Be­ing there for proto-fem­i­nist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

When Marie Dar­rieussecq’s first novel, a sur­real fable of sex­ual ad­ven­ture and meta­mor­pho­sis called Pig Tales, was pub­lished in France in 1996, it was a sen­sa­tion and sold more than 300,000 copies.

Two sub­se­quent nov­els, All the Way and Men: A Novel of Cin­ema and De­sire, each with a thread of ro­man­tic op­ti­mism run­ning through them, ob­served that girls and young women tread a lot of metaphor­i­cal wa­ter wait­ing for the “right” man to swim into view.

In an in­ter­view last year with The Aus­tralian’s Rose­mary Neill, Dar­rieussecq sug­gested that in All the Way her pro­tag­o­nist’s pas­siv­ity was quite typ­i­cal of 21st-cen­tury re­la­tion­ships. “I think that in spite of our fem­i­nist ef­forts to raise our daugh­ters as pow­er­fully as our sons — and I have a son and two daugh­ters — the daugh­ters still grow up with Sleep­ing Beauty in their mind. In spite of our ef­forts … they still wait for a man. They wait for the prince, and their life will be­gin. It’s a pity. Even me, I have to fight against that.”

In her new­est of­fer­ing, Be­ing Here, an al­lu­sive short mem­oir that reads like a novel, Dar­rieussecq traces the short but pro­duc­tive life of Ger­man ex­pres­sion­ist painter Paula Moder­sohn-Becker, who was born in 1876 — not long be­fore the dawn of an op­ti­mistic new cen­tury — and would be dead at 31. The artist’s out­look, which to­day would chime with a fem­i­nist’s po­si­tion, may be what at­tracted Dar­rieussecq to her.

Paula Becker was at­trac­tive, qui­etly con­fi­dent and or­gan­ised in that north­ern Ger­manic way. Her best friend was Clara Westhoff, who would marry poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Soon af­ter, Paula mar­ried painter Otto Moder­sohn. All four be­gan as good friends but ge­o­graph­i­cal dis­tance and di­verg­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of the world saw this friend­ship fal­ter.

Al­though Dar­rieussecq had ac­cess to the di­aries of all four par­ties, and these are quoted skil­fully, the reader is left won­der­ing if it was Rilke Paula was wait­ing for, rather than Moder­sohn, who was, af­ter all, mar­ried when she first met him.

Paula comes from a small vil­lage with the in­el­e­gant name of Worp­swede, north­east of Bre­men in Sax­ony. In a few deft im­pres­sion­ist strokes, Dar­rieussecq con­jures a pic­ture of the sleepy, reg­u­lated bu­colic life that per­fectly ap­prox­i­mates those scenes from 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture such as Theodore Fon­taine’s Effi Bri­est and Gus­tave Flaubert’s Madame Bo­vary — and from which Paula will need to es­cape from time to time.

This is from Otto’s jour­nal: “Paula paints, reads, plays the pi­ano etc. The house­hold is also in very good hands — the only things lack­ing are her in­ter­est in the fam­ily and her re­la­tion­ship with the house.” And this, from Rilke writ­ing to an­other young poet: “some­day there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere op­po­site of the male, but some­thing in it­self … life and re­al­ity: the fe­male hu­man be­ing”.

Paula had tasted Paris, hav­ing con­vinced her fam­ily to let her study there at the Academie Co­larossi School in 1900 with a mod­est en­dow­ment from her un­cle. She blos­somed in that short visit and won a prize while not­ing that it is “harder for women”. They were ex­pected to paint charm­ing lit­tle paint­ings while the male stu­dents are al­lowed to “play the fool”.

Paula’s works are suf­fused with the mod­est rou­tines of daily life. Melan­choly vil­lage women and girls are painted with in­ten­sity and ten­der­ness, and they all have an air of solemn de­tach­ment. As Dar­rieussecq points out: “Lit­tle girls learn soon enough be­long to them.”

She de­scribes Paula’s paint­ing tech­nique: “layer af­ter layer, a sur­face that is rough and that the world does not alive, like old mar­ble or sand­stone that has been out in the air, ex­posed to the work­ings of weather and time”. Above all, Paula has painted the fe­male nude — in­clud­ing her­self — and preg-

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