Translated from the French (Belgium) by Faith Evans (Pushkin Press, 2019)
A Nail, A Rose is a collection of short stories by Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe, written in the twentieth century but previously untranslated. Bourdouxhe was born in 1906 and lived through two world wars; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir but has been largely forgotten by literary history, a neglect “partly explained by her diffidence but even more by the catastrophic disruptions of modern European history” (translator’s note). Translator Faith Evans has undertaken a labour of great love and dedication, rescuing these stories and with them Bourdouxhe’s talent, for a new readership.
The stories in A Nail, A Rose tell of daily life for women in the mid-twentieth century, and so in one sense there is very little plot development. Yet bubbling beneath the surface are all sorts of subtexts, particularly regarding the second world war – the stories were written in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Europe – and the social role of women. The women in the stories carry out quiet acts of resistance: they are housewives, mothers, lady’s maids, and their reality (a life of servitude and submission) is laid bare and turned on its head in surprising ways. These ordinary women have extraordinary experiences: in the title story the protagonist is wandering alone, nursing a broken heart. As she walks along thinking of her lost love (“She was living through a present without a future, she was carrying inside her a love with no tomorrow”), Irène is unexpectedly and brutally mugged. She survives the attack only to remonstrate with her assailant, divide her possessions up between them, and leave him utterly mesmerised by her. He later turns up at her door to check that she is not still suffering from his attack, and to offer his services in any way he can. This hilariously absurd turn of events showcases the message of this and so many of Bourdouxhe’s stories, as Irène tells him not to rob her of her only pleasure – self-sufficiency. You can take my meagre possessions, she implies, but you will not take my independence. Don’t let the quiet and traditional settings fool you: this is a text with a powerful feminist message.
Possessions and reappropriation also play a key part in ‘Louise’, in which a maid borrows her mistress’s expensive coat to go and meet her lover, but finds herself not only enveloped in the scent and experience of “Madame”, but also suffused with intimate fantasies of the woman who normally wears the coat. Acts of resistance against male domination are also echoed elsewhere in the text, as women rise up against their life of servitude: in ‘Blanche’ the heroine is dismissed as a “stupid woman” but in reality she just does not recognise herself in a life of cooking, cleaning and ironing (“This is me, Blanche, and I shall never know who I am”). The resistance takes on its most explicit (and murderous) form in ‘Leah’, in a scene that sums up all the poetic simplicity and unassuming brutality of Bourdouxhe’s work:
“Three or four times, at long intervals, I was assailed by deep breaths from his big open mouth. Finally he was still, and I was confronted by its abyss. As I closed his jaw with my hands there rose in me an overwhelming grief, heavy with poisonous dregs. I sat there for a long time, my hands pressed against his face, while my heart slowed down and my hands became accustomed to the stillness and coldness of death.”
These stories take us to unexpected places, and show women breaking with tradition and expectation even when they seem to be submitting to it: for example, in ‘René’, a young male hairdresser instinctively kisses a female client, and invites her to meet with him. She agrees, but his desire for her is met with impassivity, with a sense of fulfilling expectation, and his disappointment is so great that, “consumed with anger in every inch of his being”, he ends up smashing her face against a rock. He runs off but then relents, and comes back to find her only to discover that she has pulled herself up. These women are unbroken and unbowed, never allowing themselves to be dependent on men even if the circumstances in which they find themselves seem traditional – after all, this is rural Europe in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, history beats at the heart of Bourdouxhe’s tales (“the mould was rising in layers, on the world and in her heart”), and the influence of the Second World War on her writing is evident: the final story in the collection (and my personal favourite) is ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, the title borrowed from an Apollinaire poem. A woman gives birth to the sound of a foreign invasion, and finds she must flee the city, taking her newborn baby with her on the back of a truck. Blood is streaming down her legs, and her swollen breasts ache as she tries to produce enough milk to feed her baby, yet there is no melodrama here: Bourdouxhe describes her heroine’s experience (which is based on her own) in pragmatic terms (“She took a few steps around the room; she seemed to be all right. After all, she couldn’t always have a stretcher and three soldiers to help her”). It is this understatement that I most appreciated about the collection, along with the evocative musings that connect the everyday stories to universal truth and experience, such as solidarity in resistance (“All around she perceived the world’s splendour, its pain and its joy”) and living through a war for the second time (“All the past had to be lived again”).
The translation by Faith Evans has received universal praise, and for the most part deservedly. Evans communicates Bourdouxhe’s insight with extraordinary clarity and candour, but I was less convinced by the dialogues. Predominantly held between working-class characters, at times they were rather formal and affected (particularly in ‘Leah’ and ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’). However, what is evident throughout is Evans’s commitment to bringing Bourdouxhe’s writing into English, and her translations show the depth of understanding that she has for these stories and for the woman who wrote them. Bourdouxhe’s women have almost untold depths of feeling and trauma: they are alone, they are heartbroken, they are attacked, they are abandoned, they are displaced, they are bleeding and they are downtrodden. But they are never bowed: they love, they mourn, they desire, they dream, they take risks. Above all, they never lose their sense of self: they withhold their core and their forgiveness, and thanks to Evans’s efforts they emerge to claim their place in the canon of European literature.
Review copy of A Nail, A Rose provided by Pushkin Press