Women Writing About Horrible Things – Two French Novellas (a #WITMonth post)

TITLE:  Le Necrophile
AUTHOR: Gabrielle Wittkop
TRANSLATOR:  Don Bapst
PUBLISHER: ECW Press, Ontario  (2011)
ISBN:  978 15502 2943 1

 

TITLE:  Beside the Sea
AUTHOR: Véronique Olmi
TRANSLATOR:  Adriana Hunter
PUBLISHER: Tin House, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 935639 42 8

One criticism I wanted to address during Women In Translation Month was that women authors write exclusively about “women’s issues”. Or, worse, the categorizing of their work as “chick-lit” or “relationship” novels.  As somehow homogenously feminine and, as such, more easily lumped together and dismissed from the company of books written by men.  With that in mind I have deliberately chosen two books that are challenging and complicated – novels not easily identified as or typical of literature associated with women.  Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

The Necrophiliac is not a metaphor (as I initially believed when I bought it). Instead it is the very literal title of a disturbing and disturbingly beautiful book about –  there’s no way to put this delicately – a man has sex with corpses. Lucien, the protagonist and narrator, is an antiques dealer.  He has no friends; no family. He is a loner;  for reasons that very quickly become apparent. He reads the obituaries the way normal people read the personals. Sometimes he attends the funeral. Then at night, while everyone is sleeping, Lucien drives his Chevrolet to the cemetery to dig up his date. The relationship can last for weeks at a time.

He has no set type.  Men, women, the very young and the very old all have their specific attractions. The Necrophiliac is written in the style of a personal journal and the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters will make your skin crawl.  There is no easing readers in.  From page one Lucien is revolting, breaking multiple taboos. By having him narrate his own story Wittkop manages to humanize him – but barely so.  Only the beauty of the prose keeps you reading.

I went this morning for a stroll around the Ivy Cemetery, charming under the snow like an ornate centerpiece made of sugar, strangely lost in a plebeian district. Watching a widow decorate the tomb of the deceased with a little Christmas tree, I noticed suddenly how rare they’ve become, those women in full mourning in their floating veils – though often blond – who for the most part – usually, not always – professionals who practised their art behind the family monuments with an absolutely depressing absence of brilliance and sincerity.  Widows’ meat.

The passage above is one of the few in The Necrophiliac that won’t cause you to flinch. And, fortunately, is still indicative of the author’s style – which is lovely and devoid of the cloying prose style inherent to most Gothic novels. In fact, if you can move past the subject matter The Necrophiliac is surprisingly engrossing. The writing is truly gorgeous. Don Bapst translation manages to capture the contemporary Gothic flavor and the voluptuous imagery which, combined, creates a truly unique reading experience.  The size is perfect; ninety-one pages that can easily be consumed in one sitting.

And – fortunately – the book is not without some humor.  As you can imagine Lucien has a difficult time keeping cleaning ladies.

This appears to be the only book by the author, Gabrielle Wittkop, that is currently available to English readers. Before her suicide in 2002, at age 82, the author had written several novels, short stories and poems.  She saw herself as “the heir to de Sade” and is widely read in both France and Germany.  Her popularity in those countries allows me to hope that more of her work will eventually find its way into the hands of English translators.

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Véronique Olmi’s novella Beside the Sea, translated by Adriana Hunter, is another book that describes the world through the eyes of a troubled protagonist.  The initial premise seems innocent: the narrator takes her two young sons on an impromptu seaside holiday. But from the first sentence – “We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.” – it is apparent that all is not right. What unfolds is heartbreaking.  Both boys will be dead by the end of the book.

Beside the Sea explores difficult subject matter of an entirely different nature than The Necrophiliac. Matricide takes the place of perversion – and suddenly perversion seems the more palatable of the two.  This is not an easy book by any definition. Beside the Sea is another (mercifully) short novella  – only 119 pages.  But every one of those pages feels like a punch in the chest.  From the mother’s rough, uneducated voice (the grammar is ever so slightly off); to the anxiety of her two small boys ; to the ineptness of the social workers meant to help them.  There is nothing pretty about the story or the prose.  Nor is there anything comforting.  Olmi writes fiercely – refusing to shy away from all the horrible little details that make her story painfully believable. She has created a main protagonist who invokes readers’ frustration as much as she does their pity. The book’s two small children aren’t angelic – they behave & misbehave as little boys do. And their perfectly drawn imperfection makes you want to protect them from what is coming all the more.

