Madeleine Bourdouxhe made her name in prewar Paris in 1937 with the publication of her debut novel “La Femme de Gilles.” She followed it up six years later with “Marie,” a more ambitious novel that paid homage to Proust, sidelined any resemblance of plot, and delved deep into the heroine’s inner world. Despite the initial success of those books, Bourdouxhe went on to endure decades of neglect, even in her native Belgium. However, by the time of her death in 1996, a salvage operation by feminist critics was underway, and gradually her work was rediscovered and reappraised by a new generation of readers.
Short stories bookended Bourdouxhe’s literary career: She wrote some while starting out as a writer in the 1930s and produced others in the late 1980s while still confined to obscurity. “A Nail, a Rose” brings together a choice selection from both periods. Like miniature versions of her novels, these captivating tales explore the singular minds of ordinary women through beguiling prose that manages to be fluid and lucid but also swirling with complex currents.
The title story showcases Bourdouxhe’s talent for disorientating her reader with an unexpected act and an unpredictable outcome. It is 1944 and Irene walks alone along dark, frosty, deserted roads nursing a broken heart. A man attacks her with a hammer but she gets the upper hand by insulting her “lousy assailant,” dividing up her meager belongings rather than handing them all over, and turning him from a vicious attacker into a simpering admirer.
Five tales revolve around five other women. “Anna,” the strangest story here, starts conventionally enough with its portrayal of a bored housewife who yearns for a more exciting life away from domestic drudgery and her jealous husband. But soon her wistful daydreams give way to blood-filled thoughts, brutal visions and hallucinatory out-of-body experiences.
Bourdouxhe introduces two more women who crave forms of freedom. In “Louise,” a maid who toils for her mistress and finds her own child a “tender burden” sees her lover on her night off — yet spends more time fantasizing about “Madame.” In “Blanche,” another of Bourdouxhe’s downtrodden wives escapes from her demanding husband and finds peace in a dark wood with, quite literally, the man of her dreams.
The longest story, “Sous le pont Mirabeau,” deals with escape of a different kind. Drawing on autobiographical events, Bourdouxhe provides a stunning depiction of a woman and her newborn child fleeing Belgium on the day German forces invade and crisscrossing France in search of safety. Translator Faith Evans excels at conveying the chaos, danger and confusion of their desperate flight.
The black sheep in the collection is “René,” a nasty little tale in which an impulsive kiss from the male protagonist leads to a violent assault. Bourdouxhe achieves better results when her women are center stage. Whether they are lonely souls, bruised victims or resilient survivors, we champion them and come to know them inside out.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A Nail, A Rose
By: Madeleine Bourdouxhe, translated from the French by Faith Evans.
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 223 pages, $18.