A few pages later, Elisa realizes that Gilles is having an affair with her sister Victorine. Now it is midwinter and, in bed, she confronts the truth:
She waited a moment, gathering her forces, and then deliberately, courageously, stuck the knife into her own heart: “Gilles no longer loves me.” Then she wavered, stretching her arms out to the sleeping man in a large, clumsy movement as if asking him for help, but stopped herself just in time. No Elisa, this time you will have to suffer alone. For the first time in your life you cannot draw on Gilles’ love, you must stand up for yourself as if you were quite alone in the world. No one can help you, least of all Gilles. You are alone with the greatest pain you have ever known.
The rapid alterations of tense and mood — from third to second person, external narration to free indirect discourse, languor to intensity — are typical of Bourdouxhe (and expertly rendered in Evans’s translation). The masochism is typical of Elisa. For the remainder of the novel, Bourdouxhe tracks Elisa’s inner turmoil as she martyrs herself to the cause of her marriage.
Convinced that Gilles will leave her if she shows signs of dissatisfaction, Elisa decides to say nothing about his affair. Instead, she plays the perfect housewife in the hopes of winning him back. On the outside, she looks unperturbed, cooking, cleaning, and even giving birth with a placid smile. On the inside, she suffers and schemes, consumed by her frantic, self-flagellating thoughts. Her plight cries out to be read in feminist terms, and questions of gender have indeed animated Bourdouxhe’s admirers. Simone de Beauvoir cited her portraits of female subjection in The Second Sex; Evans is drawn to her “confident female vision that although born of her time and place still spoke with a certain directness.” But although Femme is a prescient feminist parable, it is also something more: a remarkable evocation of the rhythms of mental life.
Today, Bourdouxhe’s book may seem significant chiefly for having been cited by de Beauvoir. In the late 1930s, however, Bourdouxhe’s reputation eclipsed that of the feminist critic. In 1937, while de Beauvoir was still largely unknown, Femme earned the admiration of the Parisian elite. But the outbreak of World War II interrupted Bourdouxhe’s rise, forcing her to break with her publisher and move back to her native Belgium. During the war, she joined the Resistance. After, she returned to Paris and published a second novel, À la recherche de Marie. She also befriended Sartre and de Beauvoir, joining them for chats at Les Deux Magots. Although the now prominent de Beauvoir praised her work, it fell out of print until the mid-1980s.
That de Beauvoir enjoyed Femme comes as no surprise; the novel preempts and gives narrative force to her system of thought. In The Second Sex, she argues that women are conditioned to measure their worth in male approval. “[L]ove is merely an occupation in the life of the man,” she claims, “while it is life itself for the woman.” It is, at least, for Elisa. In a passage that de Beauvoir cites, she and Gilles make love: “She lets herself be taken, fascinated by the expression of joy lighting up the face on top of her.” She pursues Gilles single-mindedly because “she cannot conceive of any greater happiness than giving him pleasure.”
Lest that précis make Elisa sound pathetic, I assure you she is not. Ruthless with herself, she resists the temptation to ask Gilles for sympathy. (“The smell of suffering,” she thinks, “always disgusts others.”) Gilles, in contrast, requires Elisa’s emotional support even when betraying her. When things go badly with Victorine, he turns to his wife for comfort and advice. She, a consummate expert on romantic obsession, analyzes his situation shrewdly (“Yesterday she didn’t turn round again after you parted — you were expecting her to and that’s left its mark on you…”). But her subtlety is lost on Gilles, who can’t even manage to cry correctly. He makes “the ugly grimace that men have to make to let tears flow.”
Bourdouxhe dwells on this irony: that while men like Gilles think themselves members of the stronger sex, women stoically bear their emotional burdens. When Gilles tells Elisa about his affair, she consoles him: “Well, these things happen.” She is tempted to respond by saying that she already knows, “in revenge mak[ing] him realize with a single blow that she [is]n’t one of those women who can be deceived.” But she instead takes pity on the man and graciously “grant[s] him the privilege of confessing.” He, meanwhile, thinks nothing of her feelings, talking “only to comfort himself” as he prods her wounds. A few pages later, in a scene as heavy-handed as it is well written, Bourdouxhe compares Elisa to a statue of Christ.
