Francine du Plessix Gray

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Francine du Plessix Gray with Catherine Petroski (interview date December 1985)

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SOURCE: “Gray is Back in Fashion,” Saturday Review, Vol. 11, No. 6, December, 1985, pp. 52–56.

[In the following interview, Gray discusses the stylistic and thematic aspects of her novel October Blood.]

Francine du Plessix Gray's third novel, October Blood, takes place mainly in the ultra-urban, high-powered New York of High Fashion. Gray knows the territory well. Her mother, as Tatiana of Saks, was a designer of hats; her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, became editorial director of Condé Nast. Today Francine Gray lives a quiet life in rural Connecticut with her husband, painter Cleve Gray.

October Blood takes place, Gray says, “at the heart of a sexual-industrial complex which advised hundreds of thousands of women how to comb their hair, keep their men, feed their guests, what paintings to hang on the walls, what poets to name-drop at lunch and what novels, plays and beaches to discuss at dinners.”

Gray feels that although her new book's settings, characters and temper are significantly different, it completes a thematic trilogy with Lovers and Tyrants and World without End, her two previous novels. Two of the strongest linking elements are the self-searching and strong, if often antagonistic, family bonds of her protagonists. Gray's own relationships with her parents have fueled her writing—from her attempt to shut out memories of her natural father, who died in the French Resistance, to her rejection and later acceptance of her mother's values.

[Petroski:] How do you see October Blood fitting in with your two previous novels? Did you consciously think in terms of a certain readership as you wrote?

[Gray:] No, I never think of a specific audience—horrible thought! I can only think of the reader as some ideal angelic mind with whom I strive to communicate. I love my reader, and try to be kind.

October Blood does share the major themes of my other two novels but evolves them in more comical, fabulist ways. First and foremost, the search for community in our nomadic times. The protagonists of all my novels are solitary, fatherless persons who have been deracinated from their original tribal terrain by war or other circumstances and who seek for a family—either real or synthetic—in which to anchor. The family into which October Blood's protagonists assemble is very eccentric and bittersweet.

Another theme equally central to all three novels is women's need for adventure and solitary quest. Throughout history many of us have lusted for a Utopia of departure and abnegation, a fantasy of chucking it all, leaving all family duties and worldly goods behind. That's what the Brontës and Kate Chopin and Colette and Doris Lessing have written about—this is the female impulse most tabooed by society, and that's why it interests me so.

The women in October Blood are all the more burdened with the material dross of life because they purvey the arts of seduction, so their manner of flight is bound to be all the more dramatic. So here the theme of flight and severance is elaborated on an almost mythic level. I begin early in this century with the great-grandmother leaving her sumptuous Edwardian trappings for a life of abnegation in the African desert. This leave-taking is projected as fable in the memory of the protagonist, Paula, who will eventually take flight in her own exotic manner.

The third theme that binds October Blood to the earlier novels is the primacy of the mother-daughter bond. It's been the major preoccupation in women's writing in the past few years, and I caught the bug early on. But here, too, the mother-daughter theme is made more...

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absolute by being sensed first in its mythic dimension—through the invisible but constantly remembered Edwardian grandmother.

Isn't it ironic that all these women you describe are so asexual, yet they deal in this loaded brand of femininity?

Isn't it? The women who teach and sell the business of seduction, who tell you how to trim your fanny and paint your face and keep your man in bed, who “dictate the fate of hems in the Western world,” as my heroine Paula puts it, are women who have little or no sex life … at least that's the way I've observed it over forty years of living with such women. It's a pragmatic, hard-dealing, often brutal world in which people seek each other out for the profit or gain they will get from each other, so that its glamour and glitter is admixed with great solitude. So—no sex, no easy friendships under all the sequins—these are pretty barren, solitary lives. And this isolation gives the book a pathos and tension which, I hope, balances out the antic black humor that pervades the rest of the work.

Four generations are so cleanly defined in October Blood, yet they work well together. Which were the characters that you mentioned were “given” to you in a space of a few weeks?

Paula came to me first, the protagonist. I had a close friend in college whose mother was a high priestess of fashion very similar to those in October Blood, who became schizophrenic in her senior year and had to be put away. It's not unlikely for daughters of fashion queens to go schizo, seeing the manic concentration on appearance, the hyped-up illusions on which we're brought up. My friend spent some eight years in the hospital, and when she came out she married, and had two children, and shortly thereafter died of cancer. I've been wanting to write about her for years. I suppose that a central impulse behind this book is my desire to resuscitate this beloved friend, give her the future she never had … much fiction, I think, is written out of a longing to bring the dead back to life.

The character of Nada, Paula's mother, was given me almost simultaneously. She's inspired by another dead friend, a woman of my mother's generation who was very close and very kind to me in my teenage years. Like Nada she was British, and like Paula's grandmother she had been a beauty fabled throughout Europe, with many recollections of her childhood in Edwardian England. I wrote a short story about her some fifteen years ago which didn't work as a narrative, but the germ of the character was there, and an entire world of high style to describe. Like my fictional Nada she splits for a kind of desert in her last years, leaving all that shit behind. All That Shit—that's what one of my closest friends and best readers wanted me to call the book.

Of course one of the few “names” the public recognizes from the fashion publishing world is that of Diana Vreeland. Do you think people will try to find her in October Blood?

Anyone who thinks that knows nothing about Vreeland. One has only to know the basic biographic facts of Vreeland's life, or read her book D. V., to know how totally unlike her my characters are. Diana had one long, loyal marriage and a super solid family life and was a loving, disciplined mother. Her sons have both had brilliant and focused careers, radically unlike a character like my Babs and her picaresque son Nicholas. I'll tell you a secret: The character of Babs might have been drawn from younger women of my generation who tried to imitate Diana Vreeland but who didn't begin to have her character and intelligence and imagination.

Yet much of the book satirizes the world of fashion, doesn't it?

Yes and no. Like my other books, October Blood is ultimately about vocation. The key line in the novel comes at the end, at Babs' graveside, when Julian, Paula's husband, says that the world of Best [the fashion magazine in the book] is as noble and as potentially redemptive as his own aspired-to career, the priesthood. As he puts it, it's actually more innocent and purer because it has to do with the mere illusion of power, with “dressing up dolly.” Whereas genuine evil exists in places where people have true power—doctors, lawyers, heads of state. I may satirize the fashion world in this book but I also redeem it—I think I show that its denizens are individuals capable of as much nobility and suffering and insecurity and spirituality as those who practice any other vocation.

You've said that in writing October Blood you discarded certain scenes from the real-life fashion world because they might be considered hyper-real. What sort of scene would you not use, and why?

Well, I had a scene in which a fashion editor takes a model and a photographer and three assistants to India because she's obsessed with the great idea of photographing Givenchy ball gowns in Calcutta with some sacred temple and lots of elephants in the background. They arrive and set up the camera, and the temple elephants have gone berserk and are chomping and foaming at the mouth, it's 10:00 a.m. and the model has already had three Benzedrines and two shots of whiskey.

And while the beggars start swarming around, the editor has the accessories from I. Magnin and Vuitton and Hermès unpacked and starts screaming at her assistants, “You only brought me seven shades of pink! How do you expect me to work with only seven shades of pink!” And the beggars are clawing at the fashion crew, the editor and the stoned model are throwing fits—all this in Calcutta—the elephant is defecating in front of the camera and the photographer has started in on his own load of Benzedrines. …

Well, this is a real-life story but it's too black and Monty Pythonesque for anything but a totally surreal text, and I'm still working in a fairly realistic frame. I had to discard it because it seemed out of measure with the credibility of my main narrative.

The dialogue in October Blood is remarkable, so witty and comic, so compact. Could you say a bit about how you brought it off?

One-liners of Babs' like “I could use a church service, kneeling is so good for the thighs,” made the comedy in the novel seem deceptively easy. I wrote the first draft much faster than I wrote the other novels precisely because I was brought up in that world, where people said things like “Western civilization is built on waste, glorious, endless waste.

Going into the second draft I realized that I'd been working in the reverse of the proper novelistic process, in which you work from character towards dialogue and set scenes. I saw that my abundance of howlers created a very flat, two-dimensional surface, and I had to resculpt the next drafts into a third dimension to make my characters credible, like working and reworking a bas-relief into a sculpture-in-the-round. Most difficult.

Are you able to teach at the same time as you're working on a novel? How much time passed between those first inklings and the finished draft?

Oh, teaching has never really interrupted me. I lead such a solitary life here in New England, so isolated from both solid intellectual dialogue and the sound of everyday talk, that teaching is one of the most inspirational activities I have. The most disruptive interruptions are my ventures into political reporting, as in the almost book-length story I did on Klaus Barbie (“When Memory Goes: Vichy France and the Jews,” Vanity Fair, October and November, 1983). The analytic process that goes into historical writing of that sort is diametrically opposed to the subjective, Dionysiac turn of mind one has to nurture to let any lyrical or novelistic juices flow. All in all October Blood took three and a half years to write, with a block of some seven months really blown during my work on Barbie and the Holocaust in France.

You write non-fiction as well as fiction, but you always return to the novel.

While writing non-fiction you obviously don't learn as much about yourself as you do while writing novels. But paradoxically you also don't learn as much about the world. In fiction, precisely because you're working from the subconscious, inventing situations from the substratum of the communal psyche, you're in touch with a mythic reality which is more “real” than the common sense data of everydayness. I'm talking like a mystic, which I am.

Does it seem to you that many women writers now choose not to be married, not to have children, perhaps with the thought of protecting their time?

I can only speak for myself. I think some people need to have children in order to write, and I might be one of them. My sons are twenty-four and twenty-five now, and both brilliant at their vocations—one in finance, the other in art—and it's a luxury to have time to myself, but I miss them very much. Being a mother—and I was a very strong disciplinarian—is as much a part of my true nature as being a writer, and it's possible that I couldn't have done one without the other.

There's been so much obnoxious psychobabble written in the past decades about discarding the family to discover one's true “self,” et cetera. As far as I'm concerned, there's no self without community, the self is a myth. Community is the only basic reality. To the feminists who deride the sacrifices of parenting I answer with the words of Thomas Merton, one of my idols: “The idea that one can seriously cultivate his or her own personal freedom merely by discarding inhibitions and obligations, to live in self-centered spontaneity, results in the complete decay of the true self and of its capacity for freedom.”

Now one might see a contradiction between this communal ideal and my heroines' need for severance from traditional ties, but remember that they always return, in a new form, and ultimately my view is a feminist one which rejoins a quintessential spiritual quest—that the ultimate liberation is a liberation from the illusion of the senses.

You've been married to a painter for twenty-eight years. How has it helped your work, being married to someone involved in another of the arts?

Certainly it's worked better than living with another writer. I began as a painter, remember, and I think painters, when they do have a certain level of culture, are the most marvelous readers one can have. My husband reads some two novels a week—by other writers of course!—and occasionally publishes some splendid writing of his own on art, and is a particularly astute and accomplished editor. Whatever leaves my typewriter, I always give to my husband to read first, before sending it out to anyone.

I didn't learn English until I was twelve years old. French and Russian were my first languages, so Cleve Gray is my safeguard against all kinds of strange syntactical mistakes I still tend to make. And sometimes he rescues me by saying, “This is not ready to go out yet,” and I rework it. I hate to admit it, but in literary matters he's always right.

This studio is such an open, light place—do you do all of your work here?

Yes, I do, pacing and chewing sugar-free gum and drinking six varieties of herb teas from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. or so, with short breaks for exercising—tennis, swimming laps, yoga. But I leave the studio whenever I face a really tough problem and don't know how to proceed. Then I repair to my bedroom, which is dark green and very small and very claustrophobic and very womblike. I'm an early riser and I don't work in bed, I just like to lie on my bed to do my most difficult writing. Haven't a lot of women writers felt that need? Edith Wharton and Colette worked only while lying on their bed, I believe.

You've said that at times you're kept from your work by the sheer joy of living, the pleasures of family life.

I think that's partly because I've respected the kinds of inhibitions and obligations Merton speaks of. I've chosen to remain rooted in many traditions and in a rather conservative, religious world view, all while being a left-of-center political activist. The two get along extremely well in a Christian framework.

You know, I was born into relative poverty and a great aristocracy of manners, and I'm faithful to my heritage. Diana Vreeland once said: “Style! It helps you get down the stairs in the morning.” Well, I'll take that a step further: Style! It's what helped us to get down from the trees a million years ago.

Abiding to etiquette, answering mail, keeping orderly rooms, cooking and sharing fastidious meals are acts more than surface-deep. They're manifestations of a metaphysical and ethical order which bond us in more compassionate ways to other humans, civilizing forces without which we wouldn't have advanced beyond the Stone Age.

Too many of my colleagues—“left wing intellectuals,” if you will—have lost a sense of these civilities, and that's deplorable. Talent is never an excuse for rudeness. Manners are ethical and spiritual absolutes.

The standard hypothetical question: Is there a kind of novel you admire greatly and would love to write if you were given another incarnation as a novelist?

I envy works like Rushdie's Midnight's Children or Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting because they encompass a geopolitical, historical dimension, along with a marvelous lyric texture. I don't know of anyone outside of Bellow writing so inclusively in this country. Among “mentor novels” of an earlier generation, Mann's Dr. Faustus comes to mind, and Max Frisch's Homo Faber, and all of Kafka. I'm increasingly drawn to the German and Central European tradition.


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Francine du Plessix Gray 1930-

French-born American novelist, biographer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Gray's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 22.

Gray is best known for her compelling biographical portraits of such diverse historical figures as Louis Colet, Simone Weil, and the Marquis de Sade. She has also published several nonfiction works that focus on a variety of social issues, including modern Catholicism and the living conditions of women in the former Soviet Union. Widely regarded as a skilled and objective writer, Gray's work often places a firm emphasis on feminist beliefs and psychoanalytic interpretation. She has also published three novels—Lovers and Tyrants (1976), World without End (1981), and October Blood (1985).

Biographical Information

Gray was born on September 25, 1930, in the French Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. At the time, her father was a member of the French diplomatic corps. Her father died as a member of the Free French Forces during World War II, prompting Gray and her Russian-born mother to emigrate to United States in 1941. In 1948 she attended Bryn Mawr College and later earned her B.A. from Barnard College in 1952; she became a naturalized U.S. citizen the same year. She worked as a reporter in New York City at United Press International and was also employed as a writer and editor at several magazines and publishing companies. In 1970 she published her first work, Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism. During this period, Gray served as a visiting professor at the City University of New York. Subsequently, she worked as a visiting lecturer at Yale University in 1981 and as an adjunct professor at Columbia University in 1983. Gray was awarded the National Catholic Book Award in 1971 for Divine Disobedience and received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1991. She holds honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, The City University of New York, and several other universities, and has been decorated by the French government as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Gray has continued to contribute articles, stories, and reviews to a number of periodicals, including The New Yorker,Vanity Fair,New York Review of Books, and New Republic.

Major Works

Gray's first work, Divine Disobedience, employs a crisp journalistic writing style to explore contemporary radicalism within the Catholic Church. Lovers and Tyrants focuses on the semi-autobiographical story of a young woman named Stephanie. The novel follows Stephanie throughout different stages of her life—from her oppressive childhood in Paris to her experiences in an American boarding school. Stephanie eventually becomes a journalist and spurns traditional romantic relationships, preferring to follow her own ambitions and modes of living. The work centers around Stephanie's maturation and quest for personal liberation. Gray's next novel, World without End, focuses on the relationship of three middle-age friends who reunite to tour Russia together. October Blood is a satire of the world of high fashion that follows three generations of women who work in the clothing industry. In 1990, Gray published Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, a record of her observations of Soviet life and the changing role of women in contemporary Soviet society. Gray explores the lives of a diverse cross-section of Soviet women and discusses the societal pressures placed on these women by the Russian culture and government. In 1994, Gray published Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet—Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse, a biography of the nineteenth-century French writer, Louise Colet. Colet published several works, including La Jeunesse de Mirabeau, but she is best known in many circles for being the mistress of Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist who wrote Madame Bovary. Gray followed Rage and Fire with a biography of the controversial eighteenth-century French writer, the Marquis de Sade, in At Home with the Marquis de Sade (1998). Sade was a French aristocrat who was jailed for acts of sexual perversion. While in prison, Sade published several graphically erotic novels that were distributed secretly throughout France. Most recently, Gray published Simone Weil (2001), a biography of the twentieth-century writer, political activist, and philosopher.

Critical Reception

Gray's novels have been generally well-received for their striking characterization and melodic prose. Lovers and Tyrants met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, although several critics took issue with the concluding chapters of the novel. A number of reviewers felt the ending dragged on incessantly and lapsed into fantasy. Although October Blood received mixed reviews, the novel was applauded by many critics for its precise and biting satire of the fashion world. Soviet Women was embraced by the general public, becoming a best seller, despite sharply divided critical reaction to the book. Several reviewers praised Gray's deft storytelling and cogent observations of Soviet life, but others questioned the work's focus on upper-class bourgeois Soviet women and did not feel the book representative of the full range of Soviet female experience. In Gray's biographical works, critics have noted a recurring emphasis on feminist issues, with some accusing Gray of manipulating historical details for her own political ends. For example, in Rage and Fire, Gray emphasizes Louise Colet's role as muse and confidant to Gustave Flaubert and argues that Colet deserves a more significant critical reputation. This is in direct opposition to many critics who have argued that Colet was a minor literary figure, unworthy of such analysis and attention. Critics have also taken issue with the significance that Gray placed on the Marquis de Sade's wife, Renée Pélagie de Montreuil, in At Home with the Marquis de Sade. Despite such observations, Gray has been commended by numerous reviewers for her skilled use of psychoanalysis in her portrayal of Sade.

Francine du Plessix Gray with Regina Weinreich (interview date Summer 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Art of Fiction XCVI: Francine du Plessix Gray,” Paris Review, Vol. 29, No. 103, Summer, 1987, pp. 132–72.

[In the following interview, Gray discusses her background, the autobiographical elements of her fiction, and her creative process.]

I first met Francine du Plessix Gray in Morocco in 1983. Gray had interrupted the completion of her third novel, October Blood, and was en route to Paris to finish her articles about Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie and the French Resistance, which would appear in Vanity Fair that fall and for which she would receive the National Magazine Award for Best Reporting.

Gray was born in the French Embassy of Warsaw in 1930 where her father, a specialist in Slavic languages, was a member of the French diplomatic corps. After he died in 1940, his plane shot down by Fascist artillery, she and her mother emigrated to America and her mother married Alexander Liberman. Her mother was a noted hat designer and her stepfather is the painter, sculptor and editorial director of Condé Nast. Francine du Plessix attended the Spence School, Bryn Mawr, and two summer sessions at Black Mountain College and graduated from Barnard where she majored in philosophy. She was the only woman on the nightshift at United Press International for two years and was a fashion reporter in Paris. In 1957, she married painter Cleve Gray and later had two sons, Thaddeus, now a banker, and Luke, now an artist. For the first years of her marriage she painted, a vocation for which she had had a yearning since childhood. She returned to writing by doing art criticism for Art in America, where she was book editor in 1964; and in 1965, she began to contribute fiction and political essays to The New Yorker. Her first two books were nonfiction: Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, (1970), for which she won a National Catholic Book Award, followed by Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress (1972). Three novels followed: Lovers and Tyrants, (1976), World without End (1981), and October Blood (1985). Her new collection of essays, Adam and Eve and the City (1987), displays her keen observations of the political, literary, and domestic scene. Gray has taught at the College of the City of New York, Yale University, Columbia University, and Princeton University, and was Writer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome.

We began the interview at her home in Warren, Connecticut, a town so small it does not have its own post office. So much of her time is spent traveling, she has found this remote area of New England a perfect refuge from urban and social distractions, and a fine place for work. We met in winter, a week before Christmas. Pushkin and Sabaka, companion standard poodles, accompanied us on a tour of the stone farmhouse: huge hearths, a labyrinth of small, dark eighteenth century rooms alternating with lighter, newer spaces, walls lined with bookcases and contemporary paintings. The tiny bedroom where she spends her early morning hours reading is painted a dark green. By contrast, her study, a barn that used to be Cleve's studio, is airy and white. It is furnished with an IBM word processor, and such varied classics as St. Augustine's Confessions,Finnegans Wake, the complete works of Samuel Beckett and of Roland Barthes, The Perfectibility of Man in Christian Thought and E. R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational. Postcards of particularly beloved paintings—by Titian, Piero della Francesca, Caspar David Friedrich—are tacked to the bookcases above her desk.

We paused only for dinner by the fireplace of the Grays' living room, and lunch in an historic nearby town; most of our day and a half talk took place in Francine's study where she sat in front of a picture window. Dressed casually in somber-hued slacks and sweater, she could be taken for a one-time fashion model: tall, elegant, fine-boned, with intensely intelligent and aristocratic features; her manner is warm, friendly, and gracious. On one occasion she wore glasses and took notes as we spoke, wishing to make her remarks as thorough as possible. The following morning she was up early, carefully expanding upon statements made the evening before. Her accent and intonations are still distinctly European. “How odious!” she might exclaim, or “Formidable!”

Gray honed my edited version of the transcripts of our conversation on her word processor, condensing the lengthy original. We made our final changes just before the publication of her collection of essays, Adam and Eve and the City.

[Weinreich:] If you had another life to live, would you choose to be a writer again?

[Gray:] Hell no. Have you ever met a writer who'd want the same karma a second time round? I doubt if one exists. We write out of revenge against reality, to dream and enter the lives of others. The next time round I'd like to be a great athlete with a political mission, like Billie Jean King or Arthur Ashe, or perhaps a lieder singer. However if you'd confine me to a literary trade for another life, I might like to be a sane poet, as long as I could be sure to be very, very sane. Poetry was my first and greatest love, my gate to literature. Long before I knew I'd be a writer, I memorized the whole of Milton's “Lycidas” by heart, or all 300 lines of Valéry's Cimetière Marin. A need to stay in touch with sumptuous verbal cadences, internalize the glory of language. To this day the first aspect of prose that grabs me, as a reader, is its tonal texture, its musicality. Prose is only as good as its approximation of the condition of poetry—that condition in which not a rhythm, not a particle of sound can be changed without upsetting the entire page.

Yet poetry is one of the few genres in which you haven't published.

A secret vice, probably inherited from my remarkable mother. As a girl during the Russian Revolution, she helped to keep her family alive by reciting poetry to Soviet soldiers in exchange for hunks of bread. To this day, in her late seventies, she has a phenomenal memory for verse, and can recite hundreds of lines of Pushkin, Lermontov, Akhmatova by heart. Her love for poetry has colored my life, and may have made me a writer.

You've worked in a great variety of genres. Has any one form been particularly helpful to your general progress as a writer—fiction, essay, criticism, journalism?

Well, I think I needed the discipline of journalism more than many other writers because I've always had a terrifically painful ambivalence of love and terror towards the act of writing. So being forced at the age of twenty-two to sit at a typewriter on the night shift of United Press and turn out radio stories in a matter of minutes—sometimes a matter of seconds, since we were always trying to beat AP to the radio wire—this took some of the fear away. Like five percent. That was 1953; another decade passed before I dared to submit any sample of personal writing for publication. The sample was “The Governess,” which The New Yorker bought in 1963, and served as a green light to go ahead. I'd written its first version in my senior year at Barnard, ten years before. In 1975, twenty years after that first college version, twelve years after it was published in The New Yorker, it became the first chapter of my first novel, Lovers and Tyrants. So—an elephantine gestation for fiction, with all the terror this length of time implies.

Could you explore some of the roots of that terror?

One childhood episode stands out as particularly vivid, in Paris, in the 1930s. My father was an eccentric, extremely conservative Frenchman who deplored most aspects of the twentieth century, particularly the laxness of its education. And according to his wishes, I spent my first nine years confined to my room, tutored at home by a governess quite as tyrannical as my father. She was a rabid hypochondriac, convinced that the mere sight of another child might lead me to catch some deadly germ … I lived in extreme isolation. Once a week we commuted to a correspondence school where I'd receive the assignments for the following week—typically French, didactic, desiccating assignments, memorizing Latin verbs and the dates of battles won by Napoleon. But when I was eight years old an unprecedented event took place—a new teacher came in and gave us the following assignment: “Write a Story about Anything You Wish.” I was filled with excitement and anguish by this novel freedom. I began as a severe minimalist. Here's the cautionary tale I wrote: “The little girl was forbidden by her parents to walk alone to the lake at the other end of the green lawn. But she wished to visit a green-eyed frog who could offer her the key to freedom. One day she disobeyed her parents and walked to the lake, and was immediately drowned. The End.” The following day, during his daily visit to the study room my father perused the composition and raised a storm. “Pathetic dribble! You dare call that a story? What will become of you if you don't ever finish anything!” And he grabbed the paper from my little desk and tore it to shreds. It was a May evening in 1939, fourteen months before he died in the Resistance. My father had been the love of my life, and he'd warned me that I should never write again. I didn't attempt fiction again for over thirty years.

Yet when you came to the United States as a child, in the 1940s, didn't you immediately excel in English literature?

Ah yes, but solely as a critic and journalist. I arrived at the age of ten not speaking a word of English and I did learn it very fast—I won the Spence School spelling bee just fourteen months later. Throughout high school I was an accomplished essayist and reporter, always editing the school paper, and when I went up to Bryn Mawr I came in second in the freshman essay contest with a study of Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Throughout college I barely took one literature course beyond freshman English. It seemed too easy. I'm an explorer, I preferred getting C's in physics or B's in seminars on Kant or on medieval theology; nothing short of St. Thomas seemed much fun. Throughout my first two years of college I'd aspired to be a medievalist. When I transferred to Barnard an extraordinary philosophy professor, John Smith, converted me to the nineteenth century. Yet while writing my senior thesis on Kierkegaard something inspired me to enter a writing contest, and I wrote three little autobiographical texts about my childhood in Paris, and won something called the Putman Creative Writing Award, and with the prize money I bought a third-hand Plymouth and went down to New Orleans for the summer with a band of jazz musicians. I didn't do much else but hang out and listen to George Lewis and drink a lot of bourbon.

The college writing prize didn't encourage you to write yet?

No, I didn't experience it as terror at the time, simply as dalliance, procrastination. Saint Augustine said “Give me chastity and continence, but not quite yet.” I needed to do something iconoclastic, and perhaps I sensed that my writing was too staid at the time to satisfy me. Time Inc. had come to Barnard recruiting earlier that year and offered me a job but I sure wasn't ready for anything as staid as that. I was very much of a tomboy, and also under the spell of the budding Beat Generation. At United Press I was the only woman on the graveyard shift—midnight to eight AM—which partly satisfied my needs for a counterculture. And in the following decade, before I “became a writer,” I worked as a journalist in Paris, and when I returned to the United States and married I painted for eight years. I'd had an early gift for drawing; it took me much probing, until my mid-thirties, to choose between painting and writing and several other aspirations. So, to answer your original question: my deepest affinities lie at the very opposite pole from journalism, in dense, subjective, meditative texts; fiction has been a very late vocation, and most painful in execution, though paradoxically the days when I'm writing fiction are quite the happiest days of my life. Yet the practice of journalism has allayed the terror I felt towards the act of writing, it's been a great source of reassurance, the only kind of writing I knew I could always do very well.

Do you feel you're a better journalist than novelist?

I don't know what that means, because I look on my work as a total entity, with each form influencing the others. Even if nonfiction of the kind I've published in Adam and Eve and the City is my best form, it's because I have the discipline of observing life in a novelistic way—listening to the nuances in people's conversations, observing the flower here, and everywhere the crooked little edge of lace. It's the capacity to observe such details that differentiates a terrific first-rate journalist like Pete Hamill, say, from great lyrical nonfiction writers like Joan Didion or George Orwell.

You're an avid journal-keeper.

Yes, here they are on the shelf, twenty-five years and forty volumes of them.

Spiral notebooks, like high school students'. Do you keep them with any regularity?

Until ten years ago I'd feel wretched if I didn't write in them every day. Recently the compulsion has been less intense, a week or two can go by and then I catch up in my big streak: angers and anxieties and sarcastic reports on overhead conversations, any snazzy metaphors that come to mind, phrases and ideas for current projects, a lot of nature notes—smells, sounds, colors, birds. I sometimes wonder why I have to look back and record precisely what I was experiencing on such and such a day. No one's given a satisfactory explanation for this compulsion writers have to keep a laundry list of the soul: Virginia Woolf, her need to jot down who came to tea every day, and the pitch of Lytton Strachey's voice and the kind of cucumber sandwiches she served. It's as if we feel constantly other from the person we were the day, the hour before, and this sense of flux is terrifying, we have to crystallize, fix every moment of ourselves in order not to disappear altogether, as if our very identity were constantly threatened with dissolution.

How is imagination linked to this process of “fixing” reality in journals?

It's a way of keeping the imagination fed, of storing sensory data in hope that it'll eventually kindle, fire the imagination. Even more basic: the daily discipline of verbalizing all sensory data greatly sharpens the sensations received. One of my more terrifying gurus, Charles Olson of Black Mountain, used to compare journal-keeping to the process of sharpening a pencil. Our emotions, and, one hopes, the power of our inspirations and of their expression, are kept at maximum clarity and intensity by the daily routine of being inserted into the sharpening edge of the journal.

What's the balance of reality and imagination in your fiction?

Lovers and Tyrants is very “real” in the sense that it traces the course of a woman's life in many ways akin to my own. Yet World without End is in many ways more autobiographical because its protagonist, Edmund, with his hangups about his impoverished European ancestry, his envy of the American WASP milieu he's thrust into as an immigrant child, his aspirations for an academic career, is much more my alter ego than Stephanie ever was—my greatest ambition, when still in college, was to do a lot of doctorates, as Edmund did, and become a college prof, though I would have opted for philosophy, theology. As for October Blood: it's set in the tyrannical frivolity of the New York fashion world in which my mother and stepfather made their living, but its characters are as fictional as can be, perhaps too fictional for my comfort. I see all that as an absolutely average, normal dosing of life into fiction. We ain't got but one life to work with, and we all squeeze it dry before we're through.

I'm only posing the autobiographical question because you've often stated the impact of psychoanalysis on your work, and the way it enabled you to finish your first novel, Lovers and Tyrants.

I'm said to be a very gifted analysand. No restraints, no self-consciousness, little pudeur, it all spouts out with volcanic, Slavic candor. I can accomplish in eighteen months of analysis what it would take most other persons five years. Doctors weep and mourn after we part, keep tabs on me for years to come, as if they don't want to lose touch with this phenomenal fount of candor. And yet I have considerable scruples and great control over what I want to reveal in my writing. In real life, off the couch or off the page, I'm a very private, rather secretive person. There are numerous anguishes I don't reveal to my husband or children or closest friends. I'm a great keeper of secrets, both other people's and my own. Perhaps that's why I need a journal as a confessional release.

What precisely was the relationship between your psychoanalysis and the progress of your fiction?

It forced me to acknowledge the fact of my father's death, thirty years after the fact, and it literally allowed me to become a novelist. In the middle of my analysis, in 1974, I was motivated for the first time to visit my father's grave, in the family chapel near Nantes. And when I returned I wrote the last three chapters of Lovers and Tyrants in some six months—a book whose first chapter I'd drafted twenty-three years previously, in college!

Are there any other anxieties which inhibit or motivate your writing?

Over the years I've come to realize that my greatest fear in life is a dread of a certain kind of solitude, of abandonment. And I've come to know that by writing I'm creating a presence which fills that solitude, which takes the place of some ideal Other. Mind you, I'm not afraid of any chosen solitude—I'm fiercely independent, I love traveling alone, going to restaurants and theater alone—I'm only terrified of abandonment. This is rooted certainly in the evenings of my childhood. Night was a very threatening time. I don't remember having one single dinner with my parents during all of my childhood in Paris. They were each off in a different direction every night, and there I was in the dark apartment alone with this terrifying predatory governess who I felt was always ready to ravage, destroy me. So the act of writing—I'm dealing with the most primitive, elemental fears here—the act of writing, this creation of a controllable presence, seems to be a mature way of exorcising the fear of abandonment, the dread of annihilation which filled my early years. The text in progress is like a fire in the room, an animal, it speaks, hollers, barks, growls back at me, like a magical dog guarding my body from evils, guarding me against the threat of void, of extinction.

Wouldn't this defy the French semiologists who see writing as “absence” rather than presence?

That's an interesting issue. They're referring to the gap between the signified and the signifier, to the difference between the rich fullness of experienced emotion and the relative poverty of the scripted text. This discrepancy has haunted most great writers from Plato on. St. Augustine, Rousseau, Roland Barthes have expressed it very poignantly. According to them the written sign might indeed be seen as “absence,” in the sense that it is a weak replacement for the buzzing blooming richness of the signified emotion. But one can't always reconcile semiotics—abstract theories of signification—with the existential, talismanic quality of the written speech act. Rousseau made the point that writing becomes necessary when speech fails to protect our identity. The written word may be a weak second best to lived experience, but it's still pretty powerful—our only path to meaning and inner order. I keep being haunted by this phrase of Valéry's: “I thought to erect a minor monument of language on the menacing shore of the ocean of gibberish.”

Which brings more “inner order,” fiction or nonfiction?

Oh, fiction is a much mightier, more capable watchdog against the threat of inner disorder, of gibberish. I've given some thought to this, because I've a few friends who try to flatter me out of writing novels by saying “dozens of people around can do that better than you, so why not stick to nonfiction since very few writers can do it as well as you; you could be the John Gunther of your generation, blah-blah.” And so I've had to analyze why I'm impelled to go on writing novels, and I know it's because even at the beginning of a fictional text, when it's no more than a vapor, a perfume in my head, there's a whole world hovering by me, a most protective and consoling presence. Whereas in months when I'm only writing reportages, when I have no ideas for fiction, it's like returning to the dreaded dark rooms of my childhood evenings, it's like every close friend is out of town and there's no one to talk to. Then another important difference between the two genres: fiction is so autoerotic! That's why we all want to keep on doing it. By that I mean, you keep surprising yourself to a degree you can't ever surprise yourself in nonfiction, and surprise is the most basic element of any erotic experience. Still another difference: you'd think that one learns more about “the world,” or “reality,” by writing nonfiction, but that's wrong.


One learns much more by writing fiction, because the insights come from those deeper subconscious levels where the greater and more interesting truths lie. Aristotle put it this way in his Poetics: Poetry is more philosophical than history. And the word “philosophical” meant considerably more in Aristotle's time than it does in ours, it meant more “true” and more “real” in the deepest possible sense of those words. I'd agree with that, I'd say that history opens us to the possible, whereas fiction, by opening us to the unreal, leads us to what is essential in reality. Mind you, this doesn't mean that fiction is a higher, more noble genre. The quality of any literary text depends on formal rather than referential values. Nonfiction—think of Gibbon's, Montaigne's, Baudelaire's prose—can produce works of art as great as any novel. I'm merely answering your question, comparing the shamanistic and educational aspects of different literary forms as I've experienced them.

Can you cite instances of your fiction in which you learned more about yourself than in writing autobiography, or more about “the world” than in writing reportage?

Oh sure, all the time. While writing World without End, for instance, and coursing through the life of its protagonist, Edmund, who begins as a painter and then spends twenty years as an art historian, I learned the extent to which I myself was torn between the vocation of painting and of writing, the extent to which I'm still more drawn to the company of visual artists than to that of writers. I was a good painter, and it was a hard choice, at least a decade in the making, but it was a division in myself which I'd never previously admitted to in any autobiographical essay, not even in a journal entry. Or else, for instance, in writing October Blood: I realized more powerfully than I could have through reading or writing dozens of essays on that theme, the awesomely powerful hold most mothers have over their daughters, that “choreography of guilt and love” most mothers and daughters must perform to emancipate themselves from each other and attain a measure of peace. Well, one last example: If I wished to know more than I do about my own mother, who is a most private and uncommunicative person, I'd learn more by writing a novel about her than by doing a memoir. No amount of research about her, of reading through her correspondence, would let me discover as much as I'd discover through writing a novel; for much of my real knowledge of her lies buried inside me, in those subliminal levels which can only be tapped by poetry or fiction.

Tell me how you work.

I get up fairly early and have an overabundant physical energy in the early hours, even without caffeine, which I gave up decades ago. I'm rather like a hyperactive child in the morning, it's very hard for me to sit still and concentrate on any writing then. So those hours are reserved for the more passive work—reading what I call my sacred texts, poetry or the Bible or the classics; recently I've gone through Lattimore's translation of Homer, and Virgil's Aeneid in the Fitzgerald translation, and a history of the Kabbalah. Then after this most treasured hour of the day which I always spend alone upstairs in my room, with some tea and fruit and honey, I go about the business of life—notes to friends, shopping and planning for the family, answering phone calls, thanking people for this and that, thanking the world—as if I have to earn the right to write by being a good girl, all about me must be perfectly rinsed and dusted before I can start working. That's in part due to my great fear of interruptions, but even more to an excessive proclivity to order and neatness which prevails in my mother's family. Compulsive Slavic hospitality, and a tedious dutifulness and domesticity, are probably my most time-consuming vices.

What happens if all the rinsing and dusting—women's work, in effect—takes up your whole day?

I'm so punctual that it doesn't happen too often, and when it does I'm quite philosophical about it. I've always chosen life above art, quite passionately so. That great story of James, “The Lesson of the Master,” if I'd been its protagonist I would have grabbed the girl and run with the good juicy life, with no qualms whatsoever. I have no sense of my writing or anyone's writing being permanent. I was too steeped in war and death in my early years, too affected by the Holocaust, to have any veneration of art—after all the single most literate and art-revering nation in the world, Germany, was responsible for the greatest horror in human history. I'm also very pessimistic about the fate of the planet; since I fear we're all doomed to extinction in the next century I feel much more greedy about cultivating compassion, harmony with my surroundings, maintaining close, loving ties with my family and friends. So my two ruling maxims are the following: the old Jewish proverb, “Live every day as if it were the last day of your life,” which means we must constantly, from a fairly early age, prepare ourselves for exiting in a state of utmost serenity and order, both physical and spiritual. Maxim two: Compassion Is Not Freaking Out. So those times when I live the whole day as if it were the last, simply putting order in the garden of life, I don't freak out, and have little understanding of people who do.

But let's take a day when you're finished with chores by mid-morning.

I like to get to this studio a little before eleven, ideally, and stay here until six thirty or seven. Three to seven PM, that's when the best ideas come, and if I started at nine AM my back would never hold up until four PM—I've had severe back problems, like many writers, and in my case only exercise brings relief. So during the six or seven hours I spend in this room I like to take an athletic break—yoga, swimming forty laps, a few sets of tennis singles or a two-mile walk, depending on the season. And in summer there's my beloved vegetable garden to weed and pick and freeze from. Mind you, during the time I sit here very little “writing” goes on—I write first draft by hand, on yellow legal pad, before putting it into my terrific new IBM computer. I write very impulsively, so terribly fast only I can decipher my scrawl. But only one quarter of this first outpouring, at the most, is usable, so actually, I work very slowly. It's mostly pacing, researching, brewing endless cups of herb tea while I think of how to annotate these terrible earlier drafts. Hours are spent figuring how to rewrite one single sentence—I've never managed to write anything, even a book review, in fewer than three or four drafts. Again, the most important aspect of coming to this room for several hours a day is a talismanic one—it's here, for the past twenty years, by creating a presence of words alongside me, that I've slowly become something I can begin to call myself, and traveled away from that “ocean of gibberish” which menaces us throughout life.

