Marie Cardinal Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marie Cardinal 1929-2001

Algerian novelist, essayist, translator, critic, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cardinal's career through 2001.

Cardinal is widely considered one of the foremost contemporary Francophone authors of feminist writing—or écriture féminine. Though relatively few of her works have been translated into English, she is a best-selling author in France, where she is regarded as one of the nation's most popular feminist media figures. Her intensely personal narratives—often inspired by autobiographical elements from her own life—typically feature complex examinations of the intergenerational relationships between mothers and daughters. Additionally, her fiction is deeply concerned with the struggle of women against restrictive social mores, championing the feminist ideal that women must claim language as their own in order to subvert the traditionally patriarchal perspective of history. Best known for her emphasis on gender and feminist issues, Cardinal has also developed a reputation as a leading Maghrebian author—Maghreb refers to the geographical region comprised of Morroco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia. Though she was born in Algeria, Cardinal has lived abroad for most of her life, and her Algerian narratives are frequently tinged with themes of sadness and exile, tempered by a sense of guilt over her French-colonist roots.

Biographical Information

Born March 9, 1929, to a wealthy French family in Algeria, Cardinal was raised in the nation's elite Pied-Noir—or French-Algerian—community. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth, and Cardinal was reared by her emotionally distant and controlling mother. Cardinal's relationship with her mother would later become a frequent recurring motif in her writing. In 1947 she enrolled at the Université d'Alger, graduating in 1953 with a license and a diplôme d'études supérieures in philosophy. She married Jean-Pierre Ronfard in 1953, with whom she had three children. After graduating, Cardinal taught French language and literature in Greece, Portugal, and Austria for seven years while her husband held university positions. Unable to prepare for the agrégation—a competitive degree required of all French university professors—Cardinal worked as a freelancer writer in Paris after relocating there with her family in the 1960s. While living in Paris, Cardinal began psychoanalysis, which she continued for several years in order to improve her mental health. The events in Les Mots pour le dire (1975; The Words to Say It) closely parallel her treatment during this period and the conditions that led to her mental instability. Before her death in 2001, Cardinal divided her time between living in Paris and Montreal, Quebec. She participated in numerous conferences and debates on women's issues and taught an annual seminar in the Continuing Education Division of the Université de Montréal. Her first novel, Écoutez la mer (1962) received the Prix International du Premier Roman, and Les Mots pour le dire was awarded the Prix Littré.

Major Works

Cardinal's novels are highly autobiographical, drawing on details from the author's own life to examine the more universal themes of postcolonialism, dual cultural backgrounds, the reassigning of gender roles, and rebirth through introspection. Her first published work, Écoutez la mer, is a romance between a German writer, Karl, living in Paris and a Pied-Noir expatriate, Maria, who narrates the novel. Finding herself increasingly haunted by memories of her childhood in Algeria, Maria confesses her past to Karl, who, in turn, shares his experiences in the German army fighting on the Russian front during World War II. An allegory of the feudal conditions of colonialism, La Mule de corbillard (1963) follows Madeline Couturier, a seventy-year-old woman who has lived on a small Mediterranean tenant farm for most of her life. When Garcia, the landlord, repossesses the farm to improve his wartime harvest quotas, Madeline begins taking daily walks around Garcia's vineyards, waiting for an opportunity to express her hatred. Her third novel, La Souricière (1965), is structured as a five-act tragedy, tracing the decline of Camile, a young provincal woman who marries a university professor and finds herself transplanted into Parisian domesticity. After a series of pregnancies, Camile becomes obsessed with physical decay and images of death, and the novel concludes with her suicide. These early novels establish several of Cardinal's chief recurring motifs, though some scholars have noted that their bleak worldview may have made them inaccessible to mainstream audiences.

With La Clé sur la porte (1972), Cardinal's writing began attracting widespread critical and popular attention. The narrative opens with a forty-year-old mother struggling to find a middle ground between serving as friend and parent to her three teenaged children. She decides to allow her children experiment with personal freedom and responsibility, in contrast to her own strict and stifling upbringing. The children's friends come and go freely in their small Paris apartment, camping on the floor, sharing in a communal form of living which wreaks havoc in the mother's private life. Despite the calamity, the unorthodox living arrangements enable her to reexamine her own values and free herself of restraining social obligations. Cardinal continued her examination of mother-child relationships in Les Mots pour le dire, her most celebrated work. Composed after Cardinal's own experiences in psychoanalysis, the plot revolves around a woman suffering through an emotional breakdown, inspired by her relationship with her mother and the repression and self-incrimination that has occurred during her childhood. The narrator—whose primary outward symptom of her condition is severe menstrual bleeding—undergoes a lengthy period of Freudian psychoanalysis which leads to the realization that she has been unable to cope with the rigid codes of conduct and the patriarchal systems governing her since her youth. With the aid of therapy and by putting her emotions into writing, the narrator begins to unravel the chaos in her past and is able to “rewrite” her life. Une Vie pour deux (1978) centers on Simone, her husband, Jean-François, and the dead body of a young woman that the two find on a beach near their summer home. The couple attempt to construct the history of the deceased woman's life, and Simone begins recording her reflections in a notebook. Through the act of writing, Simone and Jean-François are able to acquire a renewed understanding of each other's motivations.