Omni excels at character development, relying on her readers to pick up on all the little clues her oblivious narrator let’s drop.  Social workers, concerned teachers, poverty and absent fathers are all mentioned in passing.  The eldest boy, 11-year old Stan, has taken on the role of adult that she is incapable of filling.  Kevin is still too young to understand what is going on and still retains some innocence.  “Mom! Kevin cried when he saw I was awake, and that’s a wonderful thing! The way a little’un says hello to you in the morning, as if you were the surprise of the day, the piece of good news he’d given up on.”  Both boys love their mother, but Stan has learned not to trust her.  She, in turn, loves them.  That is never in question.  But she is psychologically unable to care for them properly.

We’ll go to a cafe, I said, but neither of them looked convinced by that and I added We’ll order and we’ll be served! They looked at me suspiciously like I was telling a fib, so I got up an then I couldn’t help smiling – never mind my gappy gums, I was too proud of myself, I rummaged through the blue sports bag, took out my tea tin and tipped it out onto the bed, regretting it didn’t make more noise: I spilled out all my money! All of it! Everything I’d put by to have fun someday, all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker and sometimes at the supermarket.

The kids didn’t touch the money, they looked at it, cautiously, like they were meeting someone new. Can we have ice cream? Kevin asked to make sure, and I was convinced he was no longer missing school. Stupid! Stan said quietly, in a cafe you drink coffee! And, anyway, there’s practically only twenty-centime coins left! Really? I said. Only twenty-centime coins? And I looked a bit closer. The boys sat down next to me on the bed, peering at my treasure like some strange creature. It’s true there weren’t many ten-franc coins, but hey! It was my scrimpings, not an investment, a bit extra, okay! I didn’t want them to see my disappointment, but at the same time I resented them for showing so little enthusiasm. Stan started counting the coins with such a serious expression you’d have though he was picking up something I’d broken, sorting out some stupid accident, that’s what they teach them at school: to be distrustful…

I don’t believe Omni expects readers to sympathize with the mother, yet she manages to humanize her.  That, in itself, is an achievement.  It’s also the key to the success of Beside the Sea.  The characters and situations are hyper-realistically drawn, as if the author recognized the weight of the subject matter – the horrible, chilling, heartbreaking act that drives the plot – and realized it alone would have  to carry the reader through.  Anything else would be disrespectful – a Lifetime movie no one wants to watch.  So Véronique Omni makes the intelligent decision of telling the story without resorting to emotional manipulation or literary devices/embellishments. Without tears.  The only false note is the final sentence, which shuts the door too neatly on a situation that is anything but. Otherwise Beside the Sea is an amazing novella, one that deserves more accolades and attention than it will probably ever receive.  Therein lies the peril of taking on societal taboos in a complicated and meaningful way.*

 

*versus the exploitative 

The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws & the Author

Title: The Elusive Moth
Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Translator: Iris Gouws & the Author
Publisher: Open Letter, University of Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 77 1

 

The Elusive MothThe Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the Author, is set in Free State, South Africa.  The heroine,
Karolina Ferreira, is a lepidopterist staying in the town of Voorspoed – a place she’d visited as a child with her father.

Free State is one of nine South African provinces. The terrain consists of grasslands, large agricultural tracts and mountains. It’s considered the “breadbasket” or “granary” of South Africa.  2.8 million people live there, the 87% majority of whom are black Africans.  The primary language is Sesotho, a Bantu language. Afrikaans is spoken by the white minority. Voorspoed is home to a diamond mine owned by the De Beers family.

None of this is stated in the novel, but the clues are everywhere. Winterbach is describing a place and, in the process of doing that, telling a story.

Karolina is in Voorspoed to study a rare species of moth.  She spends most of her day in the veld with her companion, Basil.  Him collecting plants and her studying insects. Their evenings are spent in town observing the locals – particularly the Afrikaner community that gathers at the hotel to drink, socialize and play snooker. She studies them with the same clinical intensity as the insects.

