‘Joli pivert-chat pretty pussycat: A Review of Marie Darrieussecq’s “The Baby”’, by Frances Egan

 
Credit: Text Publishing

Credit: Text Publishing

 

“Why don’t you want kids?” I ask him in bed, keeping my face turned away so he doesn’t notice that I’m blushing. I don’t like that the question suggests that I might want them. And that I might want them with him. I want to be cooler.  

He hesitates for a while and I have to stop myself from saying something else. He always thinks before he speaks, much more likely to be on the verge of saying something than actually saying it.

“It just doesn’t interest me,” he replies eventually. He is lying on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “So I wouldn’t be good at it.”

 Fear about being a bad father is open for reassurance, even persuasion. But indifference is so slippery – there is nothing to push back against.

***

Marie Darrieussecq says that a book triggered her desire to have children. She was reading The Little Horses of Tarquinia by Marguerite Duras and came across the line: “since the moment he was born, I’ve been living in madness”. Was madness a good thing, I wondered? Darrieussecq craved it. She wanted to be swept up in the fiction of being a mother and entering a world almost alongside reality. “Folie”, she calls it. Or “folly” in the English translation. Such a neat match of French and English, the two words soft like their meaning. But is that what it is to be a mother? Frothy, excessive, frivolous, weird, unfathomable. The French ‘folie’ is larger than the English. It can house you: historically a folie was a luxurious place of leisure. But the term also refers to a deep and consuming kind of madness – not only light and whimsical but serious and debilitating.

In her book The Baby, Darrieussecq writes that she wants to “polish words the way you do silverware”. The baby, the mother – words whose sounds could be clearer. Perhaps if we push the terms this way and that, we will see the things themselves anew. I’m conscious of the fact that it is the translator, Penny Hueston, who chooses the words that we hear as she renders Darrieussecq’s French into English. And she chooses them prettily: the text has a lilting rhythm, soft sounds – it has shapes that sit neatly beside the original. Folly for folie. Chickadee honey bunny pretty pussycat for joli pivert-chat. They match like beautiful mirrors of Darrieussecq’s own intent, bébé and baby, reflecting over and over until we understand them.

***

 In the tea room of the School of Languages and Linguistics, a few of us are talking through a general ambivalence about having children.

“I don’t want children and I don’t want not to,” I say. The double negative is awkward, ugly – but it has to be that way.

E agrees with me: “I’m so glad someone else is ambivalent,” she effuses.

But is this ambivalence? I’m struck that both my feelings are refusals, apprehensions, and that the sentiment rings unpleasantly of fear. People pass in and out, eyes unsure where to look, as we turn the words around. Mother and mère. They dump their Dilma black-tea bags in hot water and wait quietly for the colour to deepen: wanting to chime in or offended by the personal in the public office space?

Darrieussecq begins her text with a problem: “A baby human being,” she writes, “there must be something to investigate, to understand here.” She goes on to document the tiny details of a new mother’s daily routine: tending to the baby as he sleeps, eats, cries, attempting to navigate the streets of Paris with a pram, and going on holiday “en famille”. The fact that she is a practising psychoanalyst as well as a writer informs her text. Where being a mother remains so wrapped in mystery, Darrieussecq aspires to concretise the feelings in words – for it is the expression of motherhood that she seeks as much as a study of the baby. Interlaced with the often-closed world of mother-newborn are the quotes and opinions of others: Darrieussecq’s personal life joins a larger discourse through The Baby’s explicit intertexuality. As such, the account is visceral yet detached, bodily yet scientific. Reading her text, I’m reminded of Maggie Nelson’s breathtaking The Argonauts – both clash the physical and taboo with the philosophical and the literary. But what is so crucial to Nelson’s and Darrieussecq’s work is that, somehow, there is no clash. The worlds meld seamlessly together, as though they should have always been that way.

Can a book tell me whether I want children, I wonder? I thought that one day I would know. But I’m in my thirties and everything remains the same – my answer is still, as ever, “not now”. What happens when the now moves and the statement becomes not ever. Subtly, without any action, without any moment of realisation. To what extent can we research the question, intellectualise it, work it out like a scientific trial?

