Books: Bloom, bliss and housework

MARIE by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, trs Faith Evans Bloomsbury pounds 10.99

This is the third of Madeleine Bourdouxhe's works to be translated into English, following A Nail, A Rose, the short-story collection, and the novella La Femme de Gilles. Bourdouxhe died in 1996, just before her 90th birthday. Her work was first published in Paris in the Thirties, and then, after her publisher Gallimard was taken over by the Nazis, in Brussels during the Forties. She found a home with Editions Libris, a press that had remained free of fascist taint. She passed the war working for the Resistance, and, though she knew writers such as Sartre, De Beauvoir, Queneau and Sarraute, she became sidelined until rescued by feminist critics and publishers in the Eighties.

Marie is a short, intense novel, suffused with tenderness, humour and sensuality. The narrative is driven by desire, memory, free association and suggestion, so that although you're reading a perfectly accessible, linear plot about life and love in Paris, you're simultaneously plunging into a woman's mind, understanding her from the inside out at the same time as registering every impression the world makes on her skin. She's not in the least pretentious or precious, partly because she places a deep sympathy with ordinary people and daily life at the heart of her writing,. Her heroine, Marie, understands that love, not cynicism or sentimentality, is what provides knowledge and clear vision.The novel shows her learning and practising this skill as though it's an instinct formerly lost and now rediscovered.

Sexual love is Marie's key to finding her place in the world. Not romantic love. Not emotion-free sex. Sexual love. So much bad sex and comic sex has featured in novels over the last 20 years that it's quite a shock, as well as a delight, to read this celebration of bloom and bliss. Not only does Marie have a lovely time in bed, but she also quietly asserts her need for solitude, for time to think, to see her sister, to cook dinner. The complete woman. No fuss. She doesn't mind doing housework because she does it when she feels like it, as a symbol of caring for her relationship at the same time as enjoying the physical labour itself. It's not the work itself that's the problem, she paraphrases Marx: it's the conditions under which you do it. Contrasted with Marie is her sister Claudine, trapped in a hopeless marriage. Marie bursts out: "You only see what you can understand. And you only understand what you love. First you have to give yourself, commit yourself, then you'll receive something in exchange ... It's up to you to love, it's up to you to live. Making the most of life is making the most of yourself ..."

This existentialist philosophy is acted out in the flats, parks, squares and cafes of Paris, as Marie goes to the cinema with the husband she loves, keeps trysts with the lover who speaks her own language of reality, strolls and shops and dreams, gives lessons, talks to soldiers, teases her mother. Colette once said that the times in a woman's life when she is between lovers are her white pages, apparently blank if you think only men matter, but full of secret writings in invisible ink. What Bourdouxhe gives us, with the fullness of poetry, is those moments, those hours, in each day, which Marie welcomes, knowing they will pass, as everything else in her life passes, beautiful or sad experiences, like the trains which carry her lover away from her at the very end.

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