Sylvie Germain: Introduction

Sylvie Germain possesses those most outstanding of literary qualities, a unique narrative voice, and a range of thematic concerns that set her apart from the majority of contemporary European writers. The widespread critical acclaim for Germain’s novels is testimony to the richness and originality of her writing. She burst onto the French literary scene in 1985 with her first novel, The Book of Nights, which won six literary prizes. Her third novel, Days of Anger, won the prestigious Prix Fémina, The Book of Tobias won the Grand Prix Jean Giono in 1998, and this most recent novel, The Song of False Lovers, has already collected two prizes. Not bad for a writer who, as she herself claims, came to writing fiction by accident after completing a doctorate in philosophy. In the twenty years she has been publishing she has accrued an impressive body of work including nine novels and a number of meditations on art, literary and historical figures, and spirituality. These latter texts resist generic classification, combining critical analysis and philosophical argument with Germain’s trademark lyricism. Yet they are also inseparable from her fictional narratives, offering lengthy disquisitions on themes that repeatedly structure and inform her novels.

Fundamental to her writing are concerns with suffering and the divine, with the power of fantasy and dream, with the magical properties of language and the imagination, and with the convergence of the supernatural and the real. Yet against the central preoccupation with profoundly personal epiphanies we find, weaving in and out of her tales, the march of history, and the traumatic, violent events that have marked the twentieth century. Like the work of many of the greatest authors of our time, Germain’s novels combine in significant ways the individual and the universal; intimate stories of love, loss and reconciliation played out within and through the ongoing drama of historical time and producing elegiac meditations on the eternal themes of destiny and desire.

Her work has been compared many times to the other great magical realist, Gabriel Garcìa Marquez, but the soulful, alienated, fantastic quality of much of her writing owes more of an allegiance to the great Russian writer, Dostoevsky. As an academic who has made the transition to fiction, a popular route to take on the contemporary French literary scene, she is a self-aware author with an intellectual foundation to her richly baroque and fantastic tales. There is a certain coherence, then, to the corpus of Sylvie Germain’s work whereby her concerns with love and suffering, with the place of God in the modern world, with the passage of time and the heart-stopping events of history reappear in different, but mutually informative, contexts and formats.

The Song of False Lovers is no exception to this rule, picking out and elaborating certain textual threads that are woven into the spread of Germain’s literary works. The narrative charts the erratic progress of the orphan, Laudes-Marie, through her singular life. Abandoned on the doorstep of a convent, it will be her fate to pass through a series of marginal, dispossessed lives, all marked by tragedy. Her place is repeatedly that of a servant, but the servitude she offers comprises an unusual dimension. The intense involvement she experiences in the lives that surround her results in an extreme empathy for the suffering and pain of others. The poverty and perpetual displacement of her own life is thus enriched by the profound insight she gains into the heart and mind of humanity, and the madness that often slumbers there. The novel is a lengthy journey through the vagaries of existence, and a lifetime’s study in the particular form of alienation so prevalent in the modern age. The breakdown of traditional kinds of community is transcended here, and healed, in the forging of new bonds between individuals, and in a different understanding of subjectivity as being porous to others. The narrator who knows that ‘je n’avais nulle part ma place… 143’ ultimately becomes ‘un caveau de famille. Un famille heteoclite.. 228). The gift of compassion, the subtle but insistent thread that binds Laudes-Marie to all her unlikely friends and employers, becomes, quite literally, the saving grace that, as the critic in Le Nouvel Observateur put it, ‘succeeds in discovering gold in the gutters of society’.

The narrative is equally a journey across a multiplicity of landcapes, both urban and rural, and a wide range of social contexts, from the shelter of the widow Adrienne’s rustic cottage in the Pyrenees, to the orgiastic eroticism of a swingers hotel by the ocean, to the suburbs of Paris and employment as a writer’s secretary. Landscape has always had a dominant influence over the characters in Germain’s novels, and it is interesting to note how her fiction has developed as her geographical range has increased. Her earlier novels, such as The Book of Nights and Days of Anger, were set in la France profonde, the most untouched of rural areas in France where myth and superstition held sway. Far from presenting an idealized or idyllic view of life in these primitive backwaters, Germain portrayed a harsh, cruel existence touched by both madness and magic. This was a land that the advances of science and knowledge had passed by, but her characters were nevertheless drawn into the series of brutal and bitter wars which marked France’s modern history, violently interrupting the otherworldly domain in which they lived.