This portrait generates its own sort of écriture féminine, a style resembling not woman’s fluidity (as in Cixous’s formulation) but rather her restraint. When Elisa first realizes Gilles’s betrayal, she stops and thinks: “She didn’t know what she would say, but she knew it wouldn’t be a sentence that dropped carelessly from her lips, but rather an essential sentence, a sentence of which she would be the perfect mistress.” Bourdouxhe, too, seems the perfect mistress of her sentences, oscillating between taut, third-person narration and the controlled chaos of Elisa’s inner monologue. There are lapses, to be sure — a banal passage here, a bizarre authorial interjection there (Bourdouxhe chimes in to call Victorine a “bitch”). But by and large, Bourdouxhe’s prose, like Elisa’s kitchen, is scrubbed clean.
That prose guides the novel, with elegant precision, toward its final, feminist argument. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argues: “A woman abandons herself first to love to save herself. But the paradox of idolatrous love is that in order to save herself she ends up totally disavowing herself.” That, I can say without giving away Femme’s dramatic ending, is what happens to Elisa. She represses her emotions so completely, in the course of pursuing Gilles, that she becomes a mere extension of his will. Vaguely grasping de Beauvoir’s revelation — that woman is not born but made — she senses that things might have been otherwise. “Why should she have been created,” she asks herself, “to find fulfillment only in this manner?”
As manifesto, Femme is forceful — give or take Bourdouxhe’s romanticization of female martyrdom. But it succeeds most profoundly at the point where its political and modernist projects meet: in the effort to put female consciousness on the page. Bourdouxhe’s aim in writing the novel, she explains, was to expose women’s inner worlds: Elisa was created “from a composite of the women I saw around me. I’d see a fleeting look, an expression, a smile, for just a moment — then it would be gone.” “What I wanted to do was follow Elisa through her interior life.” That Proustian ambition is stated openly in the title of Bourdouxhe’s second novel, À la recherche de Marie. But she pursues it initially throughout the middle section of Femme.
Here, she develops an extraordinary array of methods of conveying Elisa’s flickering consciousness. Thought, as she depicts it, takes many forms. It occurs in sentences or fragments (“Sunday tomorrow … the smell of soup…”). It is described as well as transcribed (“And again the images filed past, fast and irrelevant or heavy, confidential and suddenly arrested, to be submitted to the close scrutiny of the investigator”). It is imagistic as well as linguistic (“Gilles with his head on her knee. Gilles flowing flat stones into the river.”). It is corporeal as well as mental (“her head swollen and painful, the arch of her brows setting off a fierce throb”).
Most impressive of all is Bourdouxhe’s ability to convey the sensation of being in time. Months of depression pass in minutes, in Elisa’s mind — “A quarter of an hour later it’s spring again.” But a moment of vital insight extends indefinitely:
Disturbed by this mysterious insight, which seemed suddenly to have seized her by the throat, she waited a moment before slowly turning, at first only halfway, looking straight in front of her with faraway eyes, then three-quarters, then at last full face. She looked at [Gilles and Victorine] both. They seemed not to have moved: they were in exactly the same position they had been in a few minutes earlier, before she had had her insight.
In a series of hypnotic passages, Bourdouxhe describes nothing but the process of time passing. Her narrator measures its progress in rainy spells, games of chess, and daily chores.
That sense of time is potent enough to carry the reader over the book’s minor flaws. If its first, sensational scenes tend to distract the reader, an underlying rhythm remains insistent and undeniable. Sometimes, that rhythm quickens, as when Gilles and Victorine begin their affair: “Desire takes hold suddenly, out of nowhere.” Sometimes, it drags, as when Elisa stares out the window: “outside she could see whitish rays of light […] she blessed this friendly dawn, which seemed to last forever.” Descriptions of the Belgian landscape are pervaded by a gentle pulsation of prose. The reader, as in Hardy’s novels, is entirely immersed in a rural plenitude.
In the end, that psychological immersion is as important to Femme’s value system as female martyrdom. It evinces Elisa’s heroism as surely as her suffering. In one of the book’s early scenes, she walks to the movies with Gilles and Victorine, registering almost everything that she passes: the dirty icicles, the pavement’s rivulets, the halos that surround the streetlamps. Finally, her attention is arrested by a laboring housewife, whose feelings, in one “look,” seem to mirror her own. Elisa herself is a figure for this type of suffering female. But she also embodies the artist, who is capable of noticing and inhabiting these looks. Her companions, she reflects, know nothing of such things. In a rare moment of pride, she pities them.
Tess McNulty is a PhD student in English Literature at Harvard.