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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Passion according to
Renée Vivien

Maria-Mercè Marçal

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To purchase The Passion according to Renée Vivien

Title: The Passion according to Renée Vivien
Author: Maria-Mercè Marçal
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 353 pages
Original in: Catalan
Availability: The Passion according to Renée Vivien - US
The Passion according to Renée Vivien - UK
The Passion according to Renée Vivien - Canada
Auf den Spuren der Renée Vivien - Deutschland
La passione secondo Renée Vivien - Italia
La passió segons Renée Vivien - España (Catalán)
La pasión según Renée Vivien - España (Español)
directly from: Francis Boutle Publishers
  • Catalan title: La passió segons Renée Vivien
  • Translated by Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery

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Our Assessment:

B : rich, creative take on a fascinating poet-figure

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Passion according to Renée Vivien is a novel, but, closely based on the life of the poet Renée Vivien (1877 to 1909) -- born Pauline Mary Tarn --, also very much a work that explores how/whether one can capture a real-life person in some creative variation on biography. Marçal's approach is decidedly not the standard life-by-the-numbers one; Vivien's life here is pieced together from reminiscences and other material (much of it actual-documentary), much of it from after the fact, beginning, for example, with the recollections of an uncle, Amédée, she was close to, from shortly after her death. It is two outside figures, working after her death, whose fascination with the poet shapes much of the novel: filmmaker Sara T., working on a screenplay about Renée Vivien in the mid-1980s and Salomon Reinach, whose Violet Notebooks from the 1920s, deposited at the Bibliothèque nationale (and sealed from outside -- though not the reader's -- eyes until the year 2000) also have Vivien as a subject. Vivien herself is presented largely at a remove -- made all the more clear by the fact that the documentation, itself precisely dated, in letters and diary entries, is almost entirely written and collected after her death -- even as the entire novel is completely suffused by the poet (and her passion(s)) -- culminating then in the short final section, 'Final Monody' which, as the author reveals in her postscript-Note: "is composed wholly from sparse verses of the protagonist" -- i.e. the poet's own words.
       'Renée Vivien' is, of course, already herself a fiction, the adopted name -- and, arguably, persona -- of Pauline Mary Tarn; though adopted specifically as a pen name, i.e. an identity to ascribe her creative output to, it clearly became more than that, as, as is emphasized throughout the novel, her art and life tended to one. 'Renée Vivien' was a role Pauline assumed and embraced -- though it is noteworthy that many of those who write and speak about her do also refer to her as 'Pauline', a part of her that she could not (and apparently did not want to) entirely disassociate herself from.
       Renée Vivien is best-known as: "the first woman after Sappho to openly sing of feminine love", and her passionate affairs are seen as defining in and of her life. While her first collection was published under the name 'R. Vivien' -- leading/allowing its author to be mistaken for a man -- she lived openly as a homosexual, and celebrated it in her poetry. Among the great but thwarted passions of her life was a Natalie B. (Barney) -- and, in one of the few sections where her own words from the moment are presented at greater length, quoting from a 1901 letter, the lasting hurt of this failed relationship is suggested:

