Posts Tagged ‘Lydie Salvayre’

Everyday Life

February 12, 2018

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.

Cry, Mother Spain

August 10, 2017

Though Lydie Salvayre writes in French (here translated by Ben Faccini), her parents were among those who fled Spain at the time of the Civil War. The ‘Mother Spain’ of the title therefore is both the country from which her family originates, and a reference to her own mother, Montse, whose story forms the basis of the novel. As Salvayre explains in a preface, however, the novel’s origins lie elsewhere, with the writings of George Bernanos, a Catholic monarchist who initially supported the Nationalist cause only to be disgusted by the atrocities he saw committed in its name. Bernanos’ perspective gives a historical context and relevance to Montse’s story, which in turn allows the reader to experience the impact of these historical forces on the individual.

The novel opens with Montse’s political awakening. When she is taken to be introduced to the Burgos family as a potential maid, don Jaime comments, “She seems quite humble.”

“But that comment, my mother says, throws me into a turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.”

Her brother, Jose, an anarchist, is even more furious:

“Who does the bastard think he is? He’ll regret it, the bare-faced carbon. I’ll teach that bourgeoisie to think twice before opening his mouth again.”

This particularising of the class conflict which was emerging is typical of the novel. Salvarye is at pains to exemplify the various shades of opinion which exist in the village, and how they are also linked to personal relationships. While Jose represents the anarchist viewpoint, don Jaime’s adopted son, Diego, is the resident Communist. The uncertain parentage of his unruly red hair means he is largely distrusted, however, and he is jealous of the way Jose is admired by his peers. Both have difficult relationships with their fathers, don Jaime being the largest landowner in the district, and Jose’s father, though poor, also owning a few acres he wishes to hold onto. Most of the farmers in the village, however, rent their land from don Jaime and are initially entranced with Jose’s proposal for a commune:

“We no longer want to do all the whoring for the landowners: they’re keeping us in poverty and pocketing our money… We can live differently. It’s possible.”

The novel captures the initial joy felt by the villagers at the thought they might be on the verge of a better life:

“The village was in a state of effervescence the next day, at boiling point. Red-and-black scarves hung from windows and balconies, people basked in their newly acquired slogans, babbling away gesticulating, panting, throwing themselves on the few copies of Solidaridad Obrera that had finally reached the village.”

As the days pass, the mood changes, however, and Diego’s more cautious approach begins to win the argument. (One of the areas the novel explores is the conflict between the anarchists and the Communists, making clear that opposition to the Nationalists was not united).

The joy of revolution is also shown when Jose and Montse leave the village to join the Republican army. Salvayre describes it as “a brief interlude of freedom for my mother, a moment of enchantment.” Her mother tells her she had never before seen two people kiss, or heard a foreign language:

“In one evening Montse discovered (her creased, wrinkled face lights up with joy when she describes this) the existence of running water, hot and cold, bath tubs with wrought-iron tiger feet, lavatories with flushing mechanisms and flip-up lids, electricity in every room, refrigerators, clocks, thermometers on walls, telephones made out of ebonite.”

Superficially this may not seem political, but, of course, it is the entrenched poverty of the existing system, now broken in the anarchist held city, that has prevented her from experiencing these things before. Salvayre, as she does throughout, demonstrates how events impact the individual beyond the abstract ideas which create them. The passion for revolution is echoed in Montse’s falling for a French volunteer; the rebellious times reflected in her adolescence.

Cry, Mother Spain is a wonderful novel. It recreates the period of the Civil War in both the particular and the general. It does not stint on detailing the cruelty and violence which accompanied it, but at the same time it reveals the idealism and passion. In the turbulence of its forces we can also see something recognisable in the coming of age of both Jose and Montse. They guide us through the hope and horror in stories, which we know from the start, end very differently.