Peirene Press have already warranted a couple of mentions in my #WITMonth Bonus Shot sections, and today sees me taking a look at one of their 2016 offerings. However, while I’ll be pointing you in the direction of the Adriana Hunter translation, here I’m looking at the original French-language edition. There’s an interesting story behind the book too as it’s the first work of an author who only decided to become a writer very late in life – after she’d retired…
Marie Sizun’s Le Père de la petite (His Father’s Daughter) takes us to Paris during the Second World War, where a young girl lives alone with her mother in a small apartment. Hers is a rather sheltered life, with only the occasional visit from her stern grandmother, and she has been allowed to do as she pleases, drawing on walls and leaving the dining table in the middle of meals. Spending virtually all of her time with her mother, ‘la petite’ (the little one) is naturally fiercely attached to her, resenting any attempt to separate them, even for a few hours.
It comes, then, as a shock when her mother one day announces that the girl’s father, whom she has so far known only as a picture in the dining room, has been released from captivity and will be home in a matter of weeks. The mother’s delight fails to transfer itself to the young girl, who is unable to come to terms with the impending upheaval in her little world. When the father finally arrives, everything changes – but the child isn’t the only one whose world is turned upside down when the family is finally reunited…
For a first novel, Le Père de la petite is an impressive work, but considering that Sizun was a professor of literature at universities in several countries before she wrote the book (which was published when she was sixty-five years old!), that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The author examines a family reunion through the eyes of a little girl struggling to cope both with her own emotions and those of her parents, whose feelings she has to piece together from what little she is told, or overhears.
Having been brought up almost free-range, the little one is cowed by the appearance of her father and must learn to make adjustments. She no longer has the run of the house and is brought to heel by the tall, stern stranger. What is worse for her is that her relationship with her mother has also changed:
Ma chérie, elle baisse le nez, penaude, murmurant on ne sait quoi, humble, comme honteuse. Elle capitule, elle se soumet, elle passe à l’ennemi. Voici que la mère n’est plus la championne de la petite, de sa petite. Elle n’est plus la mère complice qui se moquait des reproches de la grand-mère. La mère est du côté de cet homme en colère. Du côté de son mari.
pp.52/3 (Arléa, 2008)
My dear, she lowers her head, penitent, murmuring something randomly, humble, as if ashamed. She surrenders, she submits, she goes over to the enemy. The mother is no longer the champion of the little one, her little one. She is no longer the accomplice who laughed off grand-mother’s reproaches. Mother is on the side of this angry man. On the side of her husband.
*** (my translation)
The tight bond between mother and child loosens overnight, leaving the little one distraught and alone in her confusion.
Yet solace comes from a surprising direction – from her father. The more she adjusts to his presence, the more she comes to seek his attention, mesmerised by his physical presence and his voice. She grows to love his large hands, the smell of tobacco and his large clear eyes, and her attention gradually breaks down his stern demeanour:
Maintenant, quands ils sortent tous les trois, la petite et ses parents, c’est du père que la petite cherche la main. C’est sa main qu’elle tient sans la lâcher tout au long de la promenade. Il l’accepte. Il a même l’air d’en être fier. (p.84)
Now, when the three of them go out together, the child and her parents, it is the father’s hand that the little one searches for. It is his hand that she holds without letting go for the duration of their walk. He accepts it. He even seems to be proud of it. ***
In fact, it’s now the mother who feels like the third wheel.
Le Père de la petite is, as you can imagine, a story mainly concerned with relationships, and Sizun spends much of her time on the problems that can develop in them. The initial concern is with how the child will adapt to her father’s presence, and the writer carefully introduces a man whose war-time experiences have made him unfit for domestic life. The rigours of life as a prisoner-of-war have taken their toll, meaning that he is unable to bear the slightest noise (the child must tread on eggshells constantly). It’s a perfect picture of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, later on the focus of the novel switches to an examination of the parents’ relationship. We are shown a picture of a young couple who are essentially strangers, reunited after almost five years of separation (having only been married for a short time when the war broke out). Once the initial (second) honeymoon feeling wears off, the mother begins to feel just as oppressed as her daughter did at the start, fading into the background as the father takes centre stage. The husband’s criticism of her housekeeping standards and her inability to manage their finances are issues that might be overcome with time, but there is a bigger problem, a secret the man of the house is unaware of. It’s a ticking time-bomb, waiting to go off, and the child is the one who will spark the explosion…
Le Père de la petite is an excellently written work, in which Sizun creates a rounded tale, taking the time to develop all three of the main characters. The story is the view of a child, but it’s certainly not childlike:
Son père lui donne la main, mais il ne parle pas. On dirait qu’il est triste, pense la petite, qui de temps en temps se penche de côté pour voir son visage, s’informer de son humeur. Elle est toujours inquiète, la petite, des dispositions de son père. Lui, il ne la regarde pas, il ne la voit pas. (p.115)
Her father takes her hand but doesn’t speak. You would say that he is sad, thinks the child, who leans to one side from time to time to see his face, to check his mood. The child is always worried about how her father feels. He, however, doesn’t look at her, he doesn’t see her. ***
There are gaps in the story which the child is unable to fill, but the adult reader will be able to tell what is unsaid and predict what is happening (or has happened) in the background. There are echoes here of another of my WIT Month reads, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Wörterbuch, a youthful narrative with hidden stories in the background.
Overall, it’s a beautiful story, melancholy and evocative at times, a tale of family ties and the gradual development of love – a compelling domestic drama. Sizun may have been a late bloomer in her writing career, but this was well worth the wait. I’m definitely keen to try more of her work after reading this one 🙂
#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 6
Welcome to the sixth of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews 🙂
While I do read a fair bit of French fiction, both in translation and in the original language, there aren’t that many books by French women on my list. Most prominent among the female writers I’ve read is Marie NDiaye, with Three Strong Women, Self-Portrait in Green and Ladivine all impressive reads, and one of my books of the year in 2015 was Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, a gender-defying novel released by Deep Vellum.
One of the discoveries of this year’s Man Booker International Prize reading was Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (the US edition uses the title The Heart), and I also liked Yasmina Reza’s relationship comedy, Happy are the Happy. However, to say I enjoyed Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea (another Peirene book) would be in bad taste (those who’ve read it will know exactly what I mean…).
There are many well-known French female writers whose work I haven’t tried yet, and while Muriel Barbery (writer of The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Life of Elves) doesn’t really sound like my kind of author, many people have enjoyed her work. I’m a little more interested in Irène Némirovsky, best known for her unfinished set of novellas Suite Française, or her novel Fire in the Blood. But for something very different, how about Virginie Despentes? Books such as King-Kong Theory, Bye-Bye Blondie and Apocalypse Baby may give you a very different view of French women in translation 😉