Marie Darrieussecq’s first novel, Pig Tales, is the comic, sexual and cheery self-description of a ‘masseuse’ who gradually turns into a pig.Fantastical metamorphosis mixes with grotty Parisian reality, giving rise to a Mad Max future of ruined cities and megalomaniacs. Its 153 pages can be read in an afternoon, and its themes are in tune with the preoccupations of readers of glossy magazines. For the readers of FHM (which has just arrived on the French side of the Channel), there is a nymphomaniac prostitute, a certain amount of orgiastic partying and the basic comedy of a young woman becoming a pig; for those who prefer Marie Claire, there is a concern with cosmetics, body shape and finding the elusive perfect male; and everyone will be able to enjoy the naive style and go on to chatter about the gloomy political predictions, safe in the knowledge that six nipples and a set of trotters are problems they are unlikely to face.
Darrieussecq was compared with Kafka, and thought to be writing a political and moral critique of contemporary society. She replied, straightforwardly and a little disingenuously, that she had thought of neither. The inspiration for Pig Tales was, she says, her reaction against the phrase ‘grosse truie’ (fat sow) – a stock insult used against French women. Darrieussecq wanted to make a sow who was desirable, and achieves this by allowing the heroine’s essential innocence to remain unaffected by transmutation. She stays friendly, self-confident and charmingly curious about the changes in her own body and the body politic around her. Her naivety would seem ridiculous were it not for her horrendous environment, a distortion of the real world that amplifies its sexism, political extremism, ideological hypocrisy and prevailing tendency to dumb down. The sow’s humanity is defined in relation to these ‘human’ characteristics, and a convincing case is made for letting out the inner pig. The novel has no didactic pretensions; Darrieussecq sees it as a sort of snowball fiction: ‘sur cette histoire de transformation se cristallisaient des tas de choses.’
It sold remarkably well in France, though many suspected that this was another one-shot wonder whose sales were based on the comic novelty of the plot and a generous amount of sex and violence. But Darrieussecq went to the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the press took care to tell its readers that her doctoral thesis on tragic irony and autofiction in Doubrovsky, Guibert, Leiris and Perec received the ‘félicitations à l’unanimité du jury’.
Considering that Pig Tales is so hard to put down, it is strange that My Phantom Husband should be so hard to pick up. Admittedly, the cover of Pig Tales features a naked woman while all My Phantom Husband has to offer is a blurred man in a suit jiving through an apartment door. But the problem goes deeper. Instead of the engaging narrator of Pig Tales, we get a banal, nervous, ‘educated’ wife who seems to be writing a bad detective novel about her husband’s disappearance ‘after years of neglect on my part’. My Phantom Husband also has a different translator from Pig Tales – Helen Stevenson rather than Linda Coverdale – and suffers from uncomfortable moments. Translation, like contraception, is better if it is never felt. ‘Who had detained him on the streets of the suburb, which clumsy, garrulous neighbour?’ Bof. Safety rather than performance seems to have been the goal, and this makes the book and its unnamed narrator far less attractive than they are in French.
One way and another, Darrieussecq’s second novel suffers from a major ‘manque de fun’ after the comedy of Pig Tales. Not prepared to churn out a formulaic sequel, she has written a harrowing story of solitude and panic attacks, as the narrator fails to come to terms with the absence of her husband. The detective story element soon fades into an intimate account of confusion and flights of fancy: ‘that was the last time I had a sense of myself as whole, complete, intact; from then on I grew dim and diffuse.’ But it isn’t clear that the reader will have enough interest in the narrator to want to keep up with her account as it slides between the real and the imagined.
The author’s priorities have certainly changed in the three years since her debut. Tired and over-publicised by the success of the happy sow, Darrieussecq wanted to write a book that was ‘sec comme une traversée du désert ... un retour à moi même’. The result, Iridium, unpublished at the author’s request, was followed by marriage and a realisation of ‘ce qui compte vraiment’.
The idea of a disappearance, and of the phantoms that hide in what she calls the ‘non-dit’, were subjects she now wanted to address. But, finally, ‘ce livre est né de la peur du noir.’ This is why the husband must disappear and not die: the shadows are filled with the potentiality of his return. The narrator is at all times convinced that he is not dead, and his virtual presence mingles with her fears of darkness and solitude.
The bedroom, which the husband’s breathing used to fill ‘so that even though it was dark I could find a place in it’, becomes a focus for the narrator’s terror. She cannot sleep alone, and her insomnia gives rise to a new perception of the world, ‘a new space-time zone’. She becomes submerged in absence, and her world seems to sink underwater, with the phantom husband always in the shadows around her, continuing to run his business but absenting himself from their wedding photos. The real is indistinguishable from the imaginary: walls shift and lose their definition, becoming hazy at the edges and fractal on inspection. Darrieussecq tries to justify the misty neo-reality with reference to quantum probability fields:
Even the universe has an independent life, its embryonic states, its mists of non-existent things to which your observing eye would give shape and form; you are the fisher at the sea’s edge, or perhaps you are the sea, or perhaps you are the potentiality of fish, but until the fisher hooks the fish there are no fish in the sea.