I had a child because I knew I’d enjoy it.
I had a child because I met that man there.
I had a child because I am in favour of the production of decent people.
I had a child because I was told that I wouldn’t have any.
I had a child because life is better than nothing.

Darrieussecq lists the reasons she would give if she had to justify her choice to. So often the justification is about not to.

It is her first reason—enjoyment—that comes through most in the text. Darrieussecq takes pleasure in the baby in an all-consuming folly: her love is obsessive, beautiful, sensual, addictive. “I wanted to have two of him, three of him,” she writes, “collect his clones, give birth to him in an eternal present tense.” Hueston’s choice to add “tense” to “eternal present”, a nuance only implicit in the French, brings this sentence neatly to the importance of language itself. The baby’s routine seeps into and defines Darrieussecq’s writing. Its cries “slice through the […] pages, from paragraph to paragraph”, and the text moves with the mother’s experience of the moment. As he sleeps-eats-cries, The Baby’s questions jump in a way that is smooth yet fitful, repetitive yet not tautological.

Darrieussecq wonders where the baby is in words, in literature, in our intellectual world. Tenancière and romancière, housewife and female novelist; her mutual identities continue to sit uncomfortably beside each other. These terms are unconnected in English yet somehow comparable in French. ‘Tenancière’ and ‘romancière’ possess the same structure, the same feminine endings which, by separating the role from its default masculine, cast aspersion on the identity and alter the connotations. A ‘tenancier’ is a keeper, holder, possessor – in the feminine form, it has historically designated a brothel owner. A ‘romancier’ is respectable but a ‘romancière’ problematic – Darrieussecq recalls Rousseau’s conviction that women should not write but have babies.

Even today, Darrieussecq’s French critics wonder if what she has written is literature at all. One condescendingly calls it a diary between breastfeeds; another questions why we would read something so boring and self-satisfying when we don’t even know the baby. Significantly, The Baby was published in French in 2002, long before Text put it out in English this year. Since the original was released, the literary climate has changed, and English language publishing has seen a boom in texts on motherhood. But what Darrieussecq does so well, and that which remains innovative, is to write the banal aspects of looking after a baby. For it is boring, she admits. Yet delving into that boredom is less so – Darrieussecq probes the loss of mental stimulation, intellectualism and professionalism that so often remains a part of motherhood. She writes about the “happiness of being among adults” where one participates in a dialogue rather than simply receiving ‘areuh’ in return. What results, if not a conversation with the baby, are the words of her text.

*** 

I hesitated before pitching this review. Surely, I was not the right person to comment on such a book – I don’t know babies, I’m not maternal. And, more than that, for so long I had actively quashed the very topic, uncomfortable even entertaining the question of what if. But all my friends and family were talking about babies, having them, asking. And so was I, almost subconsciously, without premeditation. Moreover, The Baby begins from a premise that resonates with me: Darrieussecq approaches her project from a place of strangeness, shock, ignorance. For her too, ‘mother’ feels like someone (something?) else. I sense that I am on Darrieussecq’s team; she would surely be ok with the childless woman daring to write about mothering. And daring to indulge in her own story.

When I used to work at a hospital, colleagues would use the terms ‘baby’, ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, without the definite article. In the children’s ward, they would report on how ‘mum’ was doing. But it’s not your mum, I wanted to yell. And I could never pin down why it bothered me so much – why I felt a burning need to burst this bubble of cosiness. Like me, Darrieussecq cringes at the drop of the article. She says that, without it, intimacy is imposed, like someone using ‘tu’ when you seek the distance of ‘vous’. She takes the opposite approach. The Baby has no names but teems with definite articles: the baby, the mother, the father of the baby. All parties are defined by their relationship to the tiny little human in the centre. And the effect is one of detachment: a scientific gaze, and a reach towards universality. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know this baby.

