Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

"The Opoponax" by Monique Wittig (Peter Owen, 1966)

Translated by Helen Weaver. An extract will help -

Her right side slides down the chair, pulling her down, Catherine Legrand follows it down, they see her between the chair and the floor, she stays there wedged. Catherine Legrand can't go either way, she is looking at the floor, she is jerking back and forth like a mechanical toy. Catherine Legrand has been attack. The thing climbed up her chair while they were eating and not watching and now it has jumped on her right under her father's and mother's noses. They look at her without moving. They can't help her. She must fight it herself. Catherine Legrand tries to get out a few words, her efforts are terrible, and before she knows they come out as screams. The garden is full of water. You can see the branches of the tree through the window when you are sick in bed. There are two pillows under your head so you can be sitting up and lying down at the same time. Mother says, Look at the bullfinch. Where mama, show me where, There, on the fork of the cherry tree. Catherine Legrand sits up. Down below the ground is all black and covered with petals that have fallen off the cherry tree. The flowers broke last night, mama. The tall little girl whose name is Inès calls for Catherine Legrand to take her to school. She has some other children with her. Mother calls her the little girl from town. You walk along the national highway, you cross it when you come to the supermarket, Inès says, That is where my mother does her shopping. You are on a road. There are lilac leaves and red dahlias against the high diamond-shaped fencing. In the meadow by the shed Monsieur Magnier's mare is standing with her head down. She begins to run against the wall as fast as she can. There are covered paths where people go by on bicycles. In the winter you wear woolen socks. Your thighs are red and chapped from the wind. You play in a ring in the covered playground with Sister. You ask Sister Where is your husband? She says Up above, pointing to the sky. You look at the sky. You don't see anything. You tell Sister, You can't see your husband

I'm attracted by the style - I like the details that have been chosen, the easy switching between 2nd and 3rd person, the fragmentary style. The lack of paragraph breaks becomes tiring though. I think I'd prefer white space between fragments (i.e. after "screams", "last night, mama" and "bicycles"). The lack of complex multi-clause sentences lead to a uniformity of sentence length. Below I've added line-breaks to emphasize the point

He whistles through his fingers.
This means that everything is all right.
You feel like watching the river.
You can just see it at the far end of the field.
The water glistens, there is grass on each side.
You sit down on the flat stones on the bank.
Up close the water is the same color green as the grass.
You can't see the bottom.

Consequently I read in short bursts.

The style of the language may appear influenced by Nouveau roman, but the bildungsroman content is familiar - being locked in school toilets, trespassing in a farmer's field, catching snakes, finding tadpoles to feed the snake, attending funerals, etc. - and the main character has thoughts - "The most beautiful of these kinds of trees are the cherry trees, especially those that bear bigaroons. They are very straight their trunks are not very thick these trees remind you of horses because you feel as if there were blood racing beneath the bark", p.65

I think it could be far shorter. Some sections drag -

Catherine Legrand asks Valerie Borge to take off a piece of mica for her from the block of scist she has in her desk. Valerie Borge passes her the stone telling her to do it herself. Catherine Legrand does it with Marielle Balland's pocket knife. The first pieces she gets crumble into dust. Catherine Legrand cuts deeper sticking the point of the knife into the particles of quartz which hold the particles of mica in place. By using the knife as a lever Catherine Legrand manages to get a small flake of mica whole. Marielle Balland watches her do it and begins to fume because the blade of the knife gets chipped in one place. Catherine Legrand fastens the flake of mica next to the broom. (p.131)


On the third bench to the right to the aisle there are Marielle Balland Nicole Marre Marguerite Marie Le Monial Valerie Borge Laurence Bouniol Catherine Legrand. Catherine Legrand is standing in the aisle waiting for the pupils who are in front of her to sit down on the bench. She will sit beside Valerie Borge because Valerie Borge has been in front of her in the line ever since it formed to go down the aisle. Catherine Legrand stands in the aisle waiting but lo and behold Laurence Boumiol who was originally seated between Marielle Balland and Nicole Marre gets up passing in front of everybody and places herself between Valerie Borge and Catherine Legrand so that now Catherine Legrand is sitting next to Laurence Boumiol. (p.141)

Other reviews

  • Jean Duffy (If L’Opoponax remains fresh fifty years after its publication, it is, I would argue, not so much because of any particular message or messages that it might be construed as imparting, but above all because of this particular combination of close observation and radical formal experimentation, the finely judged balance between mimesis and intertextual play, and its enduring capacity to amuse.)
  • Somewhereboy (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 )

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