Saturday, March 13, 2010

NYRB Challenge #23: A French Treat. . .

After reading J.G. Farrell's Troubles, I knew exactly what book I wanted to read next. How, I wondered, would a French author, best known for having founded the experimental Oulipo Group, tackle Dublin's 1916 Easter uprising? And so Raymond Queneau's We Always Treat Women Too Well, translated by Barbara Wright, was the next book extracted from the bulging NYRB bookcase.

It's a somewhat difficult novel to characterize; I suppose if it was drama, it would be French farce. The story takes place in a Dublin post office during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. No, not the General Post Office that has gone down in history, but a smaller branch named Eden Quay, which is taken over by seven members of the Irish Republican Army all named after minor James Joyce characters from Ulysses (which of course had not yet been written in 1916 - that's part of the fun). The men are nervous, naive, unorganized and a bit scared. Complicating matters are two women - a young postal clerk who after being released foolishly comes back for her handbag and gets killed in the front yard, and Gertie Girdle, another employee who was locked in the lavatory, delivering Molly Bloom-like soliloquies when the rebels first entered. She poses the biggest problem because the men alternately fall in love with her or jealously lust after her, and when they realize the latter, they can't let her go for fear she'll talk and ruin their reputations. She also happens to be engaged to one of the British commanders in charge of routing the rebels and she has a seductive survival plan of her own.

There's a fair bit of misogyny at work here, but it's also a satire of nationalism, militarism, religious and moral hypocrisy, and, as John Updike notes in his introduction, "the ineluctable banality of existence". It is certainly a bawdy (and body) novel that has fun playing with language and narrative, and part of the naughty fun (should you so choose) is in compiling a list of the many different euphemisms Queneau comes up with for, ahem, male tumescence. My favourite is, "Dillon had to recognize the fact that he now occupied a slightly greater place than he had a few instants before." Yes, it's all a bit silly - black humour and purple prose - but a very clever kind of spoof and great fun to read.

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