Pushkin Press released Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s collection of short stories A Nail, A Rose this June. Translated and beautifully introduced by Faith Evans, the stories powerfully elicit the complexities of the period through which the writer lived: Europe, post Nazi Occupation.
Despite a revival in the 80s, Bourdouxhe’s work suffered long periods of neglect, her output being interrupted by the Second World War, and neither her life nor work has been consistently well-documented. Shockingly, given the quality, this is the first time a volume of her writing has been published in English.
This really is a stunning collection. The bleakness of the historical context surrounding the stories feels recognisable yet altogether new under this writer’s gaze, drawn with a delicate, poignant subtlety and contrasted with a rich, dynamic evocation of the female experience. There is no compromise on Bourdouxhe’s focus on the female perspective; she is steadfast in her interest in women’s psychology, their identity, their subconscious, and how these ideas can be navigated through backdrops as mundane as domesticity or as dangerous as war. Though one story is told through a focalised narrative of a man (Rene), it still seems to lay all its energy on the female character, her experience, her struggle, the injustice of her fate.
For me, Bourdouxhe seems to occupy a new territory which at once sits firmly in its historical context, but seems to traverse to other worlds too; she has the observational expertise and tightness in structure of Katherine Mansfield, a touch of Angela Carter’s wildness, and the realism in her characterisation and dialogue reminded me of Daphne Du Maurier’s later work.
A vast night meadow, the colour of the earth, flowed out before and beneath her, stretched to infinity, because the mass of the darkened town beyond it, sunk in the apathy of a town under Occupation, could not be clearly distinguished.
It is no surprise to learn that Bourdouxhe was admired by Existentialists and Surrealists alike. Philosophical questions regarding desire, death and depression pulse through the narrative with such strength, yet are presented with a graceful clarity and simplicity. This is quality prose balanced with deep, dark characterisation. The balance between the restrictions these women face, the violence they face, their relationships with the men around them, and their wild, driving, fantastical inner worlds is compellingly drawn. The same can be said of the way in which she draws landscapes; landscapes become all things under her pen – they are both tender and bleak, potent and static, oppressive and liberating.
Like all Pushkin Press publications, the book is beautifully presented too – it’s the kind of gift you’ll always remember giving or always remember receiving because Bourdouxhe’s writing is absolutely one of a kind. Engaging with it is a moving, powerful and transformative reading experience.
A Nail, A Rose is available here for £12.