You're able to write fiction and nonfiction almost simultaneously. For instance, most of the essays and reporting collected in Adam and Eve and the City—five hundred pages of them—were written while you were at work on one of your novels. And you must have taken off six months to do the pieces on Klaus Barbie alone. How do you juggle acts like that?

No great problem. I'm a very political animal, and the historical moment can be more compelling to me than any fictional task. Any one of my novels was delayable; Barbie was not. I knew I could write about him in a way very few Americans could because I had a very intimate link with the theme—the role of the Vichy government in the extermination of French Jews.

What stops you from taking a story like Klaus Barbie's and creating a novel about it?

I've read enough about the Holocaust to know that only two truly great novels have been written about it—Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just and This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski, published in the extraordinary Penguin series of “Writers from the Other Europe” which Philip Roth edited. Anyhow, your very question “Why not write a novel about it?” presupposes a very outmoded division between fiction and nonfiction, a division in part created by odious consumer pressures. I've always played down that division, and looked on every act of writing as pure “text.” Isn't that much more liberating?

That's become a trademark of your teaching process, hasn't it?

Indeed. Whenever I'm invited to teach “writing” at some university, I refuse to ever use the “fiction” and “nonfiction” labels, and I particularly resist the word “creative” as applied to writing—that's the most vulgar of them all. I only agree to one title, “The Writing of the Text,” and I only use teaching texts which transcend and defy traditional categories—Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, William Gass's On Being Blue, Fitzgerald's The Crackup, Peter Handke's A Sorrow beyond Dreams. We've been brainwashed by the myth that fiction and poetry are more “creative” than criticism or reportage, a strictly American hang-up exploited by our universities to plug their seedy little Creative Writing departments, a notion that makes for very bad literature. Look at masterpieces like Max Frisch's Sketchbooks, or James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, texts that defy most classifications and are as considerable works of art as any novel published in the West in the past years.

Well this hierarchy of genres you're fighting, this tagging and labeling, has much to do with the marketing aspect of contemporary literature, doesn't it?

It sure does. And it's worth discussing, because it has to do with issues of power, with the audience's need to control the writer. Naming, labeling, pegging, tagging will always increase the audience's sense that it can control if not curb the writer. Just the way our readers constantly want us to repeat and write more of the kind of text which has pleased them in the past, whenever we strike out into a totally different direction, from sentimental liberal feminism to black satiric humor for instance, they're disappointed because they want us to continue giving them more of the same. They're terrified that some subversive, abrasive new aspect of any writer's sensibility will disturb that philistine bourgeois experience, the reader's pleasure.

Which means that if we want to write a first book that might have a chance of being published we ought to mimic Stephen King.

Oh sure, there are twenty thousand people all over the country trying to mimic Stephen King. I'm not certain it's that easy. I have a fair gift for satire, but however hard I tried I couldn't write a Jacqueline Susann beyond a page of pastiche. I'd love to make that money but I can't.

What would you do with that kind of money if you ever made it?

I'd give many birthday parties for friends I love—in pretty restaurants, so as to consume less of my working time. And I'd take masses of lessons, all kinds of lessons, Hebrew lessons, singing lessons, how-to-swim-an-impeccable-crawl lessons, more tennis lessons. My sons always teased, saying if mom ever made money we'd never see the end of lessons. I'm the most perennial student you'll ever meet. Learning any new discipline—a new language, a new sport, a new philosophy—is as perfect a joy as any I know.

You mentioned your love for satire, and that makes me return to your last novel, October Blood. There's so much rich satire there. Is that the only way you could handle that material without diminishing it?

Any novel about the world of fashion must remain on the satiric level, because most people in that world are themselves in a constant state of self-satire, self-imitation. When the editors shout “Give me more fans, more wind, I want her hair all the way out to Outer Mongolia,” I bet they're in good part saying that for hype, as an attention-getter. And they say it with all the terror and anxiety actors feel, they're constantly on stage, on parade and display. So in a novel dealing with such persons we're working at a double remove, parodying characters who in real life parody themselves.

What particular difficulties did that “double remove” pose?

It exposed the problematic relationship between character and dialogue. The kind of personae I was working with reveal themselves early on through dialogue, through their outrageous way of using language. So the first building tools I had were a rich set of lines—“Civilization is built on endless, glorious waste”—and my first drafts I was working from dialogue back to character. That can be the proper process for nonfiction—in reportage of the kind collected in Adam and Eve and the City, the pieces on the Vietnam years, on the Moonies cult, character is mostly revealed by dialogue; but for fiction this direction is often wrong, it creates a very flat, two-dimensional texture. It's as if I'd sculpted them “in the round.” As any artist knows, that can't be done. You have to start all over again!

Was that the central problem in that particular novel?

Not exactly. The most important lesson I learned from October Blood is that in any decent writing one must observe with cruelty, describe with cruelty, yet end up with some sense of mercy. The fashion plate women I was dealing with lend themselves so readily to parody and pastiche that it was subtle and difficult to express my empathy for them—which I do have, for their world is anything but evil. Evil comes from those who lay claim to extreme goodness, like leaders of nations, doctors, lawyers. Only an angel could have fallen as low as Satan fell. The world of fashion had no pretensions whatever to goodness or justice, it's mostly about dressing up dolly, it's about kindergarten. Moreover its denizens are often anxious, suffering persons, people who're terrified that they're suddenly going to cease existing if they're not constantly seen in their frippery. But instead of turning to writing as you and I do to allay that dread of non-identity, of extinction, they have to feel perpetually observed, it's their only way of making sure they won't—poof!—suddenly disappear altogether.

At the end of October Blood I did sense that you have empathy with your characters. Does fashion mean much to you?

I'm coquettish, which is a little different from being vain or narcissistic. Come to think of it, how many women writers have been style-conscious, fastidious about their get-ups! George Sand, Edith Wharton, Colette, Isak Dinesen … how carefully Virginia Woolf chose her tweeds and jerseys! Numerous other writers come to mind, writers deal a great deal in self-image, we can't help but be solicitous about how we project it physically. And don't listen to the kneejerk radical feminists and all their claptrap against the beauty industry, the issue of adornment is a very deep and fascinating one. Look at all the great minds who've given thought to it—Hazlitt, Baudelaire, Levi-Strauss. Did you know that Roland Barthes's very first published book was about fashion? Système de la mode, his densest, most difficult text! But to answer your question: I suffer from a combination of coquetry and thrift. I love good clothes but detest spending money on them. My favorite clothes are gifts from well-off friends who give me their Paris or Seventh Avenue castoffs. I'm keenly aware of the fact that I could have remained in the world of couture and chose not to, and that the only time I tried to live in it as an adult, when I was a fashion reporter in Paris in the fifties, it came near to destroying me.

You ended up with a nervous breakdown?

Close to. It began as acute mononucleosis with 105 degree temperature and internal hemorrhages, and the French doctors always say, “You need altitudes!” So I went to high Swiss mountains. I probably should have gone to a sanatorium but the notion depressed me. Instead I went to a little hotel by myself and ended up profoundly depressed, taking a lot of medications and drinking much wine in an attempt to cure my insomnia. In a matter of weeks up there on the mountain I realized that I'd been made ill—mononucleosis is a disease related to high stress—by living a life which was entirely unsuited for me. As I've written somewhere, during those two years in the Paris fashion world I'd been “racing for my mother's love,” trying to recreate and relive those values which she had striven for in Paris as a young woman in the 1920s and '30s, when she was fulfilling her own youthful aspirations for the Paris beau monde.

Yes, I like that line you used for that situation in Lovers and Tyrants: “Fucking goons for mom,” a very delicate line. Do you consider yourself an American writer?

Technically, yes, I've had an American passport since the age of twenty-one. Yet I've experienced my nationality in a very different way from Jewish-Americans or Puerto Rican or Chinese or Italo-American immigrants. They've all been able to join an ethnic subculture in this country, whereas there was never any French subculture for me to enter. Of all the major nations or cultures in the West, the French have perhaps emigrated less than any other. I never had a shtetl, a tribe, any welcoming community as other immigrants had. And a lot of my solitude as a person, much of the search for community which is the prevailing theme of all my work, is due to this sense of rootlessness and isolation. So since this nation is a melting pot constantly receiving foreigners, I sure am an American writer. But unlike those other immigrants I've mentioned I'm a loner straddling many different ancient cultures: the French and Russian cultures of my blood lineage, much Celt and Tartar in those strains, the Roman Catholicism of my early years, the Anglo-Saxonness of my later education.

How do you feel that background has affected the diction, the style of your writing?

I haven't been aware of honing words more carefully than other writers, but Anne Tyler has written to that effect in reviewing me. We've never met, so it's an objective judgement on the part of a most perceptive critic. I was bilingual in French and Russian until the age of eleven, when I learned English, and I've remained fluent in my first two languages. When you're brought up that way you're keenly aware of all the different syntactical structures any emotion can pour itself into. It's like living with a panoramic screen on which you constantly see inscribed all the different forms any one sentence could take on, and all that voluptuous choice of positions gives you a very erotic, very sensuous contact with the text. By erotic I mean the diverse possibilities and surprises, the luxury of choices. No missionary positions in émigré prose! The great danger is to get too voluptuous, lapse into lushness, purpleness.

Might you still borrow specific phrasings from other languages which come off as mistakes in English?

Oh yes, and often I'm slow to learn the corrections. I tend to hang on to them as talismans, relying on my husband to correct them. I show him most everything I write before I send it off. One instance: It took me forty years—until last year, in fact—to drop the habit of saying “I arrived to New York in 1941.” I was aping the French syntax, “Je suis arrivée à New York.” Last year I said to myself, “Let's become a big girl and catch it before Cleve does.”

Do you show your writing to anyone other than Cleve before it's published? Any friends?

I don't think I showed Lovers and Tyrants to anyone beyond Leo Lerman and Joanna Rose, my closest friends since adolescence, who've saved my sanity many a time since I've been eighteen. I showed World without End to a few art historians to be sure all of Edmund's doctoral dissertations on Titian and other matters were all right. I showed October Blood to more pals than I'd shown any other texts because there were so many highly specialized issues dealing with frippery to check out—I needed invaluable corrections such as “Balenciaga never used greens, only reds.” So I was getting increasingly open and less fearful about sharing unpublished texts with dear friends; it was wonderful. But then suddenly when I had a finished manuscript of Adam and Eve I didn't show it to anyone beyond my family. It's my most important book but I felt both fatalistic and private about it—twenty years of worrying about the state of the world, bless it, there it went.

The mother-daughter theme recurs in several of the essays in Adam and Eve, and all forms of matrilineal legacy recur in your novels. I'm particularly thinking of Babushka, the great-grandmother in Lovers and Tyrants. How does that fit in with your general feminist vision?

My views of men have grown in some ways more lenient with the years, in some ways much harsher. I'm increasingly obsessed with the civilizing impact of women in history; as Henry Adams put it, we have “preserved the customs of civility.” Throughout the millennia men have gone off to war and left us behind to preserve the tribal memory, to safeguard most social rituals that bond communities together. At times it's even been up to women to purify language of the boorish influence brought it by their warrior men. Seventeenth century France, when the women of the salons effected an immense catharsis on the nation's spoken and written speech, is only a case in point. You see, I'm struck by how relatively antisocial men are, compared to women.

They tend to have very few friends!

They often think they don't need friends, which is always a delusion. And when they do make friends, pathetically few of them are able to bare their hearts. And their self-absorption! Guests come to the house and for hours a man won't even think of offering them a cup of coffee, or he'll stick them into bedrooms with no sheets on the beds or shades on the windows. Some of the most brilliant men I've known are social basket cases, barely able to introduce their sisters to their office colleagues. So that's how the matrilineal theme may have crept into my novels—my sense that much ritual life crucial to civilization has been preserved through the efforts of women, my growing awareness of men's frailty and helplessness, women's greater self-control, versatility, ingenuity. On the other hand, in each of my novels I've moved to an increasingly moderate feminist view according to which women have to take total responsibility for whatever happens to them. We simply can't go on blaming the overbearing men who've attempted to suppress us—the submissive female can be her own worst tyrant. We've all got to be like Golda Meir, who ran away from home at age fifteen to finish high school; the fathers in her Jewish community were not allowing their daughters to finish high school, only wanted to prep them for marriage, so she split. You've got to split early like Golda or you'll be a goner. My Paula of October Blood realized that too late, and I myself barely made it.

Your remarks concerning some men's incivility … what old-fashioned stress you put on courtesy, decorum!

Oh yes, yes, I'm appallingly old-fashioned in that sense. In part, it's a rebellion against the increasing boorishness that prevails among many of my colleagues, left-wing intellectual jet-setters, if you will, who seldom answer mail or invitations or acknowledge books, who accept teaching positions at universities for lavish fees and appear no more than five times out of the twelve-week term, who swagger into symposiums in their leather duds to amuse the audience by savaging their colleagues' reputation—this crudeness is poisoning the very core of academic life. Many scholars have such chutzpah about their star status that they barely even prepare decent papers anymore, they simply take their money and run after an hour of self-indulgent mumbo-jumbo, and I've seen this at Princeton, Yale.

Is this a characteristic of American intellectuals?

Oh not at all. The new academic boorishness is becoming an international disease. The rudest, most uncouth behavior I've seen comes from French scholars. I wouldn't share a cup of tea with such people … you know, I was born into relative poverty and a great aristocracy of manners, and I'm faithful to my heritage. Courtesy, punctilio, are more than surface-deep, they're ethical categories which create more charitable bonds between us, refining forces without which we'd never have advanced beyond the Stone Age.

And your remarks concerning men's infrequent friendships. It strikes me that throughout your books friendship is seen as the very cement of all human relationships: the key essay on friendship in Adam and Eve, Father Gregory in Lovers and Tyrants, the Platonic bond among the three protagonists in World without End. And in October Blood, the childhood bond between Paula and Nicolas seems much stronger than the one she has with her husband, Julian.

That simply reflects my own experience. Our lifetime friendships can be more steadfast and trustworthy than any marriage, and considerably more treasurable. Those few persons whom I gained as friends before the age of twenty-five, for example. Nothing they would ever say or do would diminish my love and esteem for them. It's as if they were grafted upon me.

What about a marriage three decades old like yours and Cleve's? Certainly that could only have survived through friendship?

But he's an extraordinary man, one of the great spirits of our time. I'm not sure I could have pulled it off with anyone else. It's only after two decades or more of marriage that the truest and most interesting bonding takes place, after you've passed through the marriage's childhood and adolescence. You've been kids together and grown up together, there's so much to recount and recollect, oh, the treasures of shared decades! Then the most fascinating of life's challenges arises, how to infuse new lyricism and imagination into this steady ancient marriage, how to keep it both mystical and erotic through the element of surprise. I repeat that word a great deal and it's a key word to me in all areas of experience—surprise is the opposite of the cliche, of the predictable, it's the only remedy against the deadness of the self-evident, whether in love or faith or literature. Ivan Illich once said to me “Faith is a constant readiness for surprise.” And why is this phrase of Nabokov's so erotically beautiful? “She came towards me through the cricket-mad dusk of a small train station.” “Cricket-mad dusk,” language liberated before us into pure surprise.

Yet notwithstanding your unusually happy marriage I sense some bitterness in you about the time-consuming “women's roles.”

Well I do resent, in my own life and in that of other women, the amount of time we splurge helping and consoling others. Most women seem driven to do this balancing act, however vigorous their careers. Well, I half resent, half accept it. Mind you, I'm not expressing regret here when talking about the energy I've lost as a woman; regret is a prissy bourgeois sentiment. I'm kvetching, which is a healthy loud-mouthed tribal activity.

Men's lives have been greatly impoverished by their reluctance to nurture.

Really? Their writing sure hasn't shown it. Up to now numerous thousands of emotionally paraplegic males, through their mobility and freedom, have been able to infuse their work with much richer political texture than one could ever find in women's literature.

Let's explore the political issue for a while. You've said that the contemporary writers you admire most are those who combine formal innovation with a very muscular political message, like Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Nadine Gordimer.

That's a delicate issue and I must qualify this statement, for there's a sense in which our first political responsibility is to literary form. Only bad writing is unpolitical writing. Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet and Cynthia Ozick's The Cannibal Galaxy are political novels which deal with the Jewish consciousness of the post-Holocaust era, with ageing, with memory and generations. But they're only made political because they communicate these themes with consummate lyricism and metaphoric depth. Put them into the hand of a commercial hack and they could turn into I'll Take Manhattan. Edna O'Brien, Amy Hempel, Deborah Eisenberg, to cite some of the fiction writers whom I've most enjoyed in the past years, write about women with great political power because they constantly search for renewal and freshness in their form and diction. The Sartrian notion of “engaged” political writing has been thoroughly ousted, I would hope. It solely stressed the thematic duty of dealing with “the masses,” and without attaining innovative structure and metaphoric power such writing ends up being a replica of the schlockiest social realist fiction being touted by the literary apparatchiks of the Soviet Union … the only literature, alas, that this great people has been legally allowed to consume until now.

The issue of religion suffuses all your work. It's central to Adam and Eve and the City, and in your novels characters lose their faith, strive to regain it … what does that mean to you in real life?

I guess I'm always speaking out, through my protagonists, my own dialogue with Him/Her/It out there. As in most areas, unfortunately, I've been very isolated in my dealings with the Church. A Catholic father who was rather cynical about religion; my mother, stepfather, husband, my marvelous sons Thaddeus and Luke, all agnostics. As a child I was very attracted by both the Roman and Russian Orthodox Church, very given to meditation. It was my Jewish agnostic stepfather, curiously, who enjoined me to remain a practicing Catholic. He said: “It's extremely important for each of us to have nothing to do for an hour a week but meditate,” and that phrase sticks with me. Alex Liberman and his own remarkable father, Simon Liberman, had a more important intellectual impact than anyone else on my adolescence. When I went to Bryn Mawr I started going to Quaker meeting and that greatly deepened my sense of what true religion might be about, it offered a social commitment which Catholicism completely lacked at that time. In my last two years of college, I was heavily into comparative religion, did my senior thesis on Kierkegaard's view of the Death of Christianity—I've had a curious, contradictory need all along to fight and to embrace the faith. I guess I'm a cultural Catholic—the Church is a fundamental part of my identity. The day John Kennedy died, when the news broke on the radio the only thing I could do was rush into a church and stay there for many hours on my knees, weeping. I've always retained some close contact with my Catholic roots, if only through a certain practice of meditation. I sense the strength of some vast Presence out there which gave me life and is the ground of my being—which is why I'm so adamantly opposed to suicide. Short of the most dire straits it's a slothful and self-pitying act, but above all our life is not our own to take away! And this Presence … I might as well pay homage to it through the rituals of the faith into which I was born, rather than shop around in the cafeteria of the absolute for some more esoteric rite.

But you don't remain “a faithful daughter of the Church”?

I don't quite know what that means any more. There's a lot of pruning and selecting to do in Mother Church. We have to distinguish the Church-as-She from the Church-as-It—a precious metaphor given me by Ivan Illich. The Church-as-It is that often corrupt bureaucracy which deals out such nonsense as edicts against birth control and divorce, or the marvelous new edict put out some months ago by the Holy Father—get this! We're to be granted indulgences if we watch him on television! Sometimes I think I remain a Catholic because it satisfies my love for the comic, the absurd. The Church-as-She, however, is the eternal message of compassion given us by Christ and Buddha—there's only one truth, and many prophets for it. It's rooted in time and can never be institutionalized. The darn problem is that in order to maintain our contact with that grace we might have to practice some form of communal ritual, for the Spirit only works through community. And liturgy—that complex of architecture, incense, chanting, formalized gestures—serves to alter our consciousness in the most necessary way, to crack it open and lay bare those subconscious levels which alone are receptive to the Numinous. Martin Buber said it so well: “Bad liturgy hides His Face.” Which is the case, alas, with most parish liturgy in this country. One must go to the monastic orders—Trappists, Benedictines—to experience revealing liturgy.

Do you believe in a life after death?

Oh yes, but again, not in any orthodox terms. I feel that we survive, above all, in whatever acts of compassion we can bring about during our lifetime, that this aggregated mercy, through which we return to the Holy Spirit, is our most precious heritage, that we survive through it in a much more genuine way than we survive through art: a rather Buddhist view which sometimes makes it very hard for me to get to work every morning. Our lives are sacrificial meals to be shared by all, and they're perhaps more sacredly shared through compassion than through art. Few novels are more eloquent on that issue than E. M. Forster's Howard's End. Mrs. Wilcox is very much of a secular saint; such a person, in real life, might add quite as much or more to a redemptive aggregate of charity as her creator in fiction, Mr. Forster. Much sacredness, goodness and great art is perhaps hidden from us, that's the beauty and mystery of it all.

I see a quotation of T. S. Eliot's pinned above your desk: “Be still and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing, wait without love / For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting / … So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” Is that what it's about?

“East Coker.” Quite. Whatever hopelessness I feel about the issue of art, or grace, or anything of import, I keep in mind that one must retain a quality of very patient waiting. It can not be an anxious waiting—that would be too acquisitive. Our relationship with the Almighty is much akin to that of the villagers with the Lord on the hill, in Kafka's The Castle. He's very whimsical, that One, a big teaser, you never know when he's going to answer your phone call or knock at your door. He's unfathomable and capricious, we must always set an extra place for him at the table, as we do for Elijah at Seder, and during that long wait we must always remain as compassionate with ourselves as we are with others. That was the great sin committed by the hero of The Castle, K. He lost his compassion, he freaked out.

Let's return to the issue of contemporary women, and their writing. You've devoted much time, as a critic, to that issue.

Where to start! Well. Everyone's wondering why the extraordinary flowering, in our time, of women's short fiction, of short stories by women. I'll toss out one crazy idea. Women may have been made increasingly aware, by the feminist movement, that their view of things is very corrective of the general world view imposed upon us by millennia of male domination. And this sudden confrontation between two fundamentally different visions lends itself particularly well to the short story form; for it functions by way of epiphany, through one sudden revelation, rather than through the gradual revelations which structure novels. If you read the forty or fifty finest short stories written by women in the past century I'd say that this is the overall vision: they seem to be detained in childhood longer, they tend to be presented as terrified misfits, oppressed daughters of sorts. And they come in as messengers bringing warnings, warnings that privileged male authority is not as powerful or secure as it would like to think it is. They come in like ambassadors in chains. I think of Flannery O'Connor's story “Revelation.” And most particularly of one by Doris Lessing, “The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange,” in which a very smug Afrikaaner planter's wife who's been totally colonized by male authority, never doubted a word her husband had told her, is suddenly confronted by the arrival of an unruly, child-like woman who's come to work on her farm. The child-woman shatters every ounce of Major and Mrs. Gale's white supremacist smugness by teaching them the necessity of anxiety and self-examination, by teaching them that it's not enough to be kind to the blacks, that one must also identify with them. So there it is. We remain oppressed daughters with a heavy burden of secret life, and many of our short fictions deal with our epiphanic jolting of an adult world traditionally led by men.

What else makes contemporary women's writing so distinctive, in all its forms?

Well paradoxically, I think it's as fine as it is because we still live with a memory of oppression. In a society as permissive, as hedonistic and ego-centered as ours, it might be difficult for middle-class white male writers to find the proper medium of resistance, to express that tension between the individual and the social order which has always been the marrow of the best fiction. So much of contemporary American men's writing is mired in sexual hang-ups, in the most self-indulgent male narcissism! Women, on the other hand, however far they've advanced in the past decades, are offered that essential tension by the very memory of submission. And women writers from ethnic minorities—Maxine Hong Kingston, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker—feel that tension with double, triple force. The same comparison holds when you compare current American writing with the extraordinary literature coming out of authoritarian, repressive societies, be it Nadine Gordimer and Athol Fugard in South Africa, or Soviet bloc writers like Solzhenitsyn and Milan Kundera. Many American writers—mostly men, of course—feel this poignantly. The ultimate irony is to hear them say, and I've heard it, “Oh to live in Warsaw, how easy it would be to write good fiction there!” Most perverse! Nostalgia for Fascist-Socialist repression, as the cure for the indolent narcissism of late Capitalist opulence!

But do you feel women still have some way to go to fulfill their potential gifts as writers?

Yes, they certainly do. Even in the past two centuries they simply have not created a literature as innovative and revolutionary as men's. Apart, perhaps, from Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, when have they broken through form as radically as Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Joyce, Borges, Beckett? You see, we still seem to remain stuck, after all these decades of so-called liberation, in our ancient need to seduce, in our damn need for love and approval. Throughout history, seduction and society's approval have been women's only path to survival, and we still may be in deadly fear of losing that esteem and support. In literature and in many other realms, we still don't dare take the risks, don't hazard to be as shocking, brutal, abrasive in our writing as men have. We've begun to risk a lot in terms of themes, we've traveled far since the days of Jane Eyre, when Charlotte Brontë was judged to be subversive and appalling for describing the particulars of a woman's sexual passion, and of her need for independence. But in the way of revolutionizing the forms of literature, our contribution has been most meager. Give me a female Beckett, and then I'll begin to be satisfied.

Do you sense any backlash against “liberated” women in current men's writing?

Oh yes, most amusingly so. An exemplary case is a recent fiction of Frederick Barthelme's in which the protagonist's second wife strikes up a very passionate relationship with his first wife and the guy gets ousted from his own house, and ends up in a motel, living on junk food. I suspect there's a paranoia among many men about the very close ties of friendship fostered among women by the feminist movement, a paranoia which goes: Yipes, they're going to turn gay and drive me out of my very bed!

What about the intense new stress on family expressed in your novels and in most other women's writing?

That's interesting and very present. Like a few other admirable women's concerns—such as the drive to abolish pornography—it may have its dangers; it risks sharing common ground with the Moral Majority, though in the realm of fiction, the return to the family is above all being expressed in a close scrutiny of matrilineal structures. You find it in Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary Gordon, Jayne Anne Phillips, Mona Simpson, the best work. It's amazing how our very titles reveal the theme—The Company of Women,A Mother and Two Daughters,The Good Mother.

The search for family—biological or synthetic—is at the very root of your work, also.

Yes, I'm no exception. And I think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg in this preoccupation with family. It's once again becoming as monumental an obsession as it was in Tolstoy's time. You see, in a society as dehumanized by technology and bureaucracy and media seduction as ours is, as threatened by uncontrollable risks such as that of a nuclear apocalypse, the family is the only traditional human refuge we have. The family is one of the few realities impervious to technology and bureaucratization, the only unit, perhaps, that can't be computerized! As brutally repressive as the family can be, it's the only social medium in which you can still clearly name and define the oppressors, in which you can battle them through discussion or rebellion, or by just plain splitting.

You've written that the first stages of literary feminism expressed a liberation of the body, whereas the current stage, what you call “post-feminism,” is expressing a liberation from the body. Would you explain?

Yes, I think there's a striking new chastity, an almost Amazonic retrenchment from the world of men in our current literature which is radically different from the more promiscuous forms of liberation we had to tout in the sixties and seventies. It's most beautifully summed up in a phrase spoken by the protagonist of Mary Gordon's The Company of Women: “I don't want to have sex again for another thirty years, it muddles the mind.” The current striving is for increased intellectual clarity, not for a renunciation of sex but certainly for a certain sublimation. Many of us are undergoing a dizzying reversal of roles, what I've called “the Odysseyizing of women, the Penelopizing of men,” and yet we seem increasingly in need of returning to traditional family structures, to balance our professions with warm and orderly domestic lives. I find the new chastity in women's letters very healthy, very purging.

How important is teaching to you?

Well it's the fulfillment of an ancient Walter Mitty-type dream. As I've said before, to become a college prof was one of my earliest ambitions. But beyond that, it's rather akin to my need for living in deep country. For here's a major point of tension in most writers' lives: How can we rub enough with the world to nourish our writing, while keeping the world enough at bay to safeguard our creative energies? I like living where I do, in southern New England, because I can better control my impulsive, innate gregariousness. It's easier to resist temptations here and yet I can get into New York in two and a half hours, a few times a month, to sample that week's Zeitgeist. In a similar manner, teaching offers me a form of human contact which I find deeply satisfying yet less draining than most other social engagements. Listening to students' problems, inciting them to read Plato or Colette, the heatedness and fun of class discussions—that's one of the most nourishing and inspiring things I know. And the sheer boredom of most other traditional social contacts, the literary party circuit in the Hamptons or the Vineyard for instance, could lead me to the loony bin in the space of a weekend. The vapid tiddlywinks conversation, and the tedium of the endless cocktail hours! Cocktails is one American custom I continue to find loathsome; I can't abide dining with anyone who'll make me wait more than twenty-five minutes for dinner. There's a lot of the pedant in me; my idea of a good time is to sit under a tree with some close friends over a picnic of bread and cheese and wine and talk about Ficino's influence on Titian's concept of love, or chew over some new insights into William James. Now that's the greatest fun. So teaching is something born into me which I love deeply, and it's the form of fraternizing which I find least draining, most inspiring and nourishing. I suppose it also satisfies my great passion for the company of the young, now that my own children are away. If I had another life to relive, I'd ask for better health and a capacity for perfect sleep, so as to have had the energy to work somewhat as I have, and bring up four or five children instead of two. Yes, I so love children that I'd ask for more of them rather than for a more substantial oeuvre.

Of the books and writers we've mentioned, which have had the most direct influence on your novels?

My very first passion in the way of prose, in my teens, was Dostoyevsky, and I suppose I've retained the religious anxiety. And later, the feminist bildungsroman as it evolved through Bronte's Jane Eyre and Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse—women striving for identity in a fairly hostile male world—straight on to Mary McCarthy's and Doris Lessing's fiction. That's for theme. In terms of form and structure. I'm not that self-conscious of major influences, many twentieth century texts with voluptuous textures, I guess—Colette, Proust, Nabokov, and the late, lyrical Roland Barthes, his A Lover's Discourse, and among my American contemporaries, Elizabeth Hardwick's, Susan Sontag's essays … I like a dense, rich verbal texture, I search for language fueled by desire, the desire to recapture the bliss of experience through the energy of the ever-renewed sign. As in Nabokov: “the open window whence the wounded music came.”

Any aspects of language you're conscious of struggling against?

Oh God yes, we must all struggle against all that is cautious, already-seen, fatigued, shopworn. I battle against what my admirable colleague William Gass calls “pissless prose,” prose that lacks the muscle, the physicality, the gait of a good horse, for pissless prose is bodiless and has no soul. Of course this holds equally true for fiction as for essays, reporting, a letter to a friend, a book review, a decent contribution to art criticism—in sum I search for language in which faith intertwines with desire, faith that we can recapture, with erotic accuracy, that treasured memory or vision which is the object of our desire. I'm keen on the word “voluptuous,” a word too seldom heard in this society founded on puritanical principles. I think back to a phrase of Julia Kristeva's, the most interesting feminist thinker of our time, who speaks of “the voluptuousness of family life.” I would apply the same phrase to the prose I most admire, prose I can caress and nurture and linger on, diction which is nourished by the deep intimacy of familiar detail, and yet is constantly renewed by the force of the writer's love and fidelity to language.

We haven't talked about one of the most memorable aspects of your writing, humor. Does humor come easily to you?

One of the things that led me to write seriously after a decade of procrastination, of dallying with painting and philosophy and art history and journalism, is that I have a gift for very black satiric table talk. I'll readily admit it: like most writers I know, I love being on stage. I've sublimated the dramatic urge by teaching and by making people laugh … that black table talk, I'd particularly dole it out to my dear friend Ethel de Croisset, whom I only see twice a year or so because she lives in Paris. And each time I'd see her I'd regale her with many eccentric observations, mimic every acquaintance I'd seen, and one day in the early sixties she said, “You've got to write down all you tell me, I'll be very annoyed if you don't put your comic sense to use.” So comedy, social satire, was the first tone I was encouraged to by this immensely influential and nurturing friend; my first literary impulse was towards savage, brutal parody, as it stands in the early chapters of Lovers and Tyrants—and in some of the political essays in Adam and Eve and the City—the girls in the WASP school, the vain French narcissist lover. To this day outrageous black dialogue such as October Blood's, “Only fashion survives wars, pestilence, economic crises,” or “I could use a good church service, kneeling is so good for the thighs”—this trivia comes more easily to me than any other passages and such lines are the only ones that never need any editing, that stay in first draft when everything else requires up to ten drafts. Which means that somewhere under my veneer of pretty manners and Catholic-Quaker pacifism and sweet domesticity there lurks someone truly violent, mean and savage. If writing is a revenge against reality, humor is the number one revenge par excellence, and if I didn't have that outlet I'd probably be knifing people to death, don't you think?

Principal Works

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Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism (nonfiction) 1970

Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress (nonfiction) 1972

Lovers and Tyrants (novel) 1976

World without End (novel) 1981

October Blood (novel) 1985

Adam and Eve and the City: Selected Nonfiction (nonfiction) 1987

Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope (nonfiction) 1990

Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet—Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse (biography) 1994

At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life (biography) 1998

Simone Weil (biography) 2001

Jane E. Good (review date 11 March 1990)

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SOURCE: “Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 10, March 11, 1990, pp. 1, 10.

[In the following review, Good offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

Displays of brightly painted wooden dolls decorate souvenir shops throughout the Soviet Union. Twist one at the waist and out tumbles a succession of smaller and smaller dolls, identical virginal women nestled one into the next. More than child's toy or quaint example of folk art, the “matrioshka” doll is a metaphor for what Francine du Plessix Gray terms “the sovereign matriarchies” that the twin forces of ideology and history have forged in contemporary Soviet society [in Soviet Women].

The Bolshevik regime of Lenin was the first government in history to declare women's emancipation as one of its primary goals. Lamenting in 1919 that women were no better than domestic slaves chained to barbarously unproductive and degrading lives of drudgery in kitchen and nursery, Lenin called for an all-out struggle against petty housework. The New Soviet Woman was given marching orders to seek self-fulfillment through employment outside the home, away from husband and babies. Equal pay for equal work was decreed. Divorce laws were liberalized. Abortions were legalized. Childcare centers and communal kitchens were established. Communist dogma forecast that the full employment of women would kindle a radical alteration of the male psyche to produce the New Soviet Man, fully willing to share on a comradely basis all household chores.

Now some 70 years later, Gray's canvas of this epochal experiment's consequences offers vivid portraits of two dozen Soviet women set against a landscape of their everyday concerns—family, career, nursery schools, medical care, fashion, friendship, love, sex and politics. The women range in ethnic background and age from a 20-year-old Muscovite college student to an Armenian director of a suicide prevention center in her seventies. These actresses and artists; novelists, journalists, and historians; teachers and party careerists; doctors and directors of institutes, clinics, factories and experimental theaters reside in major cities. Unfortunately Gray's panorama includes few working-class and no peasant women. Indeed the book's central flaw is the implication that the aspirations and attitudes of urban, educated professionals represent all Soviet women.

Much more about the book deserves praise. Gray's voice remains in the background, intruding only to provide necessary context, as the women speak about their lives with a mix of startling candor and outrage. The result is at once a revealing document depicting details of Soviet life and a disturbing reflection on what this peculiar experience suggests about the human condition. The fact that 92 percent of Soviet women are fully employed outside their homes, and that they comprise 51 percent of the nation's total work force, supports the government's claim that the Soviet Union is the world's most emancipated nation. That this emancipation was less by choice than by necessity—the deaths between 1914 and 1945 of some 40 million men in wars, purges and Stalin's collectivization drive pressed women into a wide range of unskilled manual jobs—accounts perhaps for the paradoxical nature of existing equality. Forty-hour work weeks in factories (90 percent of conveyor belt operators are female), pushing brooms (98 percent of janitors and street cleaners are female) and mixing asphalt (66 percent of highway construction crews are female) have not freed Soviet women from the fetters of frying pans and diapers.

Perhaps nowhere in the communist lexicon has the gap between theory and practice been wider than on the domestic front. Soviet husbands have held to traditional chauvinistic behavior that forces their wives to bear the double burdens of work and family. The social services that once made the Soviet Union a showcase welfare state, enabling women in previous generations to pursue careers, deteriorated beyond recognition during the Brezhnev era. All of this, capped by a dearth of basic commodities that necessitates interminable queuing at the end of a workday, has created a despair of such depth that the Soviet woman's legendary capacity for heroic self-sacrifice has been strained to the limit. Gray reports contempt for men so widespread that Soviet women have come to consider the role of wife much less important than that of mother, daughter or worker.

The strength of maternal devotion has reached astonishing proportions. The female rector of a prestigious pedagogical institute remarked, “If I had a daughter I'd suggest she go and have a child without a husband because the most important duty of a woman, along with her work, is to have children, far beyond the duty of being a wife.” A female history professor added, “And the next most important thing is to keep a sense of duty toward your parents.” Such attitudes explain why the majority of women in this book live with their mothers and children in tiny two-room apartments. Fathers have died; husbands have disappeared.

“Matrioshka” dolls.

Yet in other respects Soviet women have remained quite traditional. Many expressed to Gray a fear that once thrust into the role of superwomen, they gained equality at the expense of their femininity, their tenderness. Equating feminism with hooliganism, they stridently ridicule women with masculine traits. To feel attractive, they spend inordinate amounts of time and money on what Gray terms the “national fashion fixation.” They long for a voluntary dependence on a beloved man, one stronger and wiser than they are. They wonder if their emancipation has, in the end, brought a loss of happiness.

That for her seventh book Gray chose to write about women is not surprising—her acclaimed autobiographical novel Lovers and Tyrants (1976) and many of her nonfiction essays concerned gender issues. A biographical footnote explains why she chose to write about “Soviet” women. The daughter of a French diplomat and a Russian nobleman, Gray spent her 1930s childhood cloistered in the emigré community of Paris with her mother's female relatives. Years later, while traveling in the Soviet Union with her husband and sons, Gray encountered sights, sounds and smells that transported her back to the “arms of the Russian women who had cared for me so well when I was a small child, my great-grandmother and great-aunt; to the fragrant intimacy of the tiny icon-filled rooms of their Paris exile, to memories of their own nurturing warmth, cheer, gentleness, self-lessness and stoic patience.” Gray confesses that she wrote Soviet Women to decode the forceful spell that they have had on her throughout life. By making their lives and concerns so comprehensible, she has generously shared the spell with the rest of us.

Further Reading

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Arana-Ward, Marie. “Francine du Plessix Gray.” Washington Post Book World (13 February 1994): 10.

Arana-Ward provides a brief overview of Gray's life and body of work.

Collins, Ronald K. L. “Waiting for God.” Washington Post (27 May 2001): T15.

Collins contends that Simone Weil is a “sophisticated introduction” to author Weil's life.

Fortescue, William. Review of Rage and Fire, by Francine du Plessix Gray. History 81, No. 262 (April 1996): 288.

Fortescue praises Gray for her portrayal of Colet in Rage and Fire, but criticizes the author on numerous historical inaccuracies.

Hewat, A. J. “Arts & Letters.” Wilson Quarterly 23, No. 2 (Spring 1999): 135–36.

Hewat argues that the strongest quality of At Home with the Marquis De Sade is “the writing, the novelist's gift for richly realized character, for pacing and plot.”

Monet, Cristina. “Brought to Book.” Times Literary Supplement No. 5016 (21 May 1999): 9–10.

