Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘modernism’

Cette double identité ravit Françoise : moitié homme, moitié femme. A la fois le dandy décadent et la grande dame du monde, reçue partout comme chez elle, entourée de princesses de son rang et des colliers de perles à son cou. L’image qui collera à sa légende est déjà contenue dans son nom, car c’est un nom qui dit que l’on peut conduire, les pieds nus et vernis, des voitures de sport, que l‘on peut perdre au casino et demander au portier vingt sacs pour rentrer chez soi, que l’on aimera des hommes et des femmes parce que ce qui compte, c’est d’aimer, pas forcément d’aimer bien, mais d’aimer fort. En choisissant ce nom, elle choisit tout ce qui arrive, tout ce qui approche, à grands pas, comme l’ombre de l’ogre se projette peu à peu sur le mur dans les histoires pour enfants.

(This dual identity delights Françoise: half man, half woman. Both the decadent dandy and the great lady of the world, made to feel at home wherever she goes, surrounded by princesses of her rank and draped with pearl necklaces. The image that will stick to her legend is already contained in her name, because this is a name that says: drive your sports car with your bare feet and painted toenails, go ahead and lose at the casino and then ask the doorman for twenty bags to take home, it’s a name that says you will love men and love women because all that matters is loving, not necessarily loving well but loving fiercely. In choosing this name, she chooses everything that will happen, everything that is drawing near, looming larger and larger, like in a children’s story when the shadow of the ogre cast on the wall begins to loom.)

This excerpt is from Anne Berest’s 2014 book, Sagan 1954, which I have recently finished, and which relates in semi-fictional form the year that a very young Françoise Sagan published her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse. This section is the end of a few pages explaining how Sagan chose her pseudonym and it covers the phone book, Proust, and several fantastic & willed coincidences. Berest’s book is excellent, and has inspired me to re-read Bonjour Tristesse, along with more of Sagan’s works. Berest intertwines anecdotes of her own life with her imagining of Sagan’s life-changing year, reminding me (in the best possible way) of Kate Zambreno’s work as well as Lydie Salvayre’s Sept Femmes on Bronte, Tsvetaeva, Woolf, Colette, Plath, Bachmann and Barnes.

Et je pensais que tout autour de moi vivait d’une vie mystérieuse et intense. Tout le monde avait des secrets. Tout le monde semblait en savoir plus long que moi. Je jouais à un jeu que je ne comprenais pas.

(And I felt that all about me churned a mysterious and intense life. Everyone had secrets. Everyone seemed to know more than me. I was playing at a game that I didn’t understand.)

Thus speaks the narrator of Elsa Triolet’s 1946 novel, Personne ne m’aime, which chronicles the life (and surrounding times) of two women in 1939 Paris, following their situation until 1945. This is pre-war Paris and occupied France placed under a microscope, detailed for the reader by Anne-Marie, who begins as an ordinary woman with no feeling for politics, no desire for anything but the bourgeois life she was born into.

That will change slowly as the novel unfolds, but Triolet makes it very clear that there are no instant heroes in wartime.

Through the proximity of their families, Anne-Marie was raised as kind of older sister to another woman, Jenny Borghèze, ten years her junior. When the novel opens in 1939, Anne-Marie is 37 years old and has returned from colonial France to Paris to establish a residence for her family who are meant to be joining her soon after. That won’t happen because of the war, but no one knows this yet—and this separation from her husband and two children is a fascinating element of the novel. So Anne-Marie visits Jenny, who has become a famous film star (she is likened to Greta Garbo so we understand her renown), and the women’s deep friendship is renewed. To the point that Jenny insists Anne-Marie move in with her in her vast apartment near Trocadero. And from here the novel takes flight.

Parties and love affairs (for Jenny), a new movie about to be released in which Jenny plays Joan of Arc, and the stifling atmosphere of pre-war Paris as the intellectuals and celebrities choose their sides for and against fascism. Jenny is outspokenly anti-Fascist but a very difficult person, while Anne-Marie refuses to even acknowledge the question but is generous, loving, intelligent. This juxtaposition is where the novel hinges, where it opens up a ragged line of inquiry on heroics, on wartime behavior. Something that Triolet, who was active in the French resistance, knew much about.