You speak of people who love me -- no one loves me in the great, sacred sense of the word. I have loved Natalie, I squandered everything on her exclusively, but she didn't love me. Who, then, could love me ?
       The ideal of love eludes Renée Vivien, even as she throws herself with such great passion into her affairs.
       Renée Vivien herself wrote an autobiographical novel, A Woman Appeared to Me (1904) -- about which Salomon R. writes in his notebooks:
This roman-à-clef -- as all novels are at heart, no matter how difficult the code might be to decipher -- does not strike me as a good story, although it is a supreme source for Pauline's biography. It is a pity that the divine being, motivated no doubt by a false sense of modesty, refused to write memoirs, a genre which is, to me, much more interesting.
       Even as he acknowledges the work of fiction as tremendously revealing, Salomon R. differentiates between novel and memoir, and doesn't find A Woman Appeared to Me to be a real substitute. This is a central theme and question to The Passion according to Renée Vivien as well, as several figures try to capture Renée Vivien in some written form -- notably Sara T. and Salomon R. Hovering beyond all these is also a narrator -- the guiding authorial hand -- who remains in the background but repeatedly reminds readers of her presence (that there is a: "teller of this tale"), such as in some of the chapter-preview headings, e.g.:
Where the -- seemingly absent -- narrator catches Sara T. in the process of composing an extensive epistolary account of her doubts, motivations, considerations and reconsiderations regarding Renée Vivien. And where that which is silenced is more important than that which is said.
       Sara T. notes that:
     Renée is one of those mythical figures who has functioned as a screen on to which everyone projects their own imaginary.
       Indeed, with the basic facts the subject's life well-known, The Passion according to Renée Vivien is very much a book of projections -- not least, of course, Maria-Mercè Marçal's own, the author herself a lesbian and poet. The novel's collage of reminiscences and reflections is as revealing about those who look (generally back) on Renée Vivien's life -- if not, in some ways, more so, as the poet herself remains a not insubstantial but still shadowy figure in much of this.
       One person suggests:
     Truly, it made no sense to write a biography of one who had lived for literature alone. Her verses were the autobiography of her soul.
       And Salomon R. similarly insists:
It was in literary form that Pauline's loves made full sense and where they ought to be situated, with no shame and from the very beginning. Her literary genius required the inspiration of beauty. It wasn't enough to be Beatrice, she had to be the singer of Beatrice as well.
       But Marçal also avoids the too-easy reliance on the poet's own work -- at least until that brief final chapter; even there, it is a reshaped collage -- and, as such, an interpretation -- of Renée Vivien's poetry rather than simple reproduction of it.
       Fundamental to the novel throughout remains the question of how to present a life that seems to have found its full realization in the subject's art: what more need or can be said than the poetry itself ? Like Sara T., Marçal struggles with the subject over many years -- a decade, she suggests in her Author's Note -- and the novel has the feel of an experiment with form. No one perspective is anywhere near adequate; no single voice, no single reading.
       Near the end of the process, Sara T. concludes:
     Through Renée I believe I have come to understand what it means to intermingle literature and life inextricably, to live each day "literarily", or rather "poetically": every gesture, every moment is a rhetorical figure, and systematically the humble, limited, poor signifier knows that it is not up to the requirements of the slippery Signified: the part that stretches and is broken in its slippery efforts to represent the Whole; the totality that realises, with sadness, that it is in the end nothing but an infinitesimal part.
       The Passion according to Renée Vivien certainly suggests such melding of literature and life, and Marçal pulls this off quite well. The different characters that occupy themselves with Renée Vivien, especially the ones that do so after the fact (i.e. after her death), present what amounts to an intriguing, variegated collage, and Marçal's refusal to go with the obvious -- in this and all respects -- is effective. She's particularly good in her use of different registers and voices, from the brief mentions of the unseen narrator -- pure and pointed artifice -- to, say, the account of the chambermaid who attended to Renée Vivien in her last years.
       It all makes for an unusual but interesting work, a striking portrait of a strong but vulnerable woman who remains ever just so slightly out of reach -- of author, reader, and all those here who tried to grasp her. Along the way, it also offers a quite vivid picture of an influential slice of early twentieth-century Paris life among a well-heeled class, with Renée Vivien's circles extending far and wide. Finally, and in so small part, The Passion according to Renée Vivien is about language and expression; it is a poetic text, reveling in language and playing it up. It wants to set itself apart from biography in this regard, too, with many of the scenes and sections intentionally poetic in a way we can hardly imagine or expect biography to be; unsurprisingly, like Renée Vivien, Marçal was primarily known as a poet.
       It is all a bit rich and much, too, but it is certainly an interesting life, and an interesting take on it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2021

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The Passion according to Renée Vivien: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Catalan author Maria-Mercè Marçal lived 1952 to 1998.

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© 2021 the complete review

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