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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Little Girls Breathe
the Same Air as We Do

Paul Fournel

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To purchase Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do

Title: Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do
Author: Paul Fournel
Genre: Stories
Written: 1978 (Eng. 1979)
Length: 149 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do - US
Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do - UK
Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do - Canada
Les petites filles respirent le même air que nous - Canada
Les petites filles respirent le même air que nous - France
  • French title: Les petites filles respirent le même air que nous
  • Translated by Lee Fahnestock

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-observed, nicely imagined

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Ten girls, in various combinations, from alone to bigger groups, feature in the nineteen episodes or stories that make up Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do. Their ages are rarely specified, but range from younger school-age to pubescent -- often keenly aware of their physical changes (or their absence: "'And the hairs ?' he asked. 'Still nothing.'" Adeline notes, and then reveals, pulling off her underpants).
       There are recurring themes, above all else the contrast and conflict between stasis and change, both internal and external. The shortest pieces are less than a page in length and get right to this point: in 'Statues' the girls play a game where they stand stock still, with only one breaking free, while in 'Suspense' Magali revels in her routines:

Magali had been able to listen to her resord seventeen times before her mother had cried for mercy, she had been able to reread her Five Club for the fourth time, she had mixed up her dolls again so she could rearrange them in order
       Only her father spoils the perfect day:
     While he was telling her The Three Little Pigs, just as he did every night, he had said on purpose that the house was made of stone while every other time it was made of brick and, what's more, he pretended not to understand why she was crying.
       Some long for change: in 'Patience' Adeline is being raised by her grandmother, who: "had one obsession: she didn't want to admit that times change", and the girl bristles against it. The grandmother even insists the girl wear a corset -- though it doesn't seem to fit its purpose, as: "She never had the sensation of being supported". Part of their fixed routine now extends to a: "moment of ritual crisis" when, every Sunday, Adeline has enough and dashes out the door. She's still too small to escape the old woman's reach, but she makes it farther and farther:
     The week before she had been caught in front of the pastry shop, next week she would hold out to the church, and in a year she would dress as she pleased.
       The girls revel in simple experience -- whirling in a skirt, the rush of startled pigeons suddenly flying up around one, a bath, or simply standing still. Many of these activities tend to be focused, single-minded, often carefully prepared (typically: "she hated chance and improvisation"), yet also very simple (like just standing still) -- and baffling to the adult onlookers. The children are still able to lose themselves in these moments -- insignificant or small though they seem -- with an intensity and dedication lost to the adults.
       States of dress -- and undress -- feature throughout, as the girls also face the strangeness of different, unfamiliar clothes, identity and (public, physical) appearance tied together in ways they are not certain of or comfortable with yet. There is the novelty of bras (and all the meaning that comes with their necessity), but also things such as the skirt that Madeleine whirls in at her mother's funeral, hastily bought so that she hasn't even had time to see what she looks like in it. In a 'The Dress' the little girl is dressed up in: "The pretty dress that makes pretty little girls", even as she doesn't recognize herself in the costume:
The little girl doesn't really recognize herself in all this froth, she doesn't realy feel at ease either. This is what it must be, to be beautiful.
       Fournel had already been a member of Oulipo when he wrote this book, and so there are constraints and other Oulipian nods in it: 'The Oak Tree' is an homage (and dedicated) to fellow Oulipian Italo Calvino, Fournel's Baby Jeanette imitating Calvino's character from 'The Baron in the Trees'. Most obviously, 'The Lipogram' is centered around an Oulipian constraint: lipograms avoid the use of a specific letter, and here Maline: "had struck from her vocabulary every eau as in bureau, the ew as in sew, and all the long os". Her teacher is outraged and annoyed:
     "You can't live with an alphabet of twenty-five letters !" she cried.
       In translating it as a missing sound, rather than doing without the letter ('o'), Lee Fahnestock (over)simplifies the episode, spelling it out all too obviously, but there's substance enough to it that it works well enough alongside the other tales.
       Fournel's episodes feel convincing; they are insightful without overly sentimentalizing young-girldom. There is a bit of a loose feel to the collection -- exercises in fiction that shy away from a totality lurking in the background: Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do is an almost-novel, but Fournel prefers keeping it in pieces; the French edition calls it a collection of "nouvelles" -- which makes for a nice play of words with the English but doesn't seem quite right either. In using a group of ten children, some named and some more prominent than others, this is more than just a book of and about 'girls', but also just barely allows itself to be a characters-study. Yet Fournel's treatment of his subject-matter perhaps make it appropriate that this feels so much like an in-between (sketch)book.
       A nice little piece of work, with some very fine bits to it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 May 2016

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Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do: Reviews: Paul Fournel: OuLiPo: Other books by Paul Fournel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Paul Fournel was born in 1947. He is a member of Oulipo.

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© 2016-2021 the complete review

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