Liam Bishop

Melancholy Recognitions: Two French Novels in Translation

Satisfaction | Nina Bouraoui (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) | Canterbury: Héloïse Press 
Love Me Tender | Constance Debré (translated by Holly James) | London: Tuskar Rock (Serpent’s Tail) 

Nina Bouraoui grew up in Algeria during a time when the country was forging its independence. A brutal and bloody war, after over 130 years of colonial rule by the French, heralded Algeria’s self-determination. Since then, an attempt at a modern democratic constitution has bristled up against islamic traditions and doctrines. For someone like Bouraoui, a gay woman born to an Algerian father and French mother, it meant, as she said in an interview with Le Monde, living in a country with “tellement beau, tellement magnétique”, but also, “marqué par la violence” (“so beautiful, so magnetic…marked by violence”). It’s this context she’s returned to frequently throughout her work, and no less in Satisfaction.  

In Satisfaction, it’s 1977 and Madame Akli is married with a son. We learn that she is attracted to another woman called Catherine, the mother of her son’s best friend. Akli’s husband, Brahim, a seemingly pleasant enough person, is unable to satisfy Catherine sexually or romantically. Amar, Catherine’s husband, works in the oil industry meaning he spends long periods away from home (the renationalisation of the oil industry by Houari Boumédiène brought wealth and international positioning to Algeria after the leaner and more erratic Marxist government of Ahmed Ben Bella). We wonder whether Catherine shares the same feelings as Akli. We also wonder about the consequences if their relationship were to be anything more than companionship.

The way we learn about Akli is through the notebooks she writes and which constitute the narrative. Rather than giving a sense of auto-fictional confession (Bouraoui has quite openly and often categorised her work as “autofiction”), the notebooks store a sense of privation in Akli’s outpourings. Her honest reflections on hers and her husband’s unsatisfying sex life, her projections into her child in which she’s trying to work out her own feelings, reflect a sense of guarded and cautious self-analysis. 

In Garçon Manque (2002), in which Professor Helen Vassallo in an introduction to the English edition of Satisfaction makes several direct comparisons, Bouraoui wrote of the narrator’s search for identity and belonging as a “guerre contre le monde”, a war against the world. I thought of this phrase in Satisfaction. It’s clear why Akli’s queer desire contradicts the strictures of Algerian society in 1977. What’s interesting here though is how identity and belonging is more explicitly linked to a feeling of melancholy:

“I berate myself for no longer being as I used to be before; but before what?’ Haven’t I always been haunted by melancholy that no country, no voyage, no flight could appease or cure? The melancholy that led me to Algeria, where past and present exist side by side, where Roman remains are scattered here and there, ruins that contain human destinies. The earth is waiting for them, it will reclaim them.”

Directly translated from the French “melancolie” by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, considering that it’s a word notably recurring several times in the opening pages, Bouraoui clearly wants to use this often misunderstood term to describe Akli’s feelings. Although melancholy has entered common discourse as a more general feeling of unidentifiable sadness, it’s worth reminding ourselves of how Freud used the word. In mourning, it is the world that has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself that has become poor and empty, said Freud, and that feeling of loss we feel is melancholy, an untranslatable and unidentifiable state of loss. It’s this sense of loss that is latent through the novel. 

What is this loss? It’s never entirely clear, yet, this doesn’t stop Akli, or any of us for that matter, looking for a reason for this feeling. Like the above passage, Bouraoui uses the landscape of Algeria as a figurative representation of Akli’s desire to locate that feeling. We often see Akli and Catherine going on trips around Algeria with their children. They visit other towns, Bou Saada, the beach and the countryside. Later in the novel, Akli then writes, “for me, there was an inner and outer Algeria”, and it ultimately frames her search as a figurative attempt to locate a source of pain, a war within and against the world. 

C’est mon terreau. Je crois que tout est là / “It’s my soil: I believe that it’s all there”, said Bouraoui in that same interview with Le Monde. The beauty and the pain of a place you recognise as home, but having to live with the fact that there parts of it not accepting or even dangerous to you. Perhaps it’s no wonder we’ve found Bouraoui returning to Algeria. And we shouldn’t be surprised to see Bouraoui return to it again.