Subsequently, Germain’s texts moved location to explore life in the city. The Parisian tale, Opéra muet (published in 1989), began a series of cityscapes that included The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague (1992) and Immensités (1993). Prague, where Germain lived and taught for seven years, became a cherished location and one that was richly evocative and symbolic. In her texts Prague shimmers with the surreal; peopled by ghosts, phantoms, guardian angels, it becomes, like the labyrinthine waterways of the marais before it, a place where the supernatural runs rampant. Prague is a palimpsestic city, whose layers of bloody and troubled history lie close to the surface, their traces readily glimpsed in shadows and dreams. It is also a city that wears its suffering heavily, where poverty, misery, loneliness and heartache are etched into the very fabric of its architecture. But beauty and tremulous joy are also embedded in its heart, and the very play of its contrasts provides Germain with a dynamic, kaleidoscopic vision of a city searching to make peace with its past and to move forward to embrace a more radiant future. In this way, Prague assumes the characteristics and qualities of many of Germain’s most significant protagonists, prey to the traumas of the past that determine the inheritance of its children, but inching slowly towards a longed-for resolution with conflict and violence.

Across the development of her work, and in the move from rural to urban, we can trace a subtle shift being enacted in the fate of Germain’s fictional protagonists. Often in her novels of the country, violence becomes embodied in a character to the exclusion of everything else, and it is a corporeal, aggressive violence that impacts on the lives of others. Germain’s city-dwellers, by contrast, are plagued by inner demons that wreak more psychic havoc, leaving them paralysed by fears and anxieties. It is an intriguing development in The Song of False Lovers that the narrative plays out across both kinds of location. But it is clear to see that Sylvie Germain’s focus has shifted from her previous novels, too, so that rather than portray the history of a family or a slice of time taken from the life of a city, this text charts the inner, spiritual development of one individual. It is fitting then, that the heroine of this most recent novel is subject to a perpetual and aimless errance, as Sylvie Germain has suggested in interview that ‘whether it be on a moral, spiritual or artistic front, it is often by zigzags, by unforeseen detours, and by wrong turns that progress is made.’ The erratic transition from mountains to seaside to city which would seem so randomly accomplished produces a heroine quite unlike any in Germain’s other texts for the degree of resolution and understanding she achieves in her existence.

Like a latter day Emile Zola, Germain has portrayed her charaters as fundamentally determined not only by environment, but also by heredity. Over the last decade, Germain has gradually moved away from the clutches of supernatural family inheritances, with the exception of The Book of Tobias, towards more patchwork narratives of multiple, heterogenous lives. Yet her early fascination with repetitive patterns of madness, with the physical continuation of the past within the present remains a concern of her writing that has taken on different, and intriguing new forms. Her first novel, The Book of Nights, set a template that was to be followed in many of her subsequent texts. The narrative focuses on the life of Victor-Flandrin Péniel, a powerful anti-hero, whose story provides the bridging point between the inheritance he carries from his ancestors and the consequences of this inheritance on his children. His father, Théodore-Faustin Péniel is profoundly changed by a war injury when his face is slashed in two by the sabre of an uhlan. What might have been a superficial wound becomes something more fundamental, as the attack leaves him psychically torn in two as well, prey to a form of schizophrenia that will forever mark his grandchildren. All four of Victor-Flandrin’s wives will give birth to twins with the exception of one great-grandchild, born a humpback, who is understood as carrying his sibling within him. When his father dies, Victor-Flandrin notices seven tears rolling down his cheeks, the colour of milk. But when he reaches out to touch them, they roll off and bounce on the floor. These seven pearls he will subsequently wear around his neck. These magical moments are entirely typical of a narrative structured by a series of events where the past becomes material, where loss and memory become transformed into something real and tangible. Germain’s earliest formulations of the problem of owning the past and keeping touch with the dead all followed this structure of making the abstract essence of what had been lost into something visible and symbolic.

Germain’s extraordinary inventiveness has earned her much critical acclaim and a wide readership, but the impact of her magic realism is more significant than mere entertainment. Each of these events provides a transformation of loss or trauma into something which the protagonist can possess. Germain’s unique interpretation of the links between a subject and his or her life history produces a subject who is literally marked by history, who possesses their history by the act of its being written on the body, part and parcel of their flesh. All of Germain’s novels will tackle the effects of loss and trauma on the individual, but these epic family narratives stand out for the way that violence and grief are continually assimilated through this kind of fantastic transformation, assimilated, reconfigured and displayed in a way that denies the finality and absoluteness of the past. It is interesting to see how Germain’s concern with suffering develops over the course of her writing career, with a series of texts in the 1990s that maintain the magic realist tone, whilst incorporating the reconciliation of her characters with their troubled pasts into what will eventually become more spiritual forms of resolution.