“It is a love I had no idea about,” she acknowledges, going on to describe a sensuous, almost scandalous love. “I cuddle his delicious warm body against mine, I eat him, I kidnap him.” Darrieussecq breaks taboos with her urge to fondle the baby, to kill it, to express paedophilic love – a representation of babies that the literary world has long allowed, even if some among it continue to resist the more quotidian. Just for the pleasure of it, she writes in a refrain: “my son’s dick, my son’s dick.” At multiple points, she compares the love she feels for the baby to that between lovers. The analogy is unnerving but thought-provoking. I can’t imagine love for a baby, but what if it resembled that which I felt for a partner? That sort of love was the closest I came to understanding. It is a love that you learn and dissect, a love that moves from zero to something before your eyes.

*** 

I was the one who said “I love you” first. I had a cold at the time and my voice was husky instead of high pitched. Sexier, my friends told me. For once, the question at the end of my sentences was gone.

I wasn’t interested in saying I love you just because I felt it. I said it only because I knew he felt the same way and would say it back. Even so, I was sticky and hot with anticipation, the doona that was so cosy a moment ago suddenly stifling.  When I finally said the words, my sexy voice broke in the middle so that “I love you” was just “I” and “you”. I wasn’t sure he had heard.

Is it easier to love a baby? Certain that it feels the same way, or else, undesiring of its reciprocation. Infinite, unconditional – these are the words we associate with motherly love.

Darrieussecq’s second reason: “I had a child because I met that man there.” Does this logic work the other way? I didn’t have a child because I met that man there. Now that we are allowed to ask the question, it seems so many women (because it is still women, ultimately, who do the choosing) don’t know how to answer it. “With child”, as Darrieussecq writes in English in her French text, or “childfree”? And is it a problem if childfree results from circumstance? Some people seem to carry with them a strong and inherent “yes” – and he gave me an inherent “no”: “it just doesn’t interest me” – but how can I make such a decision irrespective of other parts of my life?

My own list:

I want children because I’m afraid of what it means not to.
I want children because my friends will, and our relationship will change.
I want children because I want to be seen as a normal woman, capable of having a family.
I want children because FOMO.
I want children because he does not, and the possibility is moving out of reach.
I want children because I want family and people all around. Not babies but grown-ups, like I have now.

Surely the justification has to be to. We start from a place of not, if only because we haven’t yet. But my last reason is the only one that isn’t about everyone else and that isn’t, at least not completely, about the problem of the alternative.

“Saint de Beauvoir” as Darrieussecq calls the French philosopher, wrote that “one cannot be an intellectual and a good mother”. In Darrieussecq’s words, “on peut pas penser et pouponner”: “think” and “dote on” in the translation. In order to write, then, she takes a pen in her right hand and puts the little finger of her left in the baby’s mouth. She waits until he shuts up or drifts off, or until the grandparents of the baby take him elsewhere. But ‘penser’ and ‘pouponner’ do go together: the soft bumpiness of the ps in these terms fit neatly into place. Like poussin, lapin-pin-pin, pussycat. In fact, Darrieussecq writes precisely because/from/of the baby. Her text is what brings writing and mothering together but, since any established distinction originated from men, it does so in a way that challenges and transforms both.

When Darrieussecq kills off the baby, writes about incest and indulges in a paedophilic reverie—for it is dreamy and alluring—her words make it smoothly into the English text, even beautifully. When she writes, though, that “le bébé rend les femmes idiotes”, or “babies make women crazy”, it is cut from the translation. The preceding paragraph speaks derisively of the way women envelope mothering in mystery and this line, a paragraph of its own, slices into the reader’s reverie, stopping her too from getting carried away. Perhaps this is the new taboo, at least in contemporary English literature. We can write what is shocking, and what is apparently ‘feminine’, but we shy away from anything that depicts women as hysterical, mothers as sentimental, females as hormonal.

I catch up with a friend who has struggled for a long time trying to conceive. The not having has entered her body and altered her consciousness. I mention the piece without thinking and immediately regret it. Reflected in her eyes, I feel frivolous, insulting, as though I’m asking the wrong questions and writing the wrong piece. But Darrieussecq’s point in The Baby is above all about more. We need more writing on babies and mères, more literature on feelings, more thoughts of folly turned this way and that. I just need to read the other book now – the one where the woman does not choose to.



Frances Egan is a translator, writer, and PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne and the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. Her work centres on identity in translation.