Monet contrasts the differing perspectives on Sade's life and literary output in recent biographies, deeming Gray's At Home with the Marquis de Sade a compelling and skillful portrayal.

Vincent, Norah. “Bad Boy of The Bastille.” Washington Post Book World (13 December 1998): 4.

Vincent praises Gray's skillful use of psychoanalysis in her portrayal of Sade in At Home with the Marquis de Sade.

Zirin, Mary F. “Perestroika to the People.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 March 1990): 2.

Zirin offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women, contrasting 1950's American culture with current Soviet culture.

Additional coverage of Gray's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Bestsellers, Vol. 90:3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61–64; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 33, 75, 81; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2.

Marni Jackson (review date 9 April 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in Maclean's, Vol. 103, No. 15, April 9, 1990, p. 71.

[In the following review, Jackson offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

In her riveting portrait of Soviet women, Francine du Plessix Gray combines loving knowledge of her subject—she was raised in Paris by Russian women—with an American novelist's gleeful sense of irony. And the ironies abound in Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, a candid depiction of post-glasnost females—superwomen of a sort never imagined by Western feminism. To begin with, feminism does not yet exist in the Soviet Union (although high fashion does). In its place is a strong matriarchal tradition expressed by the Russian proverb “Woman can do everything; men can do the rest.”

According to du Plessix Gray, since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, women have done everything: 92 per cent of women work at jobs while also logging 40 extra hours every week shopping, cooking and single-handedly raising their children. Most husbands do very little around the house. Soviet grandmothers do not stay at home and babysit; they work as doctors or clean office buildings. Housekeeping is made more difficult by the scarcity of commodities and long lineups, and women are anxious and exhausted by their overburdening. Du Plessix Gray's descriptions illustrate how the state engineered an essentially fake feminism: it “emancipated” women as producers—to swell the labor force—but ignored their role as reproducers and domestic slaves. The result is a chasm between the sexes that makes the Western gender gap look like a lovers' quarrel.

When du Plessix Gray asked a group of women what domestic duties their men undertook, there was derisive laughter all around. “‘He takes out the dog …’ one said. (Much giggling) … ‘He tinkers with the car …’ (Further hilarity).” Du Plessix Gray was amazed by the attitude women displayed towards Soviet men, a hearty contempt that, she writes, “might make the most committed American feminist uncomfortable.”

Everywhere she went, du Plessix Gray says, women complained about the “passivity and boorishness” of their men, while sighing over the “gallantry” of American males. Even compliments were framed with condescension. One school rector described her husband of 35 years as “charmingly infantile.” Slightly aghast at this reverse sexism, the author concluded that the Soviet Union might be as much in need of a men's movement as a women's movement.

The control that women exercise over their little domestic kingdoms evaporates at the door of the maternity ward, however. For a country that prides itself on technological prowess, the Soviet Union is tragically backward in the areas of gynecology and obstetrics, du Plessix Gray reports. Sex education is almost unheard of, and one woman reported that abortion is considered more reliable and “almost cleansing” compared with the available forms of birth control. A gynecologist estimated that there are five to eight abortions for every live birth; one woman thought 14 abortions per woman was more likely.

It is hardly surprising, then, that women turn to more frivolous matters, such as fashion. Du Plessix Gray reports that Soviet women of every level, from philosophers to factory workers, are obsessed with dressing well, spending hours in search of imitation Dior blouses. Still, du Plessix Gray accepts that fascination with surface; in an otherwise bleak environment, fashion offers women a bit of color and a sense of self-worth.

For men, self-worth is more problematic in a country where they have traditionally been excluded from both domestic and political power. Indeed, du Plessix Gray devotes considerable space to the sad-eyed, ghostly husbands trying not to get in the way of their all-too-capable wives. Men are an echoing absence in the book. Du Plessix Gray concludes that the matrioshka, that staple of Russian folk art, is a fitting symbol of Soviet women: a set of carved female figures, nestled one inside the other—“parthenogenetic females” reproducing themselves generation after generation.

The spectacle of emancipation without sexual equality is immensely poignant. Du Plessix Gray describes a country of women whose great strength is still a form of martyrdom, who are left with little time or energy for political vision—or even love.

Tatyana Tolstaya (review date 31 May 1990)

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SOURCE: “Notes from Underground,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 9, May 31, 1990, pp. 3–7.

[In the following positive review, Tolstaya discusses Gray's insights on Soviet life in Soviet Women.]

During the two weeks I spent in the United States at least forty people asked me: “And what do you think about this book?” The person asking the question would simply point at it, without mentioning the author or title—the assumption seemed to be that it was obviously the book worth talking about at the moment. It was given to me twice during my stay.

The most important thing about Soviet Women for me is that it rings true. It consists of numerous stories, portraits of living people—women and men whom I recognize as though I actually knew them. Each is present as a person, with his or her own point of view and taste. The opinion of any of these Soviet citizens can easily be argued with, and one can often object that a highly personal point of view is being given, and that the person talking is simply wrong and doesn't understand anything—but the sum of these opinions of Russian women and men will, I believe, shake up the view of Soviet society that has formed in the West.

Francine du Plessix Gray traveled with a tape recorder from the Baltic states to Siberia, asking women of many nationalities and cultures about their lives, in order to form a general picture of the situation of Soviet women. She was drawn to make this visit by affection for and curiosity about the country of her mother's and her grandparents' birth, and those of us who met her sensed the warmth of her involvement; but this did not hinder the sharpness of her observations. Her sense of humor must have helped her out more than once in situations that would have driven mad anyone who expected to make a quick, businesslike compilation of information on a country where—just imagine—the entire female population vigorously repudiates feminism.

Once or twice a year the doorbell of every Soviet apartment rings and a stern, middle-aged woman with a list of residents in hand appears on the threshold. With no introduction, she curtly and glumly inquires: “Bothered by rats? Hear any mice? Bedbugs, cockroaches? …” The mistress of the house, caught unawares, or perhaps gotten out of bed, mutters hurriedly in her confusion: “No … no … not yet”—whether any of the above-mentioned animals have paid a visit: everyone knows it's useless to fight them anyway. The stern visitor nods, makes a notation in her book, and, without so much as a word of farewell, turns and rings the next apartment. For years women from Western countries who call themselves feminists have interviewed us in the same cold, rigid manner: “How do your men oppress you? Why don't they wash the dishes? Why don't they prepare meals? Why don't they allow women into politics? Why don't women rebel against the phallocracy?”

Soviet women are dumbfounded. Not only do they not want to be involved in the depressing, nauseating activity called Soviet “politics”—which for years amounted to sitting for hours on end in a stuffy room amid piles of paper and pronouncing officially authorized sentences—they would much rather not work at all. In bewilderment they ask themselves: What do we need this ridiculous feminism for anyway? In order to do the work of two people? So men can lie on the sofa? For as soon as a Soviet man sees that someone is doing his work for him, he quickly lies down on the sofa and falls into a reverie with a feeling of relief.

Russian men have been recumbent for many centuries. Emel, the hero of Russian fairy tales, lies on the stove, and a fish—a pike—brings everything to him, from daily sustenance to a princess, upon marriage to whom he will be able to do nothing at all with complete justification. Ilya Muromets, the knight-hero of Russian folk epics, lies quite still, without lifting a finger, for thirty-three years—until some sorcerers chance to pass by and endow him with heroic powers. Oblomov, the famous protagonist of the nineteenth-century writer Goncharov's novel, remains in repose his entire life—too lazy even to write a letter to put his finances in order.

With laughter and regret all Russia recognized itself in the person of Oblomov. The heroes of Russian folklore and literature set their affairs straight, thanks to magical wives and fiancées who sew, weave, spin, cook, bake, heal, cast spells, come to their rescue in dangerous situations, and save them from inevitable doom. Men in Russian folklore are often fools and idlers; women are sorceresses, terrifying or gentle, cannibals or beauties, they are beings that deftly transform themselves into swans and frogs at just the right moment. When the silly hero, unschooled in the mysteries of female magic, tries to approach things rationally by burning the mysterious and dangerous frog skin or stealing the swan's feathers, women abandon him, fly off to distant kingdoms beyond the dark blue forest, to glass mountains or lost islands. In short, as Francine Gray says, quoting a Soviet proverb: “Women can do everything, and men do all the rest.”

Russian men may have been lying down for hundreds of years, and Russian women may have been bemoaning this state of affairs. But there are exceptions among men. And even the exceptions seem to come straight out of Russian literature. Once one of my friends, Irina, a music teacher with three children, got a phone call from an unknown man. “Hello,” he said. “I want to be your slave.”

“Where do you know me from?” said Irina, surprised.

“I don't know you,” responded the man. “I simply dialed your phone number by chance. But it doesn't matter. I feel terribly sorry for all women on earth. Poor souls! They do the work of three people, these gentle, unfortunate creatures. And no one helps! I decided to dedicate my life to a woman—all of you are equally wonderful. Please allow me to come to your home and do the heaviest work.”

The man began to cry, and Irina agreed that he could come that evening, when her husband was at home.

“I want to wash the floors,” he said, “I'll take out the garbage, cook, take the children for walks.”

“We can't trust him with the children—he's probably some kind of maniac,” thought the couple. “Well, here, return these empty bottles for starters,” they told him, figuring that the slave would steal the deposit money and that would be the last they'd see of him, thank heavens. But the slave turned in the bottles and came back with the money.

Then he began to work at house-cleaning. When everything was done, the slavemasters invited their new acquisition for a cup of tea. A completely Dostoevskian conversation ensued—a long, philosophical, Russian sort of conversation about morality, and whether or not one would inevitably experience a fall if one raised oneself above other people, and about how while they had been exploiting him, they had been overwhelmed by proprietary instincts and negative feelings of superiority, and their souls had recognized the sin of pride. So they asked him to finish his tea and leave.

“What do you mean, leave?” the slave protested. “I'm yours now. You don't have the right to get rid of me. You can only sell me. For the time being I'm going to sleep in the hall on the rug. You're depressing me!”

It was with a great deal of difficulty that Irina and her husband sold the slave to a sick woman, Elena, who needed constant help because she was an invalid and bedridden. From time to time Irina would call the slave, “Well, how's it going?”

“Wonderful,” he'd reply. “I'm working around the house and I finally feel useful.”

“How's it going,” Irina asked a week later. “Not bad,” said the slave, “only she demands that I buy her French perfume with my own money. What impudence. I've liberated her from this work, and she tyrannizes me.”

“Well, how's it going?”

“It's awful, awful,” complained the slave a month later. “It's not enough that I wash her, dress her, comb her hair, take her out for walks, tell her interesting stories, buy her everything she wants. She also wants me to enter the university and makes me read Pushkin and write compositions. Of course, I'm a slave, but what right does she have to interfere in my inner life?”

Finally he himself called. “Congratulate me, I'm a free man! Finally! I won't have anything to do with another woman in my life!”

And he disappeared forever into the sea of life from which he had so unexpectedly surfaced.

Happily free of the dry, rigid rationalism of many of her Western colleagues, Francine Gray did not force herself on Russian women with ready-made, one-size-fits-all stereotypes; she didn't wave preconceived formulas for the reorganizing of Russian women's lives at them and didn't exclaim, “Horrors! Shame!” as have—in all sincerity—many of her more simple-minded compatriots.

She noticed—and was herself surprised to find—that Russian, even Soviet, society, is matriarchal. The term “matriarchy” is of course too weighty a term to apply without caution to the complex, motley, and paradoxical society that arose (and is apparently fast disintegrating) in a huge country stretching from ocean to ocean and comprising hundreds of peoples who speak virtually all imaginable languages and pray to all imaginable gods. But if we don't insist on a strict, overly scholarly approach, and, dimming the sharp, surgical light of rationalism, allow ourselves to relax, listen, observe, absorb, and feel—that is, do exactly what Russian people do almost professionally—then it is possible to speak about the matriarchal qualities of many feature of the Russian consciousness. And the Russian mentality has to some degree penetrated all corners of the empire—often not for the best.

Sensitivity, reverie, imagination, an inclination to tears, compassion, submission mingled with stubbornness, patience that permits survival in what would seem to be unbearable circumstances, poetry, mysticism, fatalism, a penchant for walking the dark, humid back streets of consciousness, introspection, sudden, unmotivated cruelty, mistrust of rational thought, fascination with the word—the list could go on and on—all these are qualities that have frequently been attributed to the “Slavic soul.” When one puts them all together, one forms the impression that the description is of a woman. (These qualities, however, also equally fit the male Russian literary and folk heroes mentioned above.) Russian writers and thinkers have often called the “Russian soul” female, contrasting it to the rational, clear, dry, active, well-defined soul of the Western man. The West in fact often refuses to speak about the “soul” at all, as it applies to a people or a culture. The West refuses to use such an unscientific concept: you can't hold the “soul” in your hand, therefore it's impossible—and unnecessary—to study it. Logical categories are inapplicable to the soul. But Russian sensitivity, permeating the whole culture, doesn't want to use logic—logic is seen as dry and evil, logic comes from the devil—the most important thing is sensation, smell, emotion, tears, mist, dreams, and enigma.

In Russian culture emotion is assigned an entirely positive value, and thus the culture's sexual stereotypes differ from those of the Protestant, Enlightenment West. The more a person expresses his emotions, the better, more sincere, and more “open” he is. When Russians speak of the soul, what is meant is this developed subculture of emotion. You don't have to explain what the soul is; any Russian is capable of expounding upon the subject at length and with deep feeling. Within this subculture, women are seen as stronger: that is, they appear to feel more, express things more openly, display their emotions more clearly—they are, in effect, “more Russian.”

Russian literature is not intellectual, but emotional. In Russia the people who are committed to insane asylums are not those who have lost their reason, but those who have suddenly acquired it. At the very least, he who attempts to reason logically is declared a dangerous eccentric. In Griboedov's play Woe from Wit, written at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, the hero arrives in Moscow after spending several years in the West. The absurdity of Moscow life horrifies him and casts him into despair. He tries to appeal to reason, to logic—a waste of time and effort. He is immediately declared insane—in a matter of five minutes this becomes clear to everyone. Despairing, the hero runs away. Where to? To the West of course. The philosopher and writer Chaadaev, one of the most brilliant men of the same period, was like-wise declared insane. Truly mad people—iurodivye, as they are called in Russian—are thought of as “God's people”; they are holy, and their incoherence, absurd pronouncements, and strange behavior, are considered a genuine sign of a special, mystical link with God.

I do not presume to give even an outline of the Russian world view—at the very least that would be immodest. But my Russian feeling tells me how accurately Francine du Plessix Gray understood (or felt?) the powerful female principle that suffuses the Russian universe. Home, hearth, household, children, birth, family ties, the close relationship of mothers, grandmothers, and daughters; the attention to all details, control over everything, power, at times extending to tyranny—all this is Russian woman, who both frightens and attracts, enchants and oppresses. To imagine that Russian women are subservient to men and that they must therefore struggle psychologically or otherwise to assert their individuality vis-à-vis men, is, at the very least, naive.

Of course social inequities exist: many traditionally female occupations (including doctors) are among the lowest paid in the country; many women in the Soviet Union break their backs at excessively hard physical labor (women do a great deal of the road construction work, for instance); many work around the clock without a chance to rest. There are women who are beaten or brutalized by their husbands; there are women alcoholics, women who would sell their children for a bottle of vodka. There is a bit of everything, as is true everywhere in the world. But most Russian women—“normal” women—are, as a rule, far from weak creatures.

Russian women so often exude such a strong, psychologically overpowering aura that men, floundering helplessly like moths in the wind, are only to be pitied. A Russian woman is entirely mistress of her household, the children belong to her and to her alone, the family often doesn't even ask for male advice, or only consults men to clarify a situation: women will do things their way in any event.

When, a few years ago, Literaturnaya Gazeta began a discussion about “who is master in the house,” the publication was bombarded with a stream of male complaints—thousands of unhappy representatives of the “stronger sex” complained about all manner of oppression. The most common was the situation of divorce. If there are children in the family, they inevitably stay with the mother when the couple divorces, although theoretically the law recognizes the equal rights of each parent. But no one would ever think of awarding custody of children to the father; the organizations that supervise the treatment of children consist entirely of women, and the very idea of entrusting a child to a man would seem absurd to them. Dozens of complaining letters from men merged in a common, miserable howl. This was perhaps the first time that men had received the right to express themselves on the theme of the family in the Soviet press, and the results astounded many people.

The letters from women in this polemic were fairly unanimous as well: “The creep got what he deserved.” “What good are men?” “All men are pigs”—alas, a common female refrain. Of course, there's an ongoing fight over these “pigs,” since every woman wants to have her own “creep” at home. The feeling of property—as opposed to companionship or partnership in marriage, for instance—is a very Russian characteristic.

Men are the property of women; if this property betrays, or runs away, or decides to lay down its own law—it will receive its just desserts. Francine Gray, having spoken with dozens of women, noted with surprise that almost all of them talked about men as they would about furniture or other inanimate objects. A group of women doctors kept a few men in their group “for a tonic.” You can always find this kind of “Schweppes” in female collectives; among doctors, teachers, in publishing houses, in the many research institutes that exist in the Soviet Union, where women are in the majority. The “tonifying” man is usually spoiled, receives a great deal of attention, women try to dress up for him (our women tend to dress for work as if for the theater), they like to bring him homemade meat pies and salads, they even pretend that they are happy to submit. But if he should try to boss them around—woe to him. If women aren't the death of him, then at least they are always capable of arranging some quiet, legally unassailable sabotage, and it is impossible to force a woman to work if she doesn't want to. Women will quickly unify and attack the accusing man with reproaches of callousness, oppression, cruelty, and lack of understanding of a woman's hard fate.

It is difficult—especially in a short article—to speak of problems whose roots go back in history. But the events of the last decades are available for observation: the Revolution; a lengthy civil war; the almost complete destruction of the intelligentsia in Russia; the coming of new classes to power; the mixing of all layers of the population and all nationalities who live in the Russian empire; the many years of Stalinist terror with tens of millions of prisoners and deaths; then the war, which destroyed at least twenty million men (according to some estimates, as many as thirty-six million people altogether).

During the four years of war there was only one sex in Russia—women. The men had gone to war. Not only did the country have to be fed, but weapons had to be manufactured—and this was done by women and small children. And after the war sometimes only one man would return alive to a Russian village full of women—and even he was often an invalid. One can understand that each woman strived to possess him. An entire generation of women grew up, grew old, and died as eternal fiancées or widows.

And the Stalinist arrests continued after the war as well—with renewed strength. Those who had managed to spend time abroad, especially the partisans who fought with liberating forces in other countries, were sent to the camps; those who had been held prisoner in German camps were sent away; homeless adolescents and orphans, often turning to crime to survive, were also sent to the camps. Sometimes it is said that the entire country spent time in the camps, and this is actually a fair statement. Women—especially the wives of prisoners—were also arrested, but by and large it was men who did time. They returned desperate people; the level of alcoholism was very high; many had become criminals in detention. They would commit crimes and burglary and be sent back again. The intelligentsia was often arrested for political reasons and the level of education, enlightenment, and just plain civilized behavior was extremely low.

Add to this the constant psychological and physical stress of periods of famine and chronic food, housing, and consumer shortages well beyond the imagination of most Westerners, and it becomes obvious that all these catastrophes were bound to have a devastating effect on the family and relationships between the sexes. Disastrous shifts in the Russian consciousness were bound to occur, developing and strengthening its worst traits. Most foreigners who visit our country deal primarily with the city culture of Moscow and Leningrad. The psychology of rural, provincial, small-town culture is less well known to foreigners—but I am talking mostly about this small-town culture, since the intelligentsia in most countries around the world is quite similar.

A Soviet woman's dream is to not have to work—but work she must, because salaries are very low. It is impossible to live on a husband's salary alone. There can be almost no discussion of a career in the Western sense of a progression upward—a career is tied in with enormous psychological difficulties and adds so insignificantly to one's salary that it isn't even worth trying. A career is more likely to give power than money, but most Soviet women feel they have enough power as is. Why should she want some kind of intangible political power over abstract people who don't want to submit, when right within her grasp is a full-fledged, seductive, constant, palpable power over the members of her family, over every object, chair, bed, broom, curtain, pot or pan, keys, the dog, the schedule and menu?

Until very recently, a “career” meant relinquishing the personal, private life that provided Soviet people with respite and protection from the claims of the state, in order to participate in the meaningless parades, endless meetings, and lying speeches of the public domain. An honest person tried his or her best not to participate in this “official” life. Those who did get involved in the hellish machine were broken: either it destroyed all traces of individuality and compromised them morally and ethically, or—if a person rebelled—threw him out of society, sometimes sending him as far as Siberia.

Of course, in our society everyone felt suffocated by public life, by the total absence of freedom. But men suffered from it to a greater degree than women, since women have always had the loophole of “domestic life,” to fall back on. Men had no such loophole in our society. At the beginning of the Sixties a special law was devised against “parasitism,” i.e., the failure to work at a job authorized and recognized by the state. Though this law was used primarily as a tool against political dissidence, it was also directed against men who wished to freely choose their profession and thus be masters of their own fates. The Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was convicted under this very law.

Women have rarely been prosecuted under this insane law. In the Soviet Union women have the de facto right not to work if they don't want to, although the law theoretically applies to both sexes. But it is only used against women in exceptional cases—if the woman's behavior is excessively “anti-social” for instance, if she is a prostitute, a thief, an alcoholic, beats her children, and her neighbors also complain about her. But these are the extreme exceptions. For years our society regularly punished, persecuted, imprisoned, and humiliated its male population, for men could not withdraw from the role of public citizen as easily as women. One of the ironies of the Revolution is that it did in fact succeed in making men and women equal—by taking away the rights of every member of society.

The picture that I have painted here may seem gloomy, but my words are dictated not by a wish to judge, but by compassion for our people, who may often seem emotional barbarians to outsiders. And I feel an enormous sympathy for Francine Gray, who was not frightened off and did not turn against the people she met, the Russian men and women whose living portraits fill the pages of her book. There is a Russian proverb: “Learn to love us when we're filthy dirty—anyone can love us when we're clean.” That's what she did.

The possibility of misunderstanding and not hearing each other always exists. If a desert dweller and a citizen of a lush tropical island begin to chat about the sun, water, and wind, it's not likely that their opinions will coincide. Knowing Soviet life, I read Francine Gray's book, noting mentally: true … that's exactly right. … American readers—those who don't know our country at all—might think entirely the opposite. “How unlikely,” they might think, “how could that possibly be true?”

We are too different; in many respects we are opposites. It's simpler not to listen, not to believe, to shut ourselves off inside the cozy curtains of the usual stereotypes. I end this article with a strange feeling of uncertainty whether I will be correctly understood, the same feeling that people have on parting with someone they have just met and don't know too well. “It seems I was in top form today, and spoke well,” thinks one of them. “What a strange nose he has, what a dreadful suit, and what stupid relatives,” thinks the other. “Drop in again,” they both say. After all—they're neighbors.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel (review date 4 June 1990)

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SOURCE: “Glasnost for Women?,” in Nation, Vol. 250, No. 22, June 4, 1990, pp. 773–79.

[In the following mixed review, Vanden Heuvel places Soviet Women within the changing political, cultural, and socioeconomic context of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century.]

Seventy-three years after the Russian Revolution, Soviet women are confronting a powerful backlash against its emancipation of women. Glasnost is allowing Soviet citizens to voice patriarchal prejudices once banned as bourgeois or counterrevolutionary. The state-controlled news media, for example, frequently blame “overemancipated, masculinized women” for social ills from juvenile delinquency to divorce. And Mikhail Gorbachev's ambivalent positions on the role of women in political and economic life, along with the social policies proposed by the Communist Party and the Congress of People's Deputies earlier this year, further strengthen the view that only women are responsible for children and housework.

So far, perestroika has failed to change Soviet women's secondary position in the work force or shorten their second shift at home. Measures proposed by the Communist Party to “improve the working and living conditions of women,” for example, will allow women to work fewer hours a week; release them from heavy work and labor injurious to their health (usually the highest-paying jobs); and increase prenatal, maternal and workplace-funded leave for mothers of large families and single mothers. These policies, however generous and necessary, fail to address the fundamental inequalities women suffer. Official discussions of women's double burden rarely extend to men's family responsibilities—or consider society's responsibility for family welfare. The idea of parental, as opposed to maternal, leave was unthinkable until this year. (In April the Supreme Soviet passed a resolution which for the first time allows “fathers, grandfathers or other family members” the right to take unpaid child care leave.)

Why is this happening in a country that produced the first woman ambassador and the first woman in space? The Soviet Union contains the largest number of women professionals and specialists on the globe, and close to 90 percent of its female population is in the work force. Early Soviet legislation sought to secure full economic and social equality for women. They were to be employed in the public sector as a condition of complete equality, and the responsibility for housework and child care was to shift from the individual household to the collective. But the disruptions of war, large-scale unemployment, rampant inflation and Stalin's conservative social policies meant that few resources were devoted to social programs. Although opportunities for women in the labor force expanded, the socialization of housework never took shape.

As a result, many Soviet women express yearning for a traditional female role centered around the family and the home. They are exhausted by decades of paper equality and a double burden made more difficult by consumer shortages (a recent Soviet survey shows that 275 billion hours, equal to 90 percent of the time devoted to paid work in the national economy as a whole, are spent on shopping, child care and housework each year, most of it spent by women). Yet recent national polls show that only 20 percent of Soviet women would quit their jobs even if they could afford to. And most Soviet women, like their American counterparts, still need to work full time in order to make ends meet. Other women, fewer in number but increasingly vocal, are taking advantage of increased opportunities for political and social activism. Some are even espousing Western-style feminism, as they understand it.

Francine du Plessix Gray set out in 1987 to capture a society in flux through the voices of its women. She admits to a dual purpose: to examine “the first community of women in history to be officially emancipated” and to decode “the forceful spell that Russian women have had on me for much of my life” (Gray was raised in Paris by a Russian mother, grandmother and governess). Her nostalgia for the cozy and aristocratic milieu of her Russian maternal relatives may have led her to talk mainly to educated, urban, “successful” women. There are no rural women, or engineers or scientists in Soviet Women (although there are many doctors, a more traditional female occupation), and only a few token workers. Her portraits of women in their homes, at work or in hospitals and clinics are always meticulously observed and often lyrical. A distinguished writer of fiction and nonfiction, Gray tells these women's stories like a novelist.

The strength of Gray's book is its reporting on how women are being affected by a deteriorating health care system. Gray hears stories about the brutal treatment of women during childbirth. On visits to several hospitals, she documents the primitive conditions: the unchanged, blood-smeared sheets on nursing mothers' beds, the lack of bathing facilities and the patients' shabby, prisonlike hospital gowns. Men are not allowed to visit their wives or children for fear that they will infect them. The great irony of the Soviet Union's backwardness in the field of gynecology is that the technique of prepared childbirth had originated there several decades ago (the Frenchman who introduced it to the West, Dr. Lamaze, had actually learned it in the Soviet Union in the early 1950s from two Soviet doctors, Platonov and Velkovskii). Today the Lamaze method is virtually unheard of in the Soviet Union, and women have little or nothing to say about the conduct of their labor. According to Gray, only one clinic in the Soviet Union, in the more westernized Baltic Republic of Latvia, practices family birthing techniques.

Abortion is the primary method of birth control—not by choice but because of the absence of reliable contraceptives (diaphragms come in only two sizes, and condoms are called galoshi, which means just what it sounds like). There are four to eight abortions, depending on whose statistics you trust, for every live birth. The conditions in abortion clinics that Gray describes are now being graphically detailed in the Soviet press. Last year, for example, Moscow News published an account of one woman's ordeal under the headline, “I Don't Want to Be Sorry I'm a Woman.” The author, Yekaterina Nikolayeva, recalled her experience in an abortion clinic. A doctor yelled at her for staring at his bloodstained gloves and scolded another woman by saying, “‘You should have had second thoughts before. You're all fond of sweets, but you're not willing to pay the price.’”

The article led the highest-ranking woman in the Soviet government, Aleksandra Biryukova, to order a Health Ministry investigation. She promised that the contraceptive industry would radically increase its output over the next two years. But Biryukova's call for change will not be easily answered. The Soviet reproductive health system needs radical restructuring before it can serve women humanely and effectively, and the lack of contraceptives is not the only problem. Family-planning programs are almost nonexistent and have no way to counter widespread beliefs that contraceptives are unreliable, dangerous or unobtainable. (No sex education materials designed for women are readily available now, but next year Progress Publishers may publish Our Bodies, Ourselves.)

Unlike the abortion debate in the West, which pits the putative rights of the fetus against women's right to choose, the Soviet discussion is about women's health care—the right to adequate supplies of reliable contraceptives, sanitary conditions, anesthetics and the respect of medical workers. As of now, there is no national debate in the Soviet Union about the morality of abortion. But rising ethnic tensions in the Russian Republic and in the Caucasus, for example, could open that issue because they strengthen patriarchal religions which have a dim view of women. (A similar phenomenon is occurring in Poland, where the Catholic Church is trying to use its influence with Solidarity to curtail abortion and the availability of contraceptives.)

Few Soviet sexologists (a surprisingly busy and esteemed specialty) will discuss homosexuality, and decades of cultural isolation from the West and of repressive laws have insured that sexual attitudes remain reactionary. (Although lesbianism was never officially outlawed, homosexuals have been jailed for up to eight years under a statute that, according to press reports, is likely to be repealed this year.) But there have been glimmers of opposition. In December 1979 a group of Leningrad women issued a samizdat publication, Almanac: Women and Russia. It was the first self-consciously feminist text produced in the Soviet Union since the early 1920s, and its half-dozen contributors wrote about the flaws of Soviet gynecology, the scarcity of consumer goods and the general overburdening of women, problems that are aired today by numerous women in the glasnost press. What was unusual about Almanac was its accounts of lesbian relationships, a reality of Soviet life that is only now being acknowledged (albeit euphemistically and grudgingly).

Ten years earlier, in November 1969, Natalya Baranskaya's novella A Week Like Any Other was published in the prestigious literary journal Novy Mir. (It has just been published in English, along with several of Baranskaya's short stories, by Seal Press.) Written in the form of a week's diary entries, it details the nightmare of one woman's daily life: food shortages, endless lines, poor health care and day care, the lack of basic household services and a husband who buries himself in the TV or newspapers and never lifts a finger. When he suggests to Olga, a young scientist, that she stop working and stay home to take care of the family (a familiar proposal these days), she is appalled: “You want to shut me in here for the whole year! How could we live on your salary! … All this boring stuff is for me alone, and the only interesting things are for you!” Olga's story touched a raw nerve; Baranskaya received hundreds of letters from grateful women thanking her for telling the truth about their lives.

That was twenty years ago; it's taken women that long to get started. Since 1989 there has been an upsurge of independent (that is, outside party control) activism by women. And although there are still no signs of a mass movement, independent women's associations have emerged around the country. But Soviet Women doesn't take these developments into account. (To be fair, things are changing so rapidly in the Soviet Union these days that many books are outdated by the time they are published.) Gray writes that women are “hindered from cohesive action, to this day, by their government's censure of any ‘feminist’ movement that would function outside of party control … and by their curious lack of solidarity.” Her comment that during her travels she “barely found two” other feminists is difficult to understand. One evening last December I sat in a newspaper office in Moscow and listened to twenty women from eight different independent associations define what feminism meant to them. Many were in their 20s, contradicting Gray's view that the younger generation has lost contact with feminist traditions. In fact, the emerging women's associations are composed of women of different ages and different political and professional orientations.

In Moscow, Olga Voronina and a group of women scholars have established the League for Society's Liberation from Stereotypes (LOTOS), which is beginning to articulate a gender analysis of Soviet society. Olga Bessolova has revived a once dormant Women's Council in the Aerohydrodynamics Institute in Zhukovsky, sixty kilometers from Moscow. She has organized a Women's Initiative Club, which lobbies the town government for better services and holds bimonthly consciousness-raising meetings, and an Inter-Regional Women's Political Club, which organizes political training workshops for women and nominates women to run in local and national races. Last January I attended one of the Initiative Club's meetings. Forty women—professionals, scholars, journalists, engineers and factory workers—gathered for four hours. These women believe that the solution to the “women's question” lies not in the improvement of consumer goods and services but in the redefinition of male and female social roles.

One month earlier, a federation of women writers was formed inside the Russian Writer's Union, and women filmmakers and journalists have started lobbying groups to fight for higher pay and better working conditions. (The Soviet Union still has only one female foreign correspondent.) In March several women formed a women's center in Moscow which will offer legal consultation as well as political leadership training. In Leningrad, Elena Zelinskaya, who heads a women's cooperative association and the Northwest Information Agency, a network of independent journalists in Leningrad, was recently appointed to chair the City Council Commission on Communication. In Uzbekistan (where Gray interviews a “narcissistic Communist official” and a “Dragon Lady”), Rozika Mergenbaeva makes documentaries about the appalling conditions under which women and girls work in the cotton fields.

More disturbing than these omissions is Gray's conclusion, presented early in the book, that “the Soviet Union might be as much in need of a men's movement as of a women's movement.” She tries the idea out on some of her Soviet friends and finds it “very well received.” But the women Gray asks, and who inform this book, are almost exclusively strong and successful women who live with either their mothers or children or with passive, emasculated men, whom they deride in Gray's presence. As someone who has traveled regularly to the Soviet Union in the past ten years, I'd say the country has had a men's movement all along; only now are women's concerns emerging on the fringes of the male-dominated political and cultural outpourings that characterize glasnost. What kind of matriarchy pays its female workers two-thirds of the average male income, gives women the dirty manual jobs while insuring that they cannot reach the top of the professions and then blames “masculinized” women for every social problem?

Gray emerges as a kind of romantic feminist, accepting the view, so popular among the Soviet intelligentsia and political elite, that Soviet women have an essence that is indisputably different from that of men. “In this laboratory of emancipation offered us by the Soviet Union,” Gray concludes, “in this epochal experiment which has engaged women in the work force longer and more fully than any society in history, the paradoxical ‘equality’ between the sexes may well symbolize a central dilemma of the human condition: the female's secret and ambivalent desire to lead and be led, the male's confusion and resentment before her mysterious force and her often awesome versatility.” Throughout all levels of Soviet society, she writes, “one is constantly awed by women's keen sense of their greater patience, diligence, optimism, endurance, shrewdness and self-esteem—a self-esteem apparently heightened by the very arduousness of their everyday duties, their incessant foraging for basic necessities of food and clothing.” Gray continues, “Many women I talked to prefer to remain exhausted, to continue complaining and to keep their husbands out of the kitchen, where ‘it is not their place to be.’” Perhaps, she notes, this stance makes more sense if viewed in the great Russian literary tradition that depicts women's suffering as a redemptive force. In the end, she creates the same image of women created by Russian male authors in the nineteenth century: heroines considerably more powerful than their male counterparts. Those authors placed women on pedestals, the better to admire their suffering while keeping them in their place.

The structure of much of the book—small-scale, impressionistic pictures of women in their homes, with their children and, occasionally, “henpecked” husbands—places women in a traditional surrounding. This setting draws out Gray's novelistic skills, but women in any society have many sets of relationships. However, Gray doesn't seem interested in describing the public activities of women in Soviet society. As a result, there is often a static and passive quality to these women's lives. I wish Gray had asked more of them what they think they, or the Gorbachev government, could do to improve their living or working conditions.

In fact, women as active political figures do not figure in the book. When Gray does refer to the glaring absence of women in positions of high political authority, she doesn't discuss the structural shortcomings of a system that has produced only two women Politburo members in seventy-three years. Instead, she argues that Western feminists have “tended to put too much blame on men's sexist biases” to explain Soviet women's absence from the higher echelons of labor and politics. Soviet women, Gray implies, consider politics a dirty business, best left to men. “In the glasnost era,” she writes, Soviet women “often note, with a touch of irony and pride, that in view of the totalitarianism and moral debacle of past Soviet regimes … their skeptical reticence toward political power may have been prophetic.” But the situation seems more complex. Consider that multi-candidate elections last year, the freest since 1917, produced a Congress of People's Deputies in which fewer than 15 percent of the deputies are women, as compared with 33 percent under previous governments. And in the recent local elections to the Russian Republic's Parliament, the proportion of women elected dropped from 35.3 percent before the quotas were removed to 5.4 percent afterward. (A pre-election poll in Argumenti i Fakti last year showed that voters considered “being a man” one of the most important qualities in a candidate.) These alarming statistics have sparked a debate among women about developing affirmative action programs during this transitional period to help more women get into the grass-roots soviets, which are so important to the new political life of the country.

Class differences are as important in the Soviet Union as in the United States, but Gray's focus on women from the “intelligentsia” obscures rather than illuminates these differences. For example, several of the women she interviewed express the hope that private enterprise and cooperatives will offer better conditions for women, such as flexible hours and improved health care. But for millions of women, the implications of the market-style economic reforms are less appealing. Indeed, I have spoken to many women who worry that reforms like radical cuts in the 18-million-member bureaucracy will mean layoffs of support staffs—which consist almost entirely of women. They worry that cooperatives, which are more like profit-making limited partnerships than communal enterprises, are requiring workers to put in twelve hours a day, thereby excluding mothers unless they are able to work at home. Other reforms, such as work brigades, which were introduced as an incentive to make workers more productive, are leaving the disabled, older workers and women, who traditionally take more sick leaves because of responsibility for children, on the sidelines. In addition, when women try to take advantage of their legal rights to work fewer hours or on a part-time schedule, employers are reluctant to accommodate their requests, and women then often find themselves under pressure to quit. Since almost all benefits in Soviet society (housing, health care and pensions) revolve around one's job, women are worried that they may well become more dependent on their husbands or families as a result of the reforms.

Perhaps the only perceptible—and significant—benefit Gorbachev's reforms have brought to women is the freedom to organize, to address the inequalities in the system or, as a Soviet friend of mine puts it, “to let steam off.” Olga Voronina, who helped form the independent group LOTOS, wrote last year, “In Western Europe and America women's movements have spent twenty years fighting for society to recognize their problems. Here we are only just beginning the process of democratization, and our issue cannot be resolved by decree. Until society changes its view of women and stops reducing their problems to goods shortages, nothing is going to change.”

Wilson Quarterly (review date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 93–94.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

Francine du Plessix Gray, an American novelist of partly Russian descent, investigates [in Soviet Women] a side of Soviet reality little known to most Western readers—the world of the “second sex.” Much of what she reports will come as revelation. How many Americans know, for example, that only five percent of Soviet women have access to birth-control pills or IUDs, or that the main form of birth control in the Soviet Union is abortion, or that the national average is 14 abortions per woman? In terms of sex education, one of Leningrad's few sexologists observed, “the Soviet Union is among the most backward countries in the world, somewhere on the level of Bhutan [or] Afghanistan.”

The quotidian complaints of Soviet women will come as less of a surprise to their Western sisters. Working hard all day, queuing in long lines at the stores, and coming home to husbands who won't share in the housekeeping or child-rearing constitute the fate of many Soviet women. But if their plight sounds familiar, their response to it is not. The Soviets du Plessix Gray interviewed scorned Western feminism, often dismissing it as unnatural.

