Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Maryse Condé is the author I discovered on the Man Booker International long list, the author that stood out for me, even if she didn’t win the prize. Since discovering her, I have read and reviewed the book she recommended for those wishing to discover her work, Tales From the Heart: True Stories From my Childhoodvignettes of her life growing up as the youngest and 8th child of a civil servant (who had been a school principal when her mother married him) and school teacher in a black bourgeoise family.

I decide to follow this up with another tale Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, though publishers label it as fiction, it is based on the life and facts of her grandmother. Victoire was an illiterate, white skinned woman she never met, who worked as a highly reputable cook for a white Creole family, the Walbergs, a connection that her mother Jeanne, though raised, supported and educated by this family, appeared to reject.

VictoireMaryse Condé wrote this account in a desire to learn more of her family history, a quest that began by researching the life of Victoire Elodie Quidal, speaking to a lot of people and a project that would take three years to complete.

When she questioned her mother Jeanne, a woman with no discernible palate, incapable of boiling an egg, she was shocked to learn her grandmother had been a cook.

‘And she didn’t teach you anything, not even one recipe?’ She continued without answering the question. ‘She first worked in Grand Bourg for the Jovials, some relatives of ours. That ended badly. Very badly. Then …then she migrated to La Pointe and hired out her services to the Walbergs, a family of white Creoles, right up until she died.’

Maryse wanted answers, but that was as much as her mother would share, they never resumed the conversation, the years passed by, in a kind of chaos, however that conversation never left her curious mind and her grandmother began to seep into her imagination.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

Victoire’s mother Eliette was a twin who died in childbirth at the age of fourteen. More than the shock of her pregnancy and sudden death, was the appearance of a child with clear eyes and pink skin. No one was aware of her having crossed paths with a white man, there were no whites in La Trielle where she lived except priests and at one point a garrison of soldiers, who’d been training in the area, before being despatched back to France.

Eliette’s mother Caldonia raised Victoire and became close to her, when most people were wary of her with her too white skin and transparent eyes. The only education she received was religious and at the age of 10, the Jovial’s requested she come and work for them in the kitchen. Given only the thankless tasks, she observed the others and began to acquire the culinary skills she would become so well-known for.

Obtaining a position as cook for the Dulieu-Beaufort family was a turning point in her life, perhaps even more so than finding herself pregnant at 16-years-old, for in this family she would meet her lifelong friend Anne-Marie, her same age, outraged at having been married off to Boniface Walberg, Victoire’s future employers and the beginning of a mysterious and enduring relationship, one that set people talking and would be