On Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La femme de Gilles.
It’s probably not unusual to read a novel whose protagonist bears your own name if your name is Jane or Emily or John or Jack, but it’s a neat first for me. What immediate force of recognition! Elisa: a tall, handsome woman, breasts not as high and mighty as they once were, fully vested in domestic life, and holding fast to the hope that domestic life matters, because breasts, like time, go only in one direction. Cry us a river.
But Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s Elisa—the centerpiece of La femme de Gilles, and marginalized from the get-go by its clever title!—is massively betrayed by her cheerfully unrepentant husband on page eight. And Bourdouxhe’s Elisa can’t skip off to an artists’ colony and seek revenge with a neurotic sculptor or hop a train down to the city and buy a new dress and flirt with someone at a party or take her kids to live in an intentional community in Vermont, where she’d discover an affinity for orgies and hallucinogens and spinning pottery (as this Elisa might). She can’t write a think piece about having been betrayed, parlay it into a book deal, and promote it via an Instagram account with a chic, aspirational, rural/industrial French aesthetic. Bourdouxhe’s Elisa—known in her own damn novel as Gilles’ Woman, for God’s sake—has no recourse. No practical recourse, and, worse, no emotional recourse. There’s no precedent for middle-aged feminist reinvention in pre–World War II–era rural/industrial Belgium (that I know of).
Did I mention that Bourdouxhe’s Elisa is expecting her third child? And that her husband is actually fucking her little sister? Yeah, she’s got it pretty bad. But the excruciating part is that Elisa doesn’t blame her husband (or her sister, who is described viciously, perfectly, as “one of those women who just knows” the minute she’s snared a man’s attention). The trouble is that Elisa is completely, utterly besotted by Gilles, regardless. She only wants him back, and she is prepared to quietly hold her ground until he grows tired of the affair. No kicking, no screaming, no recrimination or sulking: Elisa soldiers on. She makes coffee. She cares for her daughters. She cleans the kitchen. She sweeps the steps.
Let’s talk about domestic heavy lifting for a minute: keeping the home fires burning, loving unreservedly and endlessly, negating personal needs in the service of those we love, and even managing to take quotidian joy in it all. These things cannot yet be done by robots, arguably should never be done by robots, and a working-class woman like Elisa can’t hire other women to do it for her, and the gendered lineage of this work (yes: work) cannot be wiped away by declarative intent or starry-eyed idealism. Elisa’s understanding of this is one of the novel’s triumphs, and her only solace. She experiences a “deep sense of pride, untouched by scorn, rising within her and comforting her soul.” Yes, caring for other people is important work. Gilles and his childish lust mean nothing compared to Elisa’s elemental, necessarily female grasp of this.
Or so I noted in the margins before I put the book aside to go prepare dinner for my family.
So here we have a sad novel about a sad lady, very matter-of-fact in its cadences. A rediscovered treasury of sadness. The sentences unfurl in an even tone. The chapters are brief and eventful. Elisa is very, very sad, and for good reason. She is a sad salad sandwich on toasted sad. She is in torment, and she does the only thing she knows how to do: she tries to wait it out. Classic sad.
We know everything there is to know about sad women. Our formative education was likely full of them (as, for that matter, are our neighborhoods, bridal parties, and girls’ nights out). We’re X-ray clear on misdirected loyalties and squandered selves. We know the sad-lady drill: selfless, devoted, doing the best she can. She has limited choices and no options, or no options she’s aware of, which is the same thing. What would happen if she were to attempt to break free, grasp at independence or some authentic expression of self? She’d wind up under a literal or metaphorical train, of course. Anyway, what would “freedom” even look like? Don’t be ridiculous. She’s fine. No, no, really, she’s fine.
In her stellar afterword to this new edition of the novel, the translator Faith Evans talks about some of the pinnacles of sorrowful literary womanhood that preceded La femme de Gilles. I’d rather look forward for comparison, into a future Bourdouxhe’s Elisa couldn’t possibly imagine: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.
Similarly betrayed by her adored husband, Ephron’s pregnant protagonist refuses to stay put. She dynamites their life together, tells all their friends, moves out, and spends the rest of the novel riffing hilariously on romance, identity, culture, sex, love, family, food, and money. Heartburn’s opening line reads almost like a cruel summation of La femme de Gilles: “The first day I did not think it was funny.” But then she goes on: “I didn’t think it was funny the third day, either, but I managed to make a little joke about it.”
