La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

La Femme de Gilles was Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s debut novel, first published in 1937 when the author was in her early thirties. It centres on a ménage à trois involving Gilles, his wife, Elisa, and her younger sister, Victorine, a timeless story of desire, selfless love and the pain these things can bring.  Bourdouxhe was a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, who praised the novella for its subtle portrayal of the differences between male and female sexuality. An English translation first appeared in 1992, but Daunt Books have given it a new lease of life with this beautiful edition published last year.

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As the novella opens, we find Elisa ‘giddy with tenderness’ as she awaits Gilles’ arrival home from work at the local factory in the Belgian countryside. Deeply in love with her husband and expecting their third child, Elisa wants little more than to care for her family. In doing so, she strives to maintain as comfortable a home as possible. The opening scenes paint an idyllic picture, full of the simple pleasures of life:

He is leaning out of the window again, his mind at once blank and spinning with small thoughts: Sunday tomorrow…the smell of the soup…the beauty of the flowers in the garden. Life is sweet. As he watches Elisa bathing his two little naked daughters in the setting sun, he feels at peace. (pg.9)

Sadly for Elisa, it doesn’t take long for this harmonious existence to fall apart. Shortly before the birth of her baby, she begins to experience a vague sense of unease. Gilles appears unsettled in some way. At first Elisa puts it down to her own condition – after all everything is a little strange when one is heavily pregnant. But one evening, as Gilles is about to go out with Victorine (Elisa’s attractive younger sister), Elisa is a gripped by an acute sense of anxiety. With her back turned on Giles and Victorine, she rummages through her bag for some money.

One by one she fixed her gaze on some of the objects around her, the things that made up her familiar world, then her eyes lit on her own hands as they closed the bag, and she saw they were trembling. Precisely at that moment Elisa knew that behind her back there was another world, a world that was complicated, threatening, unknown. She felt it to be so and she was certain she was not mistaken; she was also certain that it was absolutely essential not to turn round suddenly and confront it. (pg. 18)

This quote is indicative of Elisa’s character. She realises that something is going on between Gilles and Victorine, but rather than addressing it directly, she chooses to remain silent and wait. Even though she is tormented by the thought of the affair, she follows Gilles when he goes out unexpectedly certain in the belief that he must be meeting Victorine. With each new discovery, Elisa hovers between a desperate fear of losing Gilles and a desire to cling to the hope that this phase will pass.

There is that long sequence of days when she anxiously awaits Gilles’ return, days when she is always on the lookout for whatever affection he still feels for her, however small, days when she discovers that he hasn’t been seen at the place where he told her he was going. And there are the nights, indistinguishable from each other, when Gilles is asleep but her suffering keeps her wide awake. She moves her hands towards him, runs them over his skin, leans close to his face very quietly, so as not to wake him: she sniffs out unfamiliar smells on him like a ferreting cat. (pg. 59-60)

At times, Elisa wonders if she should speak frankly to Gilles or to Victorine, to intervene in some way, but she is afraid of losing her husband. Even though the marriage is hanging by a thread, Gilles still comes home to Elisa. ‘As long as he is there, he’s still hers.’

Unable to talk to her sister or to confide in her mother, Elisa turns to the church for guidance. But in place of the comfort and advice she so desperately seeks, she is told to face the trials that God has sent her way. When Gilles finally opens up and confesses, Elisa finds herself in the role of confidante advising her husband on his relationship with Victorine. It’s a strange situation, one that highlights Gilles’ complete inability to appreciate his wife’s anguish, never mind the notion that he might be the cause of it.

La Femme de Gilles can be easily read in two or three hours, but this story has the potential to linger in the mind for much longer. The style is minimalist but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a devastating portrait of a woman isolated in her pain and suffering, in her self-sacrificing love for her husband despite his avaricious desire for her sibling.

There were many ways this excellent novella could have ended, but Bourdouxhe has constructed a forceful conclusion – even though I didn’t see it coming, with the benefit of hindsight it feels painfully inevitable. Rather than saying anything else about it, I’ll finish with a quote on Victorine. In contrast to her honourable, respectable sister, Victorine is rather capricious – a flirtatious creature who retains her angelic demeanour throughout the whole affair. One could describe her as thoroughly amoral.

For Victorine is one of those creatures who have no consciousness of their actions: she parades her irresponsibility throughout her life. One day, simply because Gilles was there, perhaps because it was rather too hot, her flesh desired that man, and she took him. So what? Nothing more in it for Victorine, it stops there. Afterwards it’s a question of trying to make sense of things, sense of life, and life doesn’t touch Victorine, it will never mark her smile or her eyes, which will stay young, clear, innocent for a long time. Unconscious offenders are the most dangerous of criminals. (pgs. 67-68)  

I selected this novella for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. If you’re looking for ideas for #WITMonth, here’s a link to my reviews of translated literature by women writers.

La Femme de Gilles is published in the UK by Daunt Books. Source: personal copy. Book 5/20, #TBR20 round 2.