The novel contains a big event that I can’t mention here without giving the entire book away, but the event essentially breaks the novel into two distinct parts, and the second half sees Anne-Marie in a subtly-done and realistic awakening. She can no longer absent herself from what is happening around her. Triolet’s Anne-Marie is one of the best kinds of ordinary women: flawed but strong, sometimes deluded but always intelligent. Even her age – nearing 40 – is an interesting choice. More than anything, Anne-Marie is compassionate. Her compassion, and how it wanes and changes and evolves, is really the theme of the book, and this question already cited in the title – No one loves me – is repeated and examined and eventually enlarged to consider not just the women in the book but all of France, all of humanity. Who loves who in wartime? Who actually loves at all?

Anne-Marie’s story is continued in a second novel, Les Fantômes Armés, which was published in 1947.



I’ve now had some time to think about Kate Zambreno’s Heroines a bit more and I’d like to add to what I wrote about in my first post. This is definitely the kind of book that stays with you and provokes discussion, from several different angles.

Last week I wrote mostly about my overall response to the book, how it is put together and how its structure affected my reaction to Zambreno’s project. I also summed up what I felt was the main point of the book, and I still believe that this overall point—this idea of women’s literary voices being systematically erased in a very particular way— is really what makes Heroines a fascinating and successful piece of literary history/criticism. Zambreno also writes so compellingly about the women writers and/or spouses of those successful male writers—she gives them histories and bodies, she fleshes out their presence alongside their successful partners, she invites us, as readers, to look backward at the literary canon and start over again, reading forward with a new perspective. We’ve had to do this before and we’ll have to do it again, and it is always an exciting moment.

Today, though, I’d like to write about the more personal reaction I had to Heroines. Obviously, every book elicits a “personal” reaction, so this is a little bit different… and perhaps a little harder to write about. Somehow the nature of Zambreno’s narrative, the way she mixes her own personal memoir into her re-drawing of the “modernist wives” seems, at least to me, to be what is polarizing opinion about the book. And in a way, my reaction to the book—although by the time I turned that last page was almost completely positive—my reaction to the book embodies both extremes.

Zambreno puts a lot of herself into the book, including numerous anecdotes about her private life—her relationship with her partner, her worries as a writer and an academic, interactions she has with other women, and how she felt alienated as a “trailing spouse” as she and her partner moved to different places to follow his work. Most of this information is front-loaded into the book, by around page 100 it drops out significantly and the rest of Heroines focuses almost completely on the women Zambreno is championing.

In those early pages, however, much of her story revolves around a kind of tension between herself and her partner—she puts herself into the role of the erased modernist wife, and so by default her partner must play the role of the oppressive successful man. Zambreno does admit that she makes him into a character, and to some extent she admits that she herself is reveling/wallowing in the role she gives herself. She later calls it a form of “memorializing”—a very interesting idea, but one I’m not quite comfortable with.

While reading those early pages of Heroines, it was hard for me to keep a critical distance as I have lived and continue to live a similar situation. On paper, at least. I’m about her age, I’m a writer, I considered working toward a Phd but decided at the time that it wasn’t right for me. Like Zambreno, who appears ambivalent about her unfinished academic status, this is a decision I still sometimes regret. My husband, however, is an academic (a physicist) and I followed him all the way to Switzerland because his job is more stable, more financially sound. As a writer who happens to be a woman, as a relatively new mom who has found herself without many hours of productive writing/working time, I struggle with many of the issues Zambreno touches on throughout the book.

Despite these similarities, or rather, I think, because of them, I found myself unsettled with the way she puts herself and her partner into the oppressed/oppressor roles. Not because I don’t believe that this can’t happen, but because in Zambreno’s case it felt somehow self-imposed. It felt like she wanted to be in these roles because it brought her closer to the women she so admired and wanted to save. I couldn’t help thinking about how dissimilar her life could have been (or is, I really have no idea), and about how much opportunity she appears to have had. Frankly, I can’t quite think of anything more free, more empowering, than an open schedule and full access to an academic library.

I say this last sentence somewhat flippantly, yet knowing how crippling the self-doubt of a (woman) writer/academic can be, knowing how difficult it is to find your own fictional/critical voice when the models are overwhelmingly male and knowing how enraging the perpetuation of certain gender roles in writing/publishing/academia—I know these things, I don’t want to minimize the issues that must be negotiated.

