Love and its many variations remain a prominent topic in the French novel. In Cannibales (2016), Régis Jauffret explores the sadomasochistic dynamics of both mother and mistress love. “Cannibalistic love,” as the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk named such erotic phenomena, shows its dark force in Jauffret’s subtle and cynical text.
But three recent novels by Florence Noiville — The Gift (2012), Attachment (2015), and A Cage in Search of a Bird (2016) — push this investigation of love’s dark side even further, focusing on neurotic maternal love, the love for a much older man, and narcissistic hate-love, respectively.
Noiville’s The Gift, translated by Catherine Temerson and which the author has described as a “fictionalized memoir,” begins with the narrator — a middle-aged woman — returning home to Paris following her eccentric mother’s death. The mother’s bequest, to the narrator and her sister, includes both property and a ruinous psychosis that has fueled the long conflict between them. The daughter’s opaque and damaging heritage involves a “transfer of the gene of doubt”: indeed, the narrator is a mass of anxieties and insecurities, alternating between hyperactivity and rigid, mute, depressive passivity. Obsessively, she rehearses the nature of her relationship with her mother, wondering how this “tiny and aged, bent over” woman had “managed to terrorize us so often, my father, my sister, and me.” Though aware that her obsession is perpetuating the melancholic germs of her mother’s psychic imbalance, she simply can’t help herself.
The narrator’s obsession, as Noiville depicts it, is a twisted, thwarted form of love, from which she struggles to release herself — like a flower “that can survive only if someone cuts the invisible tie whose purpose is the reproduction of the same […] so the other flowers can find room for themselves.” The daughter’s trip home becomes a journey into her real roots, where the “act of planting” — taking care of the common family garden — is a way of “celebrating the victory of life” — as well as, paradoxically, of everything that “wrecked the lives of all four of us.” The gift the narrator finally receives is the essential bequest of maturity and reconciliation, a “consent to what we are,” beyond illusions, and an acceptance of the fact that perfect happiness “doesn’t exist.” The novel is a dramatic introspection and initiation into the tensions and traumas of possessive and poisoned love.
Published three years later in a translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Attachment is another obsessive love story — the tale of Marie, a brilliant and beautiful high school student, and her affair with a much older and not very attractive literature teacher. This affair, now long past, returns to haunt Marie’s daughter, Anna, a student of medicine, who travels to meet her late mother’s now-senile partner, hoping to unravel the essential “molecule of attachment” that had so strongly drawn them together. Indeed, her mother’s recent death in an automobile accident occurred while she was returning from an “anniversary visit” with her former lover, now an old and sick man — but also a writer, and a quite famous one.
The role of literature is an important theme in this melancholic and luminous novel. In her relationship with the older teacher, Marie viewed herself as the embodiment of Nabokov’s Lolita, “a character that is so proud and so unsure of herself.” As she puts it:
I simultaneously discovered two continents — literature and my own body. And ultimately, our connection had a whiff of incest that wasn’t unpleasant […] Love and literature, sense and the senses. Is it possible that there is a sort of gratitude in the act of loving abandonment? When you read Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal while looking at me, it was as if your words were hands. Word-hands that touched me lightly. Word-sounds that fluttered around me, touching my shoulders, settling on my neck. Intoxicating moments. My entire body listened.
These words derive from a letter Marie had written (but never sent) to her former lover at a time when she was already happily married and had reached the age of 49 — the same “magical” age when her old prince had first appeared as a fresh star in her young and empty life, awakening all the latent expectations of affection and sex and happiness.
Anna’s efforts to unearth her mother’s story feel to her like “following a shadow.” The enigma of that strange relationship is gradually revealed — not necessarily as a rewritten Lolita apprenticeship, this time “from the woman’s point of view” — but as a complex bond between equals — an amorous initiation of two lovers who are both destined to become writers, and for whom the difference in age is but a stimulating oddity. When Anna finally confronts her mother’s legendary lover, now aged and senile, she cannot avoid comparing “the strategic areas responsible for dementia” with the sweet madness of forbidden love.
