By Madeleine Bourdouxhe
“Let it rain, dear God, let it rain again on my cold country… Let torrential rain wash away all colour and all life. When will that time come when we shall be once more at each other’s side, on the threshold of the shadowy gate where all daylight’s games are shattered for ever?”
In her engaging Introduction to this newly re-republished short story collection, the translator, Faith Evans, recalls first reading the Belgian writer’s works in French and immediately recognising “a confident feminist vision that, though born of time and place, still spoke with an exciting directness.” She admits to being “drawn to the author’s quiet strength.”
Born in Liège in 1906, Madeleine Bourdouxhe moved to Paris with her parents as a young girl and remained there for the duration of the First World War. She returned to Brussels to study Philosophy at the university, and there married a mathematics teacher in 1927. Her first novel, La Femme de Gilles, was published in 1937, and the second, Marie, in 1943, in between which the Germans invaded France and she was forced by the government in exile to return to Brussels, where she remained as an active member of the Belgian Resistance.
She spent much time in Paris after the war, regularly encountering other writers such as Raymond Queneau and Simone de Beauvoir (who singled her out for praise in The Second Sex). However, unlike certain of her contemporaries, Bourdouxhe’s output was for many years neglected by literary historians, until she was rediscovered by feminist scholars in the 1980s. She died in 1996, but fortunately not before Evans had met with and spoken to her in her Brussels apartment in 1988. She describes her as an “elegant, straightforward woman in her early eighties, naturally reticent, though clearly delighted at the idea of having her work translated”.
Written in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Europe, there are seven stories in A Nail, A Rose – pieces widely admired by both the Existentialists and the Surrealists when first published in 1944. Not until 1989 were they translated into English following a surge of reinterest in her writing. The novella included at the end, Sous le pont Mirabeau, appears here in English for the first time.
The stories concern the lives of ordinary women (except in the single instance of René, in which the protagonist is male), and are written with insight and acuity. Her characters are often unfulfilled and regretful, given to fantasising because lonely, and are frequently involved in abusive or otherwise suppressive relationships. One woman, wandering alone on an icy night, thinking of her former lover, is first attacked and then romantically pursued by her unknown assailant; another, married to a wife-beater, dreams of a different life, one in which she can instigate revolutions; and a maid servant wears her mistresses fashionable coat to meet a male suitor while imagining intimacy with “Madame”.
There is tragedy, brutality, desire, melancholy and an element of farce in this remarkable collection. The vivid narratives highlight the most wretched aspects of patriarchy with the use of startling imagery and exquisite prose. One can see why Bourdouxhe has been compared to Rhys, Mansfield and even Woolf.
A Nail, A Rose has been brought back into print as part of the petite and stylish Pushkin Collection of paperbacks, designed to be “as satisfying as possible to hold and to enjoy.” The illustration on the front cover is by Jack Hughes, a London-based artist whose “characters live in a world of sharp suits, coiffed hair and fast cars.”
“Love, it is all the same in the end – it never offers anything new. And as for the real thing, well, she’d never come across it, either in herself or in other people.”
Many thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a review copy of this title.
I read this title for 20 Books of Summer 2019