Naomi Bliven, “Daphne in India, Catherine in France”, The New Yorker, July 02, 1966 (recension de The Jewel in the Crown de Paul Scott, et de The Opoponax de Monique Wittig)
The Opoponax by Monique Wittig (translated from the French by Helen Weaver ; published by Simon & Schuster1) is a charming feat of virtuosity – a little girl’s own view of her unremarkable life from nursery school to high school. The little girl is Catherine Legrand, and she and her younger sister live in a French town, go to school, go to Church, play with each other, play with other children, visit relatives on a farm. (The opoponax of the title is a créature on whom Catherine blames such misfortunes as a faucet that stars to drip as soon as you have gone back to bed.) Miss Wittig’s novel is told in the historic present, wihout any formal transitions between scenes or episodes (and no scene or épisode lasts more than a few pages). Catherine does not impart abstract sense – and certainly no narrative or causal form – to her experiences. She is interested in what she is interested in – the part in the hair of the girl in front of her – and not in the aims or motivations of adults, teachers ands parents, who seem to her more like forces of nature than fellow-beings. But these technical procedures, which look like innovations, are really instances of a traditional artitic virtue – economy of means. The reader has no trouble following Catherine’s growth through her studies (learning to count to 8, easy Latin on page 132) or through her extracuricular activities (hiding behing lilacs one spring, going to Rogation services another). Catherine’s like is childhood’s characteristic, comic mixture – passion and incompetence. She keeps discovering and rediscovering the unmanageability of everything, including oneself (one child quietly toying with her bread at the children’s table somehow becomes all the children throwing mashed potatoes at each other), that grownups call mischief.
Besides the exclusions I have mentioned, Miss Wittig excludes statements of feeling. When a little boy, a summer playmate, gives Catherine a snake, the reader is expected to realize that it is a tribute of love. The book refrains from saying so. The absence of overt emotion helps the book achieve its splendid effect, which is childhood, in all its grubby innocence, portrayed as silent-screen comedy – kinetic, surprising, and, even in misfortune, carefree. Would it be fair to say that this motion picture of childhood lacks profundity, as it lacks completeness ? Or is Miss Wittig’s own profundity her implication that there is a lot less profundity in childhood than other writers descry ? Or does she exemplify Valéry’s remark that clarity and profundity are just two literary effects ? I cannot decide. The Opoponax, at any rate, is wild, giddy fun, the fun of being – or, better, watching – a child, and, of course, the fun of stunning literary bravura.
- Monique Wittig, The Opoponax , trad. Helen Weaver, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1976.