Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

Last year I wrote about La Femme de Gilles (1937), an early novella by the Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe. It’s an intensely powerful story of desire, pain and selfless love, all conveyed in the author’s spare yet beautiful prose. When Daunt Books announced they would be reissuing Marie (first published in 1943), Bourdouxhe’s follow-up to Gilles, I knew I wanted to read it. Luckily this book came along at just the right time for me; moreover, it turned out to be a great choice for Women in Translation month which is running throughout August.

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Like its predecessor, Marie focuses on the inner life of a young married woman. As the novella opens, thirty-year-old Marie is on holiday in the Cote d’Azur with her husband of six years, Jean, the man whom she loves with a profound sense of tenderness. One afternoon, while Jean is swimming in the sea, Marie notices a young man on the beach, most probably another holidaymaker; he is lean, tanned and muscular, and Marie is instantly attracted to him. The sight of this youth in his early twenties awakens something in Marie, more specifically ‘the realm of the possible; the fascination and excitement of a new world.’

A day or so later Marie heads out for a walk on her own with the intention of finding the attractive stranger again; it’s not long before she spots him on the beach. Even though the man strikes up a conversation with Marie, words are barely needed; they have already formed a deep connection.

They sit on the sand. They might have gone on talking; about the distant hills that unfold towards the sea, about a white villa the outline of which is visible among the cypresses. But what would have been the point? They know that there is nothing to say. They mutually accept this great silence, and the richness, the sincerity that lies within it. They also know that in that moment they are seeing everything from the same point of view and that, for both of them, that red sail on the sea stands out as clearly, as harshly, as cruelly, as the thing that is deep inside them. (pg. 17-18)

As they prepare to part, the young man gives Marie his phone number back in Paris, the city which is also home to Jean and Marie. As she watches him go, Marie feels completely alone, stranded between two opposing worlds: the safety and security of her life with Jean vs the possibility of new and uncertain experiences ahead.

Back in Paris, life continues as normal for Marie (at least at first) as she occupies her time with housework and the occasional session as a private tutor. Nevertheless, the young man from the beach remains in her thoughts. When Jean goes away on a business trip for a few days, Marie contacts the man. They meet up in a café, walk the streets of Paris for a while and take a room for the night.

To dwell any further on the plot probably isn’t necessary at this stage, plus it might spoil some of the experience of reading the novella itself. While things happen in the story, this isn’t an action-driven narrative; instead the focus is on experience, memories and introspection. As with La Femme de Gilles, Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to her female protagonist’s point of view. This is another richly realised portrait of the inner life of a woman at a pivotal moment in her life. To her friends, family and husband, Marie appears to be content in her marriage. At an early point in the novella, a female friend observes: ‘Marie, you love your husband very deeply; you’ve managed to find complete fulfilment in your love; you are the only one amongst us who really knows what happiness is.’ Internally, however, Marie is far from at ease with herself, as illustrated by the following passage, one that appears later in the book. (Claudine is Marie’s rather melancholy and irresponsible older sister, a very different creature from the intelligent and capable Marie.)

And she’d stay there until the blue light of dawn came through the window. Thrown back on herself, she’d feel quite alone at the heart of a well-worn past – even though she had created such fine things. Jean, Claudine: links that did not want to expire, that tightened their hold in a final struggle as others tried to replace them.

‘Please, please leave me!’ She’d have liked to shout this in all the space around her. How she longed to have neither past nor future! And yet – on the one hand there were these still burning ashes and on the other there was this new thing, this thing that did not yet have a name. Like a warm beast that moved inside her, making its nest. (pg. 85-86)

As Marie reflects on the nature of her position, her mood varies quite significantly. There are instances when she seems lost and dissatisfied with her situation, most notably when a change in Jean’s job forces the couple to move away from Paris for a while. At other times, a brighter Marie emerges, one in tune with her own her solitude and desires in life.

Like its predecessor, Marie is written in an emotive, intense and intimate style. It is a more optimistic novella than La Femme de Gilles, more hopeful but every bit as compelling. In his review in The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard describes Marie as one of the most French novels he has ever read, and I can see what he means. To quote Lezard: ‘the book’s concerns are, to put it broadly, existentialist’.

I really loved this novel; it’s in the running for one of my books of the year. This wonderful story of a young woman’s awakening is played out among the busy streets, cafés and train stations of Paris, a city beautifully evoked by Bourdouxhe’s prose. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that captures the rather dreamlike mood of certain passages in the narrative.

They went up in a very narrow elevator where there was only room for two bodies face to face. Young maids in canvas pinafores, organdie bows in their hair, bright red lips in inscrutable faces, slip like spirits through the deserted corridors, respecting the anonymity, the secrets of every soul, and folding up quilts with vestal movements. Muffled sounds, orders given in low voices, words that turn into mysteries, doors that shut without a sound. The peace and safety of a temple, with all the solemn, human poetry of a lodging house. (pg. 33)

Marie is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

 

76 thoughts on “Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Would love to hear what you think of this writer, Naomi. I’ve been super impressed with both of her books, and this one arrived just in time for #WITMonth. La Femme de Gilles is a little different from Marie; it’s darker and more tragic, but in a way I’m quite glad I started there. Marie has been compared to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (which I’ve yet to try),so I think you would find it a very interesting read.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It does indeed. Faith Evans (Bourdouxhe’s translator) mentions Chopin’s novella in her excellent afterword, likening Marie’s awakening to that of Edna when she swims out into the sea following her first sensual experience with Robert. I really must read it sometime. There’s a collection of Chopin’s work hidden away on my kindle, but I always seem to forget about it when I’m choosing what to read next!

          Reply
      1. BookerTalk

        oh do get to read The Awakening soon – I think you’ll love it given your response to Marie. Its very much an interior novel about a woman trying to determine for herself what her life should be

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’m sure I’ll get to it within the next six months or so as I’ve heard so many positive reports about it. Good to hear you rate it too. This is very much Bourdouxhe’s territory, the interior life of a woman who is trying to find her way in the world. She takes a similar approach in her other novella — La Femme de Gilles — although the context is somewhat different there.

          Reply
          1. BookerTalk

            If you do read her try to get hold of an article which I think is by Susan Gilespie (i will have to check that reference) which looks at The Awakening in the context of the myth of Venus. Let me know if you are interested and I’ll find the reference

            Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I know what you mean about La Femme de Gilles. I loved that book as well, but the ending was particularly haunting. Marie is brighter, more optimistic in its outlook. I think you’d enjoy it a great deal.

      Reply
  1. hastanton

    I am desperate to read this but , believe it or not , I’m having great difficulty tracking it down in France ….her work hasn’t been reissued here ….and I think it may well have a different title in French . Loved La Femne de Gilles and your review makes me want to read Marie even more .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gosh, that’s rather surprising, isn’t it! You’ll have to pick it up whenever you get a chance to nip back to the UK. I feel sure you will love it, Helen. I’ve been wondering whether Bourdouxhe might have something common with writers like Marguerite Duras. I haven’t read enough of her to make a call on that, but Marie feels as if it might be in the same territory/style as The Lover. It’s beautifully written.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I haven’t read much Duras and it was a very long time ago, possibly in my teens or early twenties. In fact I’d forgotten I’d read anything by her until I had a clearout fairly recently! Simone de Beauvoir is another relevant reference point. Reading Faith Evans’ afterword, it seems Bourdouxhe and de Beauvoir were great friends, hanging out with one another in the literary cafes of Paris back in the day. You might remember this as I seem to recall it being covered in the afterword to La Femme de Gilles too

          Reply
          1. hastanton

            That is interesting…..I didn’t know that as I read a french edition of Gilles with no afterforward ….interesting to know as de Beavoirs Les Mandarins is on my TBR also .

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Ah, right! I think you’d find the UK edition very enlightening as it comes with a good 10 pages of afterword, plus it’s beautifully produced! De Beauviour was a big admirer of Bourdouxhe’s work, and the latter gets quite a significant mention in de B’s famous book, La Deuxieme Sexe/The Second Sex. Evans writes of de Beauvoir “She identified two recurring themes in Bourdouxhe’s work: her acute perception of the chasm that that can open up between men and women immediately after the sexual act, and her enduring interest in the special relationship between women and material objects, particularly in the kitchen (‘the nest’).” Both of these themes are present in La Femme de Gilles and Marie, albeit in slight different contexts.

              I’ve never read de Beauvoir but would love to hear more about Les Mandarins as and when you get around to it.

              Reply
                1. hastanton

                  Quick search today ….Marie seems to be out of print in France ! Maybe the interest in UK will lead to its reissue ! That kind of happened with quiet Postman ….Québécois bookshop quite amazed when I came in asking for it a couple of years ago…..had a v plain nondescript cover . I noticed last year it had been reissued with similar cover to uk ! Fingers crossed .

                2. JacquiWine Post author

                  Let’s hope it does lead to a reissue in France as I’m sure it would be a hit over there.

                  Quiet Postman – is that the Denis Theriault novella? I think the UK title was The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. I may have a copy of it somewhere…

                3. hastanton

                  Oops yes , that’s the one I mean ! Tbh I kind of understand the reaction having read it ! I got a 2nd hand copy of his 1st novel Tge Iguana which won a prize in Canada ….thought that was better ….John Irvingish

  2. Brian Joseph

    Once again you seem to find novels populated with interesting characters placed in interesting situations Jacqui.

    I liked that quote that you ended your post with. It is very poetic prose.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Glad you like that final quote. It is rather poetic, isn’t it. I love Boudouxhe’s prose style. I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but these novellas are beautifully written. Quite intimate and dreamlike, which works well over this relatively short distance.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Bourdouxhe is definitely worthy of consideration. The only thing I would say, and you may have noticed this in the quotes, is that she uses a mix of past and present tense in her writing. The majority is written in the past tense, but there are occasional passages in the present, particularly those focusing on the most intimate scenes. I know it might sound odd (and I seem to recall that you’re not a huge fan of this type of thing) but it does work…at least I think so! It’s a way of heightening the intensity which seems to give the scenes in question a sense of immediacy, as though you’re right there in the moment with Marie. She did the same in La Femme de Gilles, and it worked very effectively there too. Anyway, just something to bear in mind.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I thought so, which is why I felt I ought to point it out. That said, I genuinely think it works well within the context of both of these books. A tricky thing to pull off effectively, but then again Bourdouxhe is a very good writer…

          Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I think it would fit the bill, especially given the fact that it’s been compared to Kate Chopin’s novella, The Awakening. (Faith Evans, Bourdouxhe’s translator, makes that point in her excellent afterword.)

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome, Guy – La Femme de Gilles was a great find. Interestingly, the tone is different here; it’s a brighter, more optimistic novella than Gilles, but one can tell that it’s been written by the same author.

      If this one ever makes it to the screen, I could see either Mia Hansen-Løve or her husband, Olivier Assayas, in the director’s chair. The French actress Lola Créton (Goodbye First Love, Something in the Air, Clare Denis’ Bastards) would make the perfect Marie.

      Reply
  3. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Lovely review Jacqui, adding both these to my list, they sound fabulous, I loved Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and love this kind of quiet, reflective novella, they sound like a perfect pair, how great she is being rediscovered and brought out in English.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? I doubt whether I would have discovered this author had it not been for the Daunt Books reissues. I genuinely think you would love Bourdouxhe’s writing, Claire. These books are beautifully written in an intimate, poetic style which suits the subject matter to a tee. Helen was saying that they’re not so easy to track down in France, so you might have to hunt around (or look online for the English versions).

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Yes, I was just out with my daughter and looked in one of the French bookshops but they didn’t have it, oh well, I’ll source the English versions and spread the word a bit more widely in doing so! They sound wonderful!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Rather surprising, isn’t it? I know Bourdouxhe is a Belgian writer, but even so one would expect to find her in the bookshops of France, especially given her links to Simone de Beauvoir and other renowned French writers of the day (Sartre and Raymond Queneau for instance.) Good idea to try to get hold hold of the English versions – the translator’s afterwords are excellent, very enlightening indeed!

          Reply
  4. Annabel (gaskella)

    I picked up a copy of this the other week. It was the cover that attracted (shallow) me, but I’m so glad thanks to your review that what’s inside is just as brilliant. Will definitely try to fit this in for WiT month too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Nothing shallow about that, Annabel. I’m all for an attractive cover too, and this is one of the smartest I’ve seen in a while. Plus it’s a great fit for the story itself, which is always reassuring to see. I thought this was a wonderful little book, an ideal read for a sunny afternoon in the garden. Good idea to try to fit it in before the end of August – I look forward to seeing what you make of it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. It is rather wonderful – evocative is a good description for the style. It’s a bit of a shame that she didn’t write very much during her lifetime. There’s an earlier work, Vacances, but very little else.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not surprised you’ve seen it on display in bookshops as the cover is stunning, so eye-catching. The story does feel more recent, more contemporary than the 1940s, I must admit. It’s an excellent novella. I’m so glad to have discovered this writer.

      Reply
  5. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    How wonderful. The cover of the re issue edition is stunning indeed. I like the sound of this one. A reflection of the protagonist’s life in beautiful words. I am curious why it is called a very French novel in the Gaurdian review. Is it because of the descriptions of places? Or because of passages on characteristic traits in the French people?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s a combination of the mood and focus on existential issues. It’s a little like one of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, the freewheeling spirit of the new wave movement. If you think of films like A Bout de Soufflé, you’ll have a pretty good feel for the style (and the thinking behind Nicholas Lezard’s comments). At least that’s my reading of it. Hope that helps.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That was my thought once I’d finished the novel, although I haven’t read enough of Duras to give an informed view. It leaves me keener than ever to try The Lover…

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    I read this and I know I liked it but reading your review is like reading a review of a book I’ve nove read. Sad. I wonder whether that gas something to do with the length. Do short novels and novellas not stay with us? On the other hand The Awakening that others mentioned and which I must have rad at the same time is still in my memory. But then it’s one if my top ten favorite novels. I’m tempted to reread this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s really interesting. I do wonder how Marie will settle in my memory in say 6 months or a year’s time. It’s light on plot but strong on mood and internal thought, which may lead to it fading in the mind over time. I can recall quite a lot about the other Bourdouxhe I’ve read — La Femme de Gilles — but then again that novella ends with a pretty unforgettable scene. Marie feels more ethereal, more evocative in a way, but it’ll be interesting to see how well it holds up. I’d love to hear your perspective on it should you decide to read it again. It’s very slim so it wouldn’t take too long. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Bourdouxhe’s been a terrific discovery for me, a great writer hidden away from view for so many years. I don’t think it matters which one you start with. If you like the sound of this one then it’s fine to dive straight in. I really think you’d like it.

      Reply
  7. erdeaka

    I don’t think this kind of story is something unusual, since I’ve ever encountered something similar. But it’s still interesting because we have a chance to look into a woman’s heart as she faces a challenge in her life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Bourdouxhe’s themes are not necessarily unique, but it’s the intensely personal nature of the narrative and the quality of the writing that make this novella shine. Describing it as a chance to look into a woman’s heart at a crucial time in her life is a good way of thinking of it. In effect, Marie is at a crossroads here…

      Reply
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  10. lonesomereadereric

    Thanks for pointing this out to me Jacqui. I like the sound of the narrative’s inner, intense voice. Your descriptions of it make it sound like my sort of book. And the cover is excellent – really eye catching!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Eric. I really think you’d like Bourdouxhe’s style. She’s very good when it comes to capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of these women – it’s a prominent feature in both of these novellas, Marie and La Femme de Gilles.

      The cover’s stunning, isn’t it? in fact I should have mentioned it in my review, but Daunt Books have done a brilliant job on the production of these reissues. Beautiful cover images, French flaps, high-quality paper – all in all, they make a great package.

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hooray! What a weird title. I can’t even begin to figure out its significance to the book! You’ll have to let me know how you get on with it.

      Reply
      1. hastanton

        Aaahhh well I wonder if it’s the same one then ?! It’s about someone called Marie with a husband called Jean …Wagram 1749 is a telephone number ……

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, it must be same one. She didn’t write very much, so the chances of her penning another book about Marie and Jean are pretty negligible. The story contains a phone number, so it’s all falling into place now!

          Reply
  12. hastanton

    I finished this yesterday evening . There was a v helpful introduction with my ( french) edition giving some background on both the author and her work . Apparently the books original title was A la Recherche de Marie …..echoing Proust and which kind of makes sense.
    Anyway I loved the book ….not always easy to read in French despite the relatively plain language because of the shifts of POV and jumps in time . So atmospheric too. I really hope this now gets reissued in France with a great new cover !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Delighted to hear you loved it, Helen! Yes, Faith Evans mentions the Proust connection in her afterword to the English edition. I’ve never read Proust, so it’s hard for me to give a view on this. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting link.

      I loved the mood Bourdouxhe created here, such evocative story. Let’s hope a French reissue comes through at some point – I’m sure there would be a market for it.

      Reply
  13. Emma

    I’m catching up with reviews (again)

    I was already very tempted by La femme de Gilles but this one seems even better.
    I wonder how “the most French novel” sounds ! :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Both are excellent, but the tone of this one is more upbeat. Oddly enough though, La Femme de Gilles is the one that has stayed with me the most as the storyline is pretty hard to forget.

      That’s an interesting comment from Nicholas Lezard, isn’t it? I can see what he means by it – if Marie were a film, it would be directed by Mia Hansen-Løve with Lola Créton in the lead role, very French! If you were to asked to think of the most French novel, what would you choose?

      Reply
      1. Emma

        Something with a biting sense of humour and verbal fights and criticism of politics and society. Like Candide, Madame Bovary or something by Virginie Despentes.
        Not something Nouvelle Vague.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s interesting. I wondered about Madame Bovary, the quintessential French classic. Candide is a great choice too. Marie seems much closer to the Nouvelle Vague tradition; it has that kind of feel.

          Reply

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