Review: Les Innocentes ou la Sagesse des Femmes par Anna de Noailles

December 25, 2010 at 5:56 pm (Literary Criticism)

When I first came across Anna de Noailles via two poems in an anthology of twentieth century French verse, not a single volume of hers, prose or poetry, was in print (let alone translated) and it was some months before I met anyone who had even heard of her. Since then she seems to be staging something of a come-back since there now exists a Cercle d’Anna de Noailles in Paris and there are  at least two other websites devoted exclusively to her memory apart from this one — don’t miss the visually magnificent French language site http://www.comtessedenoailles.blogspot.com.  Black Widow Press is due to bring out “a very comprehensive bilingual anthology of Noailles’ poetry”  translated by Norman Shapiro with an introduction by Catherine Perry, author of Persephone Unbound (Bucknell, 2003) a full-length study of Anna de Noailles. And finally we have the prestigious Buchet-Chastel bringing out a year ago Les Innocentes ou la Sagesse des Femmes , first published in 1923 when Anna de Noailles was forty-seven years old.

These ‘contes’ are the dismembered fragments of a full-length novel Anna de Noailles gave up on, Octave.  Despite being a fervent admirer of Anna de Noailles as a poet and, to some extent at least, as a person, I found this collection disappointing, even tiresome. The ‘contes’ have no plot to speak of and most of them are built around the same sort of character, a beautiful society woman who is unhappy with her lot but not to the extent of smudging her make-up or missing the next train to Naples. A hostile critic, Paul Souday, saw the work “une collection de mégalomanies et d’autolâtries féminines, grandiloquentes, précieuses et un peu comiques” and I am afraid this is not so far from the mark : the central character is no Anna Karenina but a somewhat  more intellectual Paris Hilton moved back in time by eighty years.
As a short story writer and novelist, Anna de Noailles lacks the one indispensable ingredient : that of being an acute observer of the human species, including and above all oneself. Most of the stories are situated in a No-Man’s-Land equidistant from Jane Austen and Colette on the one hand and Emily Brontë/George Eliot on the other. This might sound like a good place to be but, to judge by these pieces, it is not : Anna de Noailles is sharp, even catty, when we want some semblance of passion (or I do) while whenever she gets into dangerous territory — for example, when she picks the ménage à trois as theme in La Meilleure Part — she fails to  grasp the nettle and falls back into sentimental banalities. One hardly expects this from the author who describes herself as someone “qui a le goût de l’héroique et du passionnel/qui flotte autour des corps, des sons, des foules vives” which I translate  as
“I have the taste for what is ardent and intense,
Delirious crowds and bodies….”

To be fair to Anna de Noailles, it was probably not possible for a woman author at the time, if she wished to be published, to express what she really thought  :  Paris of 1923 was not ready for a work such as Violette Leduc’s La Bâtarde (published in 1964). But if this is so, she might have done better to have gone full tilt and left unpublished for posterity a book which really lifted the lid on the hypocrisy of male/female relations in Parisian high society —  as in a way Proust did.  But Anna de Noailles does not really want to see too clearly into the human ego : she is like St. Augustine praying, “God, make me chaste — but not yet”.

The most successful story artistically speaking (also as it happens the shortest)  is Duo à une seule voix which employs to good effect the stratagem of only transcribing half of a telephone conversation, the woman’s half, and leaving asterisks for the replies. The male, probably Maurice Barrès whose mistress Anna eventually became,  is all the more visible for being absent and, doubtless because he is not physically in front of her, the woman manages to put him in his place quite nicely. This piece has a polish worthy of Dorothy Parker, writing in New York at about the same time, but most of the rest of the book is trite with nonetheless some sonorous ‘purple passages’ and the occasional flash of insight and wit.     Sebastian Hayes

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