Darrieussecq appears to share certain concerns with the writers who prefer not to be called New Novelists. Obvious pointers are the lack of proper names (except for Jacqueline, the narrator’s best friend) and the strong consciousness of the narrative person. These ideas may come from her discussions with Jérôme Lindon, the publisher of Robbe-Grillet, Butor and Claude Simon, from her studies of recent French literature or from her knowing Nathalie Sarraute. She realises that there is some common ground between her writing and that of the grande dame of French literature: ‘Je cherche sans doute quelque chose de l’ordre de ce que cherche Nathalie Sarraute.’ It is hard to read the French title of her first book, Truismes, without thinking of Sarraute’s Tropismes. The narrator of My Phantom Husband, isolated and confused, recalls the narrator of Portrait d’un inconnu – of both one can say: ‘c’est une maniaque.’
Another shared concern is an awareness of the dangers of writing, and the perils of memory, as exposed in Butor’s L’Emploi du temps. The narrator of My Phantom Husband, like the narrator of Pig Tales, justifies the text as a way of dealing with her situation: ‘Typing away at my keyboard, I tried to pass the time, to be strong and perhaps to sort out my ideas, even though I quickly began to doubt whether such a story could really help me with any of this.’ Jacqueline and the narrator’s mother can cope with the husband’s disappearance by fixing him in their memory as a past event, but the narrator cannot stop thinking of him as a living entity, and her memory of him takes on a life of its own. This enables her to deal with the panic caused by her real solitude, but not to lead a normal life: ‘All that was left of him was me, and I was deprived of the very air I’d once breathed, that no one but him could supply.’
So she stumbles through life, alienating friends and family and causing scenes. She sees her husband at a dinner party, but he disappears just before she can touch him and show him to the others. The narrator of Pig Tales inhabits an impossible world, where Paris burns down and werewolves devour pizza delivery boys. The narrator of My Phantom Husband may inhabit a world that is equally impossible; but because no one shares her experiences, it may be the case that the world is fine and only she is crazy. Either way, her loneliness makes her a very different figure from the heroine of Pig Tales. In the end she communes with her husband, alone in their apartment, and finds the answer to the question she had been wanting to ask earlier: ‘whether my husband (the cats, the birds, the fish and the flies with their compound eyes) felt and saw exactly what I felt and saw’.
My Phantom Husband explores the idea of presence through absence in various ways: the text is dotted with narrative lacunae, many of them at emotionally critical moments. The most important absence, however, is the lack of moral or political observation. The story is set in a frontier town which the French share with a strange, inferior race known as ‘yuoangui’. These enigmatic people could have added an important social dimension to the book, but their situation is only vaguely alluded to (nor is any pun on ‘yankee’, that staple of Parisian graffiti, intended).
This lack of engagement should be seen in the context of a disastrous interview that Darrieussecq conducted with the former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé. She agreed to talk to Juppé for Elle, but did not get to read the final edit, where they cut out her questions about ‘la crise sociale’ and industrial unrest, leaving only low-calorie chat about his jogging and reading habits. ‘L’expérience m’a servi de leçon. Il faut que j’écrive mes romans dans mon coin, que je ne me mêle plus d’autre chose ... Je me méfie de la littérature engagée.’ She is nonetheless as frank about her political leaning (left) as about her sexual preference (physicists).
My Phantom Husband has sold more than 70,000 copies in France, which is a lot for a novel of crashing non-drama, inhabited by unattractive characters and full of bewildering visions. Yet the talent behind Pig Tales resurfaces in descriptions of how it feels to be a dog, a whale or a monkey, and there are other admirable moments. A bird circling overhead is ‘two empty wings wrapped around a cry’; fumbling in the dark for the bedroom wall, the narrator panics: ‘or maybe I’d bump up against something warm, velvety, moist and vaguely sticky, and I’d say to myself, when day finally breaks, are you sure you won’t find blood on your fingers?’
There is a danger in having a narrator whose ‘imagination, out of sheer boredom, strikes out on its own’: the tendency is contagious. But in the event this turns out to be one of the novel’s strengths. Less readable and less attractive than Pig Tales, My Phantom Husband is nevertheless an achievement. The contrast with its predecessor can only be to Darrieussecq’s credit, as evidence of her determination not to be pigeonholed. Asked by Madame Figaro what she wanted for the future, she replied: ‘D’écrire. Toujours. C’est bête, non?’ Even after Pig Tales and the audacity of her new novel, she has kept her sense of proportion. ‘J’espère un jour écrire un grand bouquin. Mais je suis jeune, j’ai le temps.’
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