Daunt Books, best known as a bookshop chain in affluent parts of London, is also a publisher. As well as issuing contemporary fiction such as Philip Langeskov’s story Barcelona, Daunt has been quietly – perhaps too quietly – reissuing some very interesting 20th century authors, including Jiří Weil and Sybille Bedford. When I saw praise for this reissue, accompanied by an image of its striking cover (by AKA Alice), I was sold.
La Femme de Gilles (1937, tr. 1992 by Faith Evans) was Bourdouxhe’s first novel. It opens in unignorable style, with the title character, Elisa, making soup as she awaits her husband’s arrival home from work. The thought of him arriving “paralyses her completely,” but not because she fears him. She is “giddy with tenderness … stock still, panting for breath.” Indeed, “overcome by the thought of his return … her body loses all its strength.” When he actually arrives, we are lost:
When she speaks his name, it comes out as brief and wet as a whisper: saliva fills her mouth, moistening her curved lips and escaping at the corners in two tiny bubbles.
My response to all this was cooler than Elisa’s, somewhere between wondering whether there’s a female-on-male equivalent for the word uxorious (there is, though it never really caught on), and thinking Get a room! But it turns out that this overblown responsiveness – ultradevoted, hypererotic – is an important foundation for the story to come. After all, if Elisa didn’t adore her husband so much, it wouldn’t matter as much when he starts to have an affair with her younger sister, Victorine. “Desire takes hold suddenly, out of nowhere.” It happens in a short scene, made appropriately turbulent but also somewhat weakened by the flickering shifts from one viewpoint to another – from Gilles to Victorine and back again. The rest of the story is told exclusively through Elisa’s eyes, and it’s easy to see why Bourdouxhe chose to show the birth of Gilles’ and Victorine’s affair this way – efficiency, for one – but it dilutes the unity of the narrative. I also wondered how the book might have worked if we had continued to be limited to Elisa’s viewpoint, and if our discovery of the affair had not taken place until her own, partway through the book.
But it is what it is, and is not less interesting because of it. Indeed, it’s an intense blizzard of a journey through Elisa’s head as she struggles to come to terms not only with the affair, but with her own knowledge of it. Subjugated, housetrained – and still deeply in love – she rationalises it, turns the situation around by thinking of what she still has rather than what she has lost. “At least nothing is irrevocably broken: he is living with her, after all, he is sleeping by her side… As long as he is still there, he’s still hers.” It gets worse, when Elisa does confront her husband, and finds herself taking the role of agony aunt for his relationship issues; no indignity is too low if it means that he still needs her. “She kept saying to herself, ‘It’s like an illness, a terrible illness gnawing away at him…'”
All of this, of course, cannot come to any good (“Elisa is advancing through happiness to annihilation”), though the mechanism of Elisa’s downfall is surprising and satisfying, even if the outcome itself is only one of those. I read this book fairly soon after Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, another reissue of a book little-read in the UK, and the two books have much in common: the modern air, the inevitable ending, the account of a woman hemmed in by expectations: society’s, or her own. This edition of La Femme de Gilles comes with an afterword by its translator, Faith Evans, which provides much context and insight into the book and its author. Take the title, which is untranslated because it is untranslatable without losing its subtlety. Femme means both wife and woman, and the ambiguity is essential to reflect the balance of Elisa’s status. Attention to detail like this help us see why Bourdouxhe late in life said of this, her debut novel, ‘Every now and again I think about it, and I think – “That’s not so bad”.’