The story begins at a meeting in Paris that took place early in 1988 with a young author called Elisabeth Barillé, after I had been introduced to her by the French cosmetic journalist Elizabeth Arkus. Elisabeth Barillé’s novel Corps de jeune fille was just then the latest literary sensation in Paris. She was Parisian born in 1960 and had gained degrees in English and Russian before becoming a freelance journalist contributing to Paris-Match, Depêche Mode, Femme and Geo.
She was currently literary editor of L’Eventail. I was entranced by her at our meeting. She had that kind of sexuality which disturbs the senses. I bought a copy of the book and started reading it on the plane back to London. It was a book I could not put down. Its appeal was more attuned to the avant-garde French reading public, but her use of language and the depth of insight into the human condition were impressive. I was determined that Quartet would publish an English version, even though certain expressions she used were going to be hard to translate into English without losing their nuances.
It told the story of twenty-three-year-old Elisa, audacious and sensual, who is accosted by a middle-aged writer in the Jardin du Luxembourg. She is intrigued and troubled by him after he seduces her and says he wants her to be the heroine of his next book. As he interrogates her on her childhood and aspects of her sexual awakening, the tone of the narrative darkens and they begin to play a game in which it is no longer clear who is preying on whom.
The French press had given the book some very positive reviews: ‘A revelation . . . unpretentious and direct . . . truly liberated,’ said Marie-Claire; ‘Gay, tender, biting, playful . . . written with enthusiasm and zest,’ said FranceSoir; ‘Vigorous, direct and lucid, sparing nothing and nobody,’ said Le Figaro Littéraire. The English literary establishment was more ambivalent in its reception of the translated version under the title Body of a Girl. It came as no surprise, however, for I had always been aware that its appeal here would be limited. It belonged to a genre that had that intrinsically cerebral quality more consonant with European culture. Clarence de Roch in Tatler chose to focus on the book’s erotic side. His opening paragraph set the mood of his piece: ‘There’s a brilliantly funny scene in Elisabeth Barillé’s first novel, in which Elisa, the heroine, brings her suitor’s amorous élan to an abrupt halt by staring at his exposed penis and describing it witheringly (literally so as it turns out) as looking “just like Cyrano’s nose!”’ Cara Chanteau in the Listener was rather more dismissive:
Jane Austen once wrote that in Emma she was planning a heroine ‘which no one but myself would like’: Barillé might, with a lot more justification, have said the same for Body of a Girl. It is a problem from which her novel never really recovers . . . [But] Barillé has a good and very fluent style; one could wish to see it employed on more searching subject matter. Perhaps the successor to Body of a Girl might be a little more sparing with the body and reveal rather more about the girl.
Janet Barron, for the Literary Review, found a degree of merit in the book, though she confessed that the use of some words made her blush:
I wouldn’t recommend reading some of this in public; try convincing the chap who’s peering over your shoulder that ‘fanny’ is a symbol of women’s liberation. Barillé takes the obsessions of male erotic writing and attributes them to her narrator Elisa. The result is often witty. Barillé has a sardonic sense of humour and Parisian bohemianism is given a sarcastic twist.
Rebecca O’Rourke’s reaction in the Guardian was especially damning:
Elisa’s sexual history contains much that is surprising and some that is shocking. It’s a joyless account, rehearsing without exploring the idea that women’s autonomous sexuality is the province of whores and sluts. The special secret Elisa keeps to herself is compulsive masturbation, fuel to shameful self-hatred. Britain often looks to France, impressed by the latter’s sexual freedoms and sophistication. Colette, Violette Leduc and Simone de Beauvoir made enormous contributions to women’s writing by pioneering sensual, erotic and sexual themes. On the evidence of Body of a Girl, this pre-eminence is now receding.
In late 1990, Quartet published Elisabeth Barillé’s second novel, Marie Ensnared. This time the author’s obsession with prostitution manifested itself even more clearly. The story had the same resonance as Body of a Girl, but in this one the heroine began to lead a double life. To summarize the plot, Marie and her husband Luc, a charming and talented architect, apparently make the perfect bourgeois couple. While he provides her with a life of comfort and security, she is his perfect companion and hostess to the cosy, if complacent, dinner parties that are the cornerstone of his success. Then Luc accepts a commission to build a vast palace in the Moroccan desert for a rich megalomaniac Aloui, whose escort is Nalège, a malicious manipulative call-girl. Marie becomes fascinated by Nalège’s lifestyle, seeing it as an emancipation from the trap of comfort that is her life with Luc. She becomes her understudy, but when Nalège sends her the obese, alcoholic Aloui, the arrangement ends in a disastrous surfacing of guilt and self-loathing, with Marie now the victim of male cruelty and her own emotional confusion.
When I read Marie Ensnared I strongly suspected that the book had an autobiographical basis and that Barillé’s fictional account was a clever way of expressing her own dark secrets. Barillé’s own explanation for her theme was that, ‘Eroticism interests me more than sex. It’s the staging of our sexual impulses.’ But in the view of Jane O’Grady in the Observer, ‘chic, pretty Marie’ was both ‘directing and starring in the film of her life, and Barillé’s slim novelette resembles a soft-porn movie minus eroticism’. Neither Body of a Girl nor Marie Ensnared made the impact I personally had anticipated.
Somehow they failed to catch the mood of the literary public in Britain. La différance was once again manifesting itself.