Reluctant to question traditional gender roles, Soviet women instead tend to ignore their indolent men and forge bonds with other females: friends, mothers, and grandmothers. The old Russian matriarchy survives in a society where strong, self-sacrificing, self-sufficient women dominate passive, emasculated husbands. None of du Plessix Gray's subjects felt the need to compete with men. Indeed, the author began to wonder which sex was more in need of support: “After dozens of evenings spent with distraught, henpecked men and with a dismaying abundance of superwomen, I reached the conclusion the Soviet Union might be … in need of a men's movement.”

All the same, Soviet superwomen are fed up with being superwomen on the job. “American women are still struggling for the freedom to,” du Plessix Gray notes, “whereas Soviet women are struggling for the freedom from.” The Revolution gave women the right (actually the responsibility) to work outside of the house and to receive equal wages. But practice has lagged behind theory: For the majority, women's “liberation” has become an overworked, underpaid nightmare. Nearly half of Soviet women work at unskilled, often backbreaking jobs; most warehouse workers and highway construction crews, for example, are female. “We are like [American] blacks!” complained one woman. The social services, health care, and child-support that enabled an earlier generation to bear the double burden of work and family deteriorated during the Brezhnev era. The heroism and outright despair of today's Soviet women are expressed in the aphorism, “Women do everything, and men do the rest.” The strongest desire of most women du Plessix Gray interviewed was to raise their children themselves and not to work outside of the home.

Soviet Women may be slanted—almost no peasant women or women living outside major cities are interviewed—but overall it has the ring of recognizable truth. Soviet women, trapped between traditional values and contemporary expectations, are living simultaneously in the 19th and 20th centuries. Du Plessix Gray's account of a society fragmented not only among nationalities but even between different eras hints at the difficulties facing reformers in the age of Gorbachev.

Elizabeth Kristol (review date July 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in American Spectator, Vol. 23, No. 7, July, 1990, pp. 40–41.

[In the following mixed review of Soviet Women, Kristol criticizes the limited range of Soviet women interviewed for the book and Gray's lack of verification and counterbalancing research.]

In his 1864 novel What Is to Be Done? the Russian utopian socialist N. G. Chernyshevsky set out to depict the ideal marriage between an enlightened “new man” and “new woman” of the future: husband and wife would occupy separate living quarters, shun all sexual contact, and confine their intercourse (social, that is) to a mutually agreed-upon “neutral” room.

If Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope is any indication, the Russian dream has changed little over the years. The two main goals held in common by the women interviewed by Francine du Plessix Gray seem to be: (1) avoiding sex with Russian men, and (2) acquiring an apartment that has more than two rooms.

Soviet Women is a loosely knit collection of vignettes and interviews, spanning the novelist's travels from Moscow through Latvia, Leningrad, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Siberia. We meet a few party members, a few industrial workers, but primarily artists and intellectuals. This imbalance is predictable (although it would have been nice if the author had made an effort to correct it) given Gray's upbringing in Paris by her Russian mother in what we may assume was a relatively privileged setting.

The appeal of Soviet Women is also its drawback. The book's reporter's-notebook format makes for breezy reading, but the lack of any counterbalancing research or scholarship results in information that is at times dubious. There are no attempts to verify any of the assertions made in the course of the interviews, or to examine the extent to which it is safe to generalize from individual experiences. Ideally, every interview should be taken with a large grain of salt, a task beyond the powers of the average American reader who has never set foot in the Soviet Union.

Certain impressions seem beyond dispute—for example, that a Soviet woman's lot is not a very happy one (but then again, neither is a Soviet man's). According to one estimate Gray provides, the typical Soviet mother spends forty hours a week on shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Shopping alone is an aerobic exercise of dashing from store to store in search of basic necessities, followed by a cooling-down period of waiting on long lines. Since clothes are expensive and of poor quality, many women sew their family's clothing themselves. The overcrowded state-run child-care system is, according to the women Gray spoke with, a breeding ground for illnesses, forcing mothers either to take time off from work to tend to their sick children—thus jeopardizing their chances for promotion—or to stay at home and forfeit badly needed income.

This is all believable enough. Other anecdotal material—presented without disclaimer—is more difficult to evaluate. Is it true that the Soviet Union is awash in Pepsi-Cola and blue jeans, but hasn't yet discovered the tampon? Is it true that, among the educated elite of Leningrad, the most common form of “birth control” consists of leaping off an icebox when one's period is three days late? Is it true that the maternity wards of Soviet hospitals prohibit husbands from visiting their wives and newborns, on the grounds that Soviet women won't let their husbands see them without proper makeup and hair-styling?

Some of the incidents recounted are significant even if they should prove to be the rare exception to the norm. The worst offenders in this category involve contraceptives. According to Gray, the most widely prescribed contraceptive device in the Soviet Union is the notoriously injurious spiral IUD. When Gray raised concerns about this with the head doctor (and Communist party apparatchik) of a maternity clinic in Uzbekistan, she received the appalling response: “In my clinic every single woman can get to use the spiral,” boasted the doctor. “If her cervix gets inflamed, we heal it and put the spiral right back in. If it causes cysts, we operate on them, and then back in with the spiral. We can fix any contraindication.” With options such as this, it would make sense that only five percent of the Soviet population uses birth control.

The birth control of last resort has always been abortion, and it has been common knowledge for some time now that abortion is rampant in the Soviet Union. Gray interviewed many women who had already had seven or eight abortions, and calmly spoke of expecting to have two or three more before their childbearing years are over. According to the Soviet Ministry of Health's figures, which include only legal abortions, there are two to three abortions for every birth in the Soviet Union; when illegal abortions are taken into account, the ratio jumps to five to eight abortions for every birth. Many of those illegal abortions result in the mother's death.

Suffice it to say that all these conditions, taken together, are not conducive to love and romance. And indeed the women Gray interviewed are unanimous in finding themselves simply too weary to care much about men—creatures who, for all their charms, also manage to impose an additional set of demands. This weariness is compounded by the disdain Soviet women evidence for the actual men in their lives. (Female) readers will be particularly amused to learn that Soviet women idolize American men as paragons of chivalry. One Soviet visitor to the U.S. expressed her wonder: “Their constant smile, their gallantry—that was the most amazing and impressive part of my trip. In the streets, in their homes, as soon as they feel you mightn't like something, they say ‘excuse me. …’ In comparison, our men's manners are constantly, uncouthly rude.” Thus the hunt for American-type dzhentlemen. When those can't be found, a Soviet of European origin will do; anything, it seems, but a pure-bred Russian.

Many of the women Gray spoke with (of the intelligentsia, that is) have managed to channel their frustrations and dreams into fashion, and the chapter entitled “Why They Dress Up” is the most fascinating section of the book. Gray is bewildered by the women's near-obsession—especially given their lack of leisure time and discretionary income—with the minutiae of hairstyling, makeup, and clothing. She is further confused when she innocently asks them if they are prettying themselves for the men in their lives and watches them explode in laughter. “For men!” one exclaims. “Do you think they ever get out of their selfish little brains to notice what we wear? … No, no, you see,” the woman continues, pirouetting in her new outfit, “life is bleak, and this is one of the few inner joys I can buy, and the girls at work … they will be so impressed.” Fashion is the stimulant of choice in a country that seems to do everything it can to sap the spirit. As one woman puts it: “Everything about us is as drab as our apartment houses. … So decorating your outer surface is like bringing flowers inside of you, it's your only way of cheering up.”

The plight of Soviet women dismays Gray as much for reasons of ideology as compassion. She has a stake, it turns out, in the ideals of the Russian Revolution, and is shocked to discover discrepancies between its original goals and the contemporary state of affairs in the Soviet Union. How can this be? “For upon the Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik regime became the first government in history to declare women's emancipation as one of its primary goals, and it inscribed it into its constitution. Laws ensuring equal pay for equal work—akin to our doomed Equal Rights Amendment—were instantly effected. And women's right (if not their obligation) to work became central to Soviet notions of citizenship.”

Gray speculates as to what went wrong and concludes that, after the Revolution, “the government was not willing to implement any communalizing of household tasks, or of effecting that ‘radical reeducation’ of the male psyche promised in 1917. In retrospect, it is also evident that the USSR's commitment to women's equal employment has never been ideological; it has been based, rather on pragmatic, demographic factors—rapid economic growth, labor shortages, and a frequent deficit in the male population.”

Still, Gray remains firm in her belief that the-operation-was-a-success-but-the-patient-died. The phrase “original Bolshevik ideals” occurs frequently throughout the book, usually in conjunction with disparaging remarks about Stalin (the initial “betrayer” of these ideals) and Brezhnev (whose period of “stagnancy” wrought further damage). Lenin alone remains untarnished, largely for his scarce and obscure writings on women: to wit, “… the building of socialism will begin only when we have achieved the complete equality of women.”

What Soviet women really need, concludes Gray, is a dose of American-style feminism. Gray's assumption that Soviet women are frustrated in this quarter is quaint. While in Leningrad, Gray meets with Olga Lipovskaya, the editor of one of the few feminist magazines in the Soviet Union. Lipovskaya acknowledges that her publication has “a few dozen readers, mostly ‘progressive-thinking men.’” From her, Gray learns that feministika is largely a derogatory term in the Soviet Union, and she nearly weeps upon hearing another woman—a “progressive and an outspoken champion of all liberal causes”—casually ask, “Doesn't the very definition of ‘feminist’ mean a woman who absolutely hates all men?”

There is no mistaking the patronizing tone of Gray's explanation for this lack of interest in feminism. Soviet women's “hostile misreading of the Western women's movement” Gray attributes to their “cultural isolation.” Underprivileged things; they “have never had access to our basic feminist texts, and have only caught echoes of the outdated radical voices of the 1960s ‘movement.’”

There are two key lessons that emerge from Soviet Women. The first is that whenever government policy concentrates on the workplace and the collective at the expense of the individual and the family, it is inevitably women who are hardest hit. When essential consumer goods and services are scarce, the burden falls on women to find ingenious ways to put food on the table, and to clothe and educate the children.

The second is that seemingly frivolous consumer goods and services turn out to play an important function in a society. As the interviews in this book show, it is no trivial matter whether men and women have harmless outlets for their tensions. As one woman put it (displaying the typical condescending view of men), “One of the problems is that men are like big children, and in our country they don't have any toys. Over in the States your men have a car, community groups and bars and coffee shops where they can meet their friends. Here they have no clubs, no cars to play with, no decent apartments where one can either be private or receive friends properly …” Adds her friend, “And so all our anger and violence are always brought back to the home, the family.”

According to Gray, improvement in the conditions of Soviet women and relations between the sexes will hinge on the introduction of new attitudes into that country. Russian men, she notes, have for too long regarded women as martyrs, a role many Russian women have embraced. Gray would change this state of affairs by importing feminism and urging a different worldview on the Soviet people.

It is far more likely, though, that to the extent that Soviet women are martyrs, this is simply because too much is being demanded of them, from too many quarters. A Safeway down the street and a microwave in the kitchen are a sure-fire cure for martyrdom, and it is safe to assume that a healthy dose of economic growth would have vastly more transformative power in Soviet women's lives than would the widespread distribution of feminist literature. This is not to say that some fine-tuning of attitudes might not be wanted further down the road, and there might even be a role for American-style feminism. But if Soviet Women teaches us anything, it is that the first order of business should be to make daily life bearable, even pleasurable, as it often is (despite our griping) in the West.

Catherine Porter (review date 10 August 1990)

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SOURCE: “Female Essence,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 3, No. 113, August 10, 1990, p. 38.

[In the following review, Porter offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

Francine du Plessix Gray's maternal Russian origins have given her a lifelong fascination with Russian women, and, during the winter of 1988, she embarked on a month-long journey of self-discovery, travelling around the Soviet Union to compile the interviews for [Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope].

In the country that pioneered legal abortions, active childbirth techniques and sexual revolution, Soviet scholars are now beginning for the first time since the 1920s to research patterns of gender difference. So what are we to make of the female obstetrician who tells the author that women don't want to see their husbands during and after childbirth because “they don't have their make-up with them”? Or the sexologist who says that women are brought up to think sexual pleasure is “not nice”? Or the world-class chess-player who regards herself as an anomaly since women are “biologically determined to think about domestic issues and nurturing others,” rather than playing chess?

Time and again, the women here talk of some “immutable female essence.” This fatalistic reaction to Marxism's emphasis on the central importance of the environment helps to explain the current nostalgia for pre-revolutionary gender roles. Women are getting married younger and younger. Women exhausted by the double burden of paid work and housework complain, yet still insist that men's place is not in the kitchen. Mothers instill into their daughters a pathological concern for domestic skills, “womanliness” and personal appearance. As fashion becomes increasingly competitive, women use clothes to gain social status and esteem. There is a growing tendency to blame the “over-emancipated, masculinised woman” for current social problems such as hooliganism, alcoholism, rising divorce rates and abandoned children.

Hence, too, many women's paradoxical longing for the ceremony and decorum of religion. As one put it: “We're being drawn back to liturgy because it offers the reawakening of an internal culture, which is what the reforms are about.”

The Russian Orthodox church has always laid heavy emphasis on the redemptive force of female suffering. Yet the author also meets many younger women unwilling to accept this burden or to return to the cruel sexual inequalities which existed before 1917.

Elvira, descended from a 19th-century female revolutionary, and the only woman here to call herself a feminist, wants state structures to enable women to pursue careers and raise families. Women like her want real equality, “not the sort which means equal rights to lug bricks and grain beyond the 30-pound limit defined for women workers.” Elvira believes that because women had their independence forced upon them during the last war, few of them got used to it, and many have passed on to their daughters their terror of being unmarried. “So now we're still stuck with the great value of the male, who became so precious when there was such a dearth of them.”

Gorbachev has often expressed his concern for women. He has upgraded the workplace women's soviets, which supervise everything that concerns women, from crèches to diet and labour regulations. So far the only concrete legislation on women has been to grant the six extra months of tenured but unpaid maternity leave, enabling a mother to stay at home till her child is two. Yet, however inadequate the present reforms may be, says one woman, they have liberated women from a sense of impending catastrophe. “Now we live with a different sense of time, a sense that after us will be many generations which will continue our work and our culture.”

Jean Bethke Elshtain (essay date Fall 1990)

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SOURCE: “Women as Proletarians,” in Partisan Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 640–43.

[In the following essay, Elshtain describes Soviet Women as a fascinating and illuminating view of Soviet life.]

Marx didn't have a whole lot to say about women. One passage from his essay, “Private Property and Communism,” acquired a totemistic status among Marxist feminists. Marx argued rather murkily that the nature of a society's relationships between males and females demonstrates the “extent to which the human essence has become nature to man, or to which nature to him has become the human essence of man. From this relationship one can therefore judge man's whole level of development.” That can take you as far as you want to go, mostly in all sorts of utopian directions along the lines of creating a social world in which human essences have become natural and sex differences are dissolved into some generic humanness.

Engels took up the challenge of women and, he claimed, stated what Marx himself would have said had he gotten around to saying it. His text, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, became the rallying focus of subsequent Marxist feminisms. An apt subtitle for Engel's effort would have been, “Why Can't a Woman be More Like a Proletarian?” He decided she could be; indeed, already was, by drawing an analogy between reproduction and production and finding in the relations between the sexes the ur-class relation. In order to be truly liberated, women must first become real proletarians—wage slaves—and thus part of the universal class. Once the laws of history have worked themselves out, production for private profit ended, class antagonisms melted away, and reproductive functions taken over or subsumed by the sphere of production or society in toto, then, and only then pure sex-love will reign supreme. People actually believed this, but contemporary Soviet women are not among the gullible, as Francine Gray's fascinating new book reveals.

Whom one meets in the pages of Soviet Women are angry, exhausted men and women pretty much at the end of their tethers. Forget the new Soviet man; forget the new Soviet woman. What one finds—and anyone who has visited the Soviet Union can verify Gray's depictions with the evidence of her own eyes and ears—are human beings under terrific pressure from old habits and continuing traumas, state-induced. Gray hits the reader immediately with powerful images: to Western feminists the Soviet Union may be a patriarchy. To Russian women, it is a world in which women dominate and in which women suffer.

On the one hand, one encounters a culture in which men are incessantly put down, mocked and scorned by women. Teachers tend to favor girls “because their behavior is more closely modeled on the Soviet system of social values—on communitarian obedience, orderliness, altruism, dutifulness,” according to one of Gray's respondents, Maria Osorina, a Leningrad psychologist and analyst of “The Powerful Woman Syndrome” in the Soviet Union. Even as Soviet men were killed off by the millions in World War Two and felt most powerfully the full force of the State's decrees against a public life and anything resembling an independent politics (it was overwhelmingly men who were convicted under the Soviet “parasitism” laws, that is, failure to work at a state-sanctioned job), women ruled over a domestic sphere to which they could retreat.

Soviet writer Tatyana Tolstaya has noted: “Home, hearth, household, children, birth, family ties, the close relationship of mothers, grandmothers, and daughters: the attention to all details, control over everything, power, at times extending to tyranny—all this is Russian woman, who both frightens and attracts, enchants and oppresses. To imagine that Russian women are subservient to men and that they must therefore struggle psychologically or otherwise to assert their individuality vis-à-vis men, is, at the very least, naive.” Women, by contrast to men, ruled over their domestic kingdoms and “never suffered an equal sense of helplessness.” According to Gray, “the overwhelming majority of even the most progressive Soviet intellectuals,” including, or especially, the women, have “only hostile feelings toward the concept of a ‘women's movement.’” They are trying to figure out how to shore up the men; how to deal with such dismal realities as the fact that, despite the desperate need for solid responsible role models, young men with university degrees in pedagogy are uniformly rejected for work in children's homes—“always by the decision of a female bureaucrat”—because men are not “needed” for such jobs. Of the five thousand children's homes in the Soviet Union, only one has a male director. Unsurprising, then, is Gray's conclusion: “After dozens of evenings spent with distraught, henpecked men and with a dismaying abundance of superwomen, I reached the conclusion that the Soviet Union might be as much in need of a men's movement as of a women's movement.”

There is, however an “on the other hand,” and it goes like this. Despite the formidable willfulness of Soviet women, their domination of domesticity, including household finances, and their reign over emotional relations, life for Soviet women is hard. Very hard; indeed, almost unbelievably grim by Western standards. The Soviet Union has the highest abortion rate in the world: the average Soviet woman will have seven abortions in her lifetime. There are between five and eight abortions for every live birth. Health care is abysmal. The Soviet Union ranks fiftieth in infant mortality. Gray found that women have “little or nothing to say about the conduct of their labor.” She heard one horror story after another from Soviet women about “the terrors of their birthing experience.” One Xenia Velembovskaya told Gray, “The brutality of our maternity wards is the best contraceptive method we have; very few of us ever want to go through it again.” Gray's visits to Soviet maternity wards confirmed what she was told. With shockingly few exceptions, maternity wards were shabby, dirty, understaffed. Infants routinely come home with staphylococcus infections from aseptic births in deteriorated hospitals.

Children's health continues to suffer in overcrowded, dingy day-care institutions. Stories abound of day-care workers adulterating children's rations so they can make off with milk and meat; “of centers so understaffed that their supervisors keep windows open throughout the coldest days, deliberately inducing respiratory infections in order that more children might stay home.” One of the most radical actions a Soviet woman can take is to stay home with her children. “Defying the system by sitting home, refusing to be the prolifically versatile national heroine, dropping out of jobs and day-care programs: Housewife with many children as radical dissenter—that, I mused at the visit's end, would strike many American women as a most curious model.” There is more. ‘Liberated’ into the world of wage labor, women are ninety-eight percent of the nation's janitors and street cleaners, ninety percent of conveyor-belt operators, thirty-three percent of railroad workers, and over sixty percent of highway construction and warehouse crews. Much of it is heavy, often damaging physical labor. It is low-paid—nearly half of Soviet women are employed in unskilled manual labor or low-skilled industrial work. And half of their salaries go for food. Even those in skilled jobs—lots of women are teachers and doctors—find the work low-paying and lacking in prestige. Small wonder that the notion of an “equal right to carry hundred-pound sacks of grain or bricks” rings hollow and invites only bitter disdain from Soviet women. Add to lousy pay and long hours “the nightmares of Soviet women's daily life”—and Gray details the food shortages, the “eternal queues,” the constantly ill children, the dearth “of the most basic household implements or services” and passive, sullen husbands—and you have a vision of dystopia.

There remains, of course, the famous Russian hospitality; the generosity (often enough) to visitors; the humor to persevere however rotten things get, and you find a picture of tough human beings in a tough way of life. The Soviet women who have commented on Gray's book say it hits the mark, uncannily, sympathetically. Tolstaya writes that Gray “did not force herself on Russian women with ready-made, one-size-fits-all stereotypes; she didn't wave preconceived formulas for the reorganizing of Russian women's lives at them and didn't exclaim, ‘Horrors! Shame!’ as have—in all sincerity—many of her more simple-minded compatriots.” Bravo, then, for this brave and touching volume which all but the most ideologically unwavering (in other words, simple-minded) will find illuminating: a testament to the human spirit in all its most noble and unsavory aspects.

Rochelle Ruthchild (review date December 1990)

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SOURCE: “Gray Eminence,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 3, December, 1990, pp. 25–26.

[In the following unfavorable review, Ruthchild criticizes Gray's emphasis on the Soviet upper class in Soviet Women and argues that the work includes many factual errors, stereotypes, and omissions.]

It is evening at the eyrie of the Eagle Forum. Phyllis Schlafly and her aide-de-camp Barbara are working late …

Barbara: Phyllis, let's join the MacDonald's and Pepsi folks and go to Moscow to witness the triumph of capitalism. You know, the stock exchanges are about to reopen, the Cold War is over, and best of all, according to this book I've been reading, Soviet women are returning to traditional values.

Phyllis: What's the book?

Barbara: Soviet Women. Listen to this, Phyllis. This Francine Gray writes that Soviet women want to go back to the home. Imagine—the Commies have had an ERA for 70 years. They used to boast about all their laws guaranteeing equality for women, their 112 days of paid maternity leave, cheap and accessible day care centers, legal abortions and all those bra-less amazons in the paid labor force. They used to claim that they'd emancipated women completely. Now Gray even quotes her Intourist guide as saying, “Our central duty as women is to be housewives.”

Phyllis: What a victory for our side! I can see the slogan now: “We've seen the past and it works.” Think of that billboard lighting up Red Square … Let's call our ad agency.

Such a conversation is not so hard to imagine these days. Although coverage of changes for women under glasnost and perestroika have been minimal at best, they have usually taken as their theme the complete rejection by Soviet women of even the ideology of female equality. Indeed, the publication of Francine Gray's book prompted a review in the New York Review of Books by the prominent Soviet writer Tatyana Tolstaya entitled “Why Soviet Women Are Not Feminists.” While decrying the difficult life of her female compatriots, Tolstaya extolled the virtues of hearth and home, although neither she nor Gray, both career women by any definition of that term, typify the happy housewife.

In the Soviet Union, according to Gray, women are tired of their double burden of paid work outside the home and unpaid work within. They are very powerful, but angry at their government and their men for making them so. Given the chance, they would replace Soviet-style feminism with the feminine mystique in an instant. For Gray, Soviet women are classic examples of “the female's secret and ambivalent desire to lead and be led, the male's confusion and resentment before her mysterious force and her often awesome versatility.”

Unfortunately, Gray follows the pattern of those instant experts who write about the Soviet Union after a few quick trips to the major cities, usually in the Russian-speaking part of the country. Though they often have at best a passing acquaintance with the language and confine their contacts to the small layer of the intelligentsia comfortable with Westerners, they feel free to make sweeping generalizations about Soviet society.

Soviet Women takes its place in this genre. When a Soviet publisher proposed such a book to Doubleday, the press bypassed scholars involved in serious research on Soviet women and contacted Gray. She accepted the offer, she says, as “a great temptation to get away from a troublesome novel.”

Gray tries to distinguish herself from authors with little prior knowledge about the USSR by playing up her Russian heritage. Her mother and grandmother were emigrés; she was brought up in Paris by them. She writes of their “forceful spell,” “my Babushka's silks and mended laces,” the Russian lullabies, both women embodying the strong matriarchal tradition of Mother Russia.

Nostalgia and cozy childhood memories do not an expert make. Although Gray visited the USSR several times, she is vague about the number and length of her trips. She is also vague about her language ability, but appears to have relied heavily on interpreters and translators.

Once embarked on her project, Gray apparently took a crash course in Russian/Soviet women's history. As is often the case when this happens, she makes a number of errors in fact and interpretation; in the interests of space, I will cite only a few. Stressing the importance of female and matriarchal symbols in folklore and language, she mistakenly translates rod, the root of the word rodina (“homeland”), as “birth.” But this makes too much of a connection with women and childbirth; rodina has a feminine ending, but rod is not sex-linked (a male parent is roditel) and in fact means “birth” in the sense of “clan” or “family of origin.” And while Russian folklore does contain many females as supernatural symbols, Gray leaves unmentioned the exclusively male pantheon of gods condemned by the early Tsar Vladimir I upon Christianization, or the lesser spirits of the house, forest and water, which are also exclusively masculine.

Gray also draws on the sixteenth-century Domostroi, the prescriptive manual for domestic relations, often cited for its detailed descriptions of how husbands could best beat their wives. This manual's intended readership was the urban upper class; to generalize to all Russians, the vast majority of them illiterate serfs, as Gray does, is inaccurate. Finally, the pre-Revolutionary suffrage movement numbered not in the hundreds but in the thousands, proving particularly strong in the years from 1905 to 1907 and in 1917.

Gray distorts by omission in several ways. Nowhere is there serious discussion of the national and cultural differences within the USSR, differences which very much affect the lives of Soviet women and which—given recent ethnic clashes, the rising fear of anti-Semitic pogroms and events in Lithuania—can hardly be ignored. Although her travels take her to Tbilisi in Georgia, Riga in Latvia, Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Irkutsk in Siberia, she gives the reader little sense of Soviet diversity except in central Asia.

While Gray does mention the persistence of feudal practices such as the dowry in rural areas, she claims that “whatever Moslem traditions abide in Uzbekistan's urban population seem to work to women's advantage.” This on the basis of a flying visit to Tashkent and her encounters with “our exotic local guide,” a female apparatchik, “one of the more narcissistic Communists” met by the author. Nowhere is there mention of the effect of growing nationalism and religious fundamentalism, of hidden polygamy, of the continued resistance to women's education in urban as well as rural areas of Uzbekistan and other central Asian republics.

When Gray does notice ethnic differences, she often portrays them as stereotypes. Describing a day-care center in Tashkent, she notes that “flaxen-haired Slavs stood hand in hand with swarthy little Uzbeks,” one “blue-eyed Slav” alongside “an Uzbek charmer.” The female head doctor of an Uzbek clinic, an ardent Soviet patriot, is (unlike similar male doctors) never named, given the most negative portrayal in the book, and identified only as “Dragon Lady.”

Hobnobbing primarily with the intelligentsia in a few large cities hardly gives an impression of the lives of women in rural areas and small towns, or outside educated circles. Interestingly enough, when Gray does get around to talking to some women workers, they provide a very different picture of Soviet life. Two Zhensoviet (Women's Council) factory representatives extol their factory child-care centers, their clinics and sanitoria, their vacation options (all workers get at least three weeks paid vacation). One calls work “the best hours of our lives.” Presented without comment, this is but a small positive vignette in an otherwise dreary picture.

Gray is so intent on proving the backwardness of Soviet society that she completely omits any comparative perspective. She claims, for example, that Soviet women earn two-thirds the salaries of Soviet men. Such a wage gap is of course to be condemned—but it is no wider than that in the US.

Especially misleading is the portrait of Soviet women at home. Throughout the book, women are said to be powerful, but the words used to describe their power are invariably negative. They are dominating, aggressive, unfeminine, bullying; as one Soviet female says, “Russian women have a need to control that verges on the tyrannical, the sadistic.” In contrast, Soviet men are portrayed as “hen-pecked,” “sad-eyed,” “wounded.” Most devastating of all, a male sex researcher reports that female domination is causing male impotence: “The powerful women who say, ‘I want this, I want that, do it this way'—men deeply fear them. They're afraid of still another oppressor.”

Gray may consider herself sympathetic to women's rights, but she does her subjects a major disservice by her uncritical assertions about passive Soviet men and the “dismaying abundance of superwomen.” Soviet women have usually been caricatured in the West, whether as stern sexless commissar or burly construction worker. Portraying them as unfashionable and unfeminine has cloaked a more complex reality, one marked by sweeping legal guarantees of equality, little or no political representation or clout, and the persistence of traditional patriarchal attitudes on all levels of society. Soviet superwomen are regularly beaten by their “passive” men; stereotyped attitudes toward rape, incest and other kinds of violence against women persist. Those same “passive” men played a major role in vanquishing the formidable Nazi military machine in World War Two, constituted the Red Menace during the Cold War, and hold all the reins of political power.

That many Soviet women are fed up with their double burden, hostile to feminism as they understand it, and in some cases eager to chuck it all and return to the home, is indisputable. To report on this uncritically is inexcusable, but certainly unsurprising from someone who wrote an article in the early seventies about why US women would rather be sex symbols than career women, and who recently proclaimed on National Public Radio that women want power but also secretly desire to be dominated by men.

Gray fails to probe beneath the surface of Soviet anti-feminism. the movement to return to the home is not appearing in a vacuum. The Soviet economy is undergoing a profound transformation, from state planning with guaranteed work for everyone to the market with no guarantees for anyone. The new emphasis on cost-effectiveness penalizes women; with their greater childcare responsibilities and more costly maternity benefits, they are the first to be fired, although studies show they are far more reliable workers. Belief in traditional sex roles remains strong in Soviet society; as Gray notes, Gorbachev himself has written in Perestroika of women's primary role in “housework, the upbringing of children, and the creation of a good family atmosphere.”

A quick look at the political arena (barely mentioned by Gray) is telling. Women are losing even the semblance of political representation given them under the old system. Female representation in the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet parliament, has declined from 33 to 15 percent, and is only that high because women's councils have a quota of representatives. As with other remnants of the old system, this attempt at political affirmative action will probably not last. If the appointed delegates are omitted, the proportion of elected women is five percent, closer to that in the US Congress.

Hostility to feminism is a reality also. Even before the Revolution, Bolshevik leaders generally harshly criticized feminists for attempting to split the working class by spreading conflict between the sexes. After the Revolution, especially under Stalin, issues of equality and women's liberation were declared resolved. Feminists either left the country or kept their opinions to themselves. It was not until 1979 that the first feminist samizdat appeared; that its leaders were exiled to the West indicates how seriously the Soviet government considered this phenomenon. The usual stereotypes about feminists as man-hating lesbian separatists abound and are common among the intelligentsia. Still, as Helena Goscilo has recently pointed out, in those same intelligentsia circles interest in feminism and feminist issues is growing.1

Soviet Women appears at a time when serious scholars of Russian and Soviet women don't get jobs or recognition for their work even within the women's studies community. Studies of Soviet women in all their complexity remain to be written. Soviet women have a lot to complain about, but it is folly to mistake their very vocal and repeated griping for the reality of power.


  1. See Helena Goscilo, “La vita nuova of semper femina,” in Mary Zirin's excellent newsletter, Women: East-West, September, 1990. For a more diverse view of women in the USSR, see the “Soviet Women” issue (Winter 1989) of Canadian Women Studies. A collaborative effort, the journal includes articles by Soviet, US and Canadian scholars as well as activists (is there such a thing as an activist scholar these days?), poems, photos, a brief historical overview, an article on women workers and interviews with a Soviet fashion designer, an Estonian woman pastor and a Finnish Communist emigré to Karelia, among others. Acknowledging Soviet women's ambivalent if not hostile reaction to feminism, contributor Nina Belyaeva asks: “Can I give my son the whole world if I only look out the kitchen window?”

Miriam Dinerman (review date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in Affilia, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 97–98.

[In the following positive review, Dinerman discusses the predominant thematic concerns of Soviet Women.]

This book [Soviet Women] is a delight to read. As one who speaks Russian, is descended from Russians, and who writes with sharp insight, Francine du Plessix Gray is a wonderful guide. She interviews women all over the Soviet Union in different walks of life, of different ages. I felt as if I, too, had met these women, heard them speak about husbands and children, their work and workplace colleagues, and issues women face as they work; I felt as if I had seen them stand in endless lines for food or soap or socks, cook, clean, and care for children and for husbands.

Certain themes come through over and over. Women were moved from virtual chattel status to an advanced state of liberation by Lenin, who wrote that housework and child care would need to be collectivized if that liberation were to be fully attained. Although women moved fully into the labor force, the labor market became segregated as ours is, with women rarely found in the top positions, political or administrative, even if there were fewer restrictions on the kinds of work they might do. The collectivization Lenin sought did not happen, and his successors did not share his views.

Gray paints a picture of working women who are now overburdened far beyond the pressures that American women feel, because Soviet men are pictured as doing little to help with housework or child care and because the mechanics of daily life are so much more difficult in the Soviet Union. The women's satisfactions come from the love and support of their mothers, their children (especially daughters), and their work, as well as their female co-workers.

Another theme is the extent to which women's and family concerns have been ignored in governmental policies and programs. Women's health services—especially family planning—have been underfunded and underprovided, so contraceptives are virtually unavailable and sex education is nonexistent; obstetrical care is brutal, as is the treatment of orphans and abandoned children. Child care, although widely available, is judged by the women to be of such low quality as to endanger the health of children—no less their development.

Many women voice the ideal of single parenthood, with one's mother nearby for help and emotional support, work that one loves, and good (female) colleagues at work—in short, matriarchy. Oddly, one consequence of perestroika is that men and women can now express the misogyny that the Revolution suppressed as being bourgeois. “Overemancipated, masculinized women” are held responsible by the state-run media for most social ills. Even Gorbachev is quoted as writing “[We debate] what we should do to make it possible for women to return to their purely womanly mission” (p. 191, emphasis in original). Gray paints a picture of life in the Soviet Union from an intimate, woman's perspective. The insights are fascinating for both a sense of the issues faced by Soviet women and those faced by all women wherever they live, as well as for the peculiarly Soviet solutions.

Isabelle de Courtivron (review date 20 March 1994)

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SOURCE: “Her Sentimental Education,” in Washington Post Book World, March 20, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following positive review, Courtivron praises Gray's complex portrayal of Louise Colet in Rage and Fire.]

When Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary in the early 1850's, he chronicled this arduous, painstaking process in a remarkable series of letters to his lover, Louise Colet. He also addressed to her his reflections on the craft of literature (“The author in his work must be like God in the universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible”)—maxims that have become sacred to generations of critics, writers, professors and graduate students. As a result, Louise Colet has been known in literary history chiefly as the recipient of such pronouncements, and as Flaubert's tempestuous and exigent Mistress and Muse.

What Francine du Plessix Gray's biography [Rage and Fire] reminds us is the extent to which many of these statements about literary impersonality and objectivity were made by Flaubert in sheer distaste for what he considered to be Colet's (and Romanticism's) execrable tendency to confuse art and life, imagination and reality, and against what he judged to be her facile confessional style and her feminist sensibilities. Indeed by the time she met the young Gustave Flaubert, Louise Colet was well-established as one of France's leading women poets. She had received the coveted prize of the Academie Francaise twice (and would receive it two more times) and was the hostess of one of the most distinguished salons in Paris, attended by luminaries such as Leconte de Lisle, Theophile Gauthier and Alexandre Dumas. She was avant-garde in her views about the freedom of women to love and work, and had consistently put these progressive ideas into practice. After ending a mediocre marriage that had represented her “passport to Paris,” she was raising her daughter singlehandedly, conducting a number of affairs with talented, often younger men and, at the age of 36, enjoying the most productive phase of her writing life.

What drew this most unlikely couple together is an enigma, which du Plessix Gray attributes to their common experience of being “out of sync” with their time. Louise Colet was Mediterranean, eccentric, combative, fiercely passionate and independent, exuberantly Romantic and an outspoken feminist. Gustave Flaubert, 11 years her junior, was an unpublished provincial, prodigiously cultivated, restrained in style and emotion, who lived with his mother near Rouen and who, by his own admission, feared (but was nevertheless drawn to) strong intellectual women. He would eventually become one of the most enduring literary figures of the 19th century, and Colet sensed it immediately.

Their relationship was everything but harmonious. Perhaps their talents were not evenly matched, but neither were their social or material circumstances. Flaubert enjoyed the support of strong male friendships and of a protective mother who ensured domestic stability. He availed himself of prostitutes and actresses who did not make emotional demands and was able to control his time, emotions and talent in order to place them at the quasi-exclusive service of Literature. Louise Colet, although she established some exceptional friendships, endured penurious conditions and suffered from the mockery of many of her peers. But, most of all, she dissipated her immense energy and gifts in the pursuit of passion and the business of survival.

Francine du Plessix Gray charts the several personalities that Louise Colet created for herself over the course of her long and tempestuous lifetime: young Muse, salon hostess, political activist, Romantic Mistress, “engagee” journalist, revolutionary agitator, travel writer, even moralist grandmother. Through determination, will power and what her biographer calls a “modest talent,” she became an important figure of the Romantic movement. Though du Plessix Gray does not make any grand claims for Colet's oeuvre, she clearly admires the character and energy of a woman who asserted for herself the freedom of art and sexuality even though she was acutely conscious that she needed the patronage of famous men to gain entry into (and remain in) Parisian society. It was a balancing act many other talented women writers of her time knew all too well. In the end, Louise fell through the cracks of the literary establishment and endured ostracism, most especially from Flaubert's coterie. Like other 19th-century heroines and pioneers, who were victims not only of the prejudices of their day but also of their own misguided passions for men of genius, she tried to “have it all” and, in the process, lost much.

Du Plessix Gray's biography is traversed by a keen consciousness of the limitations and heroism of women's lives in 19th-century French society: She salvages Louise's friendships with other women, which have often been overlooked (for example with Julie Candeille, Madame de Recamier and Marceline Desbordes Valmore—though George Sand apparently always kept her at arm's length, which is surprising given how much they had in common). She also documents the misogyny of a writing establishment that placed women writers in the traditional double-bind: They were mocked as writers if they did not have a “virile” style—the highest compliment that could be paid to a woman's work; and they were mocked as women if they did. The biographer interrupts the chronological narrative of Colet's life to present evidence, anecdotes, and personal or scholarly remarks that help to highlight Colet's extraordinary—if not always “sympathique”—personality, and point to the general limitations placed on her gender as well as the formidable obstacles she overcame through perseverance and, often, sheer recklessness.

When one partner in a famous creative couple is so much better known than the other, it is a challenge for the biographer to acknowledge the importance of the relationship without letting it dominate the story. In this respect, du Plessix Gray's biography is honest and judicious: She does not claim that Colet was a better writer or a better person than Flaubert. Nor does she shirk from acknowledging Colet's obsession with the writer and his genius—an obsession that blinded her from the moment she met him. Colet never resigned herself to losing Flaubert, although she did a great deal to provoke this loss. Notwithstanding his rejections (although their sexual encounters were by all accounts enthralling, he preferred them few and far between), she led an extremely active life that included prolific publications, adventurous travels and passionate political involvement. Yet the image of loneliness and isolation that permeates her nomadic last years is chilling, demonstrating the high price she paid for braving society's distaste for eccentric, uppity and talented women.

