Sometime last year I read and loved Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, about Diski’s trip through America on Amtrak, and I’ve read many of her essays over the years, but I had never read her fiction. At the end of last year, I ordered several of her novels, and the first one I took up was her Apology for the Woman Writing, a historical novel about Marie de Gournay and Michel de Montaigne.
I read over half of the novel without bothering to check if Marie de Gournay actually existed (she did), and whether any of the story of her relationship with Montaigne was true or not (it was, it wasn’t), because Diski’s questions, as posed through her story, were infinitely more interesting to me. Later, the fact/fiction question does become relevant, and this adds another layer onto my appreciation for what Diski does in the novel.
Apology for the Woman Writing is a novel of ambition. And more to the point, of a woman’s ambition. It is the story of Marie, who falls in love with books and learning at a young age, but who is never able—because her nobleman father dies and the family subsequently loses most of their money—to enjoy or develop herself within that love of learning. Books, intelligence, and writing become a secret place for her, but, and this is very important for what happens to her, this intellectual space begins as and is constantly reinforced as a place of antagonism against the rest of the world. She loves these things against the wishes or understanding of her family, and later, of society.
Plot wise, the book is about how Marie falls especially in love with the recently published Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Her reaction to his work can only be described as cataclysmic. It is so violent that her family believes she has lost her mind. Her mother’s reaction is excellent:
It was quite clear to Jeanne that those wretched, godless books had finally worked their evil on Marie, and that her solitary life in the library with nothing but words as companions had driven her to melancholy madness.
And a few lines later, finally Marie speaks – a line which made me laugh out loud:
“I am not ill, Maman,” she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. “It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.”
I love how over-the-top Diski is here – a nod, I think, to the melodrama of romances of the era, but also, for a reader, an undeniably true statement. What genuine reader has not felt ravished at some point by a book? By something utterly new and wonderful that comes through from the written word, directly to you. Reading is so incredibly intimate. It is a communion between the book and the reader. And in this case, because Montaigne was writing in this radical new form, taking himself as the subject and writing so freely about his musing thoughts, Marie becomes in a sense imprinted on him. And from this, only tragedy can ensue.
And it does, again and again. What I’ve written above about Marie makes her appear a sympathetic character. She is not, however, and for this Diski repeatedly impressed me. Marie is awful. She is proud and self-important, and she’s consistently delusional. She uses emotional blackmail to avoid censure, she continues to connive and strive to become what she wants to be: une femme de lettres. Diski’s fictional discussion around all of this is nuanced—how much is Marie simply a horrible person? How much is our perspective of her colored through the eyes of the men who are her inevitable gatekeepers? Could she have been different if born a man, or born into wealth? There are no easy answers.
As a piece of fiction, Apology for the Woman Writing has some odd bumps and rough edges, but as a book of ideas, it’s a delight. I love the liberties that Diski takes with Montaigne and de Gournay, I love the moments of insight into human nature that crop up in so many scenes, and I love the way she plays with the idea of a great writer (Montaigne) adopting a would-be writer (Marie) and the parallel this has to Diski’s own life.
I’ll finish with one of my favorite passages – written from the point of view of Marie’s maid (a fascinating character I didn’t go into) as she thinks about the difference between Marie and Michel de Montaigne, and it sums up one of the book’s salient questions:
It was not the differences in their wealth, or not that alone. Nor in their education. It was not even simply that he was a man and she was a woman, though that difference was implacable. It was that he possessed — and had been freely given — the mind, the talent, the originality: everything that was needed to make, and to seem not to try hard to make, what he wanted of himself. She was so exposed, no padding, just the near-transparent skin and bone of her desire chafing constantly against the raw wind and weather of her lack of what she needed in order to be what she knew was her true self.
Any suggestions of where I should go next with Diski’s fiction?