Everyday Life

Lydie Salvayre’s Everyday Life could hardly be further removed from Cry, Mother Spain, her award-winning novel of the Spanish Civil War, which was translated into English in 2016. Her second novel, dating from 1991 (and translated into English in 2006 by Jane Kuntz), takes place on a much smaller scale – which is exactly the point of it. It is narrated by a woman in the later years of middle-age, Suzanne, whose life is disrupted when she is joined in her office by a second secretary, Madame Barrett, whose very presence she resents:

“Imagine you’re on a straight path… which you can follow with your eyes shut, it’s so familiar to you. Then, suddenly, you no longer recognise it, even though everything you see is identical to what was there before.”

From the very beginning Suzanne decides that the new secretary is her enemy:

“Whatever her intentions (which I assume to be malicious) I won’t let myself be caught off-guard.”

She uses the language of war to characterise their relationship. In the first chapter she is “arming herself for battle”, later talking of a “cold war” and describing the new secretary as “my adversary.” Her assumption of enmity is, in part, her more general rejection of friendship – “Friendliness disgusts me,” she says at one point – but also seems to originate from her feelings about herself. When the new secretary comments on the hall light having been left on, she feels guilty. “She need only raise her eyes to mine,” she tells her daughter, “and I freeze like a deer in the headlights.” Despite her seniority, she feels unable to challenge the new arrival suggesting a lack of self-confidence:

“Talking about her invariably ends in my loathing myself.”

This repressed desire to be liked is best shown when, after pages of resentment, there is a brief thaw in relations. (It is hinted at earlier when Suzanne comments, “Isn’t it odd that I find myself using the vocabulary of love to evoke her,” and when she tells her daughter she “loathes” the new secretary and it is misheard as “love”). As soon as she is back in her apartment, however, Suzanne immediately worries about the few minutes they have spent laughing together:

“I’ve reason to fear she’s trying to enlist me as a comrade, and this may prove even more hazardous than all of her animosity.”

Suzanne’s self-absorption can be seen in her relationship with her daughter. (That this is her only relationship of any depth is demonstrated by lengthy conversations with her doctor about the new secretary, and a neighbour she initially despises, Monsieur Longuet). She feels that she and her daughter are “growing apart” when her daughter won’t take the threat of the new secretary seriously. When her daughter is upset, however, she is unable to comfort her:

“Honey, I start to say, but I don’t know how to finish the sentence.”

When her daughter angrily accuses her: “why aren’t you ever nice to me? Why don’t you ever put your arms around me?” she reflects on the incident by only considering herself:

“How can I survive this sorrow?”

Suzanne is both a comic and a tragic figure. There is nothing the new secretary does which seems particularly malicious, making Suzanne’s obsession (“she’s the one thing I think of, time and again”) ridiculous. Yet Suzanne’s isolation and loneliness also make her a sympathetic figure, the tragedy being that they are self-inflicted. When she advises her daughter not to divorce, she describes her own existence:

“No one to carry me, no one to hug me, no one to mould my body with in his bed…”

An appearance at a cocktail party (a work event she attends against her instincts) also ends with her alone:

“No one so much as glances at me, and I’m not quite sure where to turn.”

Everyday Life is tragedy in miniature, dramatising the tiny battles we fight to preserve our spaces and identities. Its fierce struggles take place in a series of small rooms, in quiet voices and muted gestures, but its small scale does not prevent it powerfully demonstrating that the mass of women, too, lead lives of quiet desperation.

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