She addresses this issue of role playing rather quickly and a little obliquely, toward the end of Heroines when she makes a comment about Second Wave feminists and their requirement that women write and be empowered heroines. And there is some idea—which Zambreno mentions in an interview—that I should be reading the book like a novel and not a memoir. So then my quibble is not so much with the “truth” of Zambreno’s story but with the form of the book and this mixture of criticism/biography/memoir. Does her own story inform my understanding and reactions to the stories of the silence modernist wives? I think—and I think this after days of thinking, and rereading—that it does not. Simply because while I found her book incredibly intelligent and her writing and ideas a real pleasure to read, I found myself becoming impatient with the “character” of Kate Zambreno as she was written in Heroines.

But I am still thinking about this… about what my reaction might mean in terms of my own feminism, how I judge other women as they handle the difficulties that all women writers face compared to how I handle them, how I feel about the stereotype of the irrational woman and why I feel that way.

So I am still re-reading, and I am still thinking…

This may end up being one of my last book/reading posts of the year, so it is a happy coincidence that I’ll finish up by writing about Kate Zambreno’s Heroines – a book I only recently came across (thank you Anthony) but which speaks to so much of what I’ve been thinking about in recent years – namely literature and women and women’s writing and its place in/displacement from the canon. This entire year here at Pieces was dedicated to reviewing women writers and a feminist approach to the whole literary universe.

I think my reaction to Heroines is going to take a few separate posts – I have a lot to discuss. So today is just one initial reaction. I’ll try to get the others written up before the end of the week (although my daughter’s daycare is closed now until the 7th of January – I am not unaware of the irony of this fact keeping me from writing again more quickly about this particular book).

Before I say anything else, I will say that Heroines is a Before/After book, meaning that reading it has broken my literary perspective into a “Before I read Heroines” and an “After I read Heroines.” I will not be able to look at that long line of canonized male writers in the same way ever again, nor will I be able to make the same assumptions about the women who were connected with them and women writers in general – and I want to send a huge heartfelt thank you to Zambreno for doing this. I’ve always been aware of the sad exclusion of so many wonderful and talented female writers from the canon and other generalized literary discussions, but she’s gotten me to think about why this happens in a very particular way.

In brief, Heroines is a hybrid work: part criticism, part literary biography, part personal memoir. Zambreno is interested in the “modernist wives,” women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, Jane Boyles, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sylvia Plath, and, to some extent, Virginia Woolf and a handful of others. Women who were used as muses for their famous spouses but forbidden their own artistic expression, often diagnosed as mentally unstable and eventually silenced and/or institutionalized.

Just a few words on the hybrid form of the book before I write about the content. This kind of fractured nontraditional narrative is beginning to feel more and more comfortable (and Zambreno makes a case for it as a particularly feminine form of writing – an idea which I found quite interesting), and I think that as postmodern readers we have come to enjoy it—I certainly do—and also expect it. The book as a whole feels very accessible, and yet it remains rigorously academic as well.

In her acknowledgments, Zambreno thanks her editor for supporting the idea that we should not be “erasing the self in our criticism.” It’s obviously something she thought a lot about – how to put herself into the book, how to structure the narrative while keeping herself woven through it. This, I think, is where the book will be contested. It is where she minimizes (on purpose, by invoking her own fragility) her writer’s authority, and it puts her in a vulnerable place. I am still working out my own reaction to it.

One thing I can say now, however, is that I think the book’s blog-like structure, with the reader following along as Zambreno makes all these connections and bridges, jumping from subject to subject and exploring the various writings, biographies and other disjointed textual and anecdotal evidence on the lives of her heroines and their connections to her, means that some of her overriding arguments and ultimate conclusions become hidden at the end of the book – and this is a bit of shame, because they’re brilliant.

I’m not arguing for a traditionally structured work of academic criticism, not at all, but an awareness of the risks inherent in this kind of jumping, fractured, and personalized narrative – and then somehow the ability to undercut it, to insure the reader doesn’t get lost in the mix of personal and academic, to get right away to the heart of the argument.