This is du Plessix Gray's first biography. In her introduction, she explains that research led her to conclude that an elderly Flaubert had burned all of Colet's letters. It then became du Plessix Gray's intention to write Colet's life in order to “resurrect yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men.” This biography skillfully accomplishes he goal; and, given that many of Louise Colet's literary sisters have suffered from the same caprices, we eagerly await the next.

Richard Eder (review date 24 March 1994)

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SOURCE: “Resurrection of a Woman Both Scorned and Beloved,” in Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1994, p. 4.

[In the following review, Eder offers a mixed assessment of Rage and Fire.]

Francine du Plessix Gray begins her resurrection of Louise Colet, a minor 19th-Century French writer now known mainly as Flaubert's lover and literary correspondent, with two dramatic scenes.

The first describes their last meeting. Colet furiously berates Flaubert for infidelity, kicking him rhythmically in the shins to make her points, while he fantasizes about braining her with a fireplace log.

In the second scene, toward the end of his life, he burns great batches of correspondence. One packet of letters contains a slipper, a rose and a lace handkerchief; Flaubert kisses them sorrowfully before consigning them to the flames.

Each scene has its source. The first is a friend's account of what Flaubert told him; the second, a memoir by Guy de Maupassant, who was present at the burning. Each has the flavor of a tale, as well; in different ways, both Flaubert and De Maupassant came to regard life mainly as material for literary transformation.

Du Plessix Gray, another writer, does her own transforming.

The anonymous rose, slipper, handkerchief and letters, she believes, were Louise Colet's “That is why I have written this book,” she tells us. “To reinstate a colleague into the annals of her time. To do her justice. To resurrect yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men.”

The result is Rage and Fire or (this is the reviewer's own bit of transforming) “Louise: The Miniseries.” The dramatic parting and the infinite regret, years later, are mood-setting shots. Then, in flashback, comes the story, punctuated by the surges of Du Plessix Gray's background music. She has chosen to write her biography in the style of a flamboyant romantic novel—old-fashioned in its rhetorical sentiment, modern in its insertion of practical sexual detail—perhaps a tribute to Colet's own effusive writing.

Born in 1811 to a conservative but indulgent bourgeois father and a mother whose own father was both a minor aristocrat and a revolutionary, Colet was encouraged to read books and write poetry. She married a musician with a small post at the Paris Conservatory, and arrived in the capital determined to make her literary mark. When she sent out a book of poems for blurbs, the writer Chateaubriand returned a polite refusal. Colet used the refusal for its politeness, and sent copies to prospective patrons. She found one in Victor Cousin, president of the Sorbonne and a leading member of the Academy. He became her lover and protector, got her a stipend and her husband a promotion, and furnished her Thursday salons with other Academicians.

Large, blond, blue-eyed and expansive, she acquired lovers, friends and enemies among all the important literary figures of the day. Flaubert was her great passion; he returned the passion sporadically and complained that she was excessively demanding.

He also wrote her remarkable letters telling of his struggles to write Madame Bovary. The tempestuous affair has been much written of; Du Plessix Gray tells it with flamboyant partisanship which, nevertheless, allows us to glimpse Flaubert's discomfort.

Colet was a devout Romantic and political radical, a prominent hostess—though sometimes financially compelled to re-use the tea leaves—and a prolific producer of poetry, novels and journalism. She wrote to support herself and to be noticed, and more or less succeeded at both. Contemporaries praised or mocked her febrile style approximately in the degree that they liked her, or not. Ever since, her writings have alternated between obscurity and an occasional mild reappraisal.

Du Plessix Gray's literary appraisal is mild, as well. Her interest is in Colet as a woman who struggled gallantly to fulfill herself—artistically, sexually, socially—in a time of gross sexual inequality and intellectual discrimination; as an early feminist, in other words. Her success is spotty.

For one thing, though she respects what facts exist, there are some real gaps. Colet seems to have saved the letters of most of the famous people she was involved with; not as many seem to have saved hers. Which does, in a way, provide a basis for Du Plessix Gray's resurrecting mission: abuse and intellectual hostility apart, 19th-Century male French intellectuals simply did not take women seriously. On the other hand, there may not have been much to save.

The contrast with George Sand—the two did not get along—is overwhelming. Sand was a far better writer even if, like Colet, she wrote too much. More to the point, perhaps, she was a brilliantly perceptive and immensely humane figure; her correspondence—notably with Flaubert—demonstrates it.

The Colet memoirs and letters that Du Plessix Gray quotes from are vehement, angry and exalted by turns, and they can occasionally be moving. Essentially, though, they are empty. Little that Colet says in her own right, little that anyone else in this book is recorded as saying about her and—finally—little that Du Plessix Gray writes, can display much beyond need and courage. This is a lot, perhaps, but it is not enough to establish a memorable or even interesting mind and spirit.

Denis Donoghue (review date 9 May 1994)

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SOURCE: “Flaubert's Parrot,” in New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 19, May 9, 1994, pp. 39–41.

[In the following mixed review, Donoghue considers Gray's examination of misogyny in Rage and Fire.]

Louise Colet is mainly known as Flaubert's lover—“his one great love,” according to Francine du Plessix Gray [in Rage and Fire]—and the recipient of his most remarkable love letters. Otherwise she is a footnote in French literary history. Gray does not make large claims for her as a poet, but she plans to turn her into a personage. She hopes to do this by presenting her as a feminist and a victim “whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men.” Another emblem there. Two earlier attempts to rescue Colet from general indifference have had some success in colleges and universities, Joseph Jackson's Louise Colet et ses amis littéraires (1937) and Micheline Bood and Serge Grand's L'Indomptable Louise Colet (1986). Gray is now asking the general reader to pay attention to Colet's “sad, joyous, tempestuous life.”

Louise Révoil was born on August 15, 1810, at Aix-en-Provence, the youngest of the six children of Henri-Antoine and Henriette Révoil. Her father was in charge of the postal services at Aix, a comfortable job. He was a monarchist and a Roman Catholic. Louise was a beautiful child, intellectually daring, with the makings of a fine linguist. Within a few years she learned Latin, Greek, Italian and enough English to translate passages from Shakespeare's plays.

But she was bored. She longed for the bright, gregarious life of Paris. On December 6, 1834 she married Hippolyte Colet, a musician who had among his few attributes a job in Paris, though not a splendid one. In Paris, Louise set about attracting social and professional notice. She sent Sainte-Beuve one of her poems. “I ask of you only one thing,” he replied, “to admire you in silence, without being obliged to point out to the public just where I cease to admire you.” He was the first of many literary men to whom Colet presented herself. Chateaubriand was next. She also tried to kill a hostile critic, Alphonse Karr, but that act, too, is best appreciated as an exercise in self-promotion.

Meanwhile Colet published a book of poems called Fleurs du Midi and won the first of several prizes awarded by the Academie. A more important prize was the philosopher Victor Cousin, author of The True, the Beautiful and the Good. They become lovers in July 1839. In August 1840 Colet had her first child, Henriette. Gray says that Cousin was “most probably (but not necessarily)” the father, a nice distinction to allow for the fact that Hippolyte was still in the picture. The same ambiguity of parentage obtained in July 1843, when Colet gave birth to a boy. The child died within a few weeks.

In Paris Colet was now “the Muse,” her salon was successful if not quite scintillating and she had visible friends, notably Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Juliette Récamier and James Pradier. The mixture became too rich for Hippolyte, and he moved out. In the spring of 1846 Louise took another lover, a Polish exile, Boris Christien. On July 28 she met Gustave Flaubert at Pradier's apartment. A few days later they became lovers.

Most of the information about this famous affair comes from Flaubert's letters to Colet, and from Colet's journal. Flaubert later burned her letters to him, saving only three. The affair lasted four months in its first phase. Colet was in Paris, Flaubert in Rouen. Flaubert lived with his mother and used her as an excuse for not coming to Paris. The lovers rarely saw each other. Flaubert didn't want to get involved with Colet, or with anyone else. He was an opportunist, gifted with a foul mouth and the moral sensibility of a goat. Colet may have been “his one great love,” but that doesn't say much; Flaubert took love and sex where he found them. He didn't regard Colet as having acquired any rights merely because she was in love with him and made love with him from time to time.

Gray's interpretation of the relationship between Flaubert and Colet is much indebted to Sartre's L'Idiot de la famille: Sartre was convinced that the first coupling of Flaubert and Colet took place in a hansom cab in Paris a few days after they met. Flaubert was impotent on the occasion, but he did better with Colet in his hotel that night. Sartre makes the point that Flaubert came on strong as the dark, handsome stranger, mad, bad, dangerous to know. “I warned you about it: my misery is contagious, I am contaminated, woe to anyone who touches me,” he reminded Colet in one of his first letters, on August 6, 1846.

Sartre thought both lovers were playacting. Flaubert was playing himself, or Byron, and thinking himself ridiculous in the role. Colet was playing the postcoitum heroine, a fit emblem of the last years of Louis-Phillipe, her hair spread on Flaubert's pillow, hands clasped, eyes to heaven, babbling nonsense. Made for each other. No wonder Flaubert committed the obscenity of having Emma and Leon, in Madame Bovary, repeat the coupling performance in a hansom cab riding through the streets of Rouen. In Paris, one cab was indistinguishable from another. In Rouen, a cab going round and round the streets was obviously a mobile bordello. Flaubert was vile.

The affair ended because Flaubert did not want it to continue. As late as 1902, Henry James thought that Colet was the only woman in Flaubert's life:

When I have added that his published letters offer a view, not very refreshing, of his youthful entanglement with Madame Louise Colet—whom we name because, apparently not a shrinking person, she long ago practically named herself—I shall have catalogued his personal vicissitudes. And I may add further that the connection with Madame Colet, such as it was, rears its head for us in something like a desert of immunity from such complications.

Not so. In the spring of 1847 he started a six-month affair with Pradier's wife, Ludovica. There were other entanglements, none quite as dense as the one with Colet, but the affair Flaubert had with Beatrix Person was at least a complication.

In 1847 Colet went her own way, took a lover, got pregnant, had a boy who died. One lover succeeded another: Franz Noller, Désiré Bancel (she got pregnant by him, but miscarried), Octave Lacroix, Auguste Vetter. For Flaubert the break from Colet was emphasized by his trip to Egypt in 1849 and 1850 with Maxime du Camp, an escapade of heterosexual and homosexual activity. Sartre thought that Flaubert's reports of his homosexual episodes were dubious, that nothing more than verbal showing-off was involved. Flaubert's letters from Egypt to his cronies in Paris tell of brothels and syphilis.

Colet was fool enough to wait, and she wrote to Flaubert on his return. They got together, a reunion made easier by Flaubert's break with du Camp and the fact that Flaubert's new friend, Louis Bouilhet, was not yet a nuisance. In the fall of 1851 the sex and the love letters between Flaubert and Colet were resumed. This time the affair lasted two years and was far more serious. The most impressive evidence of this is that Flaubert expressed his truest thoughts on art and style in letters to Colet.

But Colet could not leave well alone, or keep it going. She had to entertain the advances of yet another suitor, Alfred de Musset. She could not reject a famous poet. In December 1853 she started a brief affair with Bouilhet, and in 1854 she took up with Alfred de Vigny. The affair with Flaubert drifted off in 1855. Gray comments:

In spite of her serene liaison with the famous, faithful, ever gallant de Vigny, the obscure provincial scribbler Gustave Flaubert remained the center of Louise's life. She would never resign herself to losing him. He moved to Paris in October of 1854 to finish his Bovary in a little flat on the Boulevard du Temple, where she left notes with his concierge, pleading with him to see her one more time. … In breaking with Louise Colet—a woman whom he had loved and esteemed above any other, who had healed the self-doubts inflicted by his philistine family and offered him a unique self-assurance about his vocation, who, tempestuous and possessive as she was, had served as the catalyst for his genius—he was very curt: “Madame: I am told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing that your persistence might provoke me to humiliate you, wisdom leads me to warn you that I shall never be in. … G. F.”

On the margin of that letter, Colet wrote three fair words: lâche, couard et canaille.

In 1855 Colet published Une Histoire de Soldat, a fictional account of her affair with Flaubert, and in 1859 a novel called Lui, which has been recently translated into English, and these books prove, as Henry James recalled, “that she used to roam in the Bois de Boulogne in the small hours of the night in a low-necked dress while ‘He,’ roaming hand and hand with her, showered kisses up her shoulders.” Meanwhile, in 1859 Colet took another lover, Jules Fleury, “Champfleury,” and suffered the embarrassment of being arrested with him in a field of poppies near Meudon: indecent exposure, with a fine of five francs. The event, as Gray grandly puts it, “marked the Indian summer of our heroine's sexuality, the last erotic episode in the wonderfully uninhibited sex life of Madame Louise Colet.” In 1859 Colet started traveling—Florence, Venice, Naples, Rome, Egypt, Turkey, Greece—and diverted herself to minding everybody else's business but her own. She died on March 8, 1876.

Gray's book is animated by one emphatic idea, that the hatred of women by nineteenth-century literary men in France was extraordinarily venomous. She thinks that Colet was a victim of such misogyny. But hatred is hard to measure. It is true that Colet was much abused by men. It is true that Colet was much abused by men. It is also true, a fact that Gray nowhere admits, that Colet was for the most part a silly, meretricious person. She had a small literary talent, as well as the more negotiable talent of being beautiful, so she had no difficulty in making herself, for long stretches of time, a kept woman. She accepted an allowance from Cousin long after she chucked him over. She was often hard up, but running a salon in Paris has always been an expensive luxury. And nobody is obliged to be a maîtresse de salon.

Gray makes a claim for Colet as a feminist, but surely Colet's feminism amounted to little more than the habit of turning her own experience, mostly social and sexual, into a polemic about men and women. When the miserable Bancel left her for another woman, she wrote to him:

If ever the struggle becomes grandiose and brutal I wish to take part in it, I wish to unite all women, all mothers, all these sisters in pain and misery, and make them understand what must be said, what must be done, what must be demanded! … To keep them from eternally remaining machines for pleasure and for the reproduction of the species! Until then I shall steep myself in solitude and meditation.

Except for the last sentence, the passage is cogent. But Colet's attempt to further the emancipation of women by publishing Le Poème de la femme, allegedly representative parables of the cruelty of men, came to nothing much. Hugo and Béranger encouraged her in this line of work, but in the end their goodwill was only another style of patronage. I don't see much point in presenting Colet as a precursor to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir.

Gray's book is highly readable and, for the most part, well informed. But her comments on literary history are too simple to be useful: “On the literary level, Romanticism was a defiance of the reign of ‘reason’ preached by neoclassicism.” Her biographical method does have one novel feature, which I much admire. When she is narrating matters for which evidence is available, she writes in the past tense. When there is no evidence and she still wants to linger over a vague scene, she switches to the present tense. This seems to me a fine arrangement, as in this passage:

Imagine the setting of Louise's and Flaubert's first meeting on July 28, 1846: It is a Tuesday afternoon. Groups of men drinking, talking, gambling at little tables …

And so on for three or four loose paragraphs. Gray is speculating, fancying, but she isn't claiming to have been on the scene. We know how to read such sentences. Even when the style lapses into Mills and Boon, we know how to take it:

And when Monsieur Flaubert's powerful arm brushes Louise's in one of his expansive gestures, she turns and smiles up at him. The next thing she knows, he is not touching her arm by accident. What is she going to do? She desires this man as she's never desired anyone in her life. Is it possible that he might liberate her from the invalid Hippolyte, the unctuous Victor Cousin?

All this from a great feminist upon the touch of an arm.

Gray's own style is streetwise with the lore of uptown streets. Bouilhet “now replaced the cocky Du Camp as buddy No. 1 in Flaubert's life.” After a while the new friends separate Colet from Flaubert: “One now knows that Flaubert's buddy network is again ganging up to purge Louise from his life.” If readers have a problem deciding who the players in Colet's drama are, Gray helps them out with modern comparisons. Emile de Girardin was “the S. I. Newhouse of the July Monarchy.” “Ludovica married Pradier at the age of 19, and the couple started a social life more prodigal in its excesses than any described in Fellini's La Dolce Vita or Andy Warhol's Diaries.” The Revue des deux mondes was “a periodical equivalent to our New York Times Book Review in its influence.” Colet's L'Italie des Italiens is “comparable, on a primitive level, to Mary McCarthy's books on Venice and Florence.” (But how does the comparison survive if Colet's book is primitive and McCarthy's books are not?) Colet herself “was a nineteenth-century Erica Jong, who recklessly splashed her life and loves across her poetry and prose, barely distinguishing the line between fact and fiction.”

It would interest me to learn why Gray thinks that such comparisons are necessary or desirable. She is merely telling the reader, I must assume, that the writer who is now championing Louise Colet knows what's what.

Julian Barnes (review date 26 May 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6445

SOURCE: “Romancing Flaubert,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 10, May 26, 1994, pp. 12–16.

[In the following review, Barnes offers a positive assessment of Rage and Fire, calling the biography “heartfelt and impassioned.”]

Who burned Louise Colet's letters to Flaubert? For a century it was taken for granted that the destroyer was Flaubert's niece Caroline, the inheritor of his literary estate. Caroline, the stiff, correct, high-bourgeois protector, “la dame si bien,” who in publishing her uncle's correspondence cut out any passages she deemed intimate or indecent, suppressed uncomplimentary opinions, changed his punctuation, and tidied up his phrasing; who wouldn't allow the expression “tenir le bec hors de l'eau” in a letter to Turgenev, gentrifying it into “tenir la tête hors de l'eau.” Such editorial interventionism was of the period: when negotiating with Louise Colet's equally proper daughter, Mme. Bissieu, Caroline received permission to publish 138 of Flaubert's letters to Louise (and none of the more unbuttoned ones) on the condition that she changed tu to vous throughout. What could be likelier, in this suppressive, censoring, cleaning-up ambience, than that Caroline, while adjusting her uncle's image into something more Panthconic and less fun, should dispose of the no doubt licentious outpourings of the notoriously pesky Louise?

Hermia Oliver's fresh-minded Flaubert and an English Governess (1980) quietly but pertinaciously queried this assumption. Caroline may have offered the public a pasteurized version of her uncle, but her tampering had an innate probity to it. She deleted and rewrote, but never touched the manuscripts themselves: everything was done in the transcription (although if you look at a densely orthographed Flaubert letter you will see there is hardly room on the page to alter a comma to a semi-colon). In addition, Caroline's niece testified that her aunt's attitude toward the literary estate—manuscripts, notebooks, dossiers, even her uncle's library—was that “it was absolutely necessary to preserve all of them.” And finally, while there is no specific evidence to finger Caroline as vandal, there is already one documented destroyer of the novelist's correspondence: Flaubert himself. He was the one who believed in making the life disappear beside the work, who loathed journalistic and biographical intrusiveness; and we savor his glorious letters nowadays almost against his will.

In 1877, warned about what might happen after a writer's death by the publication of Mérimée's Lettres à un inconnu, Flaubert and Maxime du Camp burned most of their youthful letters to each other. The correspondences with Ernest Chevalier, Louis Bouilhet, and Georges Ponchet were drastically thinned for similar reasons. Another burning session took place in May 1879. Flaubert wrote to his friend Edmond Laporte: “Yesterday I spent eight hours sorting and burning letters, a long delayed job, and my hands are shaking from tying up packets.” Hermia Oliver adduces as corroboration a hitherto ignored account by Maupassant in L'Echo de Paris of November 24, 1890, in which he recalls a bonfire night at Croisset “a year before” Flaubert's death. Maupassant describes “a little silk dancing shoe,” containing a faded rose and a yellowing lace-edged handkerchief, being cast into the flames. This was almost certainly Louise Colet's slipper, as hymned by Flaubert in a love letter to her of August 1846. “It can surely hardly be doubted,” Hermia Oliver concludes, that among the letters destroyed that night were those of Laporte, Caroline's English governess Juliet Herbert—and Louise Colet. This conclusion is Francine du Plessix Gray's beginning [in Rage and Fire]:

I believe that those last missives … were the many hundreds of letters written to Flaubert by Louise Colet. That is why I have written this book. To reinstate a colleague into the annals of her time. To do her justice. To resurrect yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men.

Louise Colet was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1810 and came to Paris with her music-professor husband Hippolyte in 1835. She swiftly established herself as a poet, a beauty, and a salon-goer. She won the Académie Française's prize for a poem on a set theme four times, and was awarded a government pension. She found a long-term protector in Victor Cousin, supporters in Béranger and Victor Hugo, lovers in Musset, Vigny, Flaubert, and Champfleury. She posed as Sappho for the sculptor Pradier, and frequented the salon of the ageing Mme. de Récamier. She had, as Gray generously puts it, “a reverence for glory.” This word, which features much in Louise's life and musings, was the cause of a key disagreement early in her affair with Flaubert, when she carelessly (or blissfully) remarked that she would not exchange her happiness even for “the glory of Corneille.” Flaubert was grimly unflattered, and with high-minded ferocity differentiated between “being Corneille” (a worthy aim) and merely having his glory (unworthy), just as he once sternly rebuked Louise for having “the love of art” but not “the religion of art.”

Still, a reverence for glory and a love of art are certainly enough to get a literary career started. Colet was also a sharp exploiter of opportunity. When she approached Chateaubriand for a puff for her first collection of poetry (which just happened to include two poems in praise of the “Homer of Melancholy” himself), he replied rather cannily that his endorsement would not count for much, since “only poets can announce a poet.” Undeterred, she simply reprinted his letter as a preface (Chateaubriand, to his credit, does not seem to have taken offense). Sainte-Beuve largely resisted her literary charm, though applauding her novel Lui (in which he is given a cameo role as the wise “Sainte-Rive”). A more conspicuous failure was with George Sand, who always kept the younger writer at a distance; if we are to believe an anecdote in Lui, Sand once heard Colet recite her work at a salon and afterward offered the following literary compliment—“Madame, you have the arms and shoulders of a Greek statue.” Still, Louise certainly had supporters enough at the start of her career, and knew how to play the Paris game. Victor Cousin, lover, protector, and high government official, used his influence to have Louise's pension tripled and Hippolyte's salary doubled.

Louise was bold and melodramatic, impulsive and self-advertising, admirable yet faintly ridiculous. All these characteristics emerged in her celebrated attack on the satirical journalist Alphonse Karr. In 1840, when Louise was almost nine months pregnant, Karr wrote an article clearly insinuating that Cousin—a regular target of his—had used his official position to get Colet's pension raised (true), and that Cousin was the father of her child (which, if not necessarily true, certainly seems to have been believed by both parties at the time). The piece was indubitably caddish, and Louise straightforwardly decided that the journalist must die for it. What's more, it seemed to her self-evident that Hippolyte should be charged with rectifying this insult to her honor.

Hippolyte was a slight and prematurely stooped professor of composition at the Conservatoire; Karr a bulky expert swordsman and one of the best shots in Paris. When Hippolyte “backed off,” as Gray puts it (and who can blame him?), Louise went round to Karr's lodgings with a kitchen knife: “To arm myself with a more elegant weapon,” she later wrote, “would have been theatrical. I only wished to act with simplicity, as is suitable to any great sorrow.” Heavily pregnant as she was, she stabbed Karr in the back, drawing a little blood. The journalist turned round, disarmed her, offered her his arm, and pretended he was calling her a cab.

Through the intervention of Sainte-Beuve, Karr promised not to sue Louise, and in the next issue of his magazine even applauded her “energy” and “courage bordering on nobility.” But the occasion was too lushly tempting for any journalist to resist. “I certainly would have been gravely harmed,” Karr went on, “if my attacker had struck me with a direct horizontal blow instead of lifting her arm high over her head in a tragedian's gesture, surely in anticipation of some forthcoming lithograph of the incident.” Both come out of the drama well and badly; though Louise probably had more to lose, and did so. Karr, his posthumous fame bizarrely ensured, later retired to Nice to grow flowers professionally.

Louise Colet was a prolific writer: of fiction, poetry, biography, history, and travel. What still has life? Francine du Plessix Gray recounts a visit to the house—now a golf hotel—in which Colet was brought up. The estate's present owner, Paul Révoil, Louise's great-great-grand-nephew, sounds grumpily baffled at being badgered about his scandalous forebear: “You're the third person who's come around this year. Never read a word of hers—was she that good?” To which Gray revealingly replies that she is “awfully interesting.” Though her biography is heart-felt and impassioned about the woman, Gray makes no extravagant claims for the work. She seems keener to establish Colet as a pioneer feminist, a “nineteenth-century Erica Jong who splashed her life and loves across her poetry and prose,” than as a writer tout court; and when it comes to literary assessment, is inclined to quantify the percentage of feminism present and leave it at that.

Colet's novel Lui is probably her most enduring work (as well as her only one currently available in English). It was part of that strange spawning of kiss-and-tell fiction set off by Musset's death in 1857. The poet had started it himself, of course, with Confession d'un enfant du siècle (1836), in which he described his Italian affair with George Sand. Two decades later she replied with Elle et Lui, Musset's brother Paul retaliated with Lui et Elle, the waggish Gaston Lavalley joined in with Eux, and Colet completed the job with Lui. This transparent roman à clef stars Louise as the glamorous Stéphanie de Rostan, romantically beset by a pair of unsatisfactory suitors: Léonce, the obscure, cold-hearted novelist toiling away at his supposed masterpiece in Normandy; and Albert, the passionate, impulsive, tippling poet-aristocrat whose heart has been crushed by a painful affair with the famous writer Antonia, and who now seeks consolation and amatory rebirth with Stéphanie.

Most of the book consists of Albert/Musset recalling in great detail his affair with Antonia/Sand. This made commercial sense—few, in 1859, would have been interested in a roman à clef about Flaubert—but it was also strategically risky. Here was Colet, a former mistress of Musset, giving the dead poet a voice to lament his earlier maltreatment by George Sand (who was, of course, still alive). Despite professions of admiration for Sand's work-rate and reputed kindness, the portrait is decidedly unsisterly, indeed disobliging and envious. In her own voice Stéphanie/Louise pulls sartorial rank (“I think wearing women's clothing hurt her shape”); while through Albert we discover a woman who is bossy and domineering, insincere in bed, and heartless in dismissing lovers, who tainted the purity of her children by behaving licentiously in front of them, and who betrayed Musset with the very Italian doctor brought in to save him from his deathbed. Not surprisingly, Sand told Flaubert that she thought the novel a “chamber-pot of a book into which she [Colet] excreted her causeless fury.”

Lui is still very diverting, though largely for non-artistic reasons. It is talky, lush, hot-breathed, and written in a manner several decades previous to that of Madame Bovary, which in fact had preceded it by a couple of years. It has both the allure and the weaknesses of the roman à clef. On the one hand, the thrill of being given the inside dope; on the other, a sense of aesthetic concerns being placed in neutral gear. In a roman à clef the reason something happens is generally that it did actually happen, or happened a little bit differently, or might have happened had the author's wishes been granted by life as opposed to literature. Early on, for example, Albert takes Stéphanie to the zoo. Why the zoo, we might naively wonder, and why are we spending so many pages there? Is some parallel being set up with caged passions, with wild nature restrained behind bars? But no: sometimes a zoo is just a zoo. It features because that's where Musset used to take Louise; what's more, he wrote a poem to her about it, which she wants to quote later on in the novel.

And are we getting the inside dope in Lui? Musset is ardent yet ridiculous; Sand a worthy bluestocking; Flaubert a glacial manipulator. But Stéphanie? What still rings out from the book like a hunting horn is the vanity of Colet's self-depiction. She ups herself socially to a marquise temporarily fallen on hard times; she prefaces the novel with a chapter whose main function is to give a (swiftly vanishing) narrator the chance to praise Stéphanie's serene wisdom and ravishing beauty. With Léonce the marquise suffers nobly; with Albert, she tries to rekindle his genius while politely but firmly fighting off his attentions and staying true in her heart to Léonce. This is a distinctly glamorized version of events. Musset was clearly unsafe in a cab at any speed, and as Flaubert sardonically reminded Louise, “Convention has it that one doesn't go for a moonlight drive with a man for the purpose of admiring the moon.” But Louise went for many moonlight drives with the poet. Musset would turn up drunk and imploring on her doorstep, and—such being her reverence for glory—he eventually got into her bed. Lui shows us the relationship ending in the heroic mutual renunciation of two cauterized hearts: “We'll see each other again, but as friends, never again as lovers in waiting.” Colet's Mementoes dish the real dope, the clef to the clef. “His one sensation,” she recorded (an entry apparently indicating erection but no orgasm). Other comments include: “Impotent!”; “Oh Gustave, Gustave, what a contrast!”; and “Certain that he is nearly impotent or that he has only very transient painful erections.”

Colet's chief mode was of romanticizing confessionalism; and she wrote with celebrated haste. In their different ways Béranger, Hugo, and Flaubert all gave her sensible advice: to slow down, to be more realistic, to be less vindictive. But sensible advice, whether personal or literary, was something of which Louise was always splendidly heedless: she had the turning circle of a supertanker. In Flaubert's case there is something almost comic about the ultimate hopelessness of his counsel: here was the young devotee of form and priest of the impersonal seeking to redirect a poet who was his polar opposite. In a way, they both knew best: he knew she was working in a sluggish, moribund tradition; she knew that you must write as you can and will, not as anyone else thinks you should.

In the mid-1850s Colet planned an ambitious six-poem cycle on the subject of Woman, only half of which she completed. The first, “La Paysanne,” is one of her more surprising works: a touching yet brutal tale of parted lovers, emotional impoverishment, and rural destitution. Flaubert praised it wholeheartedly and spent a good twenty pages of the Pléiade Correspondence close-correcting the poem. One could wish that Francine du Plessix Gray had managed to emulate his attentiveness. Her summary of the poem tells us, for instance, that “its bleak condemnation of aristocratic corruption makes it one of Colet's more powerful works. The marriage of its star-crossed lovers—the peasant girl Jeanneton and the rural nobleman Jean—is thwarted by Jean's parents, who arrange to have their son called into the army.” These two simply descriptive sentences contain the following mistakes: 1) Jean isn't a nobleman, since he is the son of the gardener at the local château; 2) He doesn't have parents in the plural, since his mother is dead; 3) His “parents,” i.e., father, don't thwart the marriage since “they” (he) thoroughly approve of it; 4) “They” therefore don't have Jean called into the army—he is drafted along with many others of the neighborhood; 5) There are no aristocrats in the poem, and therefore no aristocratic corruption; 6) Nor, therefore, is there any bleak authorial condemnation of this non-appearing vice. Gray is, at least, consistent in her summarizing: she ends by telling us that “Jean dies happy, knowing that she [Jeanneton] was true to his memory.” Spot on again, except that Jean is still alive at the end of the poem.

Even though Colet resisted Flaubert's characteristic urging to be “Shakespearean, hideously truthful and cold” in “La Paysanne,” the poem has a modern toughness to it: Jeanneton shares a distant kinship with Félicité in Flaubert's much later Un Coeur simple. The second poem in the cycle, “La Servante,” sees Colet self-indulgently regressing (or wisely returning) to her natural mode. If Flaubert, as self-appointed adviser on “La Paysanne,” was like a driving instructor trying to grab the handbrake while his pupil insists on pointing at the view, with “La Servante” Colet threw away the highway code he was pressing on her. He told her to recast the poem, and in particular urged her not to include a transparent attack on Musset; then expanded his objections into forty pages of notes. Rarely among the writings of Flaubert sent to Louise Colet, this last document has completely vanished (and there are probably not many suspects to round up in this particular case).

“La Servante” is the intertwined story of two peasant girls who come to Paris: Mariette, virtuous, lectorally aspirant, inflamed by the notion of love, and Théréson, pragmatic and corruptible about the ways of the world. Both tangle with the debauched Lionel, a poet-aristocrat based on Musset: but while Théréson handles him professionally and survives, Mariette lavishes on him the full dose of doomed Romantic love. After Lionel's death, Mariette goes mad, and is incarcerated in the Salpêtrière. Du Plessix Gray is oddly peremptory about the poem, limiting herself to a single critical remark: “This text, in its denunciation of men's perverse impulse to corrupt women, was the most vehemently feminist of her writings so far.”

“La Servante” is more complicated than this, and more interesting. It is a mixture—rather like Louise herself—of the charming, the irritating, the dogmatic, the instinctual, the observant, the egocentric, the heartfelt; it has banality and élan. Calling it “vehemently feminist” and passing on is like matronizingly awarding it stars for good conduct: the twentieth century applauding the past for being on the right side. In fact, for much of its length “La Servante” seems to look a century back rather than forward: it is moralizing, pictorial, and instructive, more Greuze than Greer. Thus the wicked aristo Lionel is ethically counterbalanced by the good miller Julien, who asks Mariette to marry him early on, and later turns up (in one of the poem's several extravagant coincidences) to save her from drowning. Mariette, in rejecting Julien's dusty hand and following her awakened heart, is seeking her Gothic-Romantic fate. She is destroyed not by any particular action of the cold-hearted and largely indifferent Lionel (we are not in the land of Sade) as by the exigencies and false expectations of her own heart.

The closing scene, in which Mariette stands, mute, loose-haired, and strait-jacketed among the mad and abandoned inmates of the Salpêtrière, certainly gives us a stern and rebuking image of woman destroyed. But does it make sense to call “La Servante” “vehemently feminist”? It is in places denunciatory, the literary equivalent to Colet's own cry in her later years of “Que les hommes sont vils.” But one of the poem's complications is that the women in it who, unlike Mariette, have some control of their lives, some access to money and power, are the women of pleasure, the “actresses” who consort with corrupting figures like Lionel rather than oppose them. And while on the one hand it is Théréson and her kind who most openly denounce men (“L'homme est notre ennemi”), they are in turn denounced by Colet. She presents them as irredeemably vile and vulgar. Modern debauchery, according to her, has lost its former voluptuous glory, and become something cold, neurotic, and drab: “le vice sans grandeur, et le nu sans beauté.”

Is this a rich ambiguity, or an authorial confusion? The palm prints of Louise's own life are all over “La Servante,” and it seems likely that behind such frosty distaste there lies a personal agenda: a response and a specific rebuke to Flaubert. She was working on her poem in the second half of 1854; in June of that year she had finally persuaded the extremely reluctant Flaubert to show her his travel notebooks from the Orient. This led to one of their more lurid quarrels. For a start, Louise didn't find sufficient space devoted to herself in the diaries. “I was thinking about you often,” Flaubert plaintively responds, “often, very often.” Worse, she discovered rhapsodic descriptions of his encounters with women of pleasure (and here Flaubert's defense was pretty jesuitical: since the women with whom I dealt had suffered clitoridectomy, they did not feel anything, and therefore you should not worry). Beyond jealousy, however, there was a fundamental divide of taste, of aesthetic. What Louise found most disgusting—for instance, the bedbugs recorded during Flaubert's famous night with the dancer Kuchuk Hanem—Flaubert found most enchanting. He was fascinated by prostitution from an early age: he loved it as a complex, bitter, and luxurious point of human intersection; he loved the lack of human contact, the muscular frenzy, and the clink of gold. “Et on est si triste!” he enthused to Louise in a letter of June 1853, “Et on rêve si bien d'amour!”

This last paradox was no doubt especially provoking to Colet. Simon Leys has deftly summarized Flaubert's erotic bifurcation thus: “While the beloved incarnates the reality of love, and is thus fatally destined to disappoint, the prostitute for her part offers a representation of love, that's to say an aid to reverie.” During her time with Flaubert, Louise Colet suffered a rare and unenviable pincer movement of jealousy: threatened by both the deeply imagined, in Emma Bovary, and the deeply carnal, in Kuchuk Hanem. Years later, the author of “La Servante” was covering the inauguration of the Suez canal, and on her journey up the Nile she tried to seek out Kuchuk Hanem in Esna. How should we read this: simple curiosity, masochism, an attempted purging, a heroic if belated attempt to confront a rival? Their encounter would have made a fine—indeed, Flaubertian—moment in a novel. But the courtesan's name meant nothing any more to the locals, and with the lapse of two decades Louise could find no house to match Flaubert's description in his travel notes.

As she grew older, Louise Colet eschewed mellowness. “Poor Maman,” her daughter, Mme. Bissieu, would later recall, “had a character which made everyone suffer.” She became more difficult, more irascible, expert at squandering old friendships. Infuriating, but often admirable: when Victor Cousin died, she renounced a legacy rather than bargain away the philosopher's letters. What can seem, in a literary celebrity and salon beauty, mere gilded egotism, grew into a rather splendid doughtiness. She worked, she traveled, she kept her political principles; and she refused to go quietly. As Gray shows, she championed the cause of Italy, helping Mazzini, hymning Garibaldi, covering the independence celebrations. She remained fiercely anticlerical, and got one interview away from giving the Pope a good dressing-down. During the Franco-Prussian war she took to public speaking with sudden success. She unequivocally supported the Commune (odd that famous painters tended to back it much more than famous writers), and remained true to her liberalism in almost all areas except that of sex, where she became increasingly puritanical and moralistic, denouncing Queen Christina of Sweden as a “debauched strumpet.” She judged harshly, and was harshly judged herself: George Sand, who after Lui had no reason to love her, compared Louise's old age to that of Mme. Flaubert, and found it “even worse, because it has degenerated into malice … She's mad.”

She was certainly incapable of matching the stoicism of her glamorized alter ego, the Marquise Stéphanie de Rostan. In Lui the marquise reflects sagely from a plateau of emotional wisdom upon her “finest hours,” with all their tears and torments, and finds the following exotic comparison: “Doesn't the navigator propelled by fate into the glaciers of Greenland remember fondly some balmy, blooming beach in Cuba or the Antilles?” Colet herself had few such beach memories, and was always particularly unforgiving toward Flaubert. In 1859 she denounced Madame Bovary in a poem as “a traveling-salesman's novel whose foul stench makes the heart retch.” Though she praised Salammbô to Mme. Edma Roger des Genettes in 1862, she couldn't help adding her opinion that its author was “ugly, common and as far as I am concerned profoundly evil.” Mme. Roger des Genettes did not convey all of this to Flaubert, and was rebuked by Louise for her tact: “If you passed on my praise to the author, in all truthfulness you should also let him know the absolute disdain I have for his character and the incredible repulsion I feel for his premature decrepitude.” In 1872, eighteen years after their liaison had ended, Flaubert brought out a posthumous collection of verse by Bouilhet (with whom Louise had also had an affair); she sent him an anonymous verse letter calling him a “charlatan thumping the big drum over the grave of his flat-footed friend.” Flaubert, by contrast, showed “no bitterness, no resentment” toward Colet (according to the Goncourts in 1862); and when she died he displays a melancholy, regretful spirit to Mme. Roger des Genettes—“I have trampled on so many things, in order to stay alive!”

Was he less vindictive because he had the nobler nature, because his heart had been less engaged (or more easily disengaged), because of vivid and lasting relief at his narrow escape? Something of each, no doubt. Is it a paradox that she, the vindictive one, preserved his letters, while he, the magnanimous one, apparently burned hers? Probably not: their different actions are entirely consistent with their respective attitudes to privacy and fame. There is, however, a further possible reason for Louise's epistolary reverence. A month after Mme. Récamier's death in 1849, Colet had published Benjamin Constant's love letters to Récamier; she similarly raised money soon after Musset's death by selling his occasional verse, and soon after Béranger's by publishing his letters to her. Perhaps she also hoped to outlive Flaubert.

