French in June and #20Books: Women’s Midlife Crisis

Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire (Book 2 of #20Books of Summer)

This book has been translated as Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by the very talented author and translator Alison Anderson, and the title does rather give you an idea of what the book is about. Unlike the original Emma Bovary, however, the narrator known only as M.A.(pronounced just like Emma in French) does not have an unhappy ending. Instead, we have a picture of her whole life, from childhood to death, covering around 75 years of French social history from the 1950s to roughly 2025.

If you compare it with another recent book that traces a character’s entire life story (rather than being plot-driven), A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, you might find this book profoundly annoying. Because, unlike with Andreas, no real tragedy befalls M.A.: she does not face war or destruction or even major familial dramas and losses. She has loving, if rather dull parents, she gets a chance to go to university, she marries, has healthy children, and, after some initial financial worries, soon leads a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle with all the household consumer goods considered necessary at the time. Yet, despite all this, she is often bored and unhappy, and embarks upon an affair with a work colleague. But this only brings momentary excitement to her life, and all her other attempts to liven things up – the friendships, the hobbies, psychotherapy – fall flat. This flatness is echoed in the idiosyncratic narrative style – instead of a first person narrator, we have the unusual second person – and this brings MA much closer to us. She is not a particularly sympathetic character, but her story is fairly typical of her generation (and probably ours as well) and the tediousness of everyday life is conveyed not only through the observation of all the tiny details of family life (the interruptions during supper, for example), but also with exhaustive descriptions of the fridge or the car, all adding to that sense of flatness and information overwhelm.

‘You couldn’t express clearly this sense of dissatisfaction because – as all the images from around the world kept reminding you – you had everything you needed to be happy. In your country there were no major floods, no wars, no epidemics, people died of old age, there was no bankruptcy, just a demanding career for your husband and worryies about the children’s future. Later, your mother will die in a room with dirty curtains, you will be made redundant, you will be burgled, but you will never experience anything major, you will never win the lottery or be kidnapped and have your fifteen minutes of fame.’

(my translation)

I personally much preferred Divry’s funnier and more overtly militant novel When the Devil Comes Out of the Bathroom, but I can see what she was trying to do here. It is perhaps also a good warning to not waste your life, and to realise what really matters to you and make the most of it.

Emily Itami: Fault Lines

The wife in this case is Japanese and she too seems to have everything she needs to be happy, at least on paper. Mizuki is a housewife, after a rather lacklustre singing career, with two cute children and a successful professional husband, living in a posh part of Tokyo. Yet she too is discontented with her life, seriously considering throwing herself off the balcony where she escapes to smoke a cigarette. She also embarks upon an affair, but soon realises that she probably lacks the courage or conviction to uproot her life, so it cannot last.

This story focuses on a limited time period of Mizuki’s life, a few months at most, and it is told from the first person point of view, so there is a lot more emotion, anger, poignancy and sense of yearning than in Divry’s almost clinical detachment (and near-imperatives). Mizuki feels invisible and unwanted, and she desperately longs to be loved, to feel attractive once more.

He’s made me invisible. With all the options I had, I chose him, chose him for life, for living, and he’s frozen me out into an existence that isn’t living at all. I’m in a cage without bars and I’m screaming but nobody can hear. I’m not even middle-aged yet and he’s faded me into the background.

The author suggests that the reason Mizuki is so frustrated with her life is because she has lived for a while in the United States, and has been exposed to different expectations and lifestyles, much like the author herself (who I suspect is half-Japanese and spent her childhood there, but now lives in the UK). However, I was also amused by the astute observations of the impact of American self-help gurus on Japanese culture.

All the talks are about accepting yourself as you are, being kind to yourself, seeing yourself as just one human out of many, doing your best, with as much right to be here as everybody else. I like the idea, and I find the talks relaxing, but if I think about it too much, the idea of self-acceptance jars. Some people, surely, are unacceptable, and the makers of the recordings don’t know if I’m one of those people or not. How do they know if I phone my mother regularly, or separate my recycling, or keep my terrace free of furniture that could fly away in a typhoon, or tell the truth? You can accept yourself, here, but only if you’re fulfilling your obligation to society. I guess that’s why America is the land of the free, but we have lower crime rates and litter-free streets.

I actually enjoyed this more than I expected – the adultery side of things was sensitively done, not that I am squeamish about such things in my reading (and we hear almost by-the-by that her husband had cheated on her previously too). It was certainly more heartfelt than M.A.’s pathetic self-delusions with her affair, there was a dreaminess and sweetness to it which captivated me.

I suppose these two books were a continuation of the theme of aging, loneliness, and a woman’s identity that I started reading about in Simone de Beauvoir. These stories can occasionally feel self-indulgent (when we compare them to the more traumatic stories of women’s lives in other places, classes or historical periods), but after ploughing through so much literature about white men’s midlife crisis in the past, I am willing to lend my ear to these stories as well.