A joke! Perhaps the canniest, quickest way to defy our expectations about the wronged woman (read: any woman). Arguably the cleverest way for the wronged woman (read: any woman) to empower herself.
Nothing’s wrong with being sad, mind you. Sadness is crucial. Sadness can be an important and profitable base layer. Sadness is step one. It can lead to many interesting places, like rage, perversity, absurdity, self-awareness, humor, lust, maybe even (dare to dream) change. Ephron knew this, so her narrator skips gleefully along, setting off land mines and giggling maniacally as she does. She is a many-armed goddess of recrimination, rage, perversity, absurdity, self-awareness, and humor. The story is hers to tell, and the telling of the story is, itself, fulfillment. Watch her rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
Here are two parallel heartbroken women half a century apart, women thrown away like trash: if only Elisa had it in her to make a joke! But Ephron’s heroine was a different kind of woman, living in a different era. Only fifty-six years elapsed between publications of La femme de Gilles and Heartburn. Almost exactly as long on the other end, incidentally, as between Anna Karenina and La femme de Gilles. On this timeline, Elisa can be seen as a hinge, a fulcrum. Will she or won’t she wind up under that infamous literal or metaphorical train? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The mother of a college friend once gave me some advice: Marry someone who loves you just a little bit more than you love him. (She said this in a whisper, so her devoted husband wouldn’t hear.) We give so much of ourselves in a marriage, she was implying, and we ask so much, and there is ultimately so little accounting for the psychic economics therein, that it’s a good idea to cover your ass with a surfeit of adoration. As marriage advice goes, it’s not entirely without merit, though upon reflection it also sounds like permission to be an asshole to your spouse. This advice came forcefully back to me as I gawked at the spectacle of Elisa and her Gilles.
Gilles wants to “stake his claim on life”; Elisa “cannot conceive of any greater happiness than giving him pleasure.” It’d be easy to say he’s a jerky dude and she’s a pathetic lady. But reducing it to a gender binary misses the point. Gilles is not an asshole because he wants to assert his vitality via his genitals; Gilles is an asshole because Elisa doesn’t fully exist for him. Elisa is not weak because she enjoys giving her husband pleasure; Elisa is weak because she does not fully exist for herself.
I read La femme de Gilles as a riveting cautionary tale, contemporary as any “It Happened to Me”: What happens to someone who doesn’t fully exist for herself? Elisa’s no coward, but she doesn’t know that rage and humor and lust are options for her, that, in fact, rage and humor and lust are not contraindicated. “Deprived of the feeling that she must act … she gained the shattering liberty of looking things in the face,” Bourdouxhe writes. I guess “liberty” is subjective, but look things in the face Elisa certainly does, turning around and around in place, hoping very hard that somehow, somehow, her ideal of domestic bliss might be redeemed, intact.
What makes La femme de Gilles achingly, urgently relevant is its stark, dismayed portrayal of sadness as a dead end. Elisa swallows the wrongs enacted upon her and then, well … what do you think happens to a person without access to rage, perversity, absurdity, self-awareness, or humor? A specifically female person, to whom the luxuries of rage and perversity and self-awareness and humor have been denied as a matter of course? Have you ever tried to scream in a dream and found yourself unable to make a sound?
We still like our women self-abnegating. Self-blaming. Self-whatevering. Self-fill-in-the-blank-ing (just not self-pleasuring, hell no). Placid, at any rate. Or maybe, maybe, just kind of mewling prettily over in a corner. Dare to raise the mewling to a moan, a dirge, or, heaven forbid, a scream? Complainer, shut up! Bitch, get on some meds. We still like our women woman enough to bear their sorrows stoically, silently, heroically. We still prefer that women not bother us with their sorrows. Even—or especially—when said sorrows have been foisted upon them. Even and especially when they have been expressly hurt, violated, betrayed. Embroidering shame about having been wronged is just so pretty. We trade on that, call it “likable.”
