Baby knows best; Heloise is Bald by Emile De Turckheim; book review

 

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The Independent Culture

Like all good fairytales, this one comes well seasoned with lust, cruelty, love, magic and perversion. Heloise, the novel’s eponymous heroine, initially appears as a bald, beautiful baby, howling energetically in a high-bourgeois Parisian drawing-room. Lawrence, a family friend, calms her by stroking her face, and then her mouth, with his thumb. Passionately, Heloise sucks it ‘as one swallows a river after tearing through a summer, slopes of poppies at full tilt, white dresses, bare feet, burning plains…Being sucked, Lawrence trembles. Heloise falls in love.’

Soon the baby girl has grown into a toddler whose legendary golden hair must be cut, like Rapunzel’s, when she wounds herself on the scalp and submits to Lawrence, the paediatrician, stitching her up. Bald again, the little princess dreams of leaving the tower and her mother, to escape with the forbidden prince. She turns into a slender nymph with tresses glinting of ‘chestnut, whisky, full moons and buttered corn’. The besotted Lawrence, generous as a fairy godparent, fulfils Heloise’s every wish: he obeys her provocative sexual commands, pays for her to travel to New York, finds her accommodation, gives her a monthly allowance. In the twinkling of an eye Heloise is exhibiting her photographs in a major gallery and has become a media darling: ‘she skipped the stages of misunderstood genius and torment: she made her debut at the top of the pile.’ Lawrence and Heloise continue to flout convention and egg each other on to new adventures and tricks. They will, the last page of the novel suggests, fuck happily ever after in their own imaginative, distinctive way.

Emilie de Turkheim nods towards Nabokov’s Lolita only by writing about an older man having sex with an underage girl. Heloise does not have to be groomed or manipulated. Nor can she be read as a victim. She is an untamed little girl straight out of the pages of Colette, honest, wild, ruthless, greedy, amoral. Where Colette’s heroines ambivalently acknowledge the sensual power of mothers, however, Heloise makes straight for the father-figure. Aged thirteen, she easily seduces Lawrence, forty years her senior, ignoring the fact that he is married, with two children, and that he has already screwed and abandoned her own mother.

Lawrence, a wry, ageing charmer, does not want a woman his own age, with ‘the waist of a pig, or a cabbage, or of a home-grown squash.’ Heloise, scorning sweet adolescent boys, is his perfect match. With her, he seems reborn, thanks to ‘the marvellous body, the mouth new to kissing’, thanks to the child who already knows how to lick his balls ‘slowly, exquisitely, confusedly’, how to ‘suck an extraordinary part of his body…he is stopping himself from coming…not one woman in fifty-three years has yet had the erotic courtesy to lick his arsehole.’ 

The novel reads, on one level, as a sophisticated version of a little girl’s fantasy of falling in love with a perfect daddy, or a figure representing him. Heloise, the erotic daughter, beats the maternal opposition, breaks the incest taboo, triumphs gloriously, escapes unpunished. The darkly glittering web of the fairytale is woven over darker secrets, however, which have violence at their core. Unlike the godlike, adorable Lawrence, Heloise’s own father beats his wife and no-one notices or cares. Lawrence bullies one of his lovers into having an abortion. An ageing woman has been driven mad by being publicly humiliated, her head forcibly shaved, punished for having sex with German soldiers during the Occupation. All this brutality is coolly, shruggingly presented, as just the way things are.

Lawrence functions as the blank screen onto whom all the women characters project their longings. He comes alive as a character rather than an archetype because of the extraordinary energy and drive of Emilie de Turkheim’s writing, ably represented in Sophie Lewis’s deft, sparkling translation. The prose is paradoxically both minimal and voluptuous, omitting every superfluous word, freighted with sensuality. It glitters and flashes like broken glass. Her novel works like a Cubist painting, destroying conventional patterns of storytelling, swerving from one perspective to the next, alternately beckoning and repulsing the reader, mixing short scenes of ugliness and beauty seemingly at random.

The narrative proceeds as dreams do, through compression, through strange juxtapositions of images. Most of the time the author seems to consider, to exhilarating effect, that links, details and explanations are unnecessary: the reader sinks or swims. At times the current calms, pretends to be a naïve stream of consciousness- very knowingly. At other times it pulses like desire.  Some sentences, unpunctuated, last for over a page, mixing up various points of view and different time-scales. Some scenes are presented entirely in dialogue. It is a complete delight to encounter fiction that knows the rules but disobeys them so stylishly. Emilie de Turckheim’s writing is as lively, surprising and transgressive as Heloise herself.

This shows, for example, in the way the novel deals with sex. The gestures, poses and acts formerly associated with pornography and erotica have now entered the literary mainstream, along with porn’s emotional coldness and lack of affect. Many young writers, if they write about sex at all, seem compelled to do so from behind a mask of cool and irony, lest they be accused of sentimentality. Is that the only answer? Can you write about sex differently? Can you avoid coldly clinical voyeurism, giggle-inducing clichés, romance rebranded in fifty shades of beige?

Emilie de Turckheim’s solution is to combine porn’s permissiveness with literature’s subtlety, its use of interiority. Perversion has been traditionally seen as confusing and mixing things up: body parts, older and younger generations, gender distinctions. Accordingly, de Turkheim mixes up conventional grammatical structures to describe ‘perverse’ acts (such as anal sex) soaked with emotion, to convey a woman’s pleasure felt inside and watched outside both at once.

Heloise eventually discovers the source of Lawrence’s fascination with bald girls and women. But historical meaning enters the amoral linguistic flow too late, and sinks. Epater la bourgeoisie is what Heloise does best. 

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