49 thoughts on “La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

  1. MarinaSofia

    Ah, this one would have fitted in perfectly with my ‘love triangles and sisters’ theme. I suspect the conclusion, no matter what it is, is rather grim – there just can’t be a happy ending with one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it would be perfect for that theme if you’re interested in reading another along those lines. It’s an excellent book, very powerful – and you’re right, there’s no happy ending here…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I doubt whether I’d have discovered this author without the Daunt Books edition as the cover caught my eye when I was browsing last year. I really like Bourdouxhe’s prose style, too – nothing too showy, just very clear and effective.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, Elisa internalises everything, and it’s so painful to watch as the story moves towards its conclusion. I couldn’t resist that final quote as it says such a lot about Victorine’s character and the contrast with Elisa. Sisters can be so different from one another…

      Reply
  2. poppypeacockpens

    Great review, as ever… it’s got be ‘needing’ to know what happens; ‘absolutely essential not to turn round and confront it’ speaks volumes, but yes like Marina says a grim ending is inevitable. Definitely going to look out for this one as I’ve just started Simone de Beauvoir ‘s She Came to Stay so would be great to compare…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. How timely! This is a book for you, definitely – I think you’d love it. Yes, Elisa needs to know what’s going on between Gilles and Victorine, but she cannot bring herself to confront it head on. There are so many points during the story where she could say something to Gilles, but instead she decides to remain silent.

      As you say, it would be fascinating to compare with Simone de Beauvoir, whom I’ve never read (not yet, anyway). Are you planning to review She Came to Stay? I hope so.

      Reply
      1. poppypeacockpens

        I’m definitely intrigued (and frustrated) by Elisa’s silence – and that she ends up counselling Gilles… aaarrrggghh But know it’s often the case!

        Yes hoping to review most, if not all, of my #WITMonth reads… but how & when still elusive!

        Mind, husband is taking kids away for long weekend – 4 days home alone!!! Bliss!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I know, the counselling scenes will test your patience as you’ll almost certainly want to grab hold of Elisa and give her a good shake.

          Excellent, I look forward to hearing more about your #WITMonth reads. Enjoy the long weekend, plenty of reading time ahead. :)

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they’ve published some very interesting books recently. I also like the look of Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, which came out a month or two ago (another stunning cover). As for the Bourdouxhe, it’s quite an affecting little story. I loved the clean, direct prose style.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui – I had been circling this one, thinking it sounded a little like de Beauvoir (and also Sagan’s “A Certain Smile” which I just read and which is told from a different point of view!) I do wonder about the present tense, though – I’m not always comfortable with that kind of prose.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I wondered if this one might be on your radar. It’s excellent, and I think you would like the themes and prose style (tenses aside). Bourdouxhe’s use of tense is very interesting, and the translator’s afterword includes a few notes on it. The novel is mostly written in the past tense, but the author uses the historic present for several extended passages, particularly the most intense moments. I think it works here because it gives these scenes a sense of immediacy as though you’re right there in the moment with Elisa. The prose flows very well, so much so that after a while I almost didn’t notice the switches between tenses.

      Oh, and I hope you’ll review the Sagan – I’d like to hear more. :)

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        Thanks Jacqui – that’s all useful to know. Yes, a review of the Sagan will follow eventually – I am a little behind….!

        Reply
  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I think all three characters would drive me a bit crazy with their actions, but from your quotes, it sounds like the upheaval is dealt with rather quietly. Very intriguing, especially with the unhappy ending you hinted at! I love the cover of your edition, and I’m happy to see that used copies are available in the U.S.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can understand that! There are times when you just want to intervene to try and set things on a different course. I really felt for Elisa, though, as she doesn’t appear to have anything in her life other than Gilles and her sister. She can’t speak to her mother, and there’s no close friend for her to confide in. For the most part, it’s a very quiet, introspective novel, but I’m not going to say anything else about the ending!

      Great cover, isn’t it? The image really attracted me to the story.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Melissa! Oh, I love novellas – there’s something very satisfying about being able to read a complete book in a couple of hours. I would definitely recommend this one.

      Reply
  5. Naomi

    I’m so curious now about how it ends – I will have to see if there is any way to get my hands on a copy of this book around here.
    Knowing that it is her sister, makes it seem that much more awful…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sorry, I’ve included just enough to tempt you! The thing is, Victorine just doesn’t seem to give a second’s thought to her sister’s feelings. It’s quite staggering…

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        II like the subtle way you managed that without giving too much away. That is ver hard to do, as I am discovering with a book I’m wrestling with at the moment!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks. It can be quite difficult to know where to draw the line, but I’m glad you think I’ve got it about right here. I’m going to face a similar challenge with a collection of short stories I’m reading right now, especially as some of them are only one or two pages long!

          I hope you manage to find a way forward with your review!