Ask yourself, when you read this novel, whether or not you “like” Elisa. Ask yourself why you like her, or why you do not. Do you like her because she is brave and uncomplaining? Do you like her because she downplays her heartache? Do you like her because you pride yourself on being this way, too? Do you like her because she’s a victim of circumstance, because she has been wronged? Do you like that? What do you do when you are wronged? Do you swallow it? Are you faithful to the status quo? Do you blame yourself? Are you very, very sad? Do you let people see that? Do you ever wake up screaming but find you’re actually just grunting softly?
Or do you dislike Elisa? Do you dislike her because she is impotent, paralyzed? Does that frustrate you? Do you dislike her because she has no recourse, no options? What is your recourse? What are your options?
“The smell of suffering always disgusts others,” Elisa observes. La femme de Gilles is a new classic, a detailed portrait of the worst kind of suffering there is: submerged, denied, ignored.
It’s 1930 and there are boy soldiers crawling through the grass outside her window, rehearsing their own doom. Can’t Bourdouxhe’s Elisa run off with the frisky recruit who winks at her from the meadow? Can’t she cast off the bonds of housewifery, if only for an hour, a day? Can’t she shame Gilles publicly? Can’t she slap the smug smile off her little sister’s face? Can’t she plunge a hot poker through Gilles’s pathetic excuse for a heart?! Can’t she dump some of that delicious soup she’s forever making down his pants?
No, she cannot. Were she to burn down her literal or metaphorical house, perhaps her novel would boast a happy ending. Were she to kick and scream and cry and moan, make a real ugly scene, perhaps a new beginning would await her on the other side of this misery. But we have always preferred a woman who does nothing to enact her own humanity. A woman who blames and punishes herself, even when she’s not guilty. We prefer it this way because it’s simpler this way. And it’s how she purifies herself, see? She is a closed circuit, like a novel itself. Sure, the price she pays is her very self, but at least our sympathy can remain intact. And isn’t sympathy, after all, Elisa’s most important currency? Her only currency, in fact?
Sad woman here! Come and get yer sad woman! She’s paralyzed with sorrow, folks. She’s got no support! Her only option is to bear it alone, silently, until she can bear it no more! Saaaaad woman, here! Come and get some suuuuuper sad wo-man!
“What she needed was help in reconstructing her life on earth, someone to comfort her.” No dice, Elisa. We are the closest she’ll get. We readers, witnesses.
If she were to turn feral—like Ephron’s narrator, who finally, at a polite party, smashes a pie in the philanderer’s face—we would have to censure her, shake our heads and cluck our disapproval, even as we smirk, and even as we probably envy her that wild freedom and self-possession. You can’t go around smashing pies in people’s faces, ladies.
La femme de Gilles oversteps not one single boundary. Elisa defies not one single expectation. Her torment is exquisitely private and dignified and profoundly feminine, a secret dutifully kept. It was a different time, we’ll remind ourselves again and again. Well, yes and no. If Elisa were to go bananas, she’d lose universal sympathy, and a woman who doesn’t have universal sympathy has nothing, nothing at all. The smell of suffering—a stench, more like it—still disgusts us. Look at Facebook.
So Elisa keeps it under wraps. All her torment, all her shame. All her heartbreak, none of it her doing. She’s such a good, stoic woman. She spares her friends and neighbors the unpleasantness of her own devastation. How considerate. The novel has the unhappiest of endings, but it can at least be said that Elisa exits her narrative intact, because we get to go on feeling unremittingly, purely sorry for her. We get to be outraged on her behalf, which makes us all-powerful, and who doesn’t want to be all-powerful? Certainly not poor Elisa, never fear. What a lovely, relatable woman. Just how we like ’em. Patient and uncomplaining and … Well. You can probably guess what’s in store for her. Things have a way of finding their own balance, try as we might to maintain control or look the other way.
“Just wait,” the narrative exhorts as the novel barrels toward its shattering conclusion, “don’t give up on yourself, just wait!” But Elisa is finally, finally done waiting. Giving up on herself is a given. She has exhausted her impressive reserves of patience, there is no relief, and I wish I could put a pie in Gilles’s face, myself, if only to make her laugh.
This essay appears as the introduction to Melville House’s new edition of Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La femme de Gilles, available now, translated from the French and with an afterword by Faith Evans.
Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night Is Different, and the editor of Freud’s Blind Spot.