Three Trapped Tigers
Monique Wittig has been praised by Frank Kermode and Mary McCarthy as something like a brand-new kind of writer, and it begins to seem that some women are enjoying or suffering the fate of blacks a few years ago. In both cases, it is said, we are being forced out of older ways of thinking as a writer tells us the truth from what had hitherto been the other side of silence. Now we may be able to hear what we should have been listening to all along. It may even be that the refusal of Wittig’s Les Guérillères to act like much of a novel at all will be taken as a sign of its newness and originality. The book is about a time when women live as guerrillas, by themselves, fighting men, seeking a new age; its techniques are mostly impersonal and their aim is to achieve something like epic distance and grandeur. But though the idea of such a book may well raise high hopes in at least some readers, the book itself turns out to be, sadly, oddly, at times almost maddeningly, quite dull.
Wittig’s first novel, The Opoponax, which appeared here in 1956, is a nonstop monologue about a child growing up. It is so self-absorbed and so locked into its present tense that it seems to pretend that its one apparently arbitrarily arranged series of events is in fact the whole universe. The effect is claustrophobic, a style badly in need of humor, or, failing that, a book in need of a film director good enough to use his camera to make the child’s sensitivity less wearying.
Les Guérillères, Wittig’s second novel, is ostensibly different, but the final effect is similar. It has no confining or even definite point of view, and the form is simply a series of passages, ranging in length from thirty to 500 words; after every fifth or sixth passage is a page filled with women’s names. Little dialogue, no continuing characters; the women we read about may be the same group throughout or they may be different; the action may take place in one spot or many; the time span may be a few months or many years. Take away all the usual novelistic ways and means and the effect almost certainly will seem as undernourished, as unfree, as the most claustrophobic of first-person novels.
But if there is no plot, there is a central fable, and that gives the book whatever newsworthiness it can claim to have. At a time apparently long after our own the women are trying to work out the terms for their own culture, as in this passage, which is a typical complete section:
In speaking of their genitals the women do not employ hyperboles metaphors, they do not proceed sequentially or by gradation. They do not recite long litanies, whose refrain is an unending imprecation. They do not strive to multiply the intervals so that in sum …
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That Kind of Novel February 24, 1972