Sally Beauman, “Les Guerilleres by Monique Wittig”, The New York Times, octobre 1971
Les Guérillères paraissent aux Etats-Unis en septembre 1971 dans une traduction de David Le Vay. Le compte-rendu de Sally Beauman, qui est associate editor of The Daily Telegraph Magazine in London, paraît dans l’édition du 10 octobre 1971 du New York Times est illustré d’une photo reproduite ici, sans que soit mentionné le nom du/de la photographe. Un sous-titre au compte-rendu est imprimé au-dessus de l’article : “Women without men, except to kill for fun and survival”.
From the start, French novelist Monique Wittig has had powerful champions. In her collection of essays, “The Writing on the Wall,” Mary McCarthy devoted an entire chapter to Miss Wittig’s first novel, “The Opoponax.” It was, she wrote, “the book I’ve argued for – and about- most this year.” The novel was also hailed by Marguerite Duras. Alain Robbe-Grillet described it as “one of the most interesting and exciting ventures in contemporary literature.” It was awarded the 1964 Prix Medicis. At the time it was written, the author was only 28.
Since then, there has been a long wait for her second book — although she has written for other media, notably radio. Her new novel, “Les Guérillères” (though novel is hardly the word for it), now appears in an American edition.
Monique Wittig was born in the Haut Rhin region of Alsace, and was employed in Paris in various quiet, semi-academic positions until the publication of her first book: she worked for the Bibliothèque Nationale and, as a proof reader, for Editions de Minuit. Until quite recently she lived at home with her parents, and was said to dislike publicity. Nothing about her indicated that she would write a first novel like “The Opoponax”, a novel of extraordinary disciplined virtuousity. It is a book all the more interesting in that it owes a great deal to novelists like Duras and Robbe-Grillet, yet manages to avoid many of the potential traps of the nouveau roman.
In “The Opoponax” there is none of the obsessive sensitivity that sometimes clouds Duras’ writing; nor is there that tone of dryly desperate experimentation that can mar Robbe-Grillet. On the surface, “the Opoponax” is simple. It is the record of the childhood of a French girl. It is told without breaks in what might be described as stream of consciousness — though phrase implies subjectivity and would be misleading. For the book is distanced. Although the evocation of childhood is intense, it is achieved in a way quite new in literature. The girl is never “I”; the second-person form is used, and sometimes the third-person. Catherine Legrand’s activities are one moment referred to by “you” (“You can see some peach pits and some plum pits in the gutter”) and the next moment by “she” (“She goes to the gate and watches the people go by on the road”).
Thus the narrator is alternatively drawn closer to us, associated with us in the inclusive “you” — then distanced again by a reversion to proper names, or to “she”. This is no idle experiment. The constant suffle between subjectivity and objectivity is, in fact, the essential theme of the novel — Monique Wittig’s vision of childhood as a process in which only gradually does the child cease to be an impartial spectator and become involved with people and with events.
Most books about childhood rely, however winningly, on nostalgia, on the ability of the grown-up writer to re-create the past, but a past inevitably filtered through adult sensibilities. Obviously Monique Wittig’s novel can be no exception to this : she writes about an 8-year old, but she herself is 28. Yet she has managed to concoct a novel of marvelous artifice, in which the illusion that this is the voice of childhood is almost complete. Its strength is in its clear, glass-like style: simple primer sentences; a narrative that skips without either temporal, logical or emotional links from a school nature ramble to the death of a fellow pupil to mass to holiday games in a hay-loft.
There is no apparent point to the selection of incidents. We are not shown by stealthily selected episodes the awakening of sexualt understanding, or an awareness of mortality, or any of the events customarily singled out as the cornerstones of childhood. Instead, the book seems unedited, though that is far from the case. For a child, says Monique Wittig, events are objective. They are noted with interest — whether it is the geological construction of agate, or the discharge from a dead baby’s nose, or the way a friend picks up a boiled sweet from the chapel floor. It is only gradually (almost as imperceptibly for the reader as for Catherine Legrand herself) that events impinge. Her friend’s name is gradually more present; she makes a joke, and when her friends do not laugh, notes for the first time the reactions of others to herself. With such tiny shiftings, we see her progress to adult identity.
