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Philippe Sollers:Femmes (Women)

The book is narrated by Will, an American journalist based in France and working for a publication called The Journal. We do not know his name till half way through the book (560 pages) or his nationality till about a third of the way through the book, though we will learn (from him) that he is happily married to Deborah, a fellow American, and they have a son Stephen . Interestingly he later says Marriage is a variable kind of purgatory… Anyone who’s been able to stand that can stand anything. We soon see here that, firstly he is having various affairs in Paris and elsewhere, with women of various nationalities (French, English, Chinese and Spanish) and, more particularly, he seems to be a consummate misogynist. The world belongs to women. In other words, to death. But everyone lies about it and It’s a woman’s world. Only women exist. They’ve always known it, and yet they don’t know it at all. He states this early on but we see that both generally and in his comments about specific women, he does not like women. He qualifies his by saying that he likes music and Women musicians … The only women I’d spare … Singers, pianists, harpsichordists, violinists.
He tells us about his various conquests and gives us graphic descriptions of his sex life, which seems to be not terribly exciting for either partner (We lick each other all over… She sucks me, I suck her … She eats my balls)

The women are Bernadette, Kate, , Cyd, Flora, Ysia and Diane. His paranoia about women is reinforced when Flora inadvertently reveals to him various organisations: FAM … The Front for the Autonomy of the Matrix … The French section of WOMANN … The World Organization for Male Annihilation and a New Natality … Itself a part of the SGIC . the Sodom and Gomorrah International Council (WOMANN is in English in the French text). WE later get NADRHAI (National Association for the Development and Recognition of Human Artificial Insemination). They have a plan aiming at nothing more nor less than a secret takeover of world power. This was not to be a violent takeover: control of reproduction, slant of same in favour of women, placing of highly qualified agents in gynecological sectors, suggestions for the education of children and critical overhaul and sifting of the whole cultural memory, with a recommendation that education, literature, and art, together with all other elements regarded as sexist or macho, be eliminated. Certain “geniuses” were to have their work either extensively expurgated or else “relativised” — in plain language, banned. Special cases – Mozart for example – were to be “presented”—i.e., set in the context of the age they lived in …. Also a merciless war was declared against “Judeo-Christianity” in general, held responsible for “patriarchal” tyranny, and against Judaism and Catholicism in particular. Anything to do with monotheism was to be undermined, broken up and done away with. Certain men – homosexuals in particular, would be co-opted. He feels that they are after him. All his women were plotting against him.

We also learn that he is writing a novel . What is it about? Ordinary things. The fever of today. Boredom, thought, glimmerings. Men, women. .. There are a few things I want to say straight out. Rub people’s noses in them.

It is not all about women. Like his creator, Will knows the Great and the Good of the French intellectual world. They are thinly disguised in this book. Fals, for example, who dies during the course of the book is Jacques Lacan, while Lutz, who as in real life, kills his wife, is Louis Althusser. His friend Boris is Jean-Edern Hallier while the inevitable Roland Barthes is disguised as Werth. Bernadette is Antoinette Fouque. Though, in real life Sollers was more or less on good terms with these people, he is quite disparaging about them in this book. It is not entirely thr French. We will later get Angela Lobster who is Angela Carter.

These people and, of course, Sollers himself represent contemporary high French culture yet that is another area which he damns. What we need to know is if there’s still anyone in the world with (1) a rich and interesting life; (2) real culture; (3) true originality; (4) style … But alas! If we limit it to the French — for I’m quite willing to believe there may be an American or a German, a Latin-American, or a Jamaican that fills the bill—what do we see? Disaster … Nothing … Take the authors published by Gallimard … Everyone knows they’re the only ones that matter, and that it’s no use trying to get yourself recognized as a writer in France outside of the Central Bank … Sollers was, of course published by Gallimard, including this book.

Sollers himself appears in two characters. Firstly, Will, though American, is partially based on Sollers himself, while the the notorious novelist known only as S. is also clearly Sollers. Of course, the American Will can mock he French in a way a Frenchman could not. The French are a funny lot … Terribly clannish, really … Much more so than they think, anyway: they believe they do nothing but challenge, fight and loathe one another. But just let a foreigner come on the scene, the genuine article, in other words someone almost like themselves, and they close ranks.

As we can see that it is not only misogyny that interests him. We learn about his reading (The Odyssey and Melville (Moby Dick is his favourite book). He finds S. too difficult to read (Sollers’ earlier novels were very experimental) but he gives us a fairly detailed account of how he would imagine a twentieth century Madame Bovary. And he likes art – de Kooning Picasso, (he particularly likes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is on the cover of both the French and English versions of this book). S., incidentally prefers de Sade. What he does not like is surrealism Sartre and the nouveau roman.

The book is long and he dives in and out of any number of topics. Women are, of course the the main topic (Women are so literal … Can’t understand a metaphor … Always want to scale you down, reduce you to a doll, a babe-in-arms, a packagesized infant), yet he continues to have an active sex life, of which he spares us few details. But he also jumps around culture (particularly literature and art); travel (he visits quite a few countries during the course of the book), religion (he is Catholic but often mistaken for a Jew); he seems to know the Bible well and even gets a phone call from the Pope, (whom he visits); politics (veryone knows Israel is a projection of American imperialism) and a range of other topics. In short it is to a certain extent an everything novel.

He also discusses his novel or, rather, tries to avoid doing so. Many people during the course of the book will ask him about it and he tries to put them off, though admits that the title is Women. He even dreams that the Devil condemns the title: Stick to Women, if you insist! But don’t say I didn’t warn you! It won’t help sales . . . But don’t expect any help from me! And remember I control all the media and the publicity. More particularly, he loses faith in his own writing: I can’t even understand myself anymore … Can scarcely read my own writing … I feel as if I’d been caught out … I can’t remember why I ever got myself into it…I get to thinking everyone else is right … It’s worthless … Gibberish … Greek … Chinese … Mumbo jumbo … A hoax … Unreadable … Madness … But I can’t do anything about it … It’s a flop …

His misogyny is, frankly, tiresome and often childish and the book , as a whole, is all over the place but that, in part,is what makes it interesting as he covers many topics and you can often skip over his latest sexual (mis)adventure or misogynistic outburst.

The French version is still in print though the English version is long out of print and not exactly cheap to buy. I suspect both the British and the Americans never really got into French intellectualism. Despite its many failings, however, I found it an interesting read.

Publishing history

First published in 1983 by Gallimard
First English translation in 1990 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Barbara Bray