The problem of family madness, and the violent events it can cause is given a different slant in the 1992 novel, The Medusa Child. Here Germain explores further the breakdown between the supernatural and the real in the face of traumatic events, in the story of a young girl’s sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brother. Ferdinand is an astutely drawn villain, a replacement child brought up by his doting mother to take the place of his father who was killed in the war. Ferdinand is as much a victim as the little girls he assaults and strangles, but like other perpetrators of violence in Germain’s textual universe, he is locked into a repetitive pattern of behaviour, unable to overcome the legacy of his mother’s intrusive and manipulative love. Lucie’s experience of rape leaves her disgusted by her own body, anorexic and neurotic, with no means of expressing what has occurred to her. She embodies at this point the kind of problem with which Germain will be increasingly concerned. How to move towards the resolution or reparation of trauma when the means to express its experience and consequences are radically lacking? Lucie discovers, in her rage and misery, that she is not without weapons, but they are fantastic ones. Drawing on the rich life of the imagination she has always led, she marshals a wide range of pagan myths, Christian legends, fairy tales and in the crucible of her imagination conjures from them a ‘Medusa stare’, a look so terrible and wounding that Ferdinand is rendered senseless, locked into a coma from which he does not recover. The child becomes an important vehicle in Germain’s texts, for it is clear that the all-encompassing fantasy world of the child, which does not distinguish between imagination and reality, is closely allied to the magical vision that informs these narratives. What might be considered naivety becomes instead an understanding of the primal forces still at work in the human psyche, a belief in the power of the mind and its abilities that transcends rational thought.

Equally important is the myth or the legend, which Germain has said she favours as a means of expressing reality for it does not circumscribe or limit experience, gesturing instead towards the enigma and mystery that form a significant component of existence. At the heart of Germain’s texts we find a fascination with the borderline between the invisible and the visible, between fantasy and reality, between the everyday and the marvelous. For Germain, combining these apparent dualities provides us with a more profound and intense understanding of reality. She has spoken in interview of her belief that life is a dream, and that it is necessary to dream with vigilance and tenacity in order to truly perceive reality. Repeatedly in Germain’s texts we find pain and love, suffering and transcendence explored through the dimension of the marvelous in ways that make us alive to the extraordinary quality and depth of human emotions; their miraculousness, their intensity, their essential strangeness.

We can trace this interrelation of suffering and the fantastic in The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague (1992). In this lyric and macabre text Germain creates a legend of her own, a phantom woman of gigantic proportions, a kind of Gargantua of the Night, whose appearance in the cityscape of Prague memorializes suffering and bloodshed. The weeping woman becomes a material metaphor for the pain of the city’s inhabitant through history. Her never-ending sorrow encompasses within it all grief and unhappiness in the form of whispers, visions and fragments of memory which she keeps alive in her ghostly appearances. Once again the body, in distorted, wounded fashion, expresses what cannot be easily articulated. The weeping woman becomes a metaphor for the sorrowful, invisible center of any community, as Germain writes: ‘There is no city, no place, which does not have its disembodied heart, unique, unnameable and immorial.’ The weeping woman stands as an enigmatic symbol for the past that has been silenced but that remains essential to the ongoing life of the city. Yet it is interesting that the weeping woman, much like the characters in her family sagas, remain forever fixed in their bodily expressions of the traumatic past. Lucie in The Medusa Child, is one of the few characters in these early works to find some resolution of her childhood traumas, and this she achieves through gentle, accepting patience, and an unexpected communion with an image of the Nativity. In the texts that are published subsequently, the artistic image and a mystical form of Christianity will become increasingly essential to Germain’s work.

This becomes apparent in the non-fiction work that Germain publishes from the second half of the decade onwards. She writes a series of texts that are essentially spiritual meditations, Les Échos du silence (1996), Etty Hillesum (1999), Mourir un peu (2000) and Célébration de la paternité (2001). But before I consider Germain’s religious perspective, there is a productive detour to be made via her intriguing study in 2000 of the work of Vermeer, the Dutch painter whose works portray with remarkable serenity seventeeth century city life. This text tells us, in oblique fashion, how spirituality and art can coincide, an art history critique which can, I think, be applied to Germain’s own highly visual and spiritual literary writings. Her lyric exposition of Vermeer’s images hovers lovingly over the quality of light that gilds the faces of his young women as they read their letters or try on pearl necklaces. For Germain this light reveals its own plenitude. It is ‘splendour and perfection’, yet it is precisely in its fullness of being, rather like fruit at the peak of ripeness that must henceforth decay, that Germain reads a gesture towards the enigmas the paintings hold, the questions they pose that remain unanswered. Her interpretative approach is to read the quality of stillness and silence that his pictures manage to convey, understanding it as trembling on the brink of an elsewhere, drawing the spectator’s attention towards the invisible elements of the painting that are nevertheless apparent, embodied perhaps most readily in Vermeer’s pregnant women, who are quite literally gestating their secret other life. As for the other young women, what thoughts fill their heads? What are the contents of the letters they read? Looking at Vermeer’s pictures is an education in a certain method of study, according to Germain. An education in looking at nothing and listening to silence, in allowing thoughts to become dreams and above all to wait patiently for an enightenment that may never come. Germain has spoken elsewhere of the gradual transition in her work from the fascination with darkness to an equally intense fascination with light. This poetic analysis of Vermeer, Patience et songe de lumière, is a crossover moment, the very plenitude of light in Vermeer’s painting gesturing for Germain towards the invisible darkness and its enigmas that lie beyond. But it is also a crossover moment between art and spirituality, for the education that Vermeer’s paintings offer the spectator is expressed in identical terms to the religious experience that Germain elsewhere puts forward, as the only one available to the devout in the modern age. Furthermore, this kind of mystical religious experience will be essential to the redemptive conclusion of The Song of False Lovers, the next novel that she will publish.