When she died in 1876, Victor Hugo noted in his diary, “Mme. Louise Colet est morte. C'etait un généreux coeur.” Du Camp composed a disobliging epitaph (“Here lies she who compromised Victor Cousin, ridiculed Alfred de Musset, vilified Gustave Flaubert, and tried to assassinate Alphonse Karr”); he also devoted several unflattering pages to her in his Souvenirs littéraires, which, according to Gray, set off a tradition of “Colet-bashing.” French Flaubertistes, all male, “emulated that mystique of bonding, violently exclusive of women, which had characterized Flaubert's career,” and in “a uniquely mimetic example of critical whitewashing … until mid-century Flaubert's reputation would be hygienized by vigorous denials of any genuine affection he may have had for Louise, or by distortions of her character so extreme she lost all credibility as Flaubert's Muse.” This “male caddishness,” Gray argues, rendered Colet “obscure,” her memory “erased by the caprices of men.”

There certainly was a tradition of Colet-bashing, though one less monolithic than Gray makes it sound. A simpler explanation of any comparative forgetting of Louise was that she had used up her fame in her own lifetime, and wrote no one book which either merit or salability could sustain in print. Her most durable success was Enfances célèbres, an instructive work for younger readers about the childhoods of the famous. Indeed, you could argue that the attention of the Colet-bashers, far from obliterating her, kept her alive. Her memory was preserved—if in a distorted and demonized fashion—by her very association with Flaubert. You could further argue that the self-same moustachioed life raft also kept afloat Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp. They are still vividly with us, even though Bouilhet's verse is as out of print as Louise's, and Du Camp's six-volume work on Paris as hard to find as Colet's four-decker on Italy. Is not Du Camp also unfairly neglected? He was an energetic and inquisitive writer, for all his careerism and malice—a description which makes him sound uncommonly like Louise Colet.

Gloria Steinem in her book on Marilyn Monroe identified the “rescue fantasy” provoked in many men by the mere thought of the actress. Something of the same feeling often afflicts us when we peer into the past: not him again, we complain, as some Great White Male looms, casting his baneful shadow like a manchineel tree. Still, to call Louise Colet “heretofore obscure,” as Francine du Plessix Gray does, only makes sense if we define that phrase as meaning “not previously biographed in English.” There are times when she seems to have embarked upon a deeply misconceived rescue fantasy: wading heroically into the sea only to discover that Louise is not drowning but waving.

One of the problems of Colet's case is this: the fact that she was patronized by a generation of male Flaubertistes doesn't make her a better writer or a less infuriating person. The most useful, and touching, parts of Gray's book deal with Colet's later years, when, intrepid, troublesome, and isolated, she carries on working and fighting. But throughout Gray, though resolutely engaged, cannot help noting her “extreme pride,” “frequent rages,” “monumental talent for self-deception”; or calling her “this most demanding of women,” a “one-woman public relations factory” who was “capable of extravagant name-dropping.” You begin to wonder how anyone put up with her for longer than strictly necessary. “She always came too early and stayed too late,” was Gautier's view. “She wouldn't have left Flaubert alone with his pedicurist.”

But Gray is committed to her defense and vindication, and this frequently leads her into special pleading. Rescuing Louise seems to necessitate demeaning others (Hippolyte, Mme. Flaubert, Flaubert's “buddy network,” as Gray terms it). It means accepting the word of this “one-woman public relations factory” far too easily. It means making authoritative statements (such as “He was clearly the first man with whom she enjoyed ecstatic sex”) without the slightest bibliographical backup, and recklessly introducing whole episodes from Lui into the narrative as if they were objectively established fact. Sometimes an inappropriate twentieth-century template is fitted over nineteenth-century life; sometimes Gray regards as exceptional to Colet, or to women, circumstances shared by others. When Louise takes up fashion journalism (at which she seems to have been rather good), Gray feelingly writes that she was “bound to be humiliated by her need to grind out harebrained fashion chronicles.” Perhaps so, but it was a humiliation shared later in the century by a more famous male poet: Mallarmé.

And if Flaubert studies have skewed our understanding of Colet—as they have—this vindication is also skewed in that it observes Flaubert simply from Colet's point of view. His other relations with women are scarcely mentioned: they were varied, complex, and normally enduring. Louise brought out one side of his amatory nature; she got into his heart and under his skin in a way that no one else ever did. They were, however, severely ill-matched in temperament, sociability, aesthetics, ambitions, and even sexual drive. Flaubert also seems to have been more suited to old love than to new love. In his letters to Louise he often gives the impression of hastening not so much toward further discoveries about the beloved as toward a position of established love—he is looking forward to looking back. Could there ever have been a “happy ending”—and if so what might that have been? Wasn't it just a case of waiting for when the rapture gave way to the rupture? Certainly Louise's plan that she and her daughter should transport themselves to Normandy and make some sort of extended rural family seems the ultimate fantasy.

Du Plessix Gray is right to assert the centrality of Colet's position in the making of Madame Bovary, and the centrality (though not the uniqueness) of her place in Flaubert's heart. But was she “the first to recognize and encourage his genius”? (What about Alfred Le Poittevin, Du Camp, and Bouilhet?) Was she “the love of his life”? (Yes, but so in their different ways were Le Poittevin and Mme. Schlesinger.) Did she “offer him a unique self-assurance about his vocation”? (Not to judge by the astonishing artistic confidence of his letters.) In her desire to right what she sees as a historical wrong, Gray finds herself making claims which will stagger any Flaubertiste. For instance, Gustave sent Louise his early work—Novembre, the first Tentation, and the first Education sentimentale. According to Gray: “How grateful Flaubert was for Louise's keen insights into the workings of his talent!” Well: in 1847 Maxime du Camp wrote to Louise warning her that Gustave had been “profoundly wounded by the extravagant praise” she had lavished on Novembre. In 1852 Flaubert wrote to her about the first Education: “I am astonished, my dear friend, by the excessive enthusiasm you express over certain parts of the Education. They seem to me good, but not very much more so than the other pages you refer to. In any case I don't agree with your idea of cutting out the whole section about Jules and making something separate of it … Those pages which you were particularly struck by (on Art, etc.) seem pretty easily done to me.” If he was marginally less grudging over her response to the Tentation, this was in the context of Bouilhet and Du Camp having previously advised him to throw the work on the fire: “Well, you are enthusiastic about Saint Antoine. At least I'll have one supporter. Although I don't accept everything you say, I think my friends don't appreciate everything that was in it … As for the change you suggest, we'll talk about it—it is huge.

Which brings us back to the letters. The way Francine du Plessix Gray tells it, there is no doubt at all over what happened in and around Flaubert's fireplace on that night in May 1879.

Suddenly, in the middle of a particularly thick packet of letters, he comes across a package tied with a narrow ribbon. He opens it very slowly, takes out a small silken shoe; inside it is a faded rose rolled in a woman's handkerchief, its lace yellow with age. Flaubert kisses these three relics sorrowfully. Then he throws them into the fireplace along with the thick sheaf of letters that surrounds them, wiping his eyes. Dawn has come [etc.].

This makes a poignant, precise, and, to some, enraging scene; but it's worth checking back to what Maupassant actually wrote. For a start, he quotes Flaubert as outlining the task ahead of them: “Je veux brûler toutes mes vieilles lettres non classées. Je ne veux pas qu'on les lise après ma mort.” Gray renders this as: “I want to burn most of my old letters, things I don't want anyone to read.” Here “all” has become “most”: Gray is leaning on the translation to make it accord with what subsequently happens. More culpably, she suppresses that little phrase “non classées.” In other words, Flaubert has done a previous triage of his papers, and this is a further sorting-out of the remainder. Since his relationship with Colet had terminated in 1856, and it is now 1879, should we not at least consider the possibility that Flaubert made his decision on Louise's letters during that earlier classification? He might have a) burnt them then; b) saved them (which points the finger back at Caroline); or even c) saved them then, only to change his mind subsequently and destroy them.

Together, Maupassant and Flaubert then pull out a trunk full of papers. “Je veux en garder une partie, et brûler l'autre,” says Flaubert. Gray again leans on the translation: “I want to keep a small part and burn the rest.” The letters are in chronologically reverse order, later ones on the top, earlier ones underneath: Flaubert therefore embarks on a strange reverse journey through the documents of his life. There are letters from the living and the dead, the famous and the insignificant, from friends and acquaintances; sometimes Flaubert drops a tear, sometimes he barks at the inanities he comes across. Early on, he finds a letter from George Sand, later one from his mother. These are the only two correspondents identified by Flaubert—or, to be exact, remembered by Maupassant as having been identified by Flaubert. The silence here is surely significant. Would Flaubert have burnt several hundred letters from Colet without mentioning the fact? And why should Maupassant not report it if he did? Additionally and alternatively, though the emphasis is on what Flaubert destroyed that night, what about the many papers he saved? After all, in his letter to Laporte he said that the next day his hands were still “shaking from tying up packets.”

Then comes the discovery of the three relics. There is a slight problem here. Maupassant describes “a little silk dancing-shoe,” but as Hermia Oliver comments, “That slipper was not a dancing-shoe; it was Louise Colet's slipper, or pair of slippers (perhaps Maupassant overlooked one of them).” Perhaps he did; but then it was 4 AM, and they had taken “several glasses of old claret” with dinner. Flaubert casts the slipper, singular or plural, into the flames, together with the rose and the handkerchief. He had discovered this sentimental bundle, “in the middle of a particularly thick packet of letters,” and he now throws the relics onto the fire followed by “the thick sheaf of letters that surround them.” This is what Gray tells us. But this is not what Maupassant tells us, not at all. According to him, Flaubert simply found his souvenirs “au milieu des lettres,” i.e., among the letters in the trunk. There is no “particularly thick packet of letters,” no “thick sheaf,” except in Francine du Plessix Gray's novelistic head. She does it, no doubt, with the best of intentions: to dramatize the incident, to finger Flaubert, to point up what she believes to be the first step in a campaign to blot out Louise Colet, a male conspiracy which has finally brought Gray riding to the rescue. But as Flaubert once observed, you don't make art out of good intentions; and you don't make biography that way either.

Barbara Meister (review date Summer 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

SOURCE: “A Woman of Valor & Value,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 22–23.

[In the following positive review, Meister compliments Gray's portrayal of Colet in Rage and Fire.]

The would-be biographer of Louise Colet faces a dilemma: Colet herself wanted and expected her contemporaries—and posterity—to judge her solely on the basis of her literary output; she resented innuendos suggesting that she traded on her beauty and sexuality to further her literary career and, even when in real financial need, refused any stipend she suspected of not being predicated on her merits as an author. The last thing she would have expected from the future was to be remembered as a mere appendage—and a negative one at that—to the life of another writer. But in study after study she is discussed as no more than an addendum to the central subject, her long-term lover Gustave Flaubert. This is especially ironic since it was supposed that Colet, already a famous writer when their liaison began, would aid and abet Flaubert on his climb to fame.

The difficult truth is that a rereading of Colet's considerable creative legacy does not prove her testiest critics wrong. Her poetry, for which she received the Académie française's coveted prize an unprecedented four times, has no real place in the canon of Romantic verse, despite the youthful charm of some of the poems of her first collection, Fleurs du midi (1836). Lui (1859) and Une histoire du soldat (1856), her two romans-à-clef, which increased her notoriety and brought her modest financial success, are interesting today only to those curious about the literary celebrities they portray (principally George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Flaubert, and Louise herself). Her anticlerical polemics (Les Derniers Abbés [1868] and large parts of L'Italie des Italiens [1865] among others) demonstrate the worst fault of most agitprop: an almost hysterical partisanship that detracts from the reasonable arguments they espouse. Even her impassioned manifestos in defense of republican ideals, whether fought for in Poland, Italy, or France itself and certainly attractive in their ideology, suffer from her often careless and over-wrought style, as do her equally heartfelt condemnations—expressed in poetry, essays, and prose fiction—of the misogynist attitudes so prevalent in 19th-century Europe.

What then tempts a contemporary American author, especially one with the renown of Francine du Plessix Gray, to expend her time, energy, and skills on this first major English-language biography of Colet? To this reviewer, who has long been as fascinated by the beautiful and feisty Colet as is the author of Rage and Fire, the answer is simple: with her courage, her independence, her intelligence, her insistence on her right to sexual fulfillment, her struggle against a male-dominated and predominantly misogynist society, Colet stands out as a woman of valor and value, a complex woman of many faults and many virtues, worthy of study today not because of what she wrote but because of who she was.

Gray captures and portrays Colet's character extremely well in Rage and Fire. Without glossing over the writer's temper, her impetuosity, or her tangled and often overlapping love affairs, Gray conveys her sympathy for this hard-working woman who was determined to write her way to financial independence without compromising her beliefs.

Along the way, Gray fills in the cultural and historical backdrop of Colet's life (1810–76), skillfully identifying writers, critics, and political figures less familiar to contemporary American readers than they would be to their French counterparts. She also gives some telling quotations from well-known women-haters of the day, perhaps unfairly neglecting to counterbalance them with opposing statements but allowing us to feel how Colet must have reacted to them, especially since so many were directed against her personally.

My only small objection to this thoroughly researched and documented study involves the two “opening images” that make up the prologue. The first of these depicts a violent quarrel between Colet and Flaubert during which he envisions himself striking her with a burning log snatched from the fire and “setting fire to her golden hair and azure dress.” The second shows Flaubert, three years after Colet's death, tearfully destroying the relics of their affair while his protégé Guy de Maupassant looks on. Ms. Gray offers some documentary evidence for these lurid dramatizations, but with so much unassailable evidence, why “image” anything in a serious biography? Perhaps Gray, as rightly renowned for her novels as for her studies, could not resist using her fictive flair to lure the reader into the excellent study that follows. To this reader, however, the life of Louise Colet was dramatic—or even melodramatic—enough just as it stands.

Anita Brookner (review date 21 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “On High Heels Up Vesuvius,” in London Review of Books, July 21, 1994, p. 18.

[In the following review, Brookner examines Colet's relationship with Gustave Flaubert as depicted in Rage and Fire.]

In October 1879, Flaubert, then aged 57, invited Maupassant to dinner, informing him that there was a purpose behind this invitation. He wanted to burn some letters, and he did not want to do so alone. After a particularly good meal, Flaubert brought a heavy suitcase into his study and began to throw packets of letters into the fire: occasionally reading passages from them in his booming voice. This process went on until 4 a.m., not an unusual hour for Flaubert. (History does not relate whether Maupassant was equally alert.) One particularly thick bundle of letters contained a small package tied with a ribbon. This was seen to consist of a silk shoe, a rose and a woman's handkerchief, which Flaubert kissed and threw into the fire. It has always been assumed, and it is assumed by the author of this book, that these relics, and in particular the letters, were evidence of his attachment to Louise Colet, his mistress in the late 1840s and early to mid-1850s. His letters to her, now in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Avignon, contain reports on the work in progress, which was to become Madame Bovary, together with remarks and maxims which form the essence of his artistic credo.

An irreverent question now arises: what happened to the other shoe? That there were two is attested by Flaubert's frequent references to them in his letters to Colet. Sartre, for whom literally nothing was sacred, observed that this was proof of Flaubert's fetishism, that he was satisfied to keep the woman herself at a comfortable distance and the token slippers close at hand. Remember that he was unable to visit her very often, certainly not as often as she expected him to, while he undoubtedly considered her to be a threat to his work. He needed the quiet of Croisset and the company of his mother, a virtuoso of hypochondria, rather more than that of the tempestuous Colet, whose beauty by that stage at its peak, failed to compensate for what he rightly considered to be her meretricious talent as a poet—‘You write verses the way a hen lays eggs,’ he told her.

Second question: why did Flaubert need Maupassant as a witness on this most private occasion? We know that Flaubert had a more intimate relationship with his male friends than with all women except George Sand, whom he treated with rare respect. This gives further credence to Sartre's observation that there was a homoerotic edge to Flaubert's friendships, although this was true of most of the men in the Goncourt circle, all of whom were given to sharing details of their sexual prowess. Whereas most men delight in an ardent mistress, Flaubert only desired to be ardent himself on the relatively rare occasions permitted by his particular sexual economy. An enthusiastic frequenter of brothels, and equally enthusiastic friend of those friends who shared his tastes, Flaubert, although not a true ascetic, held firmly to the opinion that ejaculation subverted creative energy. More to the point, he knew that the rage he experienced when Colet levelled her reproaches at him might bring on an epileptic fit, and on one occasion did so. She looked after him skillfully, wiped his face, and afterwards assured him that he had not foamed at the mouth, although he had. Small wonder that Flaubert's genius confined him to what Henry James called the madness of art, since that is exclusive, self-inflicted, entirely wilful and implicit with the grandiosity of the child laying claim to his domain.

Francine du Plessix Gray, in this wildly partisan and thoroughly enjoyable biography of Colet [Rage and Fire] whom she attempts to reinstate as a female icon and ‘yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men,’ makes many claims for her subject, who, it has to be said, is only remembered owing to the caprice of one man, Gustave Flaubert. At the end of their affair he wrote her a spectacularly cruel letter, informing her that he no longer wished to see her. The fact that this letter survives may shed some light on Colet's masochism, a factor which her biographer fails to underline, although the picture that emerges from her enthusiastic account is of a determined but pathetic character who did her best, against considerable odds, to emulate more forceful women, both real and fictitious, who had achieved notoriety and acclaim on strength of character alone. These women were fatally near at hand as role models: Charlotte Corday, Mme de Staël, George Sand, and surely Corinne, the eponymous heroine of de Staël's novel, beauteous, beloved and a poetess of the highest rank. Louise Colet, too, wrote poetry, but we can perhaps judge its quality from the fact that her unblushing biographer refuses to include it in other than a rather lame English translation, on the grounds that ‘it is not a striking exemplar of French Romantic verse.’ From the translations it appears that the poems are abysmal. Some later poems are given in the original French: unfortunately, they are no good either.

Nevertheless, we are dealing with a woman who had a life both before and after Flaubert, and whose evolution can certainly be seen as a useful example of Romantic endeavour and a confused attempt to claim a destiny which would earn for her the type of glory she craved, and in part achieved. It is a peculiar irony that she achieved this in every area except that of her writing. We remember her as Flaubert's lover, and we remember her through his letters to her, not hers to him. And Flaubert's letters to Colet are chiefly memorable as a commentary on the work in progress, and which she obviously dealt with cleverly, as they kept on coming. It takes a particular skill to accommodate statements of the kind which have become famous, such as the claim that the artist should be immanent but invisible in his work, like God in the universe, or the assertion, surely bewildering to one of Colet's intelligence, that her lover desired to eliminate from his work not only himself but the subject as well, so that the resulting book would be held together by the internal strength of its style. From one point of view the two were obviously ill-matched, but at the time of their liaison, or at least at its beginning, the advantage was Flaubert's. She was striking, 12 years his senior, and with something of a reputation as a woman of letters. He was the first to see that that reputation was undeserved, but it was his jealous friends, chief among them Maxime du Camp, who missed no opportunity to turn her into an object of ridicule.

Had she not fallen in love with Flaubert, had he not withdrawn from her company, their story might have ended more happily than it did, were it not for one fatal mistake. She told him that she would like to meet his mother. This is a mistake not infrequently made by rather dim women. She went unannounced to Croisset and gave a note to the chambermaid to tell Flaubert of her arrival. Horrified, he joined her, or circumvented her, outside the house, refused to invite her in, and fobbed her off with a promise that he would meet her that evening in Rouen. There he told her that there must be nothing more between them. Yet her value as an ally, as opposed to a mistress, was great enough to impel him to write her over a hundred letters during the composition of Madame Bovary, which he began the following year, in 1851. The correspondence continued until 1855, and ended in a letter which is in itself some kind of masterpiece. ‘Madame: I was told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing that your persistence might provoke me to humiliate you, wisdom leads me to warn you that I shall never be in. I have the honour of saluting you, G. F.’

Colet later revealed that she disliked Madame Bovary. To justify her opinion it is necessary to remember that in her own eyes, though not in anybody else's, she was the pre-eminent literary figure. She may once have even entertained the notion that it was her fame as a woman of letters that had brought Flaubert to her side. In 1846, when they met in the studio of the sculptor Pradier, he was a mere 24 to her 36 and had published nothing, whereas she was the prolific author of occasional prose and verse, and had already won the Académie Française poetry prize twice (she was later to win it a third time). Yet although she was known to a fairly wide circle, she owes her historical survival to the massive irony that she was the recipient of Flaubert's letters, that she is in fact a footnote in Flaubert's life, in spite of her very real insistence that she occupy centre stage in her own. It is this injustice that Francine du Plessix Gray attempts to redress, and she makes a handsome job of it. Even to retrieve Colet from that famous correspondence is a heroic enterprise. To confer on her a dignity which survives the undoubted humiliations she was forced to endure is a generous one, and an achievement which owes something, but not everything, to a female solidarity which the reader will salute as touching and endearing.

That Colet had a life of her own is attested not merely by her numerous writings, which few will consult, but by her lonely and forthright demeanour, of a kind that confers a reputation, but not necessarily the esteem to go with it. It should be remembered that in the course of her arduous progress through Parisian society, she had no assets apart from her remarkable looks, a dwindling asset after the age of 40. She was to become stout and sickly in her advancing years, yet the initial impression had been considerable. An artless woman penning artless verses might have been expected to be an object of male indulgence, but Colet had been relatively radicalised by a harsh family and an indifferent husband, and her expectations were high. She had temperament but no money, whereas money would have served her better. Unlike her role models she was extremely poor. When entertaining in the various flats which she painted blue to emphasise the colour of her eyes, she was obliged to save the tea leaves from one reception, dry them on the window-sill and serve them up again the following week. She was also of an ardent and impulsive nature, an easy convert to liberal causes, and in old age a fearless advocate of Italian nationalism.

Yet for all these qualities, and they were considerable, it is impossible to consider her as a success as a feminist icon, as her biographer does. Rather is she an exponent of Romantic behaviour, fighting an unequal battle for acclaim in a period best known for its masculine accomplishments. She was not so much a Muse, though that was how she was known, as a confidante of great men: Victor Cousin, Hugo, Musset, Vigny. Yet she lacked a sense of self-preservation; she could have lived with either Cousin or Vigny and been comfortable and cared for. In fact, she was fallible and perhaps less than rational. Perhaps she saw no advantage if her heart were not engaged.

She was born into the provincial nobility at Servanes, in the Alpilles. After her parents died she was effectively disinherited by her brothers and sister and forced to take refuge with her nurse. She married Hippolyte Colet, a music teacher, because he had obtained a post in Paris, and Paris was where she longed to be. She won her first Academie prize in 1839, when she was 27, a heady start to what she hoped would be an outstanding career. She made useful acquaintances by the simple expedient of sending them her poems; their polite letters of acknowledgment opened the way to an admiring correspondence. Poverty forced her to be opportunistic, although she was never averse to publicity. When the critic Alphonse Karr printed a derogatory remark about her in his journal Guêpes, she went to his house and stabbed him in the back, her arm, as he recounted, ‘raised in a tragedian's gesture.’ No harm was done, and he very handsomely went out and called her a cab. She published recklessly and without discrimination: friends, including Flaubert, urged her to be more patient and more severe. Her later years saw her living in Italy, enthralled by the Risorgimento, intercepting Cavour and demanding an audience with the Pope, informing the French ambassador at what hour she would be free to call on him. Through sheer courage she became formidable, and by an interesting turn of the wheel robustly anticlerical. Corpulent and ailing she climbed to the crater of Vesuvius in a crinoline and high-heeled shoes, the soles of which were burned black by the lava. She died in 1876. Her daughter counter-manded her wish for a civic burial and she was interred with the full rites of the Church she so scorned.

Edmond de Goncourt in his Journal, on 19 February 1817: ‘A remark of Louise Colet's. She said to a friend of a medical student who was her current lover: “So what's become of your friend? I haven't seen him in more than a fortnight … at my age, and with my temperament, do you think that entirely healthy?”’ This anecdote is not quoted by Francine du Plessix Gray, yet this aspect of Colet's life and career must have played a considerable part in her reputation. It is the part that does not survive. The uninhibited lover that she must have been explains Flaubert's attachment. The confidence she gave him to write those letters to her is another matter. Perhaps she was rather great after all.

Gabriele Annan (review date 22 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Indomitable Emmerdeuse,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following mixed review of Rage and Fire, Annan argues that “inside Gray's combative treatise a spirited and sympathetic biography is trying to get out.”]

Louise Colet was Flaubert's mistress from 1846 to 1855, and he wrote some of his most memorable letters to her. She was “a literary star” in the Paris of her time. Her life, especially her love-life, was exceptionally eventful; her vast literary output mediocre. She is well worth a biography, though perhaps not quite such a long one as this.

Rage and Fire starts with a prologue dramatizing Maupassant's account of how, in 1879, he watched Flaubert burn Colet's letters, together with her silk slipper, her handkerchief and a faded rose. Everything seems set for a breathless, romantic biography, and that is what you get, though not all you get. The prologue ends with a declaration of the author's aim “to resurrect yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men.”

Feminist indignation suffuses the text and peaks in italicized situation reports. The most arresting of these analyses the anti-feminist backlash which followed the French Revolution. “The Amazonian images stamped upon the communal psyche by these female militants provoked growing fear among male citizens.” As a result, women had a harder time in France than elsewhere in nineteenth-century Europe; women writers—bluestockings—were particularly reviled. Francine du Plessix Gray reinforces her point by quoting extravagantly anti-feminist passages from Flaubert, Maupassant, Proudhon, Baudelaire, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Houssaye and—my favourite—Dumas fils: “According to the Bible, woman is the last thing created by God. He made her on Saturday night. One feels the fatigue.”

Louise was born in Provence and longed for Paris the way Chekhov's three sisters longed for Moscow. At twenty-four she was already “the acknowledged muse of the Bouches-du-Rhône. She now aspired to be the Muse of Paris.” So she married Hippolyte Colet, a young musician with a humble job at the Conservatoire. They were very poor and did not get on well, but Louise, “a one-woman public relations factory,” used her “great gift for self-promotion” to get accepted in prestigious literary salons, and soon established a modest one of her own. Her first lover was Victor Cousin, an eminent philosopher and Minister for Education; he launched her literary career and probably fathered her eldest child. Then—in no particular order—came Alfred de Musset, Alfred de Vigny, a radical Deputy called Désiré Bancel, two Polish political exiles, Sainte-Beuve's secretary Octave Lacroix and, of course, Flaubert. Most of them, including Flaubert, were much younger than Louise. Somewhere along the line the Colets separated, but Louise looked after Hippolyte when he was dying: she was a good woman with a kind heart, ravishing blond curls and lovely white arms. She must have been terrific in bed. Flaubert said “she could make a dead man fall in love.” She was also brave, generous, impulsive, pushy, snobbish, quarrelsome, jealous, tactless, opinionated, relentlessly didactic and a great maker of scenes—an emmerdeuse if ever there was one. Gray sees her ridiculous side, and makes affectionate fun of her; but her loyalty to Colet never wavers.

Colet was a hard worker. She needed to write a book a year for the money, but she believed in her talent and the urgency of her messages, which were always liberal, often feminist and expressed with increasing vehemence in prose and verse. At the age of nearly fifty and in poor health, she reinvented herself as a sort of Kate Adie, and went to Italy to report on the Risorgimento. A few years later she was in Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal. Her anti-clerical outbursts shocked the priests in St Peter's and her neighbours on Ischia. They gave her a bad time, and so did her fellow journalists in Egypt. She was no longer beautiful enough to make up for her tiresomeness, or, in Gray's words, “she transgressed the stereotypes assigned to ‘proper old ladies'—she remained combative, dynamic, and aggressively assertive.” By this time one feels very sorry for her. She was sick, poor, lonely, but still indomitable and brave. Many of her friends had died and her only surviving child could not respond to her craving for love. Henriette was as conventional as her mother was preposterous—conventional enough to take her in when she was dying.

When Julian Barnes reviewed the American edition of Rage and Fire recently he noted some factual inaccuracies and teased Gray for wading in to rescue a woman who was not “drowning but waving.” Gray is outraged by the “Colet-bashing” initiated by Flaubert's friend Maxime du Camp in his Souvenirs littéraires; it has gone on, she maintains, to the present day. So in her turn she bashes Flaubert's male “buddy-network” and quotes disapprovingly from the bawdy and possibly sometimes homoerotic letters exchanged by its members. This is enjoyable, but does not really advance Colet's cause; especially as anyone who has read Sartre, Enid Starkie, or Francis Steegmuller on Flaubert already knows that he caddishly hurt her by putting undisguised intimate details of their affair into Madame Bovary.

Still, Madame Bovary is a masterpiece, and Colet's own roman-à-clef about her affair with de Musset is not. Gray makes no attempt to defend her work, and her many long quotations from it are not much fun to read. Flaubert couldn't forgive Colet for envying Corneille for his fame rather than his genius. It reminds one of Southey rebuking Charlotte Brontë for “wanting to be for ever known” instead of just quietly writing away. But Southey was no more Brontë's equal than Colet was Flaubert's; besides, Southey went on to say that women should only write as a hobby, whereas Flaubert took a lot of trouble trying to improve what Gray disarmingly calls Colet's tempestuous “Erica Jong” style.

Unfortunately, Colet doesn't emerge as a better feminist than she was a writer. All feminists put up backs, but good ones make converts too. Colet's violence was extreme and counter-productive. On the other hand, she could be the ideal grande horizontale heroine of an engaging study in literary social history; inside Gray's combative treatise a spirited and sympathetic biography is trying to get out.

Roger Shattuck (review date 15 November 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Sight of Evil,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 15, 1998, pp. 10–11.

[In the following review, Shattuck addresses Gray's sympathetic portrayal of Sade in At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

We sometimes learn more from the sight of evil than from the example of the good.

—PASCAL [from “Pensées”]

A few decades ago, more than one edition of Webster's dictionary carried a concise entry: “Sade, Marquis de (1780–1814). French soldier and pervert.” It's a hard line to beat. No leers. No drum rolls. Four words to fit the man into the niche he deserves. Baudelaire, Flaubert, Swinburne and Sainte-Beuve had taken him out for a closer look. They either shuddered or heard distant thunder or burst into mocking guffaws at Sade's excesses. Then they put him back where they found him and went on.

Since the beginning of our century, however, Webster and others notwithstanding, strong impulses toward liberation in the arts and in the culture generally have led to the rehabilitation of Sade as writer, thinker, libertarian hero and commercial property. His works have been republished in French many times over and extensively in English. Four major biographies have appeared in French and two lesser treatments (by Geoffrey Gorer and Donald Hayman) in English. Maurice Lever's 600-page vindication was translated in 1993. A small group of critics with strong convictions has worked hard to convert the social pariah and ultimate pornographer of sex as cruelty into a presentable and even admirable author of dark yet magnificent philosophical novels. Does this rehabilitation demonstrate that we are coming to our senses finally as a tolerant society? Or that we are losing our way in a darkness of our own making?

Now we have two new books on the Marquis: a full-blown biography for the general reader by an experienced nonfiction writer and a more specialized “biographical essay” by a scholar of the 18th century. Both books deal with Sade's voluminous writings not as literature primarily but as they affected and illuminate his life. And both reveal a strong sympathy toward the women in the story. Considering the wave of recent publications on Sade, one hopes that these two books will provide new information or an astute perspective rather than merely feed an active market in titillation.

Francine du Plessix Gray's At Home with the Marquis de Sade narrates almost merrily the four stages of his alternating career. The cocky young aristocrat in the King's cavalry lived so violently debauched and spend-thrift a life that five successive brushes with the police finally landed him in prison. From age 37 to 50, he remained locked up for his excesses until the Revolution freed him in 1790. Masquerading as an enthusiastic revolutionary, he remained free (except for a few months in prison and a close call during the Terror) until 1801. Then Napoleon incarcerated him, this time not for personal excesses but because of the extreme licentiousness and blasphemy of his writings. Through family influence and payments, he spent his last years as a privileged inmate in an insane asylum, with a private apartment and a theater to direct, until he died in 1814.

Gray skillfully weaves into these scenes the varied historical background—royal, revolutionary and Napoleonic. She has read widely and does not claim to bring major new documentation to her lively account. We hear the details of his predatory conduct toward prostitutes and toward little girls and boys hired as servants, but Gray resorts frequently to conjecture to fill in the many gaps in the story. Such conjecture nourishes Gray's fascination with Sade's marriage to a plain nonaristocratic woman with a large dowry named Pélagie de Montreuil. Gray writes of their early years together: “She seems to have felt that if Sade became a monster of immorality, she must all the more become a monster of devotion. … So Pélagie's love was a kind of sublime folly.” This is novel writing, not responsible biography. Such heated imaginings do not illuminate Sade's real power over some women—a mixture of aristocratic privilege, wit and charm as needed and an enticing reputation for debauchery and violence. Pélagie remained loyal through the first long imprisonment and then abruptly separated from him when he was freed.

The most surprising aspect of Gray's biography is its title. One supposes it is intended to allay our fears about so scabrous a subject. The opening acknowledgements support that impression by listing all the “wonderful” Sade descendants and scholars in France and the United States who welcomed Gray to the family of admirers and received her in their homes. This disarming folksiness leads to a paragraph in the foreword serving to soften the shocking nature of the subject:

Yet when I steeped myself in the scandalous Marquis' correspondence, I became entranced by the more modest, familial motifs of his saga. I soon realized that few writers have been so powerfully shaped by women; that few lives provide a more eloquent allegory on women's ability to tame men's nomadic sexual energies, to enforce civilization and its attendant discontents.”

When you reach the end of Gray's biography, you understand that she is referring here to Pélagie, Sade's victimized wife, and to his mother-in-law, la Presidente, whose firmness and resourcefulness matched her son-in-law's and who obtained for him first special treatment by keeping him out of prison and, afterward, imprisonment. How did these two women “enforce civilization” on this unstoppable predator? Gray's answer, written about Pélagie, applies in reality to both women:

Her marriage had been her work of art: For good or for worse, it was solely through Pélagie's love and dedication that the Marquis de Sade's talents were able to flower and become part of the Western heritage. There lies the principal legacy of this potentially intrepid soul, whose saga leads us once more to marvel at (or to deplore) the phenomenon of female malleability.

Without these two women, then, we might never have had his reputedly glorious writings. He might have remained “a tedious debauchee,” Gray writes without irony. Some informed readers, however, might see substantial gain in the latter course.

Gray's estimate of Sade the man needs some comment. She astutely links Sade's lifelong devotion to the theater to his “carefully programmed assault on the national sensibility” through scandalous behavior, to his need for power and control and to fear of being ignored. She portrays him as the ultimate exhibitionist, who must be always on stage. At the same time, a series of references suggests the degree to which she sees Sade as a victim—victim of his irrepressible temperament, of his vengeful mother-in-law and of a relentless police force. On the other hand, Gray's candid accounts of his behavior emphasize his systematic egoism, the hypocrisy of his revolutionary sentiments and the depravity of his sexual behavior.

The list of charges Gray makes is formidable. But when all the minus signs are added up, the result carries a plus sign. She cannot bring herself to condemn this marvelous monster. In the epilogue we learn how 20th century scholars and critics have willingly welcomed Sade among the great French writers. His great-grandson recently reassumed the title of the Marquis de Sade as an expression of pride in his lineage. (“What really matters to me is that I'm descended from very ancient aristocracy, that I'm descended from King St. Louis.”) And Sade's ancestral village of La Coste has become a profitable tourist center and site of an active theater with a capacity of 1,600. All indications show a favorable outcome for an abject life story.

Gray advances the presumably clinching argument of her book on the last two pages. She invokes the Fontaine de Vaucluse, an immense natural spring near La Coste, as the emblem and lesson of Sade's career. Just as the uncontrollable energy of the spring is finally tamed into channels irrigating thousands of acres of orchards and vineyards, so Sade's imperious debaucheries and psychoses were tamed by imprisonment to reveal his “visionary gifts” as a writer: “It is his crude insistence on expressing humankind's most bestial urges, on speaking out what most of us barely dare to admit—on mirroring the primal impulse we've all had, at some point, to claw at the taboos of our own caged lives—that makes him an occasionally fascinating and very modern writer.”

This sentence and the book's strong concluding argument in favor of Sade's accomplishments make two dubious assumptions. The first is that we all lead caged lives and must therefore claw at taboos and admire any writer who transgresses them in cruel and violent writings. The second dubious assumption is that Sade's unashamedly evangelistic style seeking to convert his readers to sexual aggressiveness and mayhem against the human race will trickle down as refreshing irrigation among the orchards and vineyards we call our culture. Gray's arguments are affirmed, not demonstrated. She fails to distinguish between irrigation and pollution.

Laurence Bongie enters the Sade arena as a scholar who has done archival research and discovered a few new sources. He proposes not to domesticate Sade but to take him down a few pegs. The preface states flatly that “much of his life … was lived as a lie.” Sade's parents and early years concern Bongie most. He devotes an entire chapter to exploding one widely cited interpretation of Sade's life. Sade, the story goes, by loving his self-indulgent father and hating his cold, remote mother, developed a negative Oedipus complex—the presumed cause of his psychotic behavior. Bongie produces evidence to complicate and qualify the theory. But in doing so he engages in so many pages of hypothesis about Sade's possible actions and motives that we lose sight of Bongie's scholarly competence. He even tries to imagine what the reaction might have been if Sade's mother had ever been able to read her son's most excessive writings. In this biographical essay, the scholarly biographer, the polemicist and the digressive gossip get in each other's way.

Still, a reader already familiar with the terrain will learn a number of worthwhile things from Bongie's book. Contrary to recent accounts, Sade did not, at 16, lead a cavalry charge, take an enemy redoubt and become a national hero as several biographers have claimed. That was someone else with the Sade name. Sade's lifelong enemy. Sartine, head of the police, was not a monster but a just and intelligent government servant admired by Voltaire and Diderot. Bongie establishes that Sade had written and been paid for pornographic writings before serving any prison time. Then Bongie really hits his stride in the last three chapters to cut through several layers of the Sade myth. The truly heroic writer of the French revolution, he argues accurately, was not the toadying aristocrat, Sade, but the spirited romantic poet André Chénier, who attacked the tyranny of Robespierre and Marat and died bravely by the guillotine. The concluding chapter draws our attention to Sade's defense of his conduct in satisfying his lusts with “little girls, 4 or 5 years old” in Naples: They were just prostitutes. Bongie does not shrink from depicting Sade as essentially a rapist for whom the “consent of his victim spoils the fun.” Yet, a few pages earlier, himself awed by this monster, Bongie lets slip the paradoxical phrase “like the true force of nature that he was.” Where Gray portrays a raging torrent tamed into beneficent rivulets flowing through fertile gardens, Bongie reveals the man's utter deceit and ferocity. Yet he cannot hide a muffled admiration for Sade's behavior by linking it to nature. A 20-page appendix on the history of Sadean criticism over 200 years provides a useful and revealing account of how successive generations of critics have to a surprising degree succeeded in transforming Sade the outcast into Sade the hero.

