A kingdom of otherness
“Are words alive? I believe it is the writer’s job to make them so and this seems to require she cultivate an intimate relationship with words, a very personal, singular connection to the sounds, feelings and meanings they convey. We are always running the risk that language will flatten our experience or become a prison in which the terms of our experience are decided for us, codified or just watered down to blandness. It takes but a brief perusal of the dictionary to see the patriarchal bias of language and as an antidote to this, I enjoy sleight of word, making meaning slippery and multiple by plucking at the polyphonic chords of language.
“Whenever we play on and accentuate the polysemy of words, we are shaking the foundations of the predominant signifying order that wants meaning just one way. When I write, I want words to surprise and jolt me from my complacency; it’s my hope they’ll shift me into new perspectives and relationships with the world. This is always an aesthetic experience.
“In writing Remedy, I decided to take a little joy ride through the discourses of fashion and Catholic piety. I tinkered with the pious jargon till its wooden quality became malleable like silly putty that could be stretched the length of the novel. Remedy’s conversation with the saints verges on the wacky, but this apparent silliness has its serious edge: the linguistic play means to resuscitate and restore what is spiritual and alive in language. In befriending the ‘holies’ (and fashion icons) my character rescues them from religiosity (or vapid fashionese.) Remedy is playing at being Catholic and she is also a devout Catholic, her every act of reverence is irreverent. How can this be? Or rather, as I see it, how can this not be? Metaphor works in just this way, by pairing unrelated or opposing terms to create a new language lens for apprehending the world. Metaphor is a container of contradiction. Remedy, like her name suggests, sets out to remedy and realign her Parisian world by embracing disparate elements – the omnipresent Catholic saints and her sex cravings, for example – as pleasurable paradoxes. She invents a lexicon to describe the people and situations she encounters: French co-workers are ‘spoons’, aristocrats ‘crusts’ etc. In a sense, Remedy invests words with talismanic properties; they protect against the encroaching estrangement she feels and allow her to knit relationships between herself and the multiple worlds she inhabits. When words come to life, they trick us into a connection with a more generous capacity of perception and knowing.Read More
“I particularly like to sniff out the strangeness in words. Sometimes words seem to possess a whole kingdom of otherness; much of the time, a particularly unexpected relationship between words will create this effect.
“When I began writing, I often referred to a 1964 Concise Oxford dictionary I happened on at a flea market. It was a kind of magic book for me, published the year of my birth, and it contained an extraordinary number of weird archaic words and lingering Gallicisms. My writing thus far has centered on the experience of being a foreigner for whom language is both innate and borrowed, both of the self and the other; the words and cadences of my writing reflect this, or attempt to.”
Registers in the mother tongue
“The creative process is inherently instinctive. I see Instinct as a Great Lady leading the pageant with a Preux Chevalier named Mind who attends to her every step. When I came to Paris as a graduate student, I kept a razor-sharp focus on the French language. Earning my degree required I master French at a native level. I recall courses where we’d spend a month analysing two pages of a novel, scrutinising the words and syntax through the magnifying glass of a French literary sensibility. While this pace frustrated me, it taught me to pay attention to words. I began shifting this attention onto English and heard registers in my mother tongue previously hidden to me. I became privy to the range of foreignness the English language can accommodate, to how at ease it is in allowing in ‘strangers’. Around this time I began writing my first book, (The Lost and Found and Other Stories) diving for oddities in the Oxford Concise and stringing words together as much for their sound and resonance as for their meaning. Writing with acute attention to sound association resembles composing and adds yet another level of meaning. Something more is signified by the text’s music, and this added value is feeling, a sensibility unique to the literary creation.”
Writing with the body
“I am, essentially, a ‘jouisseuse’ when I write. I’m out for pleasure. Despite how difficult writing can be, or maybe because of it, I try to remain attentive to what pleases me. Pleasure is as much a thing of the body as of the mind; it happens at the confluence of both, at their meeting point. We have a long philosophical tradition of elevating the fruits of the mind while denigrating the body; this particular equation has had the habit of aligning women with the maligned body.
“For a whole range of reasons – cultural, historical, biological, philosophical – women are perhaps well placed to write about their bodies or, as the French feminist Helene Cixous claimed, to write with their bodies. What we are touching upon here is the feminine erotic, which encompasses not only the sensuality of the body and imagination but more globally, a woman’s essential aliveness, her creative élan, the symphony of her emotions, her joie de vivre, her desires and spiritual connections. Poet Audre Lordes wrote, “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” In this sense, women’s experience of the erotic is a far cry from the reductively sexualized definition patriarchy has long affixed to it. In Lordes’ view, a woman’s erotic turn-on has political stakes; it is what frees her from the forces of oppression.
“Writing, of course, is a huge turn-on to any woman who writes, otherwise she wouldn’t bother! I wonder why literature, of all the arts, is often seen as pure mind-sport; the collective image of the writer has her seated at a desk in front of a screen, lost in thought. Essentially she is a head person. But what effect do the words have on the body? And how does she write with her body, as Cixous suggested?
“I’ve started a salon in Paris, Madame du Châtelet Productions, to explore these questions and am encouraging women writers to read/perform in their turn on, engaging their bodies in the text in whatever ways they find pleasurable. I propose a reframing of the text-body encounter, to see, as with the union of Cupid and Psyche, if it gives birth to Pleasure. The salon pays homage to Emilie du Chatelet, an 18th Century mathematician, libre penseuse, and coquette extraordinaire, who outwitted her lover Voltaire in science and math experiments, gambled men under the table through her remarkable stunts with numbers, translated Newton into French while pregnant and created the fashion of rouging nipples for the plunging necklines she favored. In her famous Traité du Bonheur she wrote, ‘We must try to invite pleasure in through all the doors to our soul: we have no other business but this.’ Extraordinaire, non?”
