Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

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Translated by Faith Evans

Reviewed by Rachel Fenn

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s intriguing novella, originally published in 1943, has been newly translated by Faith Evans in a beautiful edition produced by Daunt Books. Evans has decided to make the title eponymous, the focus clearly on the intense young woman at its centre, but I think it’s important to consider the French title too, A La Recherche de Marie, which means looking for, or searching for, Marie. The French title reveals much more of what the book is truly about, as the concept of searching is so central to the narrative, for both the character of Marie and the reader must spend the entire novel seeking to understand who this elusive woman really is, as Marie’s vibrant inner life is spilled across its pages.

In pre-war Paris, Marie lives with her beloved husband Jean in a small, neat apartment that she takes much pride in. She is newly married, and desperately in love, her whole existence wrapped up in that of her husband. However, as the novel opens, she and Jean are on holiday at the coast, and one afternoon, Marie finds her eye arrested by the figure of a younger man sunbathing on the beach. They spend a short, passionate afternoon together, and when Marie goes back to Paris, nothing seems quite the same. Marie doesn’t work, apart from a small amount of tutoring one day a week. She fills her days with housework, which she finds curiously fulfilling, shopping, and visiting friends and family. She is brimming with passion and love, full of curiosity and acutely aware of the world around her. She wanders the streets of Paris, delighting in the shouts of children, the smell of flowers, the colours of the fruit on market stalls. She is contrasted sharply with her sister Claudine, who has made an unhappy marriage, and lost all interest in life. Her flat is shabby, she makes no effort with her clothes, and she clings to Marie as she would a buoy as she begins to sink beneath her own suffocating melancholy. Marie cannot understand her sister, but she also cannot understand herself. The love she has for the world is almost too much for her to bear, as is the love she has for both her husband and for the man she met at the beach. But when tragedy strikes, she must reconsider her decisions, and think about what it is she really wants, and whether she is willing to take the steps to have it.

This is a very intriguing, intensely evocative novel that is filled with emotion and a vibrancy that felt rather overwhelming at times. Marie is a wonderful, if slippery character, whose thoughts and impressions are dizzying, but fascinating. She is, perhaps, in some ways, a very feminist figure; someone who knows what she wants and is not afraid to take it, but she is also very much a woman of her time, her world revolving around home and husband in a way that seems out of touch with the richness of Marie’s inner life. She is, I suppose, very much like all of us in that she is a mass of contradictions, of opposing thoughts and impulses, and she positively throbs with life on the page.

Faith Evans has done an excellent job of translating Bourdouxhe’s stream of consciousness style, and it felt very much like I was reading Virginia Woolf in places. I was glad to read Marie; it was refreshing to read something so utterly different, and I found myself quite haunted by Marie after I closed its pages. I am looking forward to reading more of Bourdouxhe’s work; she is certainly a discovery Daunt was wise to make.

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Rachel blogs at Book Snob.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Marie (Daunt, 2016). 978-1907970764, 160pp., paperback.

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