For the past couple of days, I’ve been trapped inside a stuffy Victorian room heavily decorated with rich furnishings, intricate pieces of furniture, some middle east and African artefacts, and florid tapestries that give in a musty smell. That is, I’ve been reading The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories (2020, tr. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. Translation: 1983. Original: La Dame à la louve, 1904).
I will highlight here the pieces that stood out to me among the seventeen short stories in this collection. But first, let me open the windows and let some air inside this Victorian room of yours: you have a taste for the exotic, perhaps for the sake of shocking your audience; but, in the end, you seem to have just reinforced the rule you so wanted to break. The stories here are peppered with stereotypes (particularly, concerning gender and race). So, this room needs a bit of fresh air, and we should get rid of some of its more florid furnishings.
Now, for the artefacts that spark joy: the title piece, “The Woman of the Wolf” (La dame à la louve), is one of them. Written from the perspective of a male narrator who tries to court the only woman on a cruise – the eponymous Woman of the Wolf, who is always accompanied by her loyal wolf (whom she resembles). “This woman radiated an impression of tough and solitary pride, of flight and of fierce recoil.” The narrator’s moves are always unsuccessful, but he insists that the woman is only ‘playing hard to get’. In the in-between lines of what the narrator is telling us (and everything he is not able to understand), we have a sharp satire of male entitlement and obliviousness. Like a fin de siècle, decadent version of Artemis, your woman of the wolf shuns her male entourage and chooses to drown in the company of her savage pet.
This satirical bent can also be found in “The Hell Club” (Le Club des Damnés). While riding alongside an abyss, a dissipated man, Ninian Graham, is led to Hell by a stranger. He falls down the abyss and wakes up in the house of his dead aunt. She is knitting, her guests are playing cards, everyone in blissful happiness. Ninian asks where he is, and his aunt answers smilingly: “In Hell”, and turns back to her knitting. Outside, a well-dressed crowd is leaving church, and the bells are ringing. Ninian asks one of the women in the crowd where he is, and she answers modestly: “In Hell”. “‘I’ve always been told that Hell is a place of unbelievable torture,’ he remarked. ‘People must be mistaken, or – though I doubt it very much – I am myself mistaken.’ ‘They are not mistaken, and nor are you,’ the drunkard interrupted. ‘We are very cheerful in Hell. That is why we suffer so abominably.’‘ But from what I can see,’ Ninian objected, ‘everyone here is just reliving their earthly life.’ ‘And that is the agony,’ replied the drunk”.
The topic of the oblivious male narrator who is after an inaccessible woman will recur in many of the stories in this collection, such as in “The Splendid Prostitute” (La splendide Prostituée): “But Glory is a woman – that is, cruel and perverse – and she loves to flaunt her star-sequined skirt before those she despises.” In “Paradoxical Chastity” (La Chasteté paradoxale), the narrator cannot come to terms with the fact that a famous brothel owner, Myriam, refuses to give herself to him (or to any man, for that matter). “’But I am not joking, Myriam is chaste. She is reputed to be a virgin. She traffics in the virtue of others but keeps her own intact.’” More often than not, in these stories, male entitlement and obliviousness come with an underlying violence or border on some form of assault, and you do not shy away from stressing this point.
In “The Saurienne” (La Saurienne), a male (and perhaps unreliable) narrator will disclose that he has carved a woman’s eyes. As an excuse, he insists that this woman looked like (and possibly was) a crocodile. “I am not raving. I am in my right mind. I am not lying, either. Lying is all right for civilised men. The rest of us never lie. We cannot stand the complications.”
All your female characters are either indifferent to men, or positively despise them. The topic of love between women as better, wiser choice appears in most of the stories, such as “Prince Charming” (Le Prince Charmant). This story centres on the Szecheny siblings: the boy Bela and the girl Terka. “A bizarre family, in truth! You could have mistaken Bela Szecheny for a little girl, and his sister, Terka, for a little boy. Curiously enough, Bela possessed all the feminine virtues and Terka all the masculine faults.” Terka was a tomboy, growing like a wild weed and loving no one; whereas her brother was a loving, sweet child, always pampered by their mother. A girl from the neighbourhood, Sarolta, falls in love with Bela, but the boy’s frail health leads the the family to move away to a country with a better climate. Like in a fairy tale, several years pass, and, one day, out of a sudden, one of the siblings comes back. It may or may not be Terka, cross-dressed as her androgynous brother; and she may or may not get to marry Sarolta and to live happily ever after. “For the first time since the world began, the groom was as beautiful as the bride.”
In “Sappho enchants the sirens” (Psappha charme les Sirènes), a female narrator surrenders herself to the songs of Sappho, Erinna, Nossis, Telesilla, Anyta, and Moiro, and is forever lost to the world of men. “The woman who embodied my destiny, the woman who first revealed me to myself, took me by the hand. She took me by the hand and led me to the grotto where the songs of Sappho enchant the Sirens.”
Often, the sapphic elements in the book will be delivered as rereadings of classical myths and biblical tales. “The Veil of Vashti” (Le Voile de Vasthi) explores the biblical female figures of Lilith, Adam’s first wife according to Jewish mythology, and Vashti, the queen of Persia in the Book of Esther. Both Lilith and Vashti embody female disobedience and resistance. Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam and left him; Vashti refused to appear at the king’s banquet to display her beauty to his male entourage (meanwhile, she held a separate banquet for women). Vashti is commonly described as a vain, wicked woman, but, in your version, she is an independent-minded heroine who takes her inspiration from Lilith’s example. “’I love the vanquished,’ whispered Vashti, ‘I love all those who attempt the impossible.’” In the glorious final scene, Vashti, banished for having dishonoured her husband, stands up; removes her crown, her gown, and her many pieces of jewellery, one by one; then, wraps her body in a veil, and leaves for the desert (a place of freedom, rather than temptation): “‘I am going towards the desert, where human beings are as free as lions. (…) Perhaps I will perish there of hunger. Perhaps I will perish there between the teeth of wild animals. Perhaps I will perish there of loneliness. But since the rebellion of Lilith, I am the first free woman’”.