The abundance of literary and philosophical references (Nabokov, Heidegger, Barthes, Beckett, Romain Gary, even Homer, Laforgue, and Schubert) are geared to capture the quixotic attraction between the two lovers, both so deeply under the spell of literature and its coded suggestions. Marie, we learn, took as role models not only Nabokov’s Lolita, but also Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. This book-besotted nymphet feels herself awakened from “the imaginary into the real” by her relationship with her teacher, who seems to her a glorious incarnation of all her romantic desires. Even the sudden intrusion of drab reality into their relationship, symbolized by the teacher’s “big, ugly sandals” that made him appear vulgar and pathetic in her eyes, is finally redeemed by means of a literary reference: “While I’m remembering that awful sandal story, look at what I found in the book I’m currently reading: Kawabata […] receiving what must have been the Nobel Prize, because he stood facing the old king of Sweden […] wearing white socks and curious looking sandals.” Attraction is a seductive and beautiful reminder of love’s essential magic and sanity, its mystical aura and its earthly force.
“Are disorders of the soul in the order of things?” is the question at the start of A Cage in Search of a Bird, Noiville’s most recent novel, again translated by Fagan. The title, borrowed from Kafka, refers here to a psychological malady known as Clérambault syndrome, “the delirious illusion of being loved,” which confuses passion with self-hypnosis and hysteria. In a dialogue with British writer Ian McEwan, himself preoccupied with this syndrome in his 1997 novel Enduring Love, Noiville mentioned the famous case of a French woman, Lea from Bourges, who was apparently perfectly intelligent and coherent, but who was nonetheless convinced that George V, King of England, was madly in love with her. During her frequent trips to London, Lea would watch through the fence at Buckingham Palace for coded messages of the King’s love.
In her novel, Noiville describes a similar overwhelming — and ultimately tragic — obsession. Laura Wilmote, a writer and journalist for a Paris publishing house, is persistently besieged by a former colleague and friend, the psychotic “C.,” who is convinced that Laura is in love with her. When they first knew each other, at 18, C. was intelligent, cultivated, extroverted, and friendly. Years later, they are reunited at the publishing house, and C. seems to have metamorphosed into a kind of twin Laura — whom she follows everywhere, insistently declaring her love and even asking to sleep with Laura’s boyfriend Eduardo. “I will enfold you or, rather, you will enfold yourself with me,” C. writes in one of her many messages to Laura, seeking to weaken and overwhelm her. “Hold out your hand to that Other.”
The only solution to free the captive from this hallucinatory burden is to flee. Laura decides to give up everything, to move and then write a novel about the case. She muses that
C. has a hole in her forehead, and through the hole one can see in her skull. That’s what I wanted to do. Look inside C.’s head. Drill a very circular hole, like a disk, and look into it […] C.’s obsession has brought on another, my own, exactly symmetrical. It has created its double, like in a mirror. That my mind is besieged by her presence as if by a dybbuk.
When Laura reaches a refuge in Mexico, where she is hiding from everybody, she suddenly experiences a reversal of roles: now, Laura starts to suffocate C. with letters of love and regret and high promises, to besiege and frighten her with the same erotomaniacal pathos. Laura’s disappearance alarms everybody, including C. and her colleagues, the police, and Eduardo, who starts to study the Clérambault syndrome avidly, trying to find a clue to recovering Laura. This intense search for the vanished Laura also obsesses C., who keeps “waking up in a sweat, soaking wet, haggard. Tossing and turning, unable to sleep […] in an emotional frenzy.” Laura writes asking if she “want[s] to begin everything over,” suggesting a meeting at a cafe where Eduardo and two cops are waiting. But the scheduled tryst ends in a tragic denouement.
A Cage in Search of a Bird has implicit and even some explicit connections to Noivlle’s previous novels. The snares and delusions of love remain the central topic of all three books, which together constitute a stimulating experiment in discovering the hidden self and its mysterious entanglement with others. Noiville’s writing is subtle and seductive, sensual and sensitive, with a captivating mixture of candor and reticence that seems entirely appropriate to her theme.
Norman Manea was born in Bukovina (Romania) in 1936. His works include the novels The Lair and The Black Envelope and the memoir The Hooligan’s Return.