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A review of Marie Darrieussecq’s Le Bébé

Why are there so few babies in literature? Marie Darrieussecq investigates.

What’s a baby? Why so few babies in literature? What about the discourse surrounding them? Why do we say ‘baby’ and not ‘the baby’? What is a mother? And why women more than men?”1

Marie Darrieussecq – Le Bébé

Marie Darrieussecq (b. 1969) is a familiar figure in the French literary world, where she is mostly known as a novelist with titles such as Truismes (1996), Naissance des fantômes (1998). Her only foray in the field of autobiography is Le bébé (2002), in which she recounts her son’s first few months, and her coming to terms with motherhood. Despite her hints at a difficult pregnancy followed by a difficult, preterm birth, the tone of the book remains one of slightly amused detachment – the exhaustion of the first few weeks as well as the distress of being physically separated from a baby too small to be held are glossed over and delicately brushed aside. Darrieussecq’s account is not one of conflict or desperation, like Cusk’s A Life’s Work for example; she is exploring motherhood the way a writer experiments with a new object or a new form. Unlike other female writers whose voices were suddenly extinguished by the birth of their first child and who struggled first with the fatigue and then the guilt to recreate their own mental space, Darrieussecq’s voice flinches slightly, but is soon reestablished. She does not perceive writing and mothering as antagonistic activities, but as two streams of her own self harmoniously blending into one. She even experiments with a new form – the interrupted form of mother writing – and the very existence of the book, Le bébé is testimony to the persistence of her uninterrupted artistic abilities.

Surprisingly, the interviews she gave around the time when the book was published paint a rather different picture of her intentions. In one she wonders aloud: “Does the language of literature compete with the language of motherhood? Can you sing da da da to your baby all day long and then move on to writing novels? Society won’t let you. I personnally feels this as violent” The violence of this contradiction is only slightly hinted at in the memoir. In another interview she presents the book as a political gesture: “It’s a very serious, slightly militant book, militant in the literary sense, as I wanted to show the baby and the young mother were serious literary topics.”. Although we may be tempted to treat Le bébéas a rather benign and light-hearted account of the first few months of the author’s life with her baby, the memoir actually reads like a literary manifesto in favour of extracting motherhood from everyday discourse and elevating it to the rank of literary object.

“An entomologist looking at an insect”

Like Cusk, Darrieussecq expresses wonder at how few babies are actually represented in literature – not as metaphors, but as characters in their own right. She scans a list of female writers and realises that neither Sarraute, nor Woolf, who obviously belong to her private literary pantheon, have really broached the subject–not to mention Simone de Beauvoir who was downright hostile to the idea of a female writer sacrificing her vocation to motherhood.

The baby is wrapped into a thick diaper of discourse, it is therefore the most possible minor subject for literature. It is left to women, then – ‘baby’ is their nickname – and those who truly intend to write give it a large berth.

Marie Darrieussecq, Le Bébé (43)

Yet the only example of a realistic baby in literature she finds in Joyce’s Ulysses… Darrieussecq therefore attempts to strip the baby of all the layers of discourse (essentially propaganda disguised as advice) and to look at him for what he is: a small human learning the first basic skills he will need to function, including language.

A practicing psychoanalyst, Darrieussecq is interested in the texture and depth of words. She is particularly shocked at how the people she and her baby first interact with insist on calling them “baby” and, of course “mum”. By calling the baby “the baby” and naming the book after his more dignified title, she is reinstalling him as a person as well as a subject of literature in his own right. The baby cries, he sleeps, he manages to hold an object, then rolls over, grows a tooth. These miraculous events usually happen away from our sights, in nurseries and bedrooms. Darrieussecq is also very honest about her own transformation into a mother and the whole gamut of feelings that spring within her: from amazement, tenderness and love to anger, frustration and fear. Her love is both intellectual and animal: she is painfully aware of how easy anyone can slip into incestuous desire for their child. The result is a series of impressionistic tableaux of life with a small infant occasionnally circling back to the original experience, labour and the birth of the baby.

“Happinesses which do not oppose each other”

Darrieussecq does express ambivalence about the possibility of losing her creative and intellectual autonomy – something that often gives way to painful hand-wringing from the part of other female writers2. Instead she chooses to surrender to the experience, and let herself be carried by the flow of those first few weeks before she knew she was going to be given a spot in the local crêche, a date often both dreaded and welcomed as a relief by new mothers:

Time was organised around this date, when I would be back in the outside world. So I climbed down into this milk bath, I sloshed and floated around, I got drunk on this baby time, because later on I would resume thinking, writing, living with men.

Marie Darrieussecq, Le Bébé (12)

The world “outside”, the world of thinking and writing is definitely a man’s world, and the baby doesn’t seem to belong there. He has his own world, which the author is happy to explore, taste and write about. Although her creative voice is temporarily silenced by the birth, she soon resumes her writing life and finds a whole new reservoir of creativity. She feels for those women around her who feel “mentally sterilised” by the first months of their baby’s life and who long to be back in that world of men, feeling they are stuck in the all-female limbo of the maternal leave. Darrieussecq, unconsciously maybe, writes back to Doris Lessing who, in the first volume of her autobiography famously claimed: “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children”. Sure, Darrieussecq admits, the time spent with the baby is boring, but the boredom and the joy can share the same space. The “maternal ambivalence” that has been so much written about is no longer defined as a happiness tainted with negative feelings but as the coexistence of contraries, which opens up new possibilities.

“A writing structured by its own constraint”

Sometimes a little compromise is needed: she rolls the baby on her stomach or gives him her finger to suck in order to finish that paragraph she was writing when he woke up from his nap. Like all the other mother writers she needs to wait for the baby to be asleep in order to write, knowing that she is going to be interrupted every time he wakes up. Nap-time writing is another cliché of maternal writing, and she is aware of it, but with the fragmented sleep patterns of a young infant, she cannot expect to have the vast uninterrupted periods of time necessary to the writer’s achievement of “flow”, or Csikszentmihalyi’s description of that particular experience of the weightless, timeless moment of creativity, which is so at odds with the experience of mothering3. Again, Darrieussecq is happy to “go with the flow”, or that particularly disrupted flow: if she cannot write without being interrupted, then her writing will welcome the interruption. The text therefore is punctuated with asterisks which mark the moments when the author, possibly, got up from her writing desk to attend to her baby.

Interruption need not silence the mother writer for ever: she can just learn to accept it and integrate it to her practice. Just like she accepted to climb down into the baby’s world and to work with the language of motherhood, Darrieussecq is also ready to let the experience shape the form of her writing. Halfway through her narrative she claims: “There is no feminine writing, obviously; there may be feminine themes”. This is a rather off-handed way of dismissing a decades-long debate. But to me this is where her the political and the literary streams of her memoir come together: taking care of a small child is not, by essence, a female experience, even though women experience it in a different way to men’s. Writing about the baby need not be, therefore, relegated to the province of female writers – the baby doesn’t have to be condemned to being “the most possible minor subject for literature”. When men and women achieve equality in the care of children, the baby will become a universal literary subject.

  1. This translation and the following are mine []
  2. See the article by Ruth Quiney, “Confessions of the New Capitalist Mother: Twenty-first-century Writing on Motherhood as Trauma” []
  3. See the book by Jennifer Senior, All joy and no fun: The paradox of modern parenthood []

By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

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