“The Veil of Vashti” takes its epigraph from Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine (‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’, 1974): “Innocent as Christ, who died for men, she has devoted herself to women.” Flaubert’s lines give a good taste of what your whole collection is all about. From his novel, I would also add: “Here she is, Antony; she who is called Sigeh, Eunoia, Barbelo, Prounikos! The Spirits who govern the world were jealous of her, and they bound her in the body of a woman. She was the Helen of the Trojans, whose memory the poet Stesichorus had rendered infamous. She has been Lucretia, the patrician lady violated by the kings. She was Delilah, who cut off the hair of Samson. She was that daughter of Israel who surrendered herself to he-goats. She has loved adultery, idolatry, lying and folly. She was prostituted by every nation. She has sung in all the cross-ways. She has kissed every face. At Tyre, she, the Syrian, was the mistress of thieves. She drank with them during the nights, and she concealed assassins amid the vermin of her tepid bed.”
“The Friendship of Women” (L’Amitié Féminine) is another story that offers a biblical rereading. As in Virginia Woolf’s musings over the statement “Chloe liked Olivia” in A Room of One’s Own (1929), you explore the figures of Ruth and Naomi as embodiments of a new way to read relationships between women. “Of all the heavy-handed idiocies that philistines of letters inflict upon their readers, this is, I think, the most astounding: ‘Women are incapable of friendship. There has never been a David and Jonathan among women’. Might I suggest that David’s affection for Jonathan has always seemed to me more passionate than brotherly?”
In “As White as Foam” (Blanche comme l’Écume), we have a rereading of the myth of Andromeda. She is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to sate the sea monster sent by Poseidon as divine punishment. In the classical version of the tale, Andromeda is saved by Perseus and marries him. In your version, however, Andromeda is furious with Perseus’ intervention: to her, he robbed her of her destiny, the Lethean kiss. Your Andromeda sobs of desire for the sea monster and prefers death over Perseus’ embrace. “As white as the foam upon the grey of the rocks, Andromeda looked out at the sea, and her gaze was burning with desire for Space. Under the weight of her golden chains, her delicate limbs were bathed in sunlight. The wind of the open sea blew through her flowing hair. The laughter of the sea carried towards her, and the dazzling glare of the glittering waves entered her soul. She was waiting for Death; she was waiting, as white as the foam upon the grey of the rocks.“
Most of the stories are set in exotic or mythic places that exist only inside your imagination. You seem to be more interested in creating a morbid, slightly claustrophobic atmosphere, than in developing plot or character. I tend to prefer your stories when they start and finish at the same place: nowhere, everywhere, all over the place, messy. As a misremembered dream, an hallucination, or a flight of fancy.
My favourite piece is “Svanhild” (Svanhild – ‘Swan Hild’?), an atmospheric account of a woman, the eponymous Svanhild, who is perpetually gazing into the distance and waiting in silence: “I am waiting the return of the wild swans.” After briefly nesting on the roof of the house of her birth, the swans have not come back to her land since the day she was born. It’s been 20 years. She cannot join the festivities among the peasant women in the woods, and she refuses the invitation to follow a passing woman carrying flowers along the road. She shuns friendship and love, and only have eyes for the swans.
“GUDRID: Do you like nothing on earth?
SVANHILD: I like whiteness.
THORUNN: What gift do you hope for from life in the springtime?
ERMENTRUDE: If fate miraculously grants your wish and the wild swans return, what will you do then?
SVANHILD: I will follow them.
BERGTHORA: How far will you follow them?
SVANHILD: All the way to the setting sun.
HILDIGUNN: What do you want from your dream?
SVANHILD: More whiteness.”
Whiteness, as an emblem for death, is what she will throw herself into. One day, Svanhild sees a flock of swans heading for the open ocean, their wings bathed in silvery foam. In the place to which Svanhild is pointing, the other women see only white clouds. Svanhild has eyes for nothing else. She follows her vision and ends enveloped in fog.
Much like yourself, consumed by clouds. Clouds have entered this room now and are about to cover everything in white. I might have to shut the windows again, to preserve some of the room’s most delicate furnishings. I will close this book for now.
“For a long time, I dreamed with the unbearable persistence of the damned. You would appear to me in a flash of gemstones. I loved you with an inexpressible hatred. (…) I was filled with the cruelty of the waters and the night. Mortal lust had made me like a wild beast gone mad.” – Renée Vivien, “The Cruelty of Gemstones” (Cruauté des Pierreries)
“No flesh, no bones. A mass with neither form nor contour. One must float, like a cloud. It must be extremely disagreeable. And one no longer has a name. One is no longer Joan, killer of tigers and wife of the Forest Devil. One is not even someone. One is something. One wanders unknowingly, just like that. One desires to be someone, to become someone again, to be called by a name, to assume a body. One is very alone and very naked and very cold.’ – Renée Vivien, “Forest betrayal” (Trahison de la Foret)
“The Goddess has coloured the apple trees crimson. She has made the virginal garden crocus gold. She has turned the nocturnal-blue violets purple.Fauna smiles upon the love of the intertwined women. ” – Renée Vivien, “Bona Dea” (Bona Dea)