          Reply
  6. Scott W

    I just finished Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier – this sounds almost as though it could be an appendage to it! I’ve never before heard of the author. Kudos to the publisher for keeping the French title, and how nice to discover that Daunt is more than just a book retailer (I took a look at the publishing arm site – beautiful editions indeed!).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked The Good Soldier very much – it made my end-of-year highlights last year. Are you planning to review it? I hope so.

      The Bourdouxhe isn’t in quite the same league as the Ford Madox Ford (which to be fair sets a very high benchmark!) but you’re right, it address similar territory. The title is interesting, and there’s a note about it in the translator’s excellent afterword. It was a conscious decision on the part of Bourdouxhe to use the word “femme” as opposed to “épouse”. She wanted to convey the dual meaning as Elisa has to be both woman and wife of Gilles. But once Gilles and Victorine begin their affair, Elisa is no longer his woman and his wife in name only. I think Bourdouxhe wanted to tap into those different interpretations of the word “femme”, hence the decision to retain the French title.

      Yes, it’s a beautiful edition: a smart cover design, French flaps, that type of thing. The Daunt Books list is very tempting – I quite like the look of Sylvia by Leonard Michaels. And I love their bookshops – the one in Marylebone is dangerously close to the place one of my clients uses for business meetings!

      Reply
  7. Caroline

    I’ve read a few of her novels but sadly cannot remember much. I know though that it made an impression at the time. I think I liked “Marie” better. Not sure it’s available in English. I loved the mood of this. I didn’t even notice they had kept the French title. My brain just switches automatically and I don’t notice. I guess you don’t have this distinction in English. Femme and épouse is interchnageable but femme has other meanings, while wife is only épouse and Gilles’ woman would have meant something entirely different. When you call someone “femme” it’s still pretty clear that they are married. Not so if you use “homme” – that’s another thing entirely. You’d have to choose between mari and époux.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved the mood as well. There’s a terrible sense of foreboding from quite an early stage, and yet it never feels overly dramatic. I’m glad they kept the French title. As you say, “femme” has more than one meaning, and there isn’t a neat way of translating that subtlety into English, not in a single word anyway.

      I’d love to read another by Bourdouxhe. In fact, Daunt Books got in touch via Twitter to say they’ve got another from her coming next summer. No details yet, but I’m hoping it might be the one you recall, Marie. (It has been translated by the same translator, Faith Evans.)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed. I’m not sure I could keep everything inside like that. She’s incredibly patient with Gilles while he seems utterly oblivious to her pain.

      Reply
  8. Guy Savage

    Hello Jacqui: Don’t know what is going on w/wordpress this week but I haven’t received many posts.
    I read this after seeing the film (which is recommended btw). I have a thing about the book-film connection. Used to be very picky and insisted on reading the book first, but I’m no longer so inflexible. I didn’t read through all the comments to see if anyone asked you about the film, but if you get a chance to see it, grab that dvd.
    I read this several years ago, and you’re right, it does linger in the mind. I wish more of her work was translated.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Guy. WordPress notifications can be a bit flaky every now and again! I think I may have missed out on some posts this week as well.

      I’m glad you’ve mentioned the film as I noticed it had been adapted for the screen but wasn’t sure whether it was any good or not. (It struck me as the type of story that could work on the stage although I don’t know if it’s ever been turned into a play.) Anyway, sounds as though the DVD is well worth a look – thanks for that. Did you review La Femme de Gilles? I’ll head over to yours to take a look.

      As for this author’s other work, Daunt Books got in touch with me via twitter to say they’ve got another Bourdouxhe coming next summer. No details yet, but I’m wondering if it might be the one that Caroline liked: ‘Marie’.

      Reply
  9. Lady Fancifull

    This sounds remarkably interesting – though I fear you are yet another blogger with designs on sending my TBR even more out of control than it currently is. having had a quick look at some of what you are urging upon us with interesting reviews I’m feeling very nervous indeed. …….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked this novella very much. She holds you quite close to Elisa’s point of view, and there’s something quite powerful about that.

      Ha – yes, that’s one of the upsides/downsides of following a range of different book bloggers. There’s always something to tempt you!

      Reply
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  11. Max Cairnduff

    That sounds simply fantastic, if horribly painful. Interesting they didn’t translate the title – Gilles’ woman – I note Caroline’s rather interesting comments but it captures a sense of possession and identity wrapped up in another. It’s a brutal title in its own way.

    Anyway, straight on the list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hooray! Yes, go for this over the Costello, Max. In a different year it would have made my highlights list, but I read so many great books last year that I struggled to find a place for this one. Oddly enough, I was reminded of it when I read Simenon’s The Widow earlier this year as there are similarities in a couple of areas.

      Yes, interesting background on the title – I quite like the fact they kept the French version.

      Reply
  12. adrian lord

    The French Title “La Femme de Gilles” is used for the English Translation which is very unhelpful for anyone who wants to find the wonderful French Original.

    Reply
  13. Pingback: Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans) | JacquiWine's Journal

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