With “Les Guérillères”, Monique Wittig achieves another revolution in our understanding — this time, of women rather than of childhood. What she has almost miraculously achieved, at one throw, is the first novel (or hymn, for this book is close to epic poetry) of Women’s Liberation. In a sens, as — pace Norman Mailer — Kate Millett has shown in “Sexual Politics,” there has always been a literature of Women’s Liberation. But it has been a literature typical of an oppressed class, one that has had to proceed by the use of ambiguities and satire and innuendo rather than direct attack. Thus, Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot all show us heroines whose lives are stunted by their restricted circumstances in a patriarchal society. And yet, having brilliantly shown us the conflict and misery, they resolve their stories inevitably in romance and marriage.
Even in the novels of Virginia Woolf, where the suffering of women is particularly acute, the solution — presumably, because it was too radical for the writer to contemplate — is glossed over. It is not really until Mary McCarthy, and the wicked, splendid Marxist heroine of “The Company She Keeps,” that we get a modern heroine who doesn’t end up with all problems solved by a neat little band of gold. But even in “The Company She Keeps” the territory is subjective. We are dealing with one Woman — with Women only by inference. Monique Wittig writes unashamedly about Women.
Her women are les guérillères, a strange, fierce warrior tribe. They live in fortified camps; they fight with knives, rifles, machines guns, rocket launchers. They worship the sun-godess, the circle, the vulva. They trace their descent from Boadicea, Penthesilia, Hippolyta, the Amazons. They have rites in which they annoint their bodies, sing sacred chants, drink wine. They taste drugs and spend the night orgiastically in each other’s arms. For food, they kill animals. For fun (and for survival) they kill men.
In short, we are pretty much in the (traditionnaly masculine) world of the Epic, the world of “The Iliad”, “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid”. The world in which Achilles girds on his glorious armor to avenge the death of his friend. A world in which courage and love were masculine virtues, and the women stood on the sidelines — either as sexual booty like Helen or impotent like Hecuba and Cassandra. The territory is so familiar, the fact that there is a vital diference — these warriors are women – can almost be ignored. Ignored, that is, until one realizes this is perhaps the first epic celebration of women ever written. And yet it seems natural, not bizarre.
Of course, “Les Guérillères” treads a path between serious epic celebration and satire of the entire form — but, so deftly is the novel written, this ambiguity does nothing to diminish its impact. One of its strengths, indeed, is that — like “The Opoponax” — it contrives to work on several levels. It is a satiric commentary on man’s constant use of literary forms for self aggrandizement; and on current Women’s Liberation arguments in which men feature as the imperialists and women as the colonized natives. Yet it is also a hymn of praise to women of astonishing conviction, a blueprint for women in the future. These female warriors have a racial-sexual identity: an identity confirmed and enshrined in their myths and history and poetry and religion.
They are not, like Lucy Stone, individual women who find themselves alone and battling in an essentialy masculine world. Instead they are seen as United, and it is in this compelling vision of women as a group that the force of the book lies. The intrepid band of schoolgirls (with their increasingly fierce loves and loyalties) whom Monique Wittig made so recognizable in “The Opoponax” are grown up; but they have not been siphoned of into male-orientated love and marriage. For all that they are exotic and barbaric creatures, with their own beautiful and barbarian culture, they are still — for any woman, anyway — familiar. And it is this that makes Monique Wittig at the moment so relevant a writer. For in spite of all the counter-propaganda — the world of sewing classes and women’s mags and Dr. Spock — she has written a book in which a tribe of Amazonian revolutionaries are both fiercely recognizable, and subversively sympathetic.
Monique Wittig is not yet well known. Largely as a result of the Prix Médicis, “The Opoponax” was translated and published all over Europe as well as in America. But there have been few opportunities outside France to hear her radio plays, and distribution of “Les Guérillères” in Europe will no doublt depend on the book’s critical reception. That she has still to find a wide public is unfortunate, for she is not only a deeply intelligent and disciplined writer. She is also in many ways more accessible than some current French novelists. There is warmth and humor in her books as well as discipline.
It could be that the topicality of her second novel will make it something of a cult book — which would be no bad thing. It would be nice to see real attention given to what is, after all, the first imaginative work of fiction in which the battle between the sexes is fought in Women’s Liberation terms. And a work of fiction that in itself is clear testimony to at least one woman’s wit and intelligence and imagination.