Simone Schwarz-Bart Essay - Critical Essays

Schwarz-Bart, Simone

Schwarz-Bart, Simone 1938–

Born in Guadeloupe and now living in France, Ms Schwarz-Bart wrote in her novel, The Bridge of Beyond, of "the most oppressed and proudest Negroes" of Guadeloupe.

The French in the West Indies were brutes with a special taste for the pastoral. They gave it expression by calling their slaves Icare, Thisbe and Piram. Not surprisingly, the blacks in Simone Schwarz-Bart's novel [The Bridge of Beyond], set in Guadeloupe, have equally sonorous names, like Victory and Minerva. The central character's name is Télumée. The novel appears to be a memoir of tropical childhood. Full of West Indian pastoral, it is as sweet and rosy a vision of the islands as one is likely to get. It is written in a mood of bemused nostalgia and celebrates the fulness and vitality of life in ramshackle villages….

The tale's difficulty is in the elliptical way it is presented. It is like a fable in the form of a ballad, which is to say it is poetical but not always clear. Its langorous sense of ease, dangerously close to delusion, gives scope to Simone Schwarz-Bart's considerable gift for describing the trees and flowers of her native island. It stops short, however, of anything remotely contentious or disturbing. (p. 41)

Mel Watkins, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1974.

Simone Schwarz-Bart's novel [The Bridge of Beyond] is one of the most low-keyed narratives I can recall reading. Out of violent events she has made something beautiful, something poetic; the lyricism of her style enchants. (p. 26)

Charles R. Larson, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 6, 1974.

[What] is striking about [The Bridge of Beyond] is its coherence, its internal fidelity. The style from time to time may seem too oracular—it seems so to me—yet this language, highly clausal, languorous, deliberately unnatural, was chosen as the equivalent of a complex and ironic experience….

The novel is an act of salvage, written out of emotional memory, with full consciousness of loss—the great charm doesn't reduce the sadness. And if it has the most wandering of stories, it is beautifully plotted, the author always sure of her structural effects. (p. 50)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 10, 1975.

[In The Bridge of Beyond] Simone Schwarz-Bart writes about three generations of staunch women, who patch up lives smashed by humiliated men. The women … experience happiness and varieties of its opposite as a physical condition, and through men, who would explain their own uneasiness or despair in terms of what the world has done to them. [The novel breaks] through any such bleakly generalised accounts of what relationships between men and women are about because of the quite particular lives which flourish in them….

Telumee, who tells her own story and her grandmother's, spends her life within an area of a few square miles on [her] island and learns neither to read nor write. The novel's success is partly due to the language which has been invented for her, which works as the expression of an individual intelligence informed and confined by the traditions and realities such a woman might have to respond to…. Telumee weaves her own way through what happens to her, listening selectively to the words of traditional wisdom collected and transmitted as a continuous litany to ease lives grounded in the expectation of misery. It is the tentativeness and humanity of these sage offerings which make the novel so moving and so real. (p. 67)

Jane Miller, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), February, 1975.

Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle [published in America as The Bridge of Beyond] is a remarkable book for its stylistic grace and poetic containment of an often brutal reality (a case of what is known as realismo mágico in Spanish America), for its example of persistence in the face of injustice and misfortune, and perhaps most of all for its strikingly vivid and authentic evocation of the Antillean Creole world—especially as represented by that of the rural blacks of Guadeloupe. (p. 35)

Novels of the French Antilles are normally written in French, yet French is a second language for most of the islanders, whose mother tongue is Creole…. The principal language of instruction, officialdom, and the mass media is of course French, but Creole as well is used for broadcasts and written advertising, and has been the medium of a fair amount of folk literature, both oral and written, for more than a century…. Télumée … contains no Creole at all, nor any French structurally modified in the direction of Creole. Yet the Creole world, the Creole culture, is present on every page. The whole thing sounds and feels Creole. This is of course partly due to the author's closeness to her material. The story is told from within, from the point of view of an elderly black woman with little schooling—Télumée Lougandor—who has lived her entire life in one sector of the Guadeloupean countryside. At every turn we feel close to the earth and often the sea, to the elements and all living things on the island. But equally significant, if not more so, is the fact that Mme Schwarz-Bart can think and feel in Creole, capture the essence—the "deep structure" of that experience, and map it to the surface in French. This transposed Creole is her most characteristic medium, and has much to do with the book's stylistic coherence, with the smooth, even flow of the story—which also depends upon the acquired wisdom, strength, compassion, and ultimate serenity of the narrator-protagonist, and of her grandmother before her. (pp. 35-6)

Télumée is above all a personal tale, lyric, nostalgic, even sentimental at times—though not offensively so—and ultimately reassuring. In the life of its characters, evil is tempered by good, suffering by joy, despair by pertinacity and folk wisdom, and we are left with a sense of veneration for those who can keep the faith in such circumstances….

But at the same time,… it is a work of considerable social significance, an impressive compendium … [of black themes:] slavery and its persistence in modern dress, poverty and misfortune, ambivalence and alienation, black identity and black culture, role-playing for whites, desperation and revolt, Guadeloupe versus France, and so on. (p. 36)

Télumée is an absorbing social document as well as an appealing and stylistically innovative novel. Furthermore, like Un Plat de porc and La Mulâtresse, I take it to be an important feminist text, well worth attention from scholars of that persuasion. (Matrifocality is the rule in all three novels….) (p. 45)

J. David Danielson, "'Télumée Miracle' and the Creole Experience," in The International Fiction Review, January, 1976, pp. 35-46.

An abundance of love nearly overburdens The Bridge of Beyond, the first novel by Simone Schwarz-Bart…. She has written The Bridge of Beyond (whose title in French is the very different Pluie et Vent sur Télumée Miracle) "in memory of an old peasant woman of my village who was my friend." Telumee tells her story, beginning with her genealogy; she is the daughter of the black woman Victory, who was the daughter of Queen Without a Name, who was the daughter of Minerva, who was "a fortunate woman freed by the abolition of slavery from a master notorious for cruelty and caprice." These matrilineal generations overlap those of Mme. Schwarz-Bart's husband's recent short novel, A Woman Named Solitude…. Though the two books have a companionable closeness of tone—a kind of tranced lyricism, as if, in her phrase, "dreamed in broad daylight"—her novel is the less surreal and the more substantial, the more convincing as a testament of life. The imagery of rivers flows through it, and its radiant shimmer and feeling of unforced movement are drawn from the center of the stream. "We were steeped in day, the light came in waves through the shifting leaves, and we looked at one another astonished to be there, all three, right in the stream of life." The book takes for its theme nothing less than living: Queen Without a Name "went on doing what God had created her for—living," though she can also ask, "To see so much misery, be spat at so often, become helpless and die—is life on earth really right for man?" (pp. 277-78)

The "miracle" attached to Telumee's name and present in the French title may be that of the human spirit, with its immortal resilience, its quicksilver moods admirable even when malevolent, its—as the book puts it—panache. Another theme is the special shape and tactics forced upon the black spirit in a land ruled by white proprietors…. The word "Negro" recurs insistently, not as a demoted term of racist distinction but as a metaphor for all men who are oppressed and scant of hope…. "What happiness!" comes as the book's concluding phrase, and if words of wisdom are spoken by too many sibylline Negresses, and a Caribbean brand of black populism pushes some passages into sentimentality, the book's gift of life is so generous, and its imagery so scintillant in the sunlight of love, that we believe every word. (pp. 278-79)

John Updike, "Saganland and the Back of Beyond" (originally published in The New Yorker), in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1967, 1973, 1974, 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1976, pp. 274-79.