I don’t generally write about my reading here because I feel such an imposter, more conscious with every book I read of how little I know; but my first book of 2016 is one that, though acclaimed as a masterpiece in its own country by writers like Natalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras, isn’t widely read by speakers of English. It’s a novel by Monique Wittig, The Opoponax (L’Opoponax). It won the Prix Médicis when first published in 1964, and a couple of years later was translated by Helen Weaver, the version I read.
Its style forbids you to read it quickly. The sentences are simply descriptive and sometimes unpunctuated, and the characters always named by forename and surname. The book is written in large blocks of text, mostly devoid of dialogue. There are maybe six paragraph breaks in the whole book. A sample:
Catherine Legrand wears knickers that stick to her legs when it is cold. They bother her when she walks she feels them everywhere she has two legs yes and between her legs the seam makes it hard to walk. You don’t wear knickers when you’re little. You don’t like them because they divide you in two, Catherine Legrand but also what is in the knickers which is not exactly Catherine Legrand. Perhaps Catherine Legrand is the only little girl who wears knickers and who is not exactly a little girl. In the playground several children are squatting together making weewee. The little boy whose name is Robert Payen says, Look at my weewee-er. Why do you have that? Because I am a big boy. Will I have one too? Yes when you are big like me. The little boy with the weewee-er whose name is Robert Payen is sick. He has enormous scarves. His eyes glitter he is very white. Sister says he will not come to school. Sister says he will not come to school any more. Sister says he is dead. The shutters of the house that shows above the trees are closed. After class the tall little girl whose name is Inès takes the children over to the house. Maybe you will be able to see something. The house is all closed up you can’t see anything. The little girl whose name is Pascale Delaroche nudges another little girl with her elbow, Understand? The other little girl whose name is Françoise Pommier says, Oh. Her mouth is very round. You don’t understand anything.
The prospect of reading 200 pages of this sort of thing is daunting, not least because of the complicated narrative voice. Why is the reader addressed as ‘you’, and is the ‘you’ Catherine Legrand, as it seems most of the time? It wasn’t until I browsed through Beautiful War: Uncommon Violence, Praxis, and Aesthetics in the Novels of Monique Wittig by James D. Davis, Jr. that I found a partial explanation: that the ‘you’ in Wittig’s original is actually not ‘tu’ or ‘vous’ but ‘on’, i.e. ‘one’ in English. I can understand Helen Weaver shunning this in her translation – it would seem so stilted to have ‘one does this’ and ‘one does that’ every other sentence – but most of the muddiness is Wittig’s, and deliberate.
Wittig’s protagonist Catherine Legrand, the only character (her sister Véronique excepted) who is present throughout the book, is a schoolgirl. Time passes between the book’s different sections. How much time isn’t specified, but you can tell the story (such as it is) has progressed because the personnel has changed. Suddenly, for instance, Catherine will be at a Catholic school taught by nuns, with different children in her class.
Is there a plot? Yes and no. It’s more accurate to say that there are themes that recur. Wittig’s style is terse and pointillistic. The vignettes that the book consists of build up an impression of Catherine’s life, of her childhood (and of a universal childhood, suggested by the ‘on’ pronoun), by accumulation. Our own lives are made of moments. I don’t remember reading a book that tells a story in this way. If the style is elusive because of being unfamiliar, it’s also interesting, and immersive.
Catherine Legrand sees that Vincent Parme is laughing because Captain Haddock was transformed into a little bird cheep cheep cheep while pursuing his bottle of whisky. Catherine Legrand tries to read what happens next but Vincent Parme snatches back the book for himself alone and hides it with his arms so you can’t read along with him. So Catherine Legrand goes back to turning the pages of the reader stopping at, braided pearls bound to her temples fell to the corners of her parted lips, which were pink as a pomegranate. On her bosom there lay a variety of luminous gems that rivalled the scales of the muraena. The scene is Carthage. You have learned a rule of Latin grammar and in the example Carthage is discussed in these terms, ceterum, censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, either Cato’s phrase or the rule of the gerund or the predicate adjective. In the reader there are only abridged texts, bits selected you wonder by whom, at least you’d like to know what came before and after, but you have the feeling you never will. Anyway ten lines read like that in a book aren’t interesting. For this reason Catherine Legrand prefers to repeat one of the passages over and over until it means something to her and this way sometimes she finds one she really likes. When you are allowed to read whole books you will find the sentences you have memorized in them: braided pearls bound to her temples fell to the corners of her parted lips, which were pink as a pomegranate. On her bosom there lay a variety of luminous gems that rivalled the scales of the muraena.
There’s a bleakness that pervades the book – parents and peers and nuns die, funerals are attended, and there is a savage violence throughout that perhaps I noticed more for having consulted Davis’s book – but what stayed with me most, as with Montherlant’s novel Les garçons only with the genders switched, was a feeling of the headiness of being in love. The one substantial plot strand, that straddles the final two sections, involves Catherine’s love for another girl, Valerie Borge, never voiced but evident from her actions. She scans crowds for Valerie’s face, is acutely conscious of Valerie’s relationships with other girls and of her own outsideness and remoteness from the object of her desire. Her perception of the world changes because of her being in love, and our perception changes with it.
You look at Valerie Borge who is staring into space and who is far away, you don’t know where. You ask Valerie Borge in a whisper where she is but she doesn’t hear so you try to answer for her, you say that she is in the darkness of a night without end, you say that she is riding a wild horse that is black white grey the colour doesn’t matter since you can’t see it, you say that her unbound hair is streaming in the wind you see her with her fingers in the mane and her knees bare, all covered with sweat, you see Valerie Borge going she knows not where, her mouth open, her teeth bared. You tell yourself that she may be elsewhere, drawn by movements of stars she drifts, you see her disappear, she is a sparkling frost that you watch whirling round and round, she is travelling toward a galaxy.
The directness of the narrative style makes the depiction of falling in love particularly striking, I think. I’m inclined to romanticise childhood, my own and in general. Wittig’s depiction of childhood in this book isn’t romantic, and at times it’s brutal. Girls being attacked by boys or teachers, attacking each other. But Catherine’s love, though it is selfish, is a good and noble thing.
What is the opoponax? Its identity is open to interpretation. Online sources make an analogy with the herb Opopanax chironium, also known as sweet myrrh. Perhaps the most compelling idea is that it’s the personification of Catherine’s love for Valerie. Catherine sends Valerie anonymous letters in which she writes as ‘the opoponax’. The opoponax is something mystical and uncontrollable within her, something threatening. Perhaps the opoponax is adolescence, a sign of awakening. It’s not a coincidence that it doesn’t appear until the later stages of the novel.
This isn’t an easy book to get on with, but it’s a beautiful and provocative one, and a good start to the year.