Thursday, February 15, 2007

Book Review of "The Illusionist" by Françoise Mallet-Joris; Cleis Press 1952; 250 pages

Illustration de la lettre LXXI des Liaisons Dangereuses, 1796

Anyone who can imagine pursuing a love affair with her father’s mistress will not be too shocked by the relationships depicted in Françoise Mallet-Joris’s 1952 novel “Les rempart des Béguines,” translated by Herma Briffault. The English title is “The Illusionist,” but I suspect this was not a choice made by the translator herself, but more of a title that might sell the book more easily than simply naming it after an ill-famed neighborhood in a provincial town in France.

In this novel, the reader is taken on a thrill ride through an adolescent girl’s psyche. The novel is narrated in the first person by the neglected daughter of a wealthy businessman. Hélène’s boredom and loneliness urge her to pay a visit to the bohemian harbor district where her widowed father’s mistress resides. Not without pangs and vertigo does the reader witness Hélène’s dark sexual awakening; Mallet-Joris is particularly masterful at depicting vulnerability. Ultimately, this novel invites the reader to bear witness in a way that demands a heavy investment of emotional energy, which is fine if you’re searching for a read that might make your heart bleed. Perhaps it needs a good bleed to heal.

One scene that could provide fodder for book discussion is the scene in which Hélène’s father summons her to his office to ask Hélène the long-awaited “how long have you been visitng Tamara?” question. Her father would never suspect the two are lovers, which is an ignorance the narrator relishes. At the end of this chapter, Hélène brings up the topic of literary influences. At first, the narrator is dishonest with her father; she tells him that Tamara assuaged her loneliness and suggested good books for her to read. The reader learns that while Tamara does read, she and the narrator do not share the same literary tastes. There is only one book Tamara has made Hélène read and that is the title “Liasons dangereuses.” Contemplating her introduction into the erotica, Hélène boasts, “Due to this direction of my literary tastes I became infinitely superior to my classmates, who could think of nothing more daring than to go out with a boy and get kissed in some dark corner.”

Leave it to a nineteen-year-old French female author to endow an oversexed heroine with a superiority complex. This is not intended as a criticism but more as an amused remark. In this novel it becomes clear that Hélène's literary mind, after meeting with openly eroitic works, makes her feel no longer vulnerable. Can and should this confidence boost be attributed more to her literary tastes than to her sexual awareness? Mallet-Joris always seems to leave the reader in the dark about many details of the physical dimension of the relationship between Tamara and Hélène. Could this be a suggestion that sometimes, and somehow, books and minds Fuck each other more readily and gracefully than people do? What does that mean for all the worrisome energy wasted on lamenting our culture is "sex-obsessed?"

This novel is full of the complexities of split emotions that a mind can get tangled in when involved in affairs that mingle maturity with vulnerability. One sentence can contain both gentleness and cruelty. Here’s an excerpt of Hélène describing Tamara’s hands:

“And on my shoulder she laid her hand, that brown, hard, lined hand of a haymaker, not at all the hand of a sexual pervert, but rather a hand made to lie on the neck of a horse or the hip of a woman, with its fingers a little too flat, a little too supple, evoking the hands of Chinese torturers.”

Sentences like these convey kinky majesty, taking sex and elevating it by art. The more dramatic tension arises when Hélène's father wishes to run for local office, but beware of how townies Talk...

A special bonus in the 2006 Farrar, Straus, & Giroux arrangement of this novel is Terry Castle’s affecting introduction. In the introduction, Castle characterizes this novel as erotically charged. I would argue that it is much more emotionally charged than erotically charged. The psychological transformation of the narrator provides the more interesting substance of the novel than the sexual content. I want to delve deeper into the implications in Castle's introduction, but I'll save that for another post.

I’ll close here with a strong recommendation of “The Illusionist” for anyone looking for something erotic and emotionally intense.

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