Several years before the publication of this novel, however, the concept of listening to silence becomes increasingly significant in the spiritual dimension of her texts. As resolution and reconciliation becomes ever more important for her protagonists, and as her focus falls more intently on the suffering individual, so the place of God in the modern world becomes an issue that is explicitly articulated. Germain’s texts have always been bound up with the search for God, but there is a noticeable shift across her work from the early angry denunciations of God in novels such as The Book to Nights, to an oblique but salvationary form of spirituality in The Book of Tobias. Her understanding of the spiritual bears the influence of Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher who directed her early studies in philosophy. For Levinas, God becomes an ultimate form of alterity or radical otherness that exceeds our capacity for conceptual thought. This ties in with Germain’s own leanings towards mysticism, the experience of God as an overwhelming vision that coincides with a fundamental loss of self. In her text Les Échos du silence Germain explores the contemporary turn away from religion as a problem bound up in a perception of God as absent and silent. In the time of genocide, where is God when we call for him? How to reconcile the image of a loving God with the horrors and atrocities of warfare in the twentieth century?

Germain begins her argument by holding the Book of Job up as an example to be dismissed. The idea of God as an omnipotent stage manager, able to make Job suffer and then to repair the damage has captured humanity’s imagination in ways that can only be detrimental to true spiritual communion. For Germain, God does not come when he is called; instead he can be heard only in the echoes of silence, in the quietest most intimate parts of the human soul. Germain posits a vulnerable God, abandoned by the children to whom he gave the world, and misunderstood by them in the manner of King Lear, with whom she draws an explicit comparison. Germain finds a powerful image of Christianity in the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman deported to Auschwitz whose diaries were recovered. These repeatedly speak of the solidity of her faith, even if there is no response to her call for rescue, for the voice of God, she says, is rather the very act of listening. Listening to silence produces an invisible space, and for Germain, these kinds of paradox provide the essence of spirituality, which again and again informs her work.

The image of a divine whisper borne out of patient, attentive listening is one which concludes The Song of False Lovers. This text offers the culmination of many of the themes which have preoccupied Germain over the twenty years of her writing career, and true to her continual creativity, find themselves reinvented here in new formulations. It is possible to read this latest novel as the rewriting of the Book of Job for which Les echoes du silence appeals. The errant trajectory of the heroine is structured by a series of painful losses, for every life that becomes entwined with hers is lost, every love she knows deserts her. Her story is fraught with trauma and violence that resist assimilation, leaving her wretched, ill and close to the edge of her sanity. However, no text by Sylvie Germain is free from the redemptive power of magic, only in this narrative the magic is to be found in the imagination of its heroine. Germain’s fascination with the marvelous takes the form of a series of visions that appear to Laudes-Marie at crucial moments in her pathway through history. These visions, oblique, enigmatic but extraordinary in their beauty present her with messages that defy conventional intelligence but which offer miraculous symbolic transformations of anger and suffering. Laudes-Marie comes into the world with nothing and leaves it with nothing, but the experiences she has undergone, the memories of those she has loved, and the hard-won relationship with God result in a serene transcendence of loss and trauma, and a harmony with the world that is touched by the divine.

Writing in the introduction to The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague just over ten years ago, Emma Wilson wondered what the next decade of Sylvie Germain’s work would hold. The French would perhaps call it an approfondissement of her themes, a patient and measured penetration towards the heart of the issues that concern her; suffering, trauma, the marvelous and the spiritual. The Song of False Lovers marks one definitive transition, however, from the magic realist texts of the eighties and early nineties, where the violent past was reconfigured by fantastic means onto the bodies of her protagonists, to the spiritual salvation of her more recent work, where the magic that transforms suffering into serene acceptance works within their souls. Spirituality has become increasingly important in Germain’s work, but it never intrudes upon the rich creativity of her language, and she remains known and celebrated for the beauty, vivacity and eloquence of her superb imagery. Her novels have also become increasingly bound up with a reality of life in the twenty-first century that is immediately recognizable, her interest in history ever more caught up in the violent conflicts that have occurred since the Holocaust. There remains, then, any number of directions in which Germain’s work could develop; we can only hope for another decade as prolific and rich in insights as this one has been.

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