#FrenchFebruary: New-to-me Women Authors – Triolet, Salvayre, Leduc

While staying at my friend’s house near Vevey, I had the pleasure of exploring her extensive library, which contains quite a lot of French-speaking writers (since my friend is also a translator from French). So I had the opportunity to discover three new women writers.

Elsa Triolet: Roses à crédit (Roses on credit), 1958

A still from the film Elsa la Rose

Of course I had heard of Elsa Triolet, usually as an appendage to Louis Aragon, I’m ashamed to say. I also saw the touching documentary made about her by Agnes Varda ‘Elsa la Rose’, which is basically Aragon telling us about his love for her and Michel Piccoli reciting poetry about her and she blushing and brushing it off.

“All these poems are for you. Do they make you feel loved?”

“Oh, no! They aren’t what makes me feel loved. Not the poetry. It’s the rest. Life.”

I know she had a fascinating life: the daughter of Russian Jews, she emigrated to France, and wrote first in Russian and then in French. She met Aragon in 1928, they fought in the Resistance during WW2 and, though she joined the French Communist Party in the early 1950s, she protested vehemently against Stalinist policies. She was the first woman to win the Goncourt Prize. I had heard that after her death in 1970, Aragon kept the calendar in their house forever fixed on the day she died – because time had no meaning for him without her. But I had never read anything by her. This book is the first in a trilogy she called The Age of Nylon, which uses different characters and life stories to critique post-war French society. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the rose imagery is so strong in this book, while Agnes Varda’s documentary refers to Elsa herself as a rose.

This particular book is about the rise of the consumerist society: Martine comes from a very poor rural household, with rats and cockroaches roaming around the house, her mother ready to sleep with any man she encounters and a great number of siblings all living in uneducated squalor. She is determined to escape this misery and befriends a girl at school whose mother is a hairdresser. She becomes her apprentice and later they all move to Paris, where her neat and precise ways make her a highly-appreciated beautician. She has set her sights on marrying her childhood crush, Daniel Donelle, who stems from a family of horticulturists. He is obsessed with creating a new variety of rose with the shape of the modern rose but the fragrance of the old one. Although Martine seems to support him in this mission, in truth all she wants is a bourgeois life with all the latest ‘must haves’ (some of them in dubious taste, as Daniel observes) and she gets into terrible debt in order to create her dream life.

While this seems like a straightforward story of a mismatched couple, there is a lot of implied social critique. I love the way in which Triolet observes the little specific details of rural and urban houses and lifestyles, and somehow manages to make them truly universal (at least for post-war Europe).

We can sympathise with Daniel’s exasperation at Martine’s greediness, but I am pretty sure that Elsa Triolet, who experienced hardship and poverty herself, will have had a lot of understanding for her desire to improve herself through material possessions. I could certainly detect my mother’s traits and tendencies in this book, as well as my father’s more idealistic, less materialistic streak.

Lydie Salvayre: Marcher jusqu’au soir (Walk until Evening), 2019

It takes some convincing, but the author Lydie Salvayre finally agrees to spend the night in the Picasso Museum in Paris, where there is a Giacometti exhibition. One of her favourite works of art in the world is Giacometti’s Walking Man, which she feels expresses best our human condition ‘our endless solitude and vulnerability, but, in spite of that, our stubborn desire to continue living, our stubborn desire to persevere against all reasons for living’.

To her surprise, she experiences a sense of fear and a near panic-attack locked in with all that art and has a rant about museums, the purpose of art, whether beauty can really save us.

This becomes a pretext for her to remember her childhood with a frightening revolutionary father (whom she also describes in her Goncourt Prize novel Pas pleurer – Don’t cry), and also poke fun at the pretentiousness and snobbishness of the art world. The Walking Man intrigues and terrifies her in equal measure, for she cannot help but see it as a metaphor for humankind walking towards death and extinction, no doubt influenced also by the fact that she was undergoing chemotherapy at the time.

She skilfully weaves her own story, her acute past and present fears, with that of Giacometti the man and his art, his immense modesty, how he was never satisfied with his work and would often remodel even his so-called ‘finished’ sculptures. It is reported that he said: ‘In a fire, if I had to choose between saving a cat and a Rembrandt painting, I would choose the cat.’ (See a similar discussion in Mircea Cărtărescu’s Solenoid).

Violette Leduc: La femme au petit renard (The Lady and the Little Fox Fur), 1965

This is the saddest of the three, all the more so when we think that Leduc was very much a proponent of what we call ‘autofiction’ nowadays. This slim little volume depicts the plight of a sixty-year-old woman (considered ancient, apparently, back in the 1960s). She is so poor that she is counting out the beans for her coffee, or trying to divide six potatoes by eight days. She avoids the foodstalls in the market and spends her small change on a metro ticket, so that she doesn’t feel so alone and can feel the warmth of the crowds.

She paces up and down in her garret room, containing pieces of furniture which indicate that perhaps she was not always so down on her luck. She talks to her furniture, and you can’t help wondering if the hunger is causing hallucinations. One day, she has a terrible craving for an orange and goes down to rummage among the rubbish bins for a half-rotten orange someone might have thrown away. Instead, she finds an old fox fur. She imbues this discarded neck adornment with life, and treats it like a much-loved pet, but decides she will have to part with it. She has to sell it so she can get some money to eat.

I won’t tell you the end of the story, merely state that it is almost unbearable to read and the ending is somewhat ambiguous. Imagine a Jean Rhys heroine who has grown old and ugly, who no longer is able to find any male protectors to pay her bills, and who finds herself all alone, starving, wandering in a half-demented state through the streets of Paris.

This is all written in a breathless recitative style, a long monologue (or dialogue with the objects surrounding her), with the exception of one short chapter in which we see the woman through the eyes of others (and realise just how pitiable and weird she seems). There is something of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style here, particularly the sections in Mrs Dalloway dedicated to war veteran Septimus Smith. Her style is raw, unfiltered, somewhat chaotic, often with no punctuation or paragraphs. It feels like someone on the edge of despair – or maybe on the verge of exploding with anger. And yet, just when we think we’ve reached the nadir, we find in our narrator and perhaps in the author herself that will to survive, that rhythmic cry of ‘I am, I am, I am’.

I was hoping to be able to place at least two of these books also under the #ReadIndies initiative, hosted by my dear blogging friends Karen aka Kaggsy and Marcia aka Lizzy Siddal, but it turns out that the proud publisher Gallimard, host of so many Nobel and Goncourt Prize winners, is no longer independent, but part of Groupe Madrigall. Better luck with my next two #FrenchFebruary reads…