It’s difficult not to get caught up in the routine of Karolina’s days.  Mornings in the veld, evenings that begin in the Ladies Bar and end in the billiards room.  Afternoons she has lunch in the hotel’s dining room beneath murals that depict the history of the region.  On Saturdays she goes dancing.  Occasionally events interrupt the pattern – a controversial play is performed, tourists arrive, lovers are observed in a cemetery, protests lead to violence in the black settlements, murder, a suicide – but by the next day everything resets. The plot, in this sense, is simplistic. The bumps – the interruptions to the town’s routine – are what imbue the story with unexpected richness and texture. Karolina is always watching from the edges, never at the center, and seldom privy to the inner thoughts or motivations of the key players.

The man sat on the opened-out back flap of the police vehicle. He was covered with a blanket that was wrapped tightly around his shoulders. He seemed to be wearing nothing underneath it but a vest and a pair of trousers. Even though it was a warm night, his teeth were chattering, which made it difficult for him to speak coherently. He had been given a warm drink, for now and again he swallowed some liquid from the cap of a flask. Two black women stood a little apart from the rest, one draped in a blanket, occasionally weeping quietly into a corner of it. Kieliemann spoke for the police. Although he seemed impatient, he was allowing the man to tell his story  without interruption. The scene resembled a photograph – the action frozen, white and black equally stark in the unnatural yellow light.

Karolina stood at some distance, making sure that Kieliemann did not see her.The yellow light penetrated everywhere, eclipsing even the bountiful light of the night sky, etching the scene in hellish desolation.

The next day Karolina will ask questions and try to understand what she has seen.  But her outsider status limits her. The Elusive Moth is narrated in the close third person, keeping readers at an arms length from Karolina and creating another layer between them and the action. The writing is dense and self-conscious – in some places a little fussy (particularly  when Karolina’s love interest, a dharma bum named Jess, is in a scene).  The structure of the novel is based on the repetition and patterns, and Winterbach sometimes extends that repetition to her characterizations.  One lecherous police officer is always described as having a bulge in his pants when Karolina is around; another character is “aquatic” and shudders (both verbally and physically) incessantly; a friend of Jess’ never seems to be without a smirk on his face and a bottle in his hand.   The effect is that the supporting characters become two dimensional.  It feels like a flaw, but in truth I only noticed it when I was away from the book.  Here it works, where in another book it might not.

The heroine is perhaps the one fully realized, psychologically complex character in the novel. Winterbach maintains a balance between Karolina’s self-involvement / inner-thoughts and her outward reaching curiosity. There is a lot of activity in the story to act as counterweight to moments of introspection. The town’s Afrikaan community is a veritable Peyton Place of tawdry affairs and political intrigues.  Even the larger national picture creeps in, though so subtly as to seem like an afterthought. There are hints of the shifting balance of power occurring in South Africa.  “After the string of boycotts last year, Sarel advised the lads in town to reconsider their options, and to consult with the ANC and the township leaders. Some have begun to do so…”

But I would not call it a political novel.  Nor would I call it a relationship novel. Or even a novel about the human condition. What struck me is that it is concept-, rather than plot-, driven.  Voorsoed is an ant farm – isolated and contained.  And if asked to describe the book in one sentences, I would say “A woman studying the town of Voorspoed and its inhabitants from a distance.”

Except that’s not entirely right.  There’s a passage towards the end of the book. Like most everything else that occurs in The Elusive Moth, it’s unobtrusively inserted into the narrative. Karolina and Jess go away for the weekend. They travel to a nearby town.

At dusk they reached the Dis Al Motel where they had tea in the lounge. There was a large painting on the wall depicting Mabalel and the crocodile, painted by the proprietor… There were large animal skins on the ceiling. Antelope heads on the walls. In an adjoining room people played snooker – Afrikaner couples on the brink of suicide and dissipation. Homicidally depressed. Some national leader came on the television. Karolina and Jess went to their rondavel.”


You’re left with the sense that across Free State (perhaps across South Africa) there are dozens of towns like Voorsoed. Inhabited by people going about their lives, behaving in ways identical to the characters we’ve just met.  The same diversions, the same dramas, the same patterns are being repeated.