Posts Tagged ‘Monique Wittig’

Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasionally as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.


The Opoponax / Monique Wittig

January 10, 2016

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.