How is it that an unrepentant aristocrat exploiting feudal privileges to selfish ends can cast his spell over later generations? Sade is defended by his admirers on three basic grounds. He was “the freest man who ever lived” as the poet Apollinaire phrased it. He became a martyr in defending personal freedom and freedom of expression. And he had a profound understanding of human sexuality. Yet even Gray's and Bongie's imperfect books provide enough evidence to allow a dispassionate reader to see through these three claims. Sade was from beginning to end a slave to his unconstrained and perverted appetites, and he used his wealth and privileged status to deprive those around him of their freedom. No martyr to any cause or idea greater than his own desires, Sade abjectly praised Marat in order to save his own skin and, unlike Chénier, feared to sign his name to books that represented his deepest convictions. On the third count, Sade displayed his understanding of human sexuality by working unswervingly to dissociate sex from tenderness, love, reproduction and family and to attach it instead to aggression, cruelty, domination, violence including murder and hatred of mothers and children.

Another factor contributes, I believe, to the spell that Sade casts over at least some contemporary readers. Sade was no Gilles de Rais or Bluebeard. His voracious exploitation and rape of sexual victims did not extend to murder. But the explicit accounts he imagined in his writings of violence, torture and murder as means of obtaining sexual pleasure, and his long philosophical defenses of such behavior as legitimate break all existing records for unfeeling bestiality.

We have apparently reached the point at which some of us admire as human greatness actions that transgress even the most fundamental limits. The fully rounded humanity of the Portuguese sea captain who saves Gulliver in his madness and of Maggie in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss do not impress us. We respond to the extravagant behavior of Faust in his disastrous descent into the world of ordinary people and of Ahab drawing a whole crew into his personal struggle with the white whale. It is as if the inhumanity of the great heroes leaves the deepest mark on us. Long excluded even from this set of heroes because of his depravities, Sade has now claimed a place next to Faust and Ahab. Should we welcome this record-breaker without regard for the field of his excesses?

It is here that my epigraph from Pascal may help us. For this pensée to apply, however, we must be able to distinguish evil from good and to call evil by its name when we are confronted by it. Then we may learn from it by understanding it as a negative object lesson. At Home with the Marquis de Sade is unwilling to make this clear distinction. Sade did some unspeakable things, Gray grants, but he is by no means beyond our sympathy and admiration.

On the last page she writes: “He became a borderline psychotic because he refused the Great Neurotic Compromise most of us accept,” a compromise that, as we learn earlier in the chapter, consists in the constraints on sexuality and aggression that Freud, among many others, identified as essential for civilized life. His refusal earns him praise as “one of the first great rebels of modern times.” Gray describes a despicable, if sometimes charming, man without ridding herself of the sentimental illusion of greatness in his sheer excess. She implies that she, like Pélagie, is ready to live “at home” with a man of such proudly unconstrained destructiveness. Like many Sadeans, she has, I believe, deluded herself about both the man and his writings. Bongie has fewer illusions and delusions. But his exhaustive scholarship at times makes him myopic and prevents him from presenting a full-length portrait of an evil man.

These two books do not contribute either significant new information about Sade or a clearer understanding of his case. Bongie assembles telling evidence of Sade's depravity, yet leaves the reader with the impression of some ulterior mystery that justifies an interest in his life and writings. In engaging and readable chapters, Gray perpetuates the myths of greatness in evil and of “novel” and “bold” ideas in Sade's writings. It will be a long time before we fit this French soldier and pervert back into his proper niche.

D. Keith Mano (review date 31 December 1998)

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SOURCE: “This Will Hurt,” in National Review, Vol. 50, No. 25, December 31, 1998, p. 44.

[In the following review of At Home with the Marquis de Sade, Mano explores the role of sado-masochism in Sade's life and work.]

As Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel: “The history and tragedy of our era really begin with [Sade]. … Our times have blended, in a curious manner, his dream of a universal republic and his technique of degradation” (ellipses provided by Francine du Plessix Gray). Sade's technique was predominantly theatrical. He had always wanted to be a playwright, not a lowly pornographer, and, as a result, his erotic fantasies never seem quite real, being at some level tableaux vivants or stage effects that depend on lighting and costume for their passion.

The 1770s in France, like the 1960s in America, were performed, not lived. Even Sade's private carousing went public. After his first scandal (whipping a prostitute and forcing her to whip him), Sade was placed under close surveillance by Paris police inspector Louis Marais. For more than a decade, reports of Sade's sexual activity were passed on daily to Versailles and became “the highest source of delectation for the king and Mme de Pompadour.”

There was sadism before Sade, of course. (Havelock Ellis first used the term in 1895 to describe clinically a pain-fear-shame syndrome so commonplace today that “sadistic” theme restaurants have been developed in New York.) Sade himself was probably masochistic—a word derived from the noted sexual submissive, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Sade, in fact, comes across as a rather harmless sexual partner. Evidently, because of a genital malformation, he found it difficult to achieve orgasm without the aid of powerful and violent imagery. Sade loathed the idea of capital punishment. And he only once committed adultery with a married woman—patronizing prostitutes and loose servant women instead—so deep was his reverence for marriage.

Sado-masochism had been common, almost “banal,” throughout Louis XV's reign. Gray makes a persuasive case for blaming the epidemic prevalence of this neurotic behavior on Jesuit educational practice, which emphasized public whipping and “lavish theatrical productions.” Sade was also profoundly influenced by the Jesuit attitude toward confession. “Throughout his life, Sade would resort to a typically Jesuitic form of casuistry to justify the abundance of crimes and debauches limned in his fictions: he defended them as indispensable to our deeper knowledge of the human heart.” In such a promiscuous era as Sade's the church confessional must have been an ongoing epic of smut.

No pornographic writing, however, has exceeded in horror that most extreme of sado-masochistic events, the Terror. Bondage, humiliation, fear, headless bodies writhing and kicking to the tune of Guillotin's technological executioner—should it surprise anyone that this political orgasm was prefigured and accompanied by the savage, encyclopedic outpourings of a sexual obsessive? Sade was not in the Bastille when it fell. He had been transferred on July 3 for inciting the mob below to riot (he used his urinal as a megaphone). Nevertheless, his lingering presence puts the French Revolution in suitably ironic perspective. This great human occasion succeeds in liberating, among other things, a grossly fat and cantankerous pornographer, whose work—disdained by his contemporaries—would influence Flaubert, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Bunuel, and Dali, along with the surrealist movement in general.

Sade—son of an aristocratic libertine and an absentee mother—survived the times by turning into an activist republican named Louis Sade. He shot up through the ranks and even got to rename the streets of Paris. But Sade miscalculated in 1793 when he spoke publicly and with great eloquence against religion. Sade had been a devout atheist all his life. The revolution itself was in the business of “de-Chrisianizing” France. But at just that moment Robespierre declared atheism to be “aristocratic.” He put the cult of a supreme being into effect and had Sade arrested once again. Some sort of clerical error would save Sade from suddenly becoming much shorter than his five foot, two inches in height, but it was a close thing. At last, from 1803 to 1814 Sade was imprisoned at the progressive mental asylum of Charenton. There his theatrical productions achieved cult status. The Sade ancestral home at La Coste in Provence is now a tourist attraction.

Occasion for this new biographical effort [At Home with the Marquis de Sade] was given by the discovery of further correspondence between Sade and his long-suffering but loyal wife, Renee Pelagie—hence Gray's folksy title. But this segment of her narrative drags: correspondence with a cranky prisoner seldom scintillates. Meanwhile Gray, who shouldn't be squeamish, has failed to give even one graphic sado-masochistic passage of any length from Sade's oeuvre that would disclose his particular voice and its “icy sobriety.” Gray gets an A for research, an A- for style, and a C for courage.

So what, after all, is behind this phenomenon, sado-masochism? The thesis adduced in my new book, The Fergus Dialogues, is this: that the fears and ceremonies of “modern” hominid sexuality are not, in fact, primal. The primal fear (which sexuality has been crafted to cover) is that of family cannibalism—the fear of eating or being eaten by someone you love. Famine has been a powerful leitmotif in human evolution. Neurotic sexuality of all kinds (but particularly sado-masochism) comes into being when a species is trying to repress some aspect of cannibalism—the practice of which is common in Sade's erotic works. (Whipping, for instance, remembers the ancestral tenderization of meat that is to be cannibalized.) Sade, who probably guessed nothing about this unconscious subtext, was remarkably open to experience—and to extremes of human behavior that we can learn from, if we dare, even today.

Robert Darnton (review date 14 January 1999)

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SOURCE: “The Real Marquis,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, January 14, 1999, pp. 19–24.

[In the following review, Darnton classifies At Home with the Marquis de Sade as a negative biography, in that Gray unsympathetically portrays her subject and instead elevates his wife—Renée Pélagie de Montreuil—to the role of heroine of the biography.]


A few years ago a sharp-eyed researcher spotted a curious dossier about an eighteenth-century traffic jam. The streets of Paris often clogged with gridlock under the Old Regime, because carriages drove on either side of the road and got stuck in face-offs, unable to back up, owing to the vehicles behind them and the difficulty of putting horses into reverse. The result was road rage. In one particularly nasty incident at the Place des Victories in 1766, a furious nobleman leaped out of his carriage, drew his sword, and buried it in the belly of the horse attached to the carriage blocking his. He was the marquis de Sade.1

We are now getting to know another Sade, less divine than the sublimely immoral marquis who has fascinated the literary imagination since the time of Baudelaire. He has emerged from the archives. After several generations of digging through new sources, we are ready at last to take the measure of the man. That is the goal of two recent books published within a month of each other.

They belong to a genre that could be called negative biography. It recounts the story of a life in the manner of ordinary biography, but it makes the hero look bad; and that creates problems. If you present your subject as an antihero, expose his feet of clay and kick them out from under him, your reader may walk away from the rubble asking, “Why did I bother with this book?”

The best way around this problem is to scandalize the reader. Choose the right target, preferably something overvalued or overblown, and knock the stuffing out of it. Lytton Strachey first proved the effectiveness of this strategy by puncturing Victorians in the biographical sketches that he published in 1918. Lillian Ross borrowed it in order to debunk Hemingway. Since then Tom Wolfe has mau-maued Leonard Bernstein; Robert Caro has skewered Robert Moses; Jeffrey Masson has stomped on the grave of Sigmund Freud; and now the negative biographers have taken on the divine marquis.

They face a peculiar version of the negativity problem: Sade was the antithesis of everything respectable, and he served as an ally for everyone in the avant-garde or on the left who wanted to play that favorite French sport, épater le bourgeois. How can one take the mickey out of the marquis in view of the fact that he was used to play the same game? The answer to this dilemma can be found among the twists and turns of literary history, a story worth studying in itself because it shows how literature and history are being combined in an assault on the cultural trends that drew most heavily on the Sadean heritage.

At first, Sade's works remained underground. Printed in dark corners of Brussels, sold “under the counter” in France, circulated “under the cloak” among aficionados, locked into the “hell” section of the Bibliothèque Nationale, hidden on “the second shelf” of private libraries, and read “with one hand” by naughty boys and revolutionaries (Restif de la Bretonne claimed that Danton aroused himself by reading Justine), they remained at a suitable distance outside the law. The legal barrier suited the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, because it had enough fissures for the books to reach the right sort without falling into the wrong hands. And it also suited the bohemians, because it marked off the borders of bourgeois society, where inhibitions could be flouted and an imaginary world, charged with libidinal energy, waited to be explored.

Sainte-Beuve, who mapped the literary landscape in the 1840s, placed Sade along a crucial line of demarcation:

I dare affirm without fear of contradiction that Byron and Sade (my apologies for linking them together) have been perhaps the two greatest sources of inspiration for our modern writers, the one quite visible in public, the other clandestine—but not too clandestine. If in reading certain novelists now in vogue you want to get down to the bottom of the trunk, to the secret staircase to the alcove, don't ever lose that latter key.2

Baudelaire, Flaubert, Huysmans, and other “modern writers” situated themselves on the Sadean side of this division; and in 1909, Apollinaire identified it as the line that divided the nineteenth from the twentieth century. Hailing Sade as “the freest spirit who has ever existed,” he took the newly “divine” marquis out of the closet. “Ideas that ripened in the infamous atmosphere of the ‘hells’ of our libraries have now come into their own,” he proclaimed, “and that man who seemed to count for nothing during the entire nineteenth century could very well dominate the twentieth century.”

Apollinaire's prophecy has come true. From realism to surrealism and from modernism to postmodernism, Sade has to some degree inspired nearly every movement of the French avant-garde. How could the biographers not take notice? After World War I, a Sade industry began to develop. Scholarly editions of his novels—restricted at first to psychiatrists and specialists permitted access to the caged-in sections of libraries—succeeded one another, thanks especially to the efforts of Maurice Heine. After World War II, the publications poured out: multivolume editions of his works, his correspondence, his family papers, accompanied at every stage by new biographies and critical studies. As the torch was passed from Heine to Gilbert Lely, Maurice Lever, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, and Annie Le Brun, the scholarship was dominated by keepers of the flame. It finally attained such monumental proportions that Sade himself took on the air of a monument historique—that is, a canonized author of classics.3

The state did not stand idly by while the Sadeans flooded the bookstores. French courts had condemned Sade's work since 1814; and they reaffirmed its illegality in 1957, when the Chambre correctionnelle of Paris rejected the testimony of some leading men of letters—Jean Cocteau, Georges Bataille, André Breton—and condemned Pauvert to a 120,000-franc fine for publishing Les 120 Journées de Sodome,La Philosophie dans le boudoir,La Nouvelle Justine, and L'Histoire de Juliette. But new legislation opened the market to Sade's works in the 1960s. A colloquium held at Aix-en-Provence in 1966 put them at the top of the agenda for scholarly study. They began to appear on reading lists for courses on literature. Students devoured them, having whetted their appetites with readings of Bataille and Marcuse or talk of sex and revolution in the corridors of Nanterre.

But as the shock of May–June 1968 subsided, Sade seemed less shocking. Endorsed by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, he began to look like a prophet of post-modernism and a fixture in a new intellectual orthodoxy. In 1990, he made it into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, the ultimate stage of canonization. In an introduction to the Pléiade edition of his works, Michel Delon sounded embarrassed: What was an immoralist like Sade doing in a nice place like this? The answer was clear: He had arrived.

Enter the negative biographers. Sade had had his detractors, of course, going back to his own contemporaries, who had nothing good to say about his avowed writing and knew next to nothing about the anonymous works later judged to be “sadistic” (the term “sadism,” for pleasure in inflicting pain, first made it into a dictionary in 1834). But he could not be knocked off a pedestal until he had been placed on one. Now, after some hard knocks delivered in the two recent biographies, he is tottering badly.

The first, [At Home with the Marquis de Sade] by Francine du Plessix Gray, is the gentler of the two. It does not attack Sade directly, but it nudges him from the center of the story in a way that makes room for a substitute hero: his wife. Not that the marquise had any claim to be divine. She was neither attractive nor witty, nor even very interesting. But she stood by her man. While he spent half of their married life in prison, going to seed and feeling sorry for himself, she labored selflessly to supply his needs and get him released. When he finally waddled out in 1790, she had had enough. He got what he deserved, a contested place in literary history. She got what she wanted, liberty and obscurity—and an uncontested divorce.

The second book, by Laurence Bongie, illustrates negative biography at its most extreme. Bongie finds nothing good to say about his subject. As a child, he argues, Sade was a spoiled brat. As an army officer, he was a misfit; as a husband, a brute; as a philosopher, a plagiarist; as a prisoner, a self-pitying hypocrite; as a revolutionary, a trimmer; and as a figure in literary history, a mistake. Bongie's all-out, undisguised hostility to Sade gives his story energy, despite its detours and excessive detail. It is less a biography than an indictment; and to the reader familiar with the heroic version of the story, it has an irresistible fascination: What damming piece of evidence will turn up next? And what is driving it all?

Taken together, the two biographies provide a fresh view not only of Sade, but also of the current state of literary studies. Du Plessix Gray and Bongie organize their narratives in the same manner as their predecessors: childhood, the five notorious criminal “affairs,” the prison years, the Revolution, and old age in the madhouse of Charenton. But they focus on the women in Sade's life. Du Plessix Gray concentrates on his wife, Bongie on his mother and mother-in-law.

Du Plessix Gray begins with two questions: “What was it like to be the marquise de Sade? … What was it like to be Sade's mother-in-law?” They are not academic questions, to be sure, but du Plessix Gray does not intend to write an academic book and does not pretend to produce new research. Nor does she break new ground, for the Sadeans have already turned out a small library of monographs on Mme. de Sade, the Sade marriage, and the Sadean woman.4 Du Plessix Gray is a storyteller, and she tells her story with consummate skill, keeping up the pace and the reader's interest through thirty-one chapters of domestic drama. At the bottom of it all, she finds a love-hate triangle, composed of the marquis, the marquise, and the mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil.

This interpretation involves some psychologizing. Following her mentor, the dean of Sadean studies, Maurice Lever, du Plessix Gray roots sadism in the “negative Oedipal complex,” a malignant condition first diagnosed in Sade by the French critic Pierre Klossowski in 1933. According to Klossowski, Sade as an infant could not work through the normal Oedipal rivalry with his father, because he saw his father as weak, a sacrificial victim of “that false idol,” his mother. By identifying with his father, Sade turned his libido against his mother and, once he began to write, punished her endlessly in the mother-torture fantasies of his fiction.

Happily, du Plessix Gray treats Sade's subconscious with a light hand. She takes us rapidly through his childhood, noting how he was “spoiled rotten” by a succession of substitute mothers—his grandmother, his aunts, and his father's mistresses—while his mother withdrew to a convent and his father to the boulevards and salons of Paris after failing to make it as a diplomat. After three brisk chapters, we reach the main subject of the book, Sade's marriage to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil.

By then, not yet twenty-three, Sade had acquired such a reputation for debauchery that he had put himself out of contention for a match in the court aristocracy to which his family belonged. His mother, a descendant of the princely Condé family, provided the better part of his pedigree. His father, a count from the ancient feudal nobility of Provence, took charge of the fortune hunting. His in-laws supplied the fortune. Newly ennobled and enormously rich, the Montreuils wanted their children to marry up in the world. Renée-Pélagie, their older daughter, was a plain Jane, good at splitting wood, as it later turned out during a hard winter at the Sade estate in Provence, but not at anything else. Her mother, however, made up for what she lacked, notably wit and worldliness.

At first, Mme. de Montreuil was fascinated by her handsome and rakish son-in-law. When he was arrested, five months after the wedding, for a brutal, sacrilegious orgy with a prostitute (“the Jeanne Testard Affair”), she used her husband's connections with the police and the courts to get Sade released from prison; and she welcomed him back to her country estate in Normandy. Perhaps, du Plessix Gray speculates, Sade touched some sexual chord that had remained dormant in her throughout the later years of her marriage to her boring, passive husband. Perhaps she derived some voyeuristic excitement by following Sade's misbehavior and, as a parvenue, enjoyed playing substitute mother to a hot-blooded blueblood. Whatever the state of her subconscious, Mme. de Montreuil persuaded herself for five years that her son-in-law was merely indulging in the youthful libertinism typical of great aristocrats, while he cut an increasingly wide swath through the demimonde of Paris, flagellating and sodomizing so violently that he appeared in police files as a mortal threat to prostitutes.

On Easter Sunday, 1768, Sade lured a beggar named Rose Keller to a petite maison that he had rented for his orgies in the Paris suburbs. He locked her in a bedroom, threatened to kill her, stripped her, tied her face down on a bed, and whipped her mercilessly while shouting obscenities. According to some versions of this incident (“the Arcueil Affair”), Bongie's among them, Sade cut into his victim's back with a knife and poured hot wax into the incisions. In any case, when he left the room, she escaped; and the story spread, arousing such indignation that Sade stood in grave danger of being condemned in the criminal courts. Again, Mme. de Montreuil intervened, this time by soliciting a lettre de cachet, or royal order, for his detention in one of the King's prisons. Aristocratic families often used this device to protect their name by removing wayward sons from the normal judicial system. Sade spent only seven months in captivity before being released to his estates in Provence and resuming his sexual escapades.

The third incident, known as “the Marseille Affair,” finally convinced Mme. de Montreuil that her son-in-law was a moral monster. Having failed to be accepted back into his regiment, Sade withdrew to his medieval fortress at La Coste in Provence with Renée-Pélagie and her sister, a nineteen-year-old canoness, whom he promptly seduced. In June 1772, he set off with his valet Latour on a “hunting” expedition in the brothels of Marseilles. He hired four prostitutes and after some mutual whipping had himself sodomized in front of them by Latour. He also induced them to take an overdose of Spanish fly disguised as candy, but it touched off such stomach pains that they believed themselves poisoned and denounced him to the police. Rumors spread about a fantastic, satanic orgy. Sade ran off to Italy, accompanied by Latour and the canoness. The parlement of Aix-en-Provence sentenced him in absentia to death, then had him beheaded and burned in effigy for the capital crimes of sodomy and poisoning.

In the eyes of his mother-in-law, he also stood condemned for incest, because it was considered incestuous to have sexual relations with sisters in eighteenth-century France. Mme. de Montreuil now turned from protector to persecutor. She pursued Sade like a fury, sicking the police on him and deploying all her contacts among French and foreign authorities to put him behind bars. After a series of manhunts, ambushes, and escapes, she finally got him locked up in Vincennes and then the Bastille, always by lettre de cachet, in order to minimize the damage to the family's reputation.

What did Renée-Pélagie do throughout this Sturm und Drang? Innocent and ignorant at first, she eventually acquired so much carnal knowledge that she became an accomplice in Sade's crimes. She, too, was eroticized by his satanic energy, according to du Plessix Gray. Renée-Pélagie switched roles with her mother, taking on the mothering and the domestic arrangements at La Coste, where Sade engineered his last orgies from 1773 to 1777. He got away with them, despite his notoriety as an outlaw, because he still ruled the back country of Provence as an anachronistic version of a medieval baron. The drawbridge of La Coste went up at dark, trapping guests and servants in a world of Gothic horror, the kind that was just beginning to appear in novels and that would haunt the European imagination for the next hundred years.

Sade created it in real life, and his wife collaborated, hiring a boy “secretary” and five young girls in 1774 to serve as household staff—that is, in effect, as sexual slaves. Exactly what happened in the secret inner room of the chateau (“the Little Girls Affair”) remains a mystery, because Mme. de Montreuil later had its paraphernalia destroyed. It probably contained sacrilegious props and torture devices of the sort used by Sade in Arcueil and the other petites maisons that he furnished for his orgies. In any case, the children eventually had to be sent away for medical treatment or shut up in convents where they could be prevented from talking.

Renée-Pélagie handled the mopping up. She even arranged for the “chambermaid” Nanon, who had helped recruit the children, to be imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of domestic theft. Eighteen months later, Sade hired another harem. But when they understood the services required of them, the new staff fled, all except a maid whom the Sades had renamed Justine. Her father tried to rescue her, bearded the marquis in his den, and drew a pistol on him; but it misfired and he retreated, spreading another wave of rumors about crime in secret torture chambers (“the Catherine Treillet Affair”).

A few days later, Sade received a letter from Mme. de Montreuil informing him that his mother was dying. He and Renée-Pélagie, accompanied by “Justine,” rushed off to Paris. He may have hoped to negotiate a deathbed pardon from his mother and a reconciliation with his mother-in-law. But the police picked up his trail as soon as he arrived, having been mobilized, he believed, by the perfidious Mme. de Montreuil; and on February 13, 1777, they locked him up in the prison of Vincennes. Except for a short interlude in the summer of 1778, he spent the next thirteen years in captivity, cursing his mother-in-law and demanding sympathy from her daughter.

Sade's prison years, vividly documented in his correspondence, provide the finest chapters in du Plessix Gray's biography. She shows how he coped with his confinement by venting his rage at Mme. de Montreuil, devising ever more ingenious means of torturing her in his imagination, and ultimately transferring his fantasies to his fiction. On the receiving end of his letters, Renée-Pélagie found herself ordered not merely to abominate her mother but also to do chores. Fetch food! Sade thundered—and not ordinary food, either, but the finest delicacies in Paris: “quail en brochette wrapped in vine leaves, pots of beef marrow, pâtés of fresh salmon, little grilled cabbages, madeleines.” When the dishes failed to meet his standards, Sade sent an epistolary rap on the knuckles: “The Savoy biscuit isn't at all what I'd asked for: I wished it to be iced all the way around its surface, on top and underneath.” Or sometimes a slap in the face: “Let me have a response to what I ask for in this letter, if you are capable of it, so that I can say at least for once that you were good for something during my detention.”

He demanded finery, too, in the latest style: “Send me a little prune-colored redingote, with suede vest and trousers, something fresh and light but most specifically not made out of linen; as for the other costume, make it Paris Mud in hue with a few silver trimmings, but definitely not silver braid.” The marquis also ordered ribbons for his hair, pomade for his skin, and powder for his face. Not that he had anyone to impress with his finery: he dressed for himself; sinking into narcissism that deepened with each year.

Renée-Pélagie dashed about Paris, catering to his whims and accumulating debts. To pay for the biweekly care packages, she finally had to sell the silver buckles of her shoes. And when at last she received permission to visit him, she put on some finery of her own—only to receive a lecture about looking like a tart: “If you're a decent woman, you must solely please me, and the only way you'll please me is through the greatest decorum and most perfect modesty. … I demand that you come … coiffed with a very large bonnet … without the smallest hint of curl in your hair, a chignon and no braids. … Conserve your virtue!” An odd homily from the high priest of satanism.

But Sade's prison letters are full of surprises. He prided himself on avoiding sex with married women and expressed horror at the notion of female adultery: “Woman's infidelity … has such fatal and dark consequences that I've never been able to tolerate it.” He subscribed to such an extreme version of the double standard that he sounded puritanical in comparison with his peers among the aristocracy. Although he professed atheism and practiced sodomy with persons of his own sex, he forbade his wife to frequent the freethinking salon of the marquise de Villette, because she was reputed to be “a bit of a Sappho.” The fear of cuckolding drove him wild. He tortured himself by imagining that Renée-Pélagie had betrayed him with his secretary and sent her a slashed drawing of the innocent young man with a note: “Here's how … a riffraff of this species merits to be treated when he forgets the respect he owes his master.”

Renée-Pélagie finally calmed him by moving into a miserable apartment in a convent, which cost half of what she paid for his room and board in prison; and even then, he berated her in patriarchal fashion: “Above all, love God and flee men! I consign you to your room and, through all the authority that a husband has over his wife, forbid you to leave it, for whatever pretext.” At the same time, Sade ordered Renée-Pélagie to go around Paris procuring not only pastry but dildoes, so that he could stuff himself from both orifices. Nothing but the best would do—smooth, ebony devices carved by the best cabinetmaker in the city. Sade was remarkably frank about his sexual activities—his preference for anal intercourse, his masturbating, and his difficulty in reaching orgasm. Far from sounding like one of the virile monsters of his novels, he appears in the correspondence as weak, obese, and perhaps, as Simone de Beauvoir maintained, semi-impotent.

Renée-Pélagie responded to Sade's complaints with tenderness, though that did not prevent him from complaining about her prose: “You've sent me three pages of idiotic ramblings. … But it's in your nature to say stupidities.” Far from being stupid, she seemed to have had an intuitive understanding of his psychological infirmity. She filled her letters with expressions of love, some sexual, most maternal: “My good friend, I beg you most ardently to … not give in to your depressions. Adieu, my good little boy. I kiss you.” “I love you and will never cease loving you. … I kiss you with all my soul.”

Sade, too, expressed genuine affection, as far as one can tell, but his letters rarely strayed from the only subject that truly interested him—namely, himself. He railed at the injustice of being imprisoned, he, a marquis, for giving a few spankings to some well-paid whores. He wailed about the conditions of his confinement. And he ranted at Renée-Pélagie for failing to provide relief: “Bedded on the floor like a dog, treated like a savage beast, perennially alone and locked up, … my health is all but gone and your infamous conduct is finishing me off.”

In fact, Sade enjoyed quite comfortable conditions, especially after his transfer from Vincennes to the Bastille in 1784. He had a large, well-lit room sixteen feet in diameter, hung with tapestries and family portraits, fragrant with fresh flowers, and furnished with a library of six hundred volumes. He was allowed to take walks in the prison courtyard and to see Renée-Pélagie once a week. Transferred to the madhouse of Charenton ten days before the storming of the Bastille, he was finally released on April 2, 1790.

Once he was a free man, Renée-Pélagie refused to see him. Their relationship—all giving on her part and receiving on his—had nothing to sustain itself in the new regime of liberty. Taking advantage of the revolutionary legislation on the family, Renée-Pélagie obtained a divorce and passed out of Sade's life.

Du Plessix Gray's narrative continues through Sade's revolutionary career and his liaison with the actress Marie-Constance Quesnet to his last period of captivity back in Charenton. But the rest of the book reads like a postscript to the prison years of 1777–1790. With the disappearance of Renée-Pélagie and also of her mother, who had nothing more to do with Sade after his release from prison, the mother-daughter-husband triangle ceased to exist; and the story loses much of the tension that makes it so gripping.

Why consider her book a negative biography? Du Plessix Gray treats Sade sympathetically, staying close at key points to the heroic version of his life propounded by Maurice Lever, the leading Sadean today. But by making Renée-Pélagie the heroine of the story, she dissipates the aura of satanic divinity surrounding the marquis. In the end, he appears pitiful—weak, whining, spoiled, pretentious, self-indulgent, self-pitying, infantile, and frequently ridiculous.


He looks noble, however, in comparison with the figure conjured up by Laurence Bongie. Like du Plessix Gray, Bongie tries to identify the woman behind Sade's crimes, but he comes up with a different suspect: Sade's mother, born Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, a member of the Condé branch of the reigning Bourbon family. What were Sade's feelings toward her? The question is far more important than it appears, according to Bongie, because it provides the key to the central theme of Sade's novels, mother-hatred.

The theme certainly can be found everywhere in the works of the marquis. In La Nouvelle Justine, for example, de Bressac, the magnificently wicked hero of the story, harangues his mother, an infuriatingly virtuous victim, as follows:

—Be silent, Madame! Do not imagine that this illusory title of mother gives you any rights over me. Allowing yourself to be fucked in order to bring me into the world is not a great qualification in my eyes. These absurd ties of nature have no hold over a spirit such as mine.

He then sodomizes her, has her torn apart by ferocious dogs, and in a paroxysm of pleasure plunges a knife into her heart.

Mme. de Mistival, the equally virtuous mother in La Philosophie dans le boudoir, has an even more horrible death. Her daughter sodomizes her with a dildo, has her raped by a syphilitic servant, and sews up her orifices so that she will die in agony, ravaged from within by excrement and disease. Mothers undergo similar punishments, one more hideous than another, in Les 120 Journées de Sodome. The theme is so obsessive that biographers have generally traced it to Sade's relations with his own mother, a very devout and very aristocratic matron, who eventually separated from his father by withdrawing to a convent. The most common view, propounded by Maurice Lever and other orthodox Sadeans, derives from Klossowski's negative Oedipal complex: young Sade developed a fixation on his father and an obsessive desire to punish his mother for abandoning both of them.

Whatever its validity as a theory, this view fails to confront an obvious objection: perhaps Sade's mother was not absent from his childhood but merely missing from the archives. The fact is, we know little about her, and what we do know does not suggest that any abandonment occurred during the first four years of Sade's life—the most important years, according to the Klossowskians.

At four, the little marquis was shipped off to his relatives in Provence, but not, Bongie insists, because his parents' marriage had already fallen apart. On the contrary, such documentation as exists, notably some new evidence turned up by Bongie himself, indicates that Sade's mother consistently supported his father while he made a hash of his diplomatic career and that she did not withdraw to the Carmelite convent until he had given himself over to full-time libertinism and idleness on the fringes of the court. The argument sometimes gets lost in arcane detail and empty speculation, but enough of it sticks to damage the conventional view that sadism took root from maternal neglect.

Having rearranged the pieces in the story of Sade's childhood, Bongie then realigns the facts about the rest of his life. He selects the damning detail at every point, like a prosecutor arraigning a criminal. Sade's supposed heroism at the battle of Port-Mahon in 1756 was a case of mistaken identity. A case of gonorrhea nearly forced a postponement of his marriage in 1763, and his military career was hampered by a case of hemorrhoids compounded by debauchery.

By 1770, when he had repaired his body well enough to sit a horse, Sade had acquired such a reputation as a reprobate that his fellow officers would not take him back into their regiment. He was also blackballed in the better brothels, because the police had warned the prostitutes that his taste for kinky sex had degenerated into torturing. When he shifted the scene of his crimes to his château in Provence, he favored child abuse. The drawbridge went up and the servants went down, scarred by whips and knives for life.

Sade got away with his crimes by exploiting his power as an aristocrat and his in-laws' connections in the law courts. He felt nothing but scorn for persons of inferior birth, notably his wife. “How your baseness, your low birth and that of your parents shows through in everything!” he wrote her, when at last the authorities got him behind bars. And even his imprisonment was an instance of aristocratic privilege, because it took place by léttre de cachet, saving him from a death sentence in the ordinary courts.

Although Sade presented himself as a martyr of royal despotism after 1789, he remained a secret royalist right through the Revolution and never really modified his caste-ridden scorn for the common people. He especially loathed people who tried to improve their lot in life:

Without their realizing it, everything plunges them back into the stinking mud pit to which nature has condemned them, and when they raise their noses above the mire, they resemble to my mind, nothing so much as disgusting and filthy toads who try momentarily to rise from their muck, only to sink back into it once more.

During the Revolution, Sade claimed that he had been transferred from the Bastille, ten days before it was stormed, because he had incited the crowd outside his window to revolt. In fact, he was moved to Charenton because he had thrown a tantrum after being denied the privilege of taking the air on top of a tower where the cannon were trained on the citizens below.

After his release from Charenton, Sade turned his coat to save his skin. Dressing down as Citizen Sade, he denied his aristocratic origins and forged a new identity as a writer—not of Justine, his first “sadistic” work, which he never acknowledged, but of second-rate, sentimental plays and novels like Aline et Valcour,Comte Oxtiern, and Le Suborneur. In politics, he howled with the wolves. He passed himself off as a Jacobin, wrote a eulogy of Marat, and got elected secretary of his district in Paris, but never took part in any carnage. Charged with “moderatism,” he escaped the guillotine by one day, thanks to the fall of Robespierre.

Sade sank into poverty under the Directory and was sent back to Charenton under the Consulate. Though confined as a criminal madman, he was treated with indulgence and permitted to stage plays in the asylum until 1813. In that year, at age seventy-three, he bought the sexual services of Madeleine Leclerc, the daughter of an employee at Charenton, and continued to dally with her until a week before his death, on December 2, 1814.

As Bongie tells it, two themes stand out in this unedifying tale, sexual abuse and aristocratic hauteur; and both derived from Sade's parents. The sex he got from his father, a sodomite and libertine, who rented the first petite maison for his son's orgies when the boy turned sixteen. The abusiveness had deeper sources, if not the dread negative Oedipal complex, at least some unresolved hostility to the mother, which Sade later transferred to his mother-in-law. Sade blamed Mme. de Montreuil, often quite rightly, for his arrests and imprisonment. He imagined her pursuing him into his sexual hideouts and snatching him away from his pleasure. Then he sought compensatory pleasure by imagining how, if he could ever get free, he would torture her:

Gods of Hell, teach me all your torments, come whisper to me in my innermost being all the odious secrets of your art, let your barbarity be multiplied, inflamed by the venom of this embittered heart! And for my only satisfaction, for my only favor, grant me the opportunity to combine all these torments and to inflict them on this abominable sex which has made a sacrifice of me, and which I loathe!

Oh, powers from Hell, grant me Nero's wish, that all women have but one head and that this head belong to the shrew who tyrannizes me; then grant me the pleasure of chopping it off!

From the prison letters to the novels, from Mme. de Montreuil to women in general, the trajectory of sadism seems clear. The marquis cultivated the greatest case of mother-in-law hatred in recorded history. But he may have derived some of his sadism directly from his own mother. When she learned of the scandal caused by the Arcueil Affair in 1768, she wrote to the lieutenant general of police that the real villains, those who deserved the severest punishment, were the journalists who had dared expose it to the public:

It is an outrage that brings universal dishonor to a person, and the scoundrels who have committed such an odious act deserve to be locked up for the rest of their days. No one can be allowed to sully with impunity the name of someone so closely related to me! … My race has no dishonorable stains to reproach itself for, and people must be taught to show regard for a family that is respectable in every way. How dare they speak of mine in such terms! These wretches and beggars deserve to be hanged!

According to Bongie, Sade inherited this attitude from his mother. Despite his pose as a plebeian during the Revolution, he always thought of himself as an aristocrat. Aristocrats were above the law and therefore could not break it. So Sade never considered his deeds as crimes. As a descendant of a princely “race”—according to the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française of 1762, race meant “lineage, all those who come from the same family”—he could do whatever he pleased to those below him.

To this attitude, already archaic by the time of his birth, Sade joined a more modern notion, one that sounds almost Nietzschean, although he derived it from his reading of d'Holbach and libertine literature: no moral order exists in nature, so the strong should feel no inhibitions about venting their passions on the weak. This leitmotif runs through Sade's life as well as his novels. When informed of the public outrage over the Arcueil Affair, he reacted with bewilderment. Why should anyone feel “compassion for a street tart's flagellated arse”? Prostitutes did not count as human: “… How we treat whores is of no more consequence than how we go about emptying our bowels.” But Rose Keller, the victim in question, was a thirty-six-year-old unemployed widow, not a whore.

Sade's other victims included a great many servants and children, usually female. Although he proclaimed women's rights to pleasure and included women among the monster heroes of his novels, he especially selected them for torture, in his petites maisons as well as his fiction. The laws of nature decreed that the strong should victimize the weak: “It is unjust to cut short the days of a well-formed individual but it is not unjust, I say, to prevent the birth of a being that will clearly be of no use to the world. The human species must be cleared of weeds, right from the cradle.” We are in eighteenth-century Paris, but we do not seem to be far away from Auschwitz.

Other writers, notably Camus and Queneau, have found a troubling affinity between the fantasies of Sade and the realities of Hitlerism. Many readers have found his books unreadable. Speaking as a reader myself, I find Sade's writing far inferior to much of the libertine literature of his era, a literature brimming with humor, social criticism, philosophy, and narrative high jinks as well as sex. I would not trade the fourteen-page masterpiece by Vivant Denon, Point de Lendemain, for the entire oeuvre of Sade.

And yet, when faced with the oeuvre, the numbing cruelties of Les 120 Journées de Sodome included, any reader is bound to ask why it set so many imaginations on fire and why great writers like Flaubert and Baudelaire found such inspiration in it. The answer, I believe, is in the sheer audacity and energy of it all. Sade released energy by breaking into inhibitions that seemed to be impenetrable and by saying things that seemed to be unspeakable.

Long before satanism, surrealism, and the theater of cruelty, Sainte-Beuve described Sade's power over readers. He evoked his own experience, though he ascribed it to a young reader in the forbidden sector of a library:

High up in the library, on a separate shelf in a corner black with dust, there were some volumes whose title was carefully hidden by a repulsive paper wrapping intended to protect—not the book from the reader but the reader from the book. It was, however, this fatal wrapping that determined Julien's decision. … At first, he hesitated: an inner voice told him that he was about to commit an evil deed; then, little by little, he became more bold. At first, he tore open part of the book's back cover in order to know its title. The title was simple, the name of a woman. … At last, unable to hold out any more, the child tore away completely the wrapping held by four large black seals. He opened the book. … I leave you to imagine what happened to this young man, so ignorant, timid, and frail, upon reading a book that could easily shake the most solid constitutions. … What was he doing, poor Julien, squared off against the marquis de Sade, head to head with this roaring tiger, this tiger in a fury, this hyena dripping with blood, this cannibal filthy with vice … ? Alas! one night of reading aged him by twenty years.