Full interview: https://piecedwork.com/2015/01/21/anne-marsella/
When her French composer-husband brings a few co-workers home from the Paris carwash where he is working to earn some money, Jane de la Rochefoucault gets the feeling that something odd is about to happen. When these co-workers steal a secret prototype car to fund a rescue plan for members of their Muslim brotherhood being held hostage, Jane’s mother-in-law hides them in her chateau while they work their plans—and Jane is embroiled in an adventure that will put her family in a bit of a predicament. Little does she know that her own famiglia connections will help save the day.
Anne Marsella’s novel combines the trials and tribulations of first-time motherhood, culture clashes, and marriage with an international crime caper. Mafia uncles, upper-crust communists, absent-minded avant-garde composers, and feminist academics are just some of the wonderful characters she has created to enliven her tale of raising a baby in Belleville, a multicultural, mainly immigrant section of Paris.
While the plot features some imaginative flights of fancy, there are wonderfully real depictions of events and issues that many mothers will recognize: concerns about whether or not to breastfeed, balancing work and family, setting up your home with limited income, and learning how to fit into life in a foreign country all come up in both serious and hilarious situations.
Recently Read: Anne Marsella’s The Baby of Belleville
In Anne Marsella’s* warm and funny The Baby of Belleville, hierarchy is put to rest, making room for an all-inclusive Paris, a Paris where equal time is given to French feminist philosophers, aristocrats, plumbers, DJs, shepherdesses and kung fu experts. Here, you’ll see Paris at an oblique angle.And yet at the same time her stories seem uncanny in their familiarity, as stories of love and motherhood often are.
What I really like about her books (I also recommend her novel Remedy, where the protagonist works in the fashion world), are her unusual heroines. Intelligent, good-in-their-skin but still self-doubting. Never doubting, however, their bodies. Marsella writes women who take belly dancing lessons without self deprecation: an antidote to chick lit. Her protagonists also have an uncanny ability to read the needs of other humans, and especially artists. In The Baby of Belleville, the protagonist Jane hires a plumber who turns out to be a talented creator. He makes a fantastical, mosaic toilet for her, asking 200 euros for his work. As Jane retrieves the money she feels tears coming on, “The truth was, I was being pulled by two contrasting emotions – the tragedy of spending two hundred euros on a toilet and the unforgivable slight of paying an artist so little for so much.” She sends him home with some Tupperware filled with osso bucco and risotto, remarking that “artists love to be fed Tupperware dinners, homemade meals they could heat up at their convenience, thus avoiding the creative drain of dinner socializing.” (123)Read More
Marsella contextualizes a very rich area of Paris in her novel, and being walked around the northeastern quartier evoked in The Baby of Belleville as if you live here is one of the great pleasures of the book. Jane often walks past the “Communist Egg” (I will never manage to pass it without thinking of this name again) and meets fellow mothers at Café Cheri(e) (for a nursing group called “la leche league”) before going to Tati for discounted shopping when she feels like a pick-me-up.
If you’re a nut for sentences (one of my grad school professors is into Gary Lutz, and this Lutz essay forever changed the way I read), Marsella’s got some mind-blowing language going on in her books. Here’s just one lovely example: “We peer out at the stretch of fields around us, the ubiquitous citrus trees coiffed in wooden trellises, the villages in the distance, the usual roadside eyesore” (277). And I loved the description of Jane’s baby’s first steps: “It is like watching Neil Armstrong softboot the moon, only better” (338).
Next I want to read her Patsy Boone, a departure for Marsella as it was written in French, mixing – no joke – precious 18th century French literary language with modern parlance. Her previous novel Remedy, about a woman working in fashion in Paris, had fun with fashion-ese – showing its strangeness – in a similar way.
Excerpt of The Baby of Belleville after the jump.
Here is one of the many hilarious appearances of a French feminist thinker – called Special K. A woman of great mind and greater contradictions:
‘I’m reading about Angelina Jolie,’ she says in response to my surprised look. There is not a trace of defensiveness in her voice. Here is a woman who knows no shame, who could parade proudly like Lady Godiva and never bat an eye. There is a decidedness about her, and one senses a hermetic meaningfulness to her actions; though their sense might escape most, a Tupperware tightness protects them from the outside agencies of ridicule and judgement. I do have a great deal to learn from her! And if only my mother could take a lesson or two…
‘She is to play the role of my heroine, Penelope, in the adaptation of my latest novel.’
‘That’s fabulous news! Goodness! Your book is going to Hollywood! And Angelina, well, she’s quite big isn’t she? What does Glamour have to say about her?’
‘Quod me netrit me destruit.’
‘Oh! Does she parlay in Latin?
‘Her tattoo does.’
‘She wears a tattoo across her lower stomach that spells this out.’
‘It means, “What nourishes me also destroys me”, is that right?”
‘Precisely. And this is the crux of our predicament, is it not? How does one nourish without destroying? How does one give life without giving death as well? This brings us back to the subject of maternal madness, Jane, and how Freud failed to take into account that THE DESTRUCTIVE DRIVE CAN BE REDIRECTED THROUGH SUBLIMATION TO BRING ABOUT A RETURN TO THE CARING ARTS…
Special K’s thought is cut short by a phone call from Umberto Eco. Throughout the book, all of her theories, even when she speaks, are in caps.
Oh, blessed are the books that give grad students a chuckle!