Author Picks

 

 

The French writer and feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous urged women to be thieves of language as well as to fly with language. The French language very conveniently offers such a beautiful semantic overlap as the word voler means both to steal and to fly. Cixous also coined the term écriture feminine (feminine writing) to refer to a new kind of women’s writing that emerges from a place of embodiment and at the intersection between female sexuality and creativity. Since women have been relegated for so long to the margins of language and history, Cixous urges us to create new languages and histories that speak of and testify to our particular experience in the world and thus transform our marginal status into one of equality with the male created languages and histories.  

 

Such innovative discourse has been brilliantly illustrated by many women writers of this and the past century. The five books I have chosen, all written by women writers, have one thing in common: they all innovate at the level of voice, style and narrative structures and illustrate each in their own very particular voice, a radical departure from the traditional novel, its linear chronologies, and traditional realism while creating empowered female characters and being both thieves of language and flying with it.

 


 

The Lover by Marguerite Duras


L’Amant (The Lover) by Marguerite Duras is the novel of a first smoldering love. The story flows in sinuous and sensuous prose with urgency and raw passion and yet with halting pauses that seem to reflect stylistically the one breathtaking sentence at the beginning of the novel: “Very early in my life it was already too late.” And thus the narrative itself seems to either race time in anticipatory episodes or recapture it in breathless flashbacks. It is a love born at crossroads of cultures, class and empires between a teenage French girl growing up in French Indochina at the margin of poverty and a Chinese man from an established wealthy family. Told at times in breathless syncopated rhythms, the narrative moves unpredictably in spiraling trajectories between the first person voice of a past that erupts petulantly into the present, and a third person point of view that looks at the past from the point nearest to the author’s own life at the time of the telling. Marguerite Duras wrote this novel with autobiographical echoes late in her life. The only relevant narrative time is that of the act of remembering itself, and of the story that unfolds as if of its own will. The haunting image of the young girl crossing the Mekong river wearing her mother’s silk dress, a man’s hat and a pair of sequin shoes recurs like a musical refrain throughout the novel and is tangled up with the image of the Chinese man crying for love, the chaos of a dysfunctional family with secrets of abuse, a mother at the edge of madness, and again and again the irrepressible flow of desire like the flow of the river that sweeps everything in its passage. Desire and memory are filtered through a lucid conscience and a heartbreakingly luminous style. Not one word is amiss or in excess in this story of a young woman coming of age and “coming into writing” (the title of one of Cixous’s works about women’s writing). All the fractured pieces of memory that build the story in tours and detours come together in the apotheosis of a Chopin sonata that soars at night under the moonlight and blends with the sobs of the heroine on the ship that takes her to France. In the end, with Marguerite Duras it’s all about the languagestolen and flying, burning and recreating itself like the phoenix in an irreverent cycle of life, death and burning desire.    
         

 


 

Chéri by Colette

 

Chéri, by the often neglected French writer of the Belle Époque period Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, spins an unconventional love story between the almost fifty years old Lea, one of the most famous Parisian courtesans of the time and Chéri, a capricious and spoiled young man of twenty five, the son of Lea’s best friend. Brimming with delightful details of the prosperous prewar era, unabashed in its lush descriptions of Lea’s environment and her love affair with the irresistible Chéri, Colette’s novel illustrates what some critics have called “a smiling humanism,” a luminous yet melancholy Epicureanism while capturing with honesty and sensitivity the complexities of a highly unconventional relationship between an older woman and a younger man: Lea’s swan song. Echoing Colette’s own experience in vaudeville and theater, the novel is alive with witty dialogue and an array of picturesque characters from the Parisian milieu of courtesans and bohemians. The wrenching and inevitable breakup between the two lovers doomed by their age difference and Cheri’s marriage with a young woman chosen for him and whom he does not love, concludes the novel in a contained sob with Lea rushing to the window of her boudoir to see the last of Chéri as he walks out into the spring air amidst the blooming chestnut trees, breathing like “an escapee.” A story as perfectly strung in its small details and large gestures as Lea’s luscious string of pearls, a proud memento from one of her previous conquests and much coveted by Chéri himself. It took a woman writer of the Belle Époque to challenge traditional representations of erotic love, gender roles and female desire in a well-controlled swirl of stolen language.

 


 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

 

The Bell Jar by the poet Sylvia Plath remains for me a masterpiece, an uncompromising feminist memorialistic novel written with unforgiving irony and a haunting voice. Tracing half a year in the protagonist’s/author’s twentieth year, the voice of The Bell Jar slices directly to the core of the misery and tragicomedy that is the condition of a brilliant woman artist in the compulsively patriarchal world of the fifties. Plath makes a sharp and brilliant sword of depression and anger as she denounces the misogyny of the world she moves in, and as she describes her suicide attempt, with chilling detail as if looking at herself from a distance, with a face that seems to be half laughing, half crying. This face appears also as a sinister foreboding of Plath’s own suicide on that cold and merciless day in February 1963.