There is a more explicit sense of what has, or what might be lost in Constance Debré’s Love Me Tender. “A few months ago”, Debré’s narrator, who shares a first name with the writer, tells us, “I switched to girls”. Although her husband, Laurent, appears to take this cordially, her announcement eventually precipitates a series of events ultimately resulting in Constance no longer being able to see her son, Paul. One day around Halloween, Laurent tells Constance that her son no longer wants to see her. A court case ensues over custody. Constance is unfairly and slanderously accused of incest and paedophilia. Not only is she potentially losing access to her son, but a fair standing in society. 

The novel largely captures the life Constance leads as a result of losing the court case. The viewpoint of the novel is entirely Constance’s. We follow Constance as she tries to get in contact with Paul and misses portions of his childhood and development. She must also contend with Paul’s occasional rejection of her which is, in large parts, being engineered by his father. In the meantime, “with the goal of having as little in life as possible”, she lives a regimented lifestyle of swimming, smoking and hooking up with women. A short novel, it means the period of time between seeing and not seeing Paul is even more destabilising when we learn months have passed. Time is moving quickly.

Maybe because the sense of loss was more abstract and interior in Bouraoui’s novel, Debré’s narrator captures a feeling of loss in a different way:

“I won’t be needing this place anymore. I won’t be needing a bed for him, I don’t need all these things, all this stuff, all mine. In any case I’ve stopped paying rent. Time to get rid. Time to get out. What else can I do but keep going, speed up, carry on living like a young man, a single bachelor. A solitary man, as Johnny Cash says. From now on I’m a lonesome cowboy.”

This is the characteristically caustic tone which typifies the novel. The prose, like the narrator’s actions, conveys movement and a desire to continually live on one’s feet (interestingly, Colm Tóibín, included Debré’s novel on a syllabus of “Restlessness”, texts of “pure voice…the tone is incantatory or staccato or filled with melancholy recognition”). There’s also a distinct lack of feeling conveyed by Constance, nothing like the deeply analytical way Akli describes her feelings. While at once it suggests an unbothered, macho attitude, it also suggests a sense of helplessness (“what else can I do…”), or as Tóibín put it, a melancholy recognition of the circumstances.

The idea of her being a cowboy encapsulates the marauding and, arguably, derisively masculine way she characterises her life. Although Paris might not be as expansive as a whole country like Algeria, there is still this sense of the geography being a figurative representation of the internal workings and melancholy of the narrator. At one point, Constance tells us that she goes through her list of partners and “sorts them all by age, occupation, skin colour, neighbourhood.” And then, in a characteristically pithy remark, she calls it a “metromap of conquests”. When Eric Hobsbawm said that the cowboy is usually a “male white protagonist…in some sense a misfit or refugee from civilisation…seeking something that cannot be found elsewhere…” it calls to mind this provocatively gendered description of Debré’s narrator. But it also calls to mind that feeling of rejection and hurt which inspires the cowboy’s lonesome journeys into the wild, seeking a sense of place or belonging.

Debré’s novel, despite its punkish attitude, does have a unifying moral and it’s that there’s a place for everyone in the world, no matter what the status quo, or law, says. There’s a kind of postmodern anxiety to this too. Constance treats Paris like it’s the setting of a French New Wave film, and it’s refigured and reconstituted for the character she wants or needs to play, whether it’s the mother playing with her son in the park, or meeting women in gay bars. But as is sometimes the case with novels that resemble autofiction, it can lead to passages of internal rumination that can stall the narrative by way of the prose becoming too abstract. Both these novels, however, will make you want to know if their narrators get what they want, or if it’s just a case of wishful thinking.

Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds, UK. His writing has appeared in the Irish Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Review 31. He also interviews writers on the Rippling Pages podcast. He can be followed on Twitter @liamhbishop, and his website can be found here.

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