaving their heavy leather boots behind, and her bankrupt Father is changed to a snail by her powerful sorcerer Mother. Her novel, La Sorciere, (‘the witch’) released in the same year as Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales, depicts a world of dishwashers and frozen pizzas, that like Darrieussecq and Blais is easily identifiable. They are anchored to the misunderstandings, the moral apathy, and the insecurity that plague us today. Ndiaye’s "fable of society and its discontents" is presented, once again, from the fantastical transposition of the everyday.

Darrieussecq, Blais and Ndiaye’s explotation of fantastical modalities marks the advent of a "new fantastic," spearheaded by women writers. These three women prove that the genre has evolved a great deal since the frightening stories of Edgar Allan Poe, that it can be used intelligently and thoughtfully, and in a variety of ways. In our modern world of prevalent cynicism, cheap thrills and fast-living, few believe in magical transformations -- but we still want to escape the confines of everyday living.
The three Maries are redefining the genre, transporting us to a new place from which to view the problems at the heart of society, with a mixture of humour and despair, taking us ever closer to defining what Darrieussecq calls "the abyss."