Which is this – and it’s undeniable and brilliant:

That a male writer’s emotional excess/singular artistic focus is glorified and lauded, it becomes his genius, his ability to embody the other, his “transcendence of the self” – while a woman experiencing/attempting the same is diagnosed and institutionalized, it becomes her madness, her inability to live in normal society, her loss of reason.

Zambreno fills the book with examples – Scott Fitzgerald actually using lawyers to keep Zelda from writing (his case is nearly the most egregious, I may never be able to read him again), Virginia Woolf’s carefully allotted writing time (by doctors and Leonard) – no more than an hour a day, Flaubert lecturing Louise Colet against excess, Robert Lowell idolizing then demonizing his women as he fell in and out of love, and more and more, example after example… the book is composed of interwoven case studies of this kind of violence/oppression and the denial of the worth of a woman’s artistic creation.

 So overall, what Zambreno puts forward is an extremely compelling idea – and a way to re-envision what have been considered “minor” works and place them back on equal footing with similar novels and poems and stories created by male writers all along. This, to me, is the greatest contribution that Heroines makes to the literary discussion.

I’ll have more to say about the book – specifically about the personal part of the narrative and about Zambreno’s romanticism of the silenced woman writer (a romanticism she acknowledges and addresses), and about the different feminist approaches to the problem of the female writer, approaches which fascinate me and provoke a lot of questions – but I’ll have to do it another day. More soon.



Although I mentioned in my earlier post that The Voyage Out was similar to a typical coming-of-age novel, let me give that idea a bit more nuance by tracing the storyline for a moment. In pure story, my statement is true – young Rachel accompanies her aunt and uncle on a journey to South America and in the course of that journey she falls in love and comes to understand one of the great mysteries of life, namely, what will society and what will one man in particular expect from her as she makes the transition from childhood to adulthood.

On the surface of things, this is timeless literary fare. But this is also Virginia Woolf and I think it is the details, the specific Woolfian twist, that makes all the difference.

First, the characters are all very close to being eccentric, without being exactly so.  They are almost types: Mr. Ambrose the doddering erudite scholar, the young, unfinished Rachel, Mrs. Ambrose the wise older woman, and Hirst, the pompous academic. There are many, many more. But then each is endowed with such particular, distinct, and sometimes bizarre thinking.

And life, what was that? It was only a light passing over the surface and vanishing, as in time she would vanish, though the furniture in the room would remain. Her dissolution became so complete that she could not raise her finger any more, and sat perfectly still, listening and looking always at the same spot. It became stranger and stranger. She was overcome with awe that things should exist at all…She forgot that she had any fingers to raise…The things that existed were so immense and so desolate.

Why was it that relations between different people were so unsatisfactory, so fragmentary, so hazardous, and words so dangerous that the instinct to sympathise with another human being was an instinct to be examined carefully and probably crushed?

She had now reached one of those eminences, the result of some crisis, from which the world is finally displayed in its true proportions.

Woolf allows her characters to meander and wonder, to question their reality. So much so that their reflections on the state of their world begin to undermine the novel’s seemingly traditional structure. As the story unravels, it starts to become quite clear that this isn’t just Rachel’s story at all. It is everyone’s story, and although each of their stories may not get equal weight, each of their given moments are equally weighty.

And then Woolf upends everything with a final, jarring twist. I think this was the aspect of The Voyage Out that I most enjoyed. Just as I was getting comfortable with Woolf’s wonderfully different version of a young woman’s coming-of-age, she takes that away and offers a radical and almost completely unexpected* alternative. Suddenly, the book is about everything but Rachel. Very clever. All those searching questions become more relevant.

I am coming to realize that this Woolf project will not really ever be complete until I’ve read these novels several times. I’m only just ready to begin Night and Day, and already I want to go back and reread The Voyage Out to catch all that I missed. But all things in their order…I’ll get there, it may just take a few years.

*The foreshadowing about what will eventually happen to Rachel is excellent. It happens about a hundred pages before the end, and it comes from the perspective of Mrs. Ambrose. Although it is pretty high-handed, Mrs. Ambrose is given to extreme thinking so it doesn’t necessarily overwhelm the reader. And it is one of the novel’s most poetic moments.