With Le Passé empiété (1983), Cardinal revisits her recurrent theme of language, composing a narrative around a “brodeuse,” a woman who embroiders fabric. Having achieved fame for her “embroideries,” which are sold all over the world, the fifty-year-old protagonist buys her grown children a motorcycle. Unfortunately, the children have an accident and are severely injured. Though her offspring recover fully, the mother remains anguished and guilt-ridden, retreating to her brother's beach house. There, she becomes entranced by visions of characters from Greek mythology, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. These characters provide a backdrop for the mother's narrative “tapestry” depicting a tragedy of families divided by death and vengeance. The mother, in employing her creativity, uses her “embroidery” to move from her subjected state in a patriarchal world to the status of an empowered female with her own identity. In Les Grands Désordres (1987; Devotion and Disorder) Elsa Labbé, a widow who lost her husband in the Algerian war, is faced with a crisis when she discovers that her daughter has become addicted to heroin. In trying to help her daughter, Elsa begins reexamining her own life and hires a ghostwriter to assist her in organizing her thoughts and personal recollections. Through the act of writing and collaborating with the ghostwriter, Elsa realizes the power of stories to both transform and subjugate. Cardinal additionally explores the power of words in Comme si de rien n'était (1990), drawing on a series of telephone conversations between two cousins to demonstrate how language is used and received differently by individuals. Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula (1993) traces the lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, Charles and Lula, and examines how they are both able to find individual and sexual freedom within the confines of their partnership.

Though most audiences recognize Cardinal for her fiction, she has also published several nonfiction works and translations. Cet été-là (1967) recounts Cardinal's experiences in the summer of 1966 during which she participated in the filming of two motion pictures—Jean-Luc Godard's Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know about Her) and Robert Bresson's adaptation of George Bernanos's Mouchette. In Autrement dit (1977), Cardinal collects a series of conversations between herself and Annie LeClerc, in which she discusses her personal history, her creative techniques, and her political beliefs. Au Pays de mes racines (1980), Cardinal's journal of her first return visit to Algeria, attempts to reconcile the advantages and disadvantages of coming from a mixed cultural heritage. Cardinal records her impressions of the present-day impact of the country's colonial history, the progress of Algeria's women's movement, and the turbulent relationship between the Islamic Algerian natives and the wealthy Catholic Pied-Noirs. Cardinal has additionally composed a number of notable translations of such works as Euripides' Medea and Trojan Women and Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

Critical Reception

Though Cardinal's works have received a degree of popular acclaim in Europe, her writing has not been widely reviewed by literary critics. While scholars have written extensively on French feminist writing, some have asserted that Cardinal's simple and direct prose may have prompted the critical mainstream—and those who focus on écriture féminine—to largely ignore her work. Lucille Cairns has commented that the lack of French feminist scholarship on Cardinal's oeuvre seems ironic because “her recurring preoccupations are of critical importance to feminism as a political reality rather than as stylized discourse: preoccupations with the perceived antinomy between motherhood and women's quest for individuality, with heterosexual relationships and the power balance therein.” However, several commentators have praised Cardinal's direct language, arguing that her unconventional and vivid descriptions of feminine bodily functions confront a once-taboo subject in the male-dominated literary world. Others have noted that the author's graphic and unusual imagery may have contributed to audiences overlooking her works. During the advent of the women's liberation movement, Cardinal's novels were applauded by both activists and academics for their examination of the feminine condition, their rejection of traditional patriarchal values, and Cardinal's refusal to debase men or characterize them as villains. Such acclaim has remained consistent throughout Cardinal's career, with critics praising her works for continually striving to redefine feminine literary roles. Certain scholars have emphasized the significance of Cardinal's French-Algerian heritage in her prose, though some have argued that Cardinal's ruminations on the characteristics of her “homeland” are marked by a sense of innocence and naïveté regarding the modern-day political forces at work in the country.