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A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Her name has been linked to Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield; she has been compared to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir; and yet I hadn’t heard of her. Then Pushkin Press invited me to review a copy of her short stories, and I noticed that Heaven Ali is reading a novel by her called Marie

She is Madeleine Bourdouxhe, born in Belgium in 1906, who lived in both the French and Belgian capitals. Her first novel, La Femme de Gilles, was published in 1937 and Marie appeared in 1943. Her short stories were published in literary magazines in the late ‘40s. They were collected and published in Paris in 1985. Madeleine Bourdouxhe died in 1996. 

The Women’s Press published her translated stories in 1989. Pushkin Press published the English translations by Faith Evans in June 2019. My copy was provided by Pushkin Press, and I am most grateful.

A Nail, A Rose

The collection contains seven short stories and a novella. Her stories were mostly written after the war, in that period of economic depression and reconstruction and before French culture really flowered with the existentialists. France had much to consider in the post war years, some parts had been occupied for 5 years.

The writer’s style is spare and, at times, abrupt. The author assumes that the reader will do some work: for example, notice that the objects or people mentioned early in a story will be of significance later. 

Each story features a woman, sometimes giving her name to the story, sometime anonymous. She might be the narrator, or the focus of the third person narration. In every story there is considerable pain, often physical, sometime of love that has disappeared, or of relationships strained and in tension. She does not shrink from the visceral. The female body is ever present with its smells, leakages and lusts. ‘Anna’, for example, is a story about a woman who loves to dance, but her jealous husband uses violence to contain her spirit. 

Very little is explained, for example why the man hit the woman in the title story and why she then was calm with him and met him again. Precisely located in the story’s present, explanations are short or omitted. Sometimes flashbacks move the story on, as in ‘Leah’, where they refer to the woman’s earlier political activism.

I found myself responding strongly to the story called ‘Louise’ where a single mother works as a maid for Madame. Madame lends Louise her blue coat and Louise goes out to meet the man she wants to attract. As she waits for Bob to appear she begins to doubt herself.

Minutes passed, more and more slowly, and time began to drag. It must be lovely to wait when you know that someone is going to turn up, Louise thought to herself. Lowering her head, she went off into a sort of dream. She felt very pretty and very alone. (76)

In this way the author reveals much about Louise, and about her loneliness. The relationship with Bob proves to be an empty and unsatisfying one-night stand. But the experience of wearing Madame’s coat is much more significant and satisfying to Louise.

The novella, ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, follows a new mother who has to evacuate from the hospital immediately her baby is born as the Germans invade, and mother and child leave with the convoys to go to free France. She appears to only go a little further than the Loire, but eventually meets the Germans. This story is based on Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s experiences. As in her other stories, the people who appear are ordinary folk, and the mother with her baby experiences many small acts of kindness and care. She sees the soldiers as the people they are, first those in retreat and later the victorious ones.

I loved her writing, with its bare starkness. I was pleased to have been given a copy to review, because I would not have noticed her otherwise. Thanks to Pushkin Press. I might follow @Heaven_Ali soon by reading one of her two novels.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (2019) Pushkin Press

Translated from French by Faith Evans

Copy provided by Pushkin Press. 224 pp

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women in Translation