Du Plessix Gray and Bongie neglect this side of Sade, Sade the writer, who cast a spell over two centuries of literature. But they succeed in comprehending Sade the man; and that is no mean feat, because he represents the ultimate challenge to biography as a mode of understanding the human condition. He doesn't qualify as “the freest spirit who has ever existed,” but he pursued his peculiar form of pleasure with a remarkable resistance to compromise. How can one understand a man who flaunted the deepest taboos of his time and threw his life away in the pursuit of immorality? Here, if anywhere, the biographer encounters raw libido. But however unbuttoned it may be, libido always comes clothed in some kind of historical costume. Sade, the original sadist and emperor of satanism, was also a man of his time. By exposing the sordid details of the historical Sade, Bongie strips him down to size, but he overdoes it. He tries to deprive the emperor not merely of his clothing, but also of his empire, the erotic energy that he released through his writing.

Bongie finds more thanatos than eros in that dark, satanic world. Perhaps that is why he wrote such a black book, erudite and original but entirely negative and unnuanced. Perhaps he believed that by downsizing sadism he could dissipate the destructive force unleashed by the marquis. But sadism preceded Sade, and it has long out-lived him. The actual target of Bongie's biography, beyond Sade himself, lies closer to home. He directs his argument, he says, against “current fashions in literary criticism,” meaning the postmodernist rejection of an older mode of literary history, which relates the works of authors to their lives. Not that he advocates a return to the great-men, great-books approach to literature (“l'homme et l'oeuvre,” according to the French formula), which dominated literary scholarship at the beginning of the century. But he argues that neither Sade nor his works can be understood independently of each other. Just as Sade's fiction expressed the fantasies of his correspondence, so did the correspondence conform to the facts of his life. The criminality of the man stands as a rebuke to critics who would see literature as nothing but endless arrangements of self-referential texts. Literature, Bongie argues, needs to be rehistoricized. And he deserves high marks for restoring the historical ingredient to Sadean criticism, for he knows his way around the eighteenth century, and he gets the setting right, whatever his success in the attempt to bare Sade's soul.

Unlike Bongie, du Plessix Gray is not a specialist in eighteenth-century studies, so she sometimes gets things wrong. Sade's father was not the ambassador to the Elector of Bavaria. The regicide Damiens was not a member of Louis XV's household. The Châtelet was not France's highest court. Robespierre and Marat did not belong to the provisional executive that governed France immediately after the overthrow of the monarchy. But these slips do not badly damage a narrative that moves nimbly through a difficult institutional landscape. Du Plessix Gray's interpretation is less original but more believable than Bongie's, and it is much more accessible to the general reader.

She gives us a Sade for the 1990s a Sade suited to anxieties about sexual harassment, predatory males, and abused children. Her version of Sade's life may especially appeal to women, because it puts them at the heart of it and celebrates the quiet heroism of their attempts to save him from himself. Some may bridle at the tendency to celebrate Renée-Pélagie as a backstage wife: “Her marriage had been her work of art: for good or for worse, it was solely through Pélagie's love and dedication that the Marquis de Sade's talents were able to flower and become part of the Western heritage.” But there are also elements of Angela Carter's Sadeian woman in the portrait of Renée-Pélagie—that is, irrational passion and a readiness to defy social convention. In portraying Mme. de Montreuil, du Plessix Gray invokes Aeschylus and asserts, “In every woman there is a potential for destruction and revenge that is part of a far greater communal female energy.” Perhaps because she sympathizes with her subject—with Sade himself as well as his women—she does justice to the passions that pervade it. Instead of cutting it down to size, she celebrates its excessiveness. Her Sade remains bigger than life—bigger, that is, than the lives lived by most of us: “… He refused the Great Neurotic Compromise most of us docilely accept.”

Why then the fuss about Sade? He will survive debunking. He is a huge cultural fact. Whatever the sordidness of his personal life, he created an imaginary world that pulsated with energy. He set flame to the fantasies of readers who entered it. He made its energy available to writers who needed to imagine worlds of their own. For better or worse, he contributed to culture as we know it now; and now we know it better. Negative biography can produce positive results. At the very least, it has got the record straight and has left us with a Sade for our times.


  1. Arlette Farge, Le Goût de l'archive (Paris: Seuil, 1989), pp. 84–85. Laurence Bongie reprints some of the police reports on this incident in his biography, pp. 264–265.

  2. Quoted in Françoise Laugaa-Traut, Lectures de Sade (Paris: Armand Colin, 1973), p. 132. This book and Michel Delon's introduction to the Pléiade edition of Sade, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), are the main sources for the following remarks.

  3. For surveys of the vast literature on Sade, see Ronald Hayman, De Sade: A Critical Biography (1978; Dorset, 1994) and Michel Delon, “Dix années d'études sadiennes (1968–1978),” Dix-Huitième Siècle (1979), XI, pp. 393–426. The Oeuvres Complètes du Marquis de Sade (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1966) edited by Gilbert Lely came to sixteen volumes, and the Correspondances du Marquis de Sade et de Ses Proches Enrichies de Documents, Notes et Commentaires (Paris: Champion-Slatkine, 1991–1997) edited by Alice M. Laborde has now reached volume 27.

  4. See especially Jeanine Delpech, La Passion de la Marquise de Sade (Paris: Editions Planète, 1970); Margaret Crosland, Sade's Wife: The Woman Behind the Marquis (London: Peter Owen, 1995); Alice M. Laborde, Le Mariage du marquis de Sade (Paris: Champion-Slatkine, 1988) and Le Marquis et la Marquise de Sade (Paris: Champion-Slatkine, 1990); and Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (Pantheon, 1978).

Francis X. Rocca (review date March 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3398

SOURCE: “Taming the Savage Noble,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 283, No. 3, March, 1999, pp. 108–14.

[In the following review, Rocca argues that Gray only presents the domesticated and sympathetic sides of Sade in At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

The first time the Marquis de Sade went to prison, in 1763, it was under a royal lettre de cachet signed by Louis XV, on charges of “blasphemy and incitement to sacrilege.” Thirty years later, after the Revolution, the aristocrat nearly went to the guillotine for having “corresponded with enemies of the republic.” Finally, Napoleon's government put him in a mental hospital under a diagnosis of “libertine dementia,” based primarily on his writings: unblinking descriptions—celebrations, really—of cannibalism, coprophagy, necrophilia, the rape and murder of children, and countless other perversions. In all, he spent twenty-eight of his seventy-four years in confinement.

Every generation has had to decide what to do with Donatien Alphonse de Sade, and since his death, in 1814, his reputation has undergone a series of dramatic turns. For the historian Jules Michelet, writing around 1850, the marquis epitomized the decadence of the ancient regime; yet a few years earlier the critic C. A. Sainte-Beuve had named him and Lord Byron as the two great inspirations of contemporary French literature. Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Swinburne were among the nineteenth-century writers who admired De Sade's work while it was still off limits to most readers.

In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced “sadism” as a pathological term, and De Sade—both the man and his writings—became a subject for psychiatrists. The avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed him “the Divine Marquis” and “the freest spirit that ever lived,” and later he became a hero to the Surrealist movement. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Albert Camus condemned De Sade as a spiritual forerunner of the Fascists and the Stalinists, but Michel Foucault credited him with giving the Western world “the possibility of transcending its reason in violence.” De Sade's works are now published in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, an honor reserved for acknowledged classics, and their prestige in academic and critical circles has never been higher.

As for De Sade himself, he has been biographically lionized by Maurice Heine and Gilbert Lely and humanized by Maurice Lever. Now Francine du Plessix Gray does something even more radical: in At Home with the Marquis de Sade, she domesticates him. Her De Sade “detest[s] bloodshed” and fusses as much over his cherry orchards as over the intricate choreography of his orgies; inquires about his children's manners and schooling as he sits in prison; and holds a “notably idealistic view of marriage” (meaning that he steers clear of other men's wives even as he cheats on his own). It is a portrait that the marquis, who spent most of his life seeking to shock and disturb others, would find frustrating. But then, in Gray's telling, De Sade's story is ultimately an “eloquent allegory on women's ability to tame man's nomadic sexual energies, to enforce civilization and its attendant discontents.”

De Sade was born in 1740 in Paris, in the palace of the Conde branch of the ruling Bourbon family, to which he was related through his mother. At the age of four, after the headstrong Donatien struck a prince of the blood royal during a fight over a toy, he was packed off to his father's relatives in Provence. There he came under the influence of his uncle the Abbe de Sade, a cleric who counted Voltaire among his friends, kept a mother-daughter team of mistresses, and gave his nephew the freedom of his library, which included ample pornography amid the more edifying literature.

At the age of ten the boy returned to Paris and entered the elite Jesuit school of Louis-le-Grand, where he developed what would prove lifelong passions for theater, flogging, and sodomy. Two years later his mother, long estranged from his father, retired to a Carmelite convent, and thereafter Donatien would have little contact with her. At sixteen the marquis received a commission in the army's prestigious carabineers unit, and by nineteen he had acquired a reputation as a gambler and a lothario.

Donatien's father, himself a virtuoso ladies' man but a less than successful courtier and diplomat, sought to secure the family's fortunes with a profitable match for his son. He found one in Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil, the homely daughter of a rich Paris judge. To the elder De Sade, the Montreuils' wealth more than made up for their lack of noble lineage; but the groom was less enthusiastic. Twenty-two years old and smarting from rejection by an aristocratic Provencal beauty, the young rake got over a case of gonorrhea just in time for the wedding.

Marriage hardly reined him in. Five months later De Sade took a prostitute to lodgings he kept in Paris and locked her in an upstairs room. Did she have religion? he asked. She answered that she was a faithful Catholic, whereupon he began furiously cursing. He masturbated into a chalice and told her how he had desecrated communion hosts by using them in a carnal act. He showed her his eclectic set of sexual aids: scourges, crucifixes, religious pictures, and pornographic images. He had her whip him with a red-hot cat-o'-nine-tails. Although he hinted at threats with a sword and pistols, she refused to blaspheme along with him, or to let him whip or sodomize her. He read her some sacrilegious poetry, and when the morning came, he let her go.

Ten days later the Paris police arrested De Sade, but thanks to the influence of his family, the incarceration lasted only three weeks. His mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil, was a shrewd and decisive woman who knew how to handle the judicial bureaucracy, and was known as “la Presidente” because of her husband's place within it. Charmed by her son-in-law, she defended him to his blood relatives and assured them that he would reform soon.

Instead, for fifteen years the incorrigible De Sade spread his family's shame ever wider and made his own legal situation ever worse. On Easter Sunday in 1768 he pretended to hire a woman as a housekeeper; then, after threatening to “murder her and bury her in the garden,” he whipped her and poured hot wax into the lacerations on her back. Four years later, in Marseilles, he organized a bisexual orgy with his valet, and fed two prostitutes an overdose of Spanish fly; that earned him a conviction in absentia for both sodomy and poisoning, for which he was decapitated and burned—both in effigy—in Aix-en-Provence. Undaunted, after more than two years as a fugitive in France and abroad, punctuated by five months in prison in Savoy, he took five adolescent girls and a boy to his ancestral home of La Coste for a winter of orgies, having them held captive until the marks on their bodies had healed. Not until August of 1778, following a shooting attempt by an irate father, another arrest, and escape, was De Sade trapped. He spent the next twelve years behind bars.

It was a sentence that Gray seems to consider unjust. Although she does not excuse De Sade's crimes, she tends to use strikingly mild language to condemn them, calling his captivity and torture of six minors “scandalous antics” and “ignoble doings.” As for the Spanish-fly episode, she finds it “very doubtful” that he intended to harm his victims, arguing that he was probably “sloppy” in preparing the “irresponsibly large” dosage, and notes that he was in part “a casualty of the social conflicts that continued to be played out in France”—between the crown and the parlements, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie—in the years leading up to the Revolution.

Gray seems less interested in the suffering of De Sade's victims, and hardly tries to evoke the “psychic terrorism” he practiced on them. Of course, the sources are partly to blame for such bias: De Sade and his wife speak to us through their long correspondence, whereas the little people of the past are almost all mute. Yet the author, a novelist and a journalist as well as a biographer, imaginatively ventures beyond the documentary evidence to enter the minds of both marquis and marquise.

Despite her obvious sympathy for him, even De Sade eludes Gray's understanding at times. Puzzled by why he carried his “quest for pleasure” to such self-destructive lengths, she posits a combination of narcissism, delusional grandiosity, infantile anality, and exhibitionism.

Such explanations would not have interested Mme. de Montreuil. After years of protecting her son-in-law from the courts, she finally lost patience when he seduced her daughter Anne-Prospere, a twenty-year-old virgin and a canoness of the Benedictine order, whom he took with him on one of his flights to Italy. Provoked to a “primitive female fury, a rage … unquestioning in its self-righteousness,” la Presidente thereafter dedicated herself to having De Sade locked up for good.

The marquis, who had originally curried favor with his mother-in-law (perhaps seeking, in Gray's view, the sort of affection he had missed from his own mother), vilified Mme. de Montreuil in letters to his wife, calling her “your whore of a mother,” “a venomous beast,” “an infernal monster,” and other, less printable epithets. He later may have taken a more literary revenge. In Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) a recently deflowered virgin takes part in the rape and genital mutilation of her straitlaced mother. According to Gray,

This is one of the many moments in Sade's fiction that express the author's abhorrence of the maternal principle, of the entire process of procreation. It is tempting to surmise that this detested female is modeled on the Presidente de Montreuil, and that the book's violent ending was further fueled by his resentment of his own glacial mother.

While la Presidente turned against De Sade, Pelagie only grew more tolerant of her husband's misdeeds, even when these involved her younger sister. She helped to round up warm bodies for the revels at La Coste, and may have taken part in them herself. During De Sade's twelve-year stretch in prison, first in Vincennes and later in the Bastille, she bore the insults (“you're only trying to torture me through your execrable letters”) that he alternated with endearments (“celestial kitten,” “star of Venus,” “fresh pork of my thoughts”), and she kept him supplied with books, sweets, tailor-made clothes, and the enormous bespoke wooden dildos (to be made, he stipulated, by the same craftsman who supplied the archbishop of Lyons) with which he consoled himself for the lack of partners. Meanwhile, she lived less than half as expensively as the prisoner, selling her silver shoe buckles to support them both.

Such devotion is at once baffling and familiar, the stuff of a thousand self-help books about smart women and foolish choices. Gray, whose books include a biography of Louise Colet, the novelist and much-abused lover of Flaubert, is something of an expert on female masochism—and what better subject than the willing victim of the original sadist? Indeed, Gray first planned to write this book about the Marquise de Sade, rather than her husband, in order to plumb “the mystery of absolute passion and the mystery of absolute submission and ultimately the mystery of her own rebellion against him.”

Evidently these mysteries proved unfathomable. Gray likens Pelagie's attitude to “that total surrender of self achieved only by the most perfect nuns,” and declares that “her love seems to have been too exalted, too selfless” to demand something as “commonplace” as marital fidelity. The idea is romantic, and no doubt will prove seductive to some, but it does not explain much. The author's desire to understand Pelagie's attitude leads her to suppose “a secret gentleness in [De Sade], which may well have been at the heart of his terrible charm.” In identifying with the charmed, Gray herself seems to have succumbed, which would explain why at many points she sympathizes with De Sade more than a biographer's detachment should permit.

Gray does offer a more prosaic reason for the marquise's attachment, suggesting that the “initially timid, sheltered Pelagie had been sexually aroused by her husband, intensely so, and may have been further stimulated by witnessing his carousings.” Naturally this stimulation would have worn off during De Sade's long incarceration (when he also grew enormously fat). After moving into a convent to appease her husband's obsessive jealousy, the marquise became increasingly pious, and inexorably drifted away from the fervent atheist she had married.

Yet among her services to the imprisoned De Sade was to smuggle out some of his decidedly impious writings. He had started writing before prison, turning out travelogues of Italy and Holland as well as pornographic works, but it took long confinement to unleash his literary energies. Drama was his greatest love, but his plays—utterly conventional in their morality—were destined for obscurity. It was his obscene fiction that would bring him immortal fame.

At the time, however, this scandalous work was a matter for the utmost secrecy. In 1785, writing in a tiny script, De Sade transcribed drafts of The 120 Days of Sodom—a seemingly exhaustive catalogue of ways in which the human animal might conceivably pursue sexual pleasure, especially by inflicting pain—onto four-inch-wide sheets of paper, which he glued together to make a roll almost forty feet long, small enough to hide in a hole in the wall. In this period De Sade also produced an early version of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), which tells the story of a beautiful young orphan, unswervingly good and hopeful, ravished and tortured by almost everyone she meets, and finally struck dead by lightning. Napoleon is supposed to have called it “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination.” Others would call it the blackest of black comedies.

Removed from the world as punishment for his crimes, De Sade turned to writing. The result would offend society, and posterity, far more than anything else he had done. Although Gray acknowledges the “heinous, deplorable, seldom surpassed misogyny” in De Sade's work, she also sees him as a pioneer of modern psychology. Rejecting the Enlightenment belief in basic human goodness, he anticipated Freud in recognizing “the grim ambivalence of erotic and destructive impulses, of love and hate, that color most human attachments.” In the “terrifying orgies of his fictions” he illustrated the freeing of those impulses from all of civilization's taboos. He also foreshadowed today's “Queer Theorists” with his “highly polymorphous view of human eroticism.”

Reading De Sade, however, offers none of the satisfactions of clinical objectivity. His books are moral experiments with the reader as the specimen. De Sade blended the arousing and the revolting so skillfully that it becomes hard to tell one from the other, and hard to resist the relentless propaganda—windy discourses on the falsity of religion and the necessity of murder—with which the pornography is interspersed. The reader gradually finds himself taking pleasure, however guilty, in imagining the worst atrocities. By Sadean logic, this proves that those atrocities are natural, and that nature—especially human nature—is at least as cruel and destructive as it is nurturing and generative.

Prison not only fostered De Sade's literary career; it also gave him his start as a political orator. On July 2, 1789, a restive crowd had formed outside the Bastille, and for security reasons the commandant of the garrison denied De Sade his regular constitutional along the ramparts. Frustrated, the marquis picked up a funnel (part of his urinal apparatus) and used it as a megaphone to shout out the false news that guards were cutting prisoners' throats inside. Thus De Sade may have helped to instigate the famous storming on July 14, but he gained nothing from it: by then he had been transferred to other confines, and looters destroyed or took all that he had been forced to leave behind, including the manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom. (It eventually turned up in Germany and was published in 1904.)

De Sade regained his freedom the following April, shortly after the National Assembly voted to release everyone held under lettres de cachet. He emerged to find his world vastly changed. The political and social order in which by birth he held a privileged spot was falling apart. His wife refused even to see him, and soon obtained a legal separation. To protect her children's inheritance from their profligate father, she would spend the rest of her life wresting from him as much of it as she could.

De Sade adapted, personally and politically. Now fifty, he took up with Constance Quesnet, an actress seventeen years his junior. He hid his aristocratic background (at one point claiming to come from a line of simple farmers), adjusted his rhetoric to match the increasingly radical character of the government, and briefly served as president of his Paris section. Gray rightly dismisses the Surrealists' claim that “the revolution found [De Sade] devoted body and soul.” In private he supported a constitutional monarchy, a system that would have benefited his feudal class, yet he remained “relentlessly opportunistic in his public stances.”

In October of 1793, before an audience of tens of thousands, De Sade eulogized the bloodthirsty revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat—an action embarrassing to later admirers. Never mind the disjunction between Marat's radicalism and De Sade's secret monarchism. How could a writer who condemned capital punishment (writing that “the law, cold and impersonal, is a total stranger to the passions which are able to justify in man the cruel act of murder”) praise a man who had called for the mass execution of political prisoners? Gray proposes that the speech may have been a “parody of sans-culottes cliches.” Perhaps the parody was not subtle enough, for its author was arrested two months later on unwarranted suspicion of reactionary activity. Slated for the guillotine on July 27, 1794, he was passed over, thanks to bribery or sheer luck. A day later Maximilien-Francois Robespierre was executed, and the Terror came to an end. Here, as throughout the book, Gray lays out the historical background clearly, blending it neatly into her story.

Free once again, De Sade spent the next six years mostly in poverty, occasionally working as a theater prompter and at times even begging in order to survive. His “well-peppered” writing, as he privately called it (while publicly denying authorship), earned him more money but cost him his liberty once more. The police arrested him in March of 1801. Two years later his wife and sons had him moved from prison to the more respectable confines of the Charenton insane asylum, where he finally found success as a dramatist: with the approval of the asylum's director, who considered the activity therapeutic, De Sade directed fellow patients in performances of plays, including several of his own, drawing large audiences of curious Parisians.

De Sade also enjoyed female companionship at Charenton. Constance, posing as his daughter, lived in adjoining rooms, and a laundress, seventeen at the time of his death, regularly visited him. The girl, Gray writes, regarded the old marquis like “a doddering uncle given to pinching behinds,” but he did more than pinch: they had their last round of “little games,” as he referred to their diverse sexual encounters, only six days before he died.

Notwithstanding De Sade's countless liaisons, Gray argues that by far the most influential women in his life were his wife and her mother. The one by patiently and lovingly sustaining him for as long as she did, the other by imprisoning him and thereby forcing him to channel his energies, the two made possible his literary career. Gray remains surprisingly ambivalent about this achievement, declining to decide whether Pelagie's sacrifice was “for good or for worse.”

At Home with the Marquis de Sade closes with a description of a mountain spring, its waters cascading down the slopes “with an imperiousness that always strikes me as Dionysian and utterly male” and issuing as a river that irrigates croplands and turns mill wheels. Gray offers this as a metaphor for De Sade's wild sexuality, contained though never fully tamed by civilization, which finally found an outlet in his pen. It is a pretty image, but an oddly fertile one to use about a writer whose work scorns mothers, the maternal, and human reproduction itself. If De Sade's life is a story of civilization's triumph over barbarism, the victory was a pyrrhic one.

Douglas Johnson (review date 3 April 1999)

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SOURCE: “A Wicked Old Trouper,” in Spectator, April 3, 1999, p. 35.

[In the following review, Johnson offers a favorable assessment of At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

In 1912 a well-known man-about-town, a certain Armand de Rochefort, was invited to a special theatrical performance at Charenton, just outside Paris. This was a centre for the healing of the insane which was much favoured by aristocratic families who needed to put their relatives into care. During the pre-theatre dinner Rochefort was very impressed by an elderly man sitting near to him who had the venerable air that imposed respect and whose conversation was marked by a spiritual verve and richness of wit. But when he learned that ‘this amiable man’ was the Marquis de Sade, he fled from his presence. He knew him as the author of a wretched novel ‘in which all the deliriums of crime were presented under the guise of love.’

Rochefort's reaction might well be paralleled by people today. The idea of being ‘at home with the Marquis de Sade’ is disturbing, to say the least. Although his collected works have achieved eminent respectability by being published in the Pléiade edition by Gallimard and by distinguished English and American publishers, there is still a tendency, even among young people, to associate his name with clandestine editions of proclaimed erotica. After all, as Francine du Plessix Gray reminds us in the foreword to her excellent book, At Home with the Marquis de Sade Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, is one of the few men whose names have spawned adjectives—in Sade's case, one that is associated with unpleasantness.

From the material here assembled it is easy to see how de Sade can be understood in terms of the society of his times. In spite of the refined hedonism that is associated with the paintings of Watteau and Boucher, cruelty was everywhere. The Comte de Charolais, whom de Sade knew well during his childhood, used to indulge in the sport of killing peasants and setting fire to the underwear of the Marquise de Saint-Sulpice. Later de Sade coincides with the Revolution and he is identified with the Terror, the cult of excess and the rejection of convention. Or he can be made to fit in to the phenomenon of individuals who believe that they can find an ideal life in some isolated community, making their own rules in defiance of so-called civilisation. Thus de Sade can be portrayed as feudal, élitist, irresponsible; or he is the apostle of absolute freedom; or he lives apart in his own privileged harmony.

Francine du Plessix Gray presents a very full portrait of de Sade, with his imprisonments, his writings, his beliefs, and all the turmoil of family, finances and scandal that only concluded by his peaceful death in 1814, at the age of 74. But she lays particular emphasis on the importance of two women—his wife, Renée-Pélagie Cordier de Montreuil, and his mother-in-law, Marie-Madeleine de Montreuil, known as La Présidente, since her husband was the honorary president of an important court of law.

Pélagie had been, for many years, the most devoted of wives. She had encouraged de Sade in his literary ambitions, she had believed in his abilities and she had fought for his freedom. She was not beautiful. Her education had been neglected. De Sade, in prison, would ask her to obtain information about the countries he was writing about, although her abilities were very limited and as a consequence the narratives of foreign lands are haphazard and contain surprising details, such as the lilies, jonquils and tulips that line the rivers of Africa. But she read and criticised his work. He confided in her and told her about his most outrageous acts. In coded letters (which are amply quoted), he records and enumerates his sexual activities and intentions.

La Présidente was totally different. At first she was delighted to think that her somewhat plain daughter (for so she described her) should have married into a noble family, and not just the ordinary nobility, since the de Sades, through the Marquis's mother, could claim to be descended from Saint Louis, the royal family itself. But La Présidente, who had a strong personality, developed a vicious hatred for her son-in-law. He seduced her youngest daughter, her most treasured child whom she was grooming for a brilliant social marriage. In one letter she claimed that she had prepared herself so as to accept absolutely anything from Monsieur de Sade, but she had not imagined that his demented passions could lead ‘to such excessive indecency.’ In some ways, Pélagie is the heroine of this book. When de Sade was released from prison on 1 April 1790, he found that his wife of nearly 27 years did not want to see him. Francine du Plessix Gray wonders why she came to this decision. Was it simply exhaustion, did her mother La Présidente resume her dominance, was it religion, did she fear that the return of her husband would threaten her three children? Most importance is given to the events of 1789. ‘We are menaced every day with carnage,’ she wrote, and as she was gripped by the ‘Great Fear’ that had seized the nation, she saw in de Sade, her husband, the equivalent of the forces that were destroying the world to which she belonged.

But if Pélagie can be understood, how about de Sade? The author is impressive as she reviews the monstrous orgies of his writings and outlines the dual reactions of attraction and revulsion, fascination and boredom, that they inspire. Is one justified in wondering whether, in spite of her learning and shrewdness, the author does not remain somewhat mystified? De Sade, as she says, was always an actor. But when was he himself?

Gillian Gill (review date June 1999)

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SOURCE: “Black Sheep of the Family,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 9, June, 1999, pp. 17–18.

[In the following review, Gill examines recent biographies of Sade, including At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade was a man monstrously alone. His aloneness is famously a matter of the years he spent behind bars—thirteen of them in prison without trial in mid-life, and another thirteen in a madhouse at the end. But when a free man he was as alone as in a cell—perhaps more so, since in his 74 years of life Sade made few friends, and kept none. Men of his own class seem always to have disliked and avoided him; any male companions he had were servants who shared his sexual interests but still had to be paid. Courtesans, to his rage, inevitably preferred richer men. Women prostitutes were appalled by his taste for defiling religious symbols, for sodomy and flagellation. From his early twenties, Sade was tracked by the equivalent of the vice squad, men who were hard to shock but found him aberrant. Anxious to protect its name and property, his family decided to put him behind bars and keep him there. Society at large regarded him as a monster of depravity.

In short, Sade's prisons were not just a symbol but the direct result of his radical disconnection from the human race. Of this disconnection he was aware, even proud, tracing it back to his earliest youth, judging it an unalterable and inalienable part of his being, making it into the foundation of his personal philosophy. Walled up inside the Bastille of his own egotism as much as within the actual walls of that famous prison, Sade was reduced to counting his masturbations and, not incidentally, to constructing a fictional universe he would call The 120 Days of Sodom.

He imagined Silling castle, a medieval fortress along the lines of La Coste, his favorite ancestral seat in Provence. Here a group of well-educated aristocrats, supplied, unlike himself, with infinite financial resources, enjoy unlimited opportunities to satisfy their unflagging desire. Inventively, systematically, by the numbers, they set about securing, raping, torturing and finally killing an assortment of victims. For the rest of his life, Sade worked to expand and refine this basic fantasy in a series of lengthy fictions culminating in L'Histoire de Juliette, the work often described by admirers as his masterpiece. A short excerpt gives a sense of the Sadeian world:

He puts on a shoe studded with iron spikes, leans on two men, and, with all the strength of his back, launches a kick right into the belly of the young woman who, bursting open, torn, bloody, sags under her bonds and lays before us her unworthy fruit, which the ruffian immediately waters with his seed. … The last two girls are seized; they are tied up on two iron slabs, placed one on top of the other, in such a way that the bellies of the two women fit together perpendicularly. … The two slabs, one rising, one falling, smash together with such force that the two creatures crush each other and both they and the fruit of their wombs are ground into powder in a moment.1

The authors of these two new books both approach Sade as biographers rather than literary critics, remembering perhaps that France has often been synonymous with sex in the Anglo-Saxon world and that the American public is more interested in French lives than French literature. Francine du Plessix Gray and Laurence L. Bongie are both expert biculturalists, and they serve as translators and cultural interpreters for the extensive and sophisticated work on Sade that has hitherto appeared mainly in French or in specialist academic publications. Both are thus part of the process that is turning Sade into an accepted part of the cultural landscape here in the United States as well as in Europe; but their attitudes to him could hardly be more different.

Du Plessix Gray is an accomplished storyteller who avoids any deep engagement in Sade's fictional universe and makes no personal judgments about it or him [in At Home with the Marquis de Sade]. From the outset, she simply assures her reader that the fascinating Sade is now part of the literary canon, and thus a legitimate object of our interest. Laurence L. Bongie, on the other hand, while agreeing that a cult of Sade has grown up in the twentieth century, anathematizes both the man and his work:

I have found little evidence to support the claims, frequently advanced since the time of Apollinaire and the surrealists, that the marquis de Sade deserves to be honored as the archetypal freedom fighter, a martyr of conscience and “the freest spirit that ever lived,” a culture hero who sacrificed his personal liberty to the unrelenting critique of all social constraints that diminish the irrepressible human element, restoring thereby to civilized man the strength and health of his primitive instincts … His self-awareness and lucidity, his constant claims to moral authenticity, did not … prevent him from also being one of the most obnoxiously adolescent, opportunistic, tantrum-prone, egotistical, self-absorbed, puffed-up hollow men of his age, the very epitome of bad faith, and, as if that were not enough, the author too of the most monotonously egregious, long-winded pornographic novels imaginable, all richly interlarded with a preachy, secondhand ideology that he frequently pilfered from thinkers far more original and coherent than he.

(pp. x–xi)

Francine du Plessix Gray is an experienced writer who has published some eight books, and knows the literary market well. In At Home with the Marquis de Sade her target reader seems to be the sexually liberated woman, someone who perhaps reads Genêt or Foucault, who enjoys racy movies and stylish French pornography, and tends to see sadomasochism as an interesting sexual variation practiced by consenting adults. (The extract from the book that appeared in The New Yorker last year ties in well with a photographically illustrated piece published some months before in the same periodical, in which Paul Theroux interviewed an American dominatrix and her clients.) Du Plessix Gray does no original research, and aims to present a reasonably short biography based on the extensive published sources now available in French.

Sade's life has, in fact, already been told very completely and very well, most recently in the brilliant biography by Maurice Lever (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993). Reading Gray in parallel with Lever, I found that she had cut and diluted but added little of substance, producing a kind of Sade lite. The arch sentimentality of her title sets the tone, since, as Gray herself shows, if there was ever a person who was rarely “at home,” in any sense of that term, it was Donatien de Sade.

Du Plessix Gray tries to focus and distinguish her book by turning our attention to the women in Sade's life. She writes in her Foreword:

Yet when I steeped myself in the scandalous marquis's correspondence, I became entranced by the more modest, familial motifs of his saga. I soon realized that few writers' destinies have been so powerfully shaped by women, that few lives provide a more eloquent allegory on women's ability to tame men's nomadic sexual energies, to enforce civilization and its attendant discontents.

(p. 11)

Nothing in the book in fact confirms this opening claim.

Sade's admirers and detractors would agree that the man was irremediably unshapable. His relationship with his wife Renée-Pélagie, which Gray describes in detail, is a case in point. When Sade was first detained in prison, the deeply religious Renée-Pélagie alone of his family fought loyally to secure his release. During his long captivity, she kept him supplied with luxuries at the expense of her own comfort, put up with his vicious tantrums and even ordered his carefully specified “prestiges”—wooden boxes which both she and the snickering craftsmen knew to be dildos. To my mind, none of this marks Renée-Pélagie as a “shaping force” in Sade's life. Du Plessix Gray seems to expect us to respect or even admire Renée-Pélagie for her wifely loyalty and self-sacrifice. I found her updated version of the Patient Griselda story as abhorrent as the old. To advance the notion of “modest, familial motifs” in Sade's “saga” strikes me as a kind of cruel parody of feminist criticism.

Laurence L. Bongie an emeritus professor of French at the University of British Columbia, is a specialist in eighteenth-century French literature who has watched as the study of Sade, and of pornography in general, has become increasingly fashionable as a research topic among his colleagues and showed up in the curriculum. On the principle, perhaps, that you should join them if you can't beat them, and that only the fully informed reader can judge accurately, Bongie seeks to make a small but original contribution to the research whose proliferation he deplores. He focuses on Sade's early years and contests some of the received visdom on Sade's relations with his parents, taking issue specifically with those psychoanalytically-inclined critics who have traced Sade's sexual aberrancy to an oedipal conflict with a supposedly cold and absent mother.

Bongie emphasizes the importance of some recently uncovered letters written by Sade's mother, which, together with her husband's letters and official papers, indicate that she was far from indifferent to her only son, and that his separation from her as a small child was her husband's decision, taken against her will and her interests. As Bongie describes them on the basis of scrupulous analysis of archival evidence, both of Sade's parents were execrable people whose social, psychological, financial and sexual legacy to their son was grim indeed.

To say that Sade was unfortunate in his parents and family tradition is an understatement. Bongie paints a good portrait of Jean-Baptiste-François-Joseph, Comte de Sade, as a worthless libertine with equal tastes for high-class mistresses and lower-class boys, whose ambition to sleep his way to fortune was equaled only by his dishonesty in money matters and his administrative incompetence. Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, Comtesse de Sade, emerges as a woman whose legacy to her son was a character of rare intransigence (“She is a dreadful woman, and her son will be like her,” wrote her enraged husband) and an inalienable sense of aristocratic entitlement. Bongie seeks to understand and explain Sade, but he insists that to understand is not to forgive, and that Sade's grossly dysfunctional family cannot be held responsible for his acts as a young adult or his mature writings.

I believe that Bongie is essentially right in his strongly negative evaluation of Sade, and I respect his scholarship. However, he seems to have stretched his material to make it into a book, he repeats and he pads and, worst of all, he does not tell a story. He has a message he feels the general educated public should hear, but like many academic writers he assumes his reader already knows the basic facts and debates, which can thus be introduced tangentially and at leisure, perhaps around page 250. Where the accomplished Du Plessix Gray will find her audience, I suspect Bongie will not. This is a pity, as he raises from the outset a question vital to the whole pornography debate to which Sade is central—the “sexual abuse of unconsenting victims.”

This issue is at the heart of the so-called “Little Girls Episode” which finally led Sade's family to have him incarcerated. In December 1774, when Sade was an outlaw actively hunted by the police for earlier sexual adventures, his wife hired a new set of domestic servants, including a fifteen-year-old male secretary and five teenage girls. There seems no doubt that Renée-Pélagie was fully aware that her husband had an elaborate and lengthy orgy planned and that she wanted it to occur within her own home, with domestics she could control. Whatever Sade actually did to and with what Gray calls this “nubile group” behind the newly reinforced walls of La Coste, it seems indisputable that that event was the foundation for the innumerable sadistic fantasies he subsequently elaborated in his fictions.

One of the things I find inexplicable about Bongie's book is that he never discusses the “little girls.” It is true that, as we learn from Du Plessix Gray's account, all we know about this event is what Sade wrote to his lawyer, and what his mother-in-law and uncle wrote to each other as they frantically conspired to clear up all the physical evidence and prevent the girls from taking their stories to the police. Had Bongie been more of a story-teller and less of a literary critic he could have made it plain that the very paucity of documentation shows how well the family cover-up succeeded.

Perhaps even more shocking than Sade's own acts is the degree to which his attitudes matched those of his caste. The members of the whole Sade-Montreuil clan believed they had the right to beat, lock up and even kill a servant if they wanted. To Sade's abiding rage and incomprehension, prostitutes enjoyed better legal protection against sexual abuse than the domestic servants of powerful families.

Both Du Plessix Gray and Bongie insist that Sade is now an inescapable part of our cultural landscape, and they are surely right. His work will never again be locked up in the “enfer” at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Anyone can order a set of the complete works in English or French over the Internet and have it delivered to the door in a nice brown box. Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Carter, Jane Gallop and Camille Paglia have all insisted that if women wish to understand the real world, however ugly, they must read Sade. Women critics have examined and women novelists have exploited the revolutionary potential of what Carter named “the Sadeian Woman,” a character like Juliette's copine, Clairwil, who plans, organizes, participates in and, for a while at least, survives the orgies.

Sade's most famous and successful character is probably Juliette, whose amorality and sexual energy rival both the fictional male monsters in his work and the male monsters of history. Juliette was something new in literature and unparalleled in history, a truly revolutionary heroine. That Sade should have imagined a woman character who not only tells the tale of the orgy but lives to enjoy its fruits shocked and terrified the male reader during his lifetime and, if only for that reason, has exhilarated some women readers today.

But even as we look with fascination at the Sadeian woman, let us not forget the small boys, the young girls and pregnant women who furnish the anonymous, silent, doomed fodder for the Sadeian mill. Let us remember that the female, and especially the maternal, body is the preferred site of desecration, dismemberment and death in Sade's work. One advantage of the biographical approach to Sade taken by Du Plessix Gray and Bongie is perhaps that we can start to recognize this victim. We can imagine, perhaps, what it was like to be the fifteen-year-old Madeleine Leclerc. Leclerc was probably the last woman to see Sade alive in the Charenton asylum. Gray tells us that Sade's last days were brightened by this girl, that he “fell in love.” She reports without comment the entries from Sade's diary which note that “Mdl” was moody, uncooperative, eager to leave. She never seems to wonder what it might have been like to be a girl procured by her own mother to a grossly obese septuagenarian, reputed to be the most monstrous man of his age.

What was it like over the years to be sent into that cell with the Marquis de Sade, under instructions from your mother to be cooperative? Only when we put ourselves in the place of the real and fictional Madeleine Leclercs as well as the fictional Juliette can we take the measure of Sade.


  1. Sade, Marquis de, L'Histoire de Juliette, Oeuvres du marquis de Sade (Paris: Au Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1962–64), vol. 9, pp. 409–410. Translated by Gillian Gill.


Du Plessix Gray, Francine