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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

La Femme de Gilles

Madeleine Bourdouxhe

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To purchase La Femme de Gilles

Title: La Femme de Gilles
Author: Madeleine Bourdouxhe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1937 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 129 pages
Original in: French
Availability: La Femme de Gilles - US
La Femme de Gilles - UK
La Femme de Gilles - Canada
La femme de Gilles - Canada (French)
La Femme de Gilles - India
La femme de Gilles - France
Gilles' Frau - Deutschland
La donna di Gilles - Italia
La mujer de Gilles - España
  • French title: La femme de Gilles
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Faith Evans
  • With an Introduction by Elisa Albert
  • La Femme de Gilles was made into a film, Gilles' Wife, directed by Frédéric Fonteyne, in 2004

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Our Assessment:

A : beautifully done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A+ 31/8/1996 Eckart Kleßmann
The Independent . 2/1/1993 Maggie Traugott
El País . 3/5/2003 J.M. Guelbenzu
Sunday Times . 17/1/1993 .
TLS . 15/1/1993 Anne Duchêne

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed,; a nice (re)discovery

  From the Reviews:
  • "Was den Leser an dieser Geschichte sofort gefangennimmt und bis zum letzten Satz nicht mehr losläßt, ist nicht allein der fast mechanische, wie vorbestimmte Ablauf des Geschicks, das diese drei Menschen bindet und als Zerbrochene wieder aus dieser Bindung entläßt. Es ist noch mehr die Kunst der Autorin, in sehr präziser, sparsamer Sprache dieses Schicksalsknäuel zum Bild werden zu lassen, einzufangen in winzige Momentaufnahmen, Stilleben zu schaffen aus Emotionen, die sich in den Dingen wie in den Körpern abbilden." - Eckart Kleßmann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It is impossible to watch Bourdouxhe's angelic, betrayed heroine Elisa yearn for the crumbs of her husband's affection while he cavorts with little sister-in-law Victorine and not want to shake all three of them vigorously. Terrified that sudden movements of self-assertion will prompt Gilles to bolt, Elisa tiptoes about in a graceful domestic dumbshow of soup-making and thoughtfulness. (...) With the mesmeric inevitability of classical tragedy, doom lurks, and Bourdouxhe plays the dramatic tension for all it is worth." - Maggie Traugott, The Independent

  • "Breve, exacta, concisa, sugerente, cruel y emocionante, esta narración es una pequeña gran novela solitaria de una autora casi olvidada y que, por este libro, será siempre inolvidable." - José María Guelbenzu, El País

  • "Bourdouxhe's warm and solid prose is heavily sensual, almost to the point of self-parody, and she gives Elisa's martyrdom a kind of operatic intensity" - Sunday Times

  • "La Femme de Gilles is about physical passion, its ecstasies, aberrations and ruthlessness; its tone is very sombre and quiet. (...) The "moving nobility" she confers on this short, forlorn, agonizing tale is of her own kind -- quiet, compassionate, and unsparing." - Anne Duchêne, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       La Femme de Gilles focuses almost entirely on Elisa, a woman who is: "without guile, without pride, without a philosophy", and defines herself and finds her entire raison d'être in being 'la femme de Gilles', devoted wife. She is happily married, with young twin girls and a baby on the way when the story opens. Her husband fulfills her, and gives her meaning: "He was her whole world", and: "she cannot conceive of any greater happiness than giving him pleasure"
       They live happily -- until a day when Elisa's younger sister, Victorine, comes by and Gilles finds: "Desire takes hold suddenly, out of nowhere". The girl he had known so long is suddenly very much a sexual being, the situation one where he suddenly sees her in a completely different way. And Victorine recognizes and enjoys the situation; Gilles might have still gotten himself under control:

     But just then the little bitch raised her head. She was one of those women who know instantly, who never let an opportunity pass.
       Gilles is overwhelmed by passion for her. They begin an affair -- and it doesn't take long for Elisa to realize what has happened. But she's so worried about losing her man, about upsetting him, that she doesn't say anything. She's crushed, but:
     In her wisdom she kept her secret sealed: no one knew about the change inside her, the pact she'd made with her heart and the objects around her. She still smiled her beautiful sincere smile, still moved with life and grace, her big dark eyes still shone and smiled upon others.
       From then on: "everything in her life is under threat, hanging by a thread, at least nothing is irrevocably broken". Or so she tries to believe. She hangs on -- and tries, in a way, to make the best of things. She does what she thinks she needs to, to keep Gilles happy -- even when that means supporting his passion for her sister.
       Gilles does love his wife and family, but he is besotted by Victorine. When she begins to tire of him and looks to move on, he is crushed -- and turns to his wife for comfort, revealing his betrayal; she, as ever, remains supportive.
       Elisa's willingness to put up with Gilles' behavior, and her complete subordination to him, make for a protagonist that is uncomfortable for readers, even more so nowadays. Yet her love, and joy in that love -- certainly before he begins his affair -- suggest that this is where she finds her (complete) happiness and fulfilment. Ultimately of course, the situation and her position are untenable; ultimately, even she has a crisis, as her identity fails her:
     Life goes on, but who is Elisa ? I do not recognize this woman, I am nothing. Gilles' woman ?
       And, ultimately, of course, it can only all lead to tragedy.
       As ugly as the story seems -- certainly in summary -- it is achingly beautiful, too. Bourdouxhe impeccably captures this man and woman who feel too much, and let themselves be driven by the depths of their longings. The almost idyllic family balance is completely upset when a third figure enters the picture, one who has always been there -- Elisa's sister ! -- but suddenly takes on a very different role.
       Love is precarious, and Bourdouxhe's novel is one of almosts and what-ifs, moments and opportunities that could have led to completely different outcomes, that might have salvaged situations. But neither Elisa nor Gilles can overcome their deep feelings, and so they move inexorably towards their own destruction.
       It's wonderfully, awfully done -- the minx Victorine expertly used, glimmering in the background, bringing ruin with a smile:
     It wouldn't be impossible to forgive her for her behaviour, if only there were some sign of wrongdoing on her face at the same time ! But, no, there she is, svelte, fresh, pure as ever -- swaying her pretty, dishonest body around the room, making the children scream with laughter. She is all innocence.
       Bourdouxhe presents the characters' lust and longings exceptionally well; physical, sexual encounters are almost brushed over in short descriptions, and yet these almost-asides are charged with eroticism.
       Bourdouxhe also effectively gets in the head of her two central characters, the narrative at times becoming intimate and direct, even exhortative:
     Pull yourself together, Gilles, no great harm has been done yet: it's not too serious, a great outburst of mae desire, born spontaneously, thoughtlessly, deep in the flesh. The main thing is to pay it no attention -- then it'll go away of its own accord, as illogically as it came.
     But just then the little bitch raised her head.
       There's no saving them, or the situation.
       Bourdouxhe's writing -- seemingly so simple and straightforward, and yet subtly pulling off a variety of narrative tricks; seemingly matter-of-fact and neutral, or often even warm, yet the underlying situations so awful -- impresses throughout.
       La Femme de Gilles is an exceptional little novel.

       [Note that the new (US) Melville House edition includes not only Faith Evans' useful Afterword, but an Introduction by Elisa Albert. The style of this piece is jarringly discordant with the tone of the novel itself ("Cry us a river"; "Come and get some suuuuuper sad wo-man !"; "Look at Facebook"; etc.), and while of some interest as a separate review or reaction, it is particularly ill-suited as an introductory piece.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 January 2017

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La Femme de Gilles: Reviews: Gilles' Wife - the film: Other books by Madeleine Bourdouxhe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe lived 1906 to 1996.

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© 2017-2023 the complete review

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