 

Finding herself in New York City the “Queer, sultry summer, the day they electrocuted the Rosenbergs,” Esther, the protagonist of the novel, moves through the New York crowds, parties, office work at a fashion magazine like a stranger to her own life, like the “eye of a tornado,” “dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” Yet the way Sylvia Plath really flies with language is through her merciless irony directed at herself and the world around her, its phoniness and pretense of caring, its ruthless race for some measure of success. Sentences and words fly and roll with delicious irreverence in a stream of consciousness narrative that moves effortlessly from the boredom and frustrations of her summer internship experience, to memories of her teachers or her family life, to an awkward and short lived dating period with a pre-med student, and most poignantly her suicide attempt, followed by shock therapy, psychoanalysis, and time spent in a mental institution. With the last image of the book as she opens the door to leave the institution, I cannot help but think back to the moment in the book when rejecting any idea of marriage she says “I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.” The power of Sylvia Plath’s language and its raw yet beautifully chiseled honesty has certainly catapulted this novel into literary history “like colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”

 


 

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi

 

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta is a cross-genre novel/epic poem/monologue which tells the wrenching story of a young girl traveling with her family of circus actors across the world after having escaped or been thrown out of their native Romania. The image of the itinerant circus performers becomes like an aggregate symbol of all loitering refugees. Veteranyi's dramatic poem or novel is written from the perspective of the young girl terrified of the possibility of the death of her mother whose circus act is to hang by her hair in the trapeze. The fractured and dreamy narrative is held together by the crystal clear and perky voice of the young girl.


Veteranyi’s style is a superb illustration of exilic writing that tells the story of a wildly nomadic and disrupted existence in disjointed syntax and narrative that in turn seem to attempt and simultaneously fail at making sense of language and the world it contains. From the dolls that “don’t speak any foreign languages” to a God playing Hungarian songs, to the children who don’t speak her and her sister’s language, to the naive question “HOW MANY PLACES ARE FOREIGN COUNTRIES?” the creation of Veteranyi’s voice and narrative thread are as deliciously and bitterly free as they are fractured, they are as funny in their literality as they are melancholy in their poetic innuendos—they represent the narrative of a self that is lost in translation, thief of languages and cultural landscapes, a self that is perpetually in search of a familiar place that she can call home all the while striving to be her own home in a life of perpetual vagrancy. This strident and terrified child’s voice telling a biography in syncopated rhythms and cinematic imagery is the running thread through a world of broken images and experiences away from home in a dizzying and often cruel carnival. “This house is a home, my sister says. Here you have to put on a lot of weight, or else you’ll be crushed by the mountains. And you need lots of skin to get warm.”

 


 

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza

 

A book about the disaster that the life of a couple can be, Yasmina Reza’s most recent novel Happy Are the Happy is a quilt of portraits and vignettes of eighteen Parisian characters whose lives are tied to each other either by friendship, love affairs or family. Reza’s cynicism vis-à-vis the romantic idealization of the couple is freeing and utterly satisfying as we are taken on a pitiless tour of slices of family life, dinners, love scenes, violent spousal quarrels in a supermarket. This tour concludes with a grandiose funeral of the great Ernest Blot, a successful banker and pater familias to whom all eighteen characters were connected as family or close friends. As in a hall of mirrors, some of the characters are seen from different points of view, reflected in the eyes of others and from different points in this human quilt, in their roles of parents or spouses, adulterous lovers, angry wives or bored husbands, from a distance and from up close. The twenty-one chapters, that also stand alone as stories in their own right, are told in the voices of all the characters with minute details of everyday life and intimate relations and with pinches of passionate sarcasm. Yasmina Reza is the queen of something I would call literary surgery of human relations, as she dissects with delicate yet cutting linguistic flair the banality of human existence to bring out the beauty of veins, the pulsations of hearts in grief, or the rapid breathing of moments of illicit happiness. Whether taking us to the scene of a grim spousal squabble over being cremated or buried, or to a moment of closeness between a niece and her aunt suffering from dementia in an old people’s home as an Edith Piaf song trails into the room, or introducing us to a fierce battle of wills between two spouses in a supermarket over the purchase of cheese, or making us voyeurs in a gay doctor’s promiscuous affairs with Arab men in one of the seedy neighborhoods of Paris, or whether pausing over the despair of a couple over the mental illness of their son who believes he's Celine Dion, or the anger of the widow at the memorial service of her late husband as she looks back at a life lived in his shadow and being left with a lot of “resentment” and a handful of ashes, Yasmina Reza’s quilted novel offers a colorful and poignant tableau vivant of a society seen from up close in its trivial moments as well as in its moments of grace. A tableau touched as well by the bittersweet awareness of the inconsolable sadness of the human condition.


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Domnica Radulescu is a distinguished professor of French and Italian literature at Washington and Lee University, a Fulbright scholar, and an award-winning playwright. She escaped the Communist dictatorship in her native Romania in 1983 and settled in the United States as a political refugee. Radulescu is also the author of Train to Trieste, which won the Library of Virginia Fiction Award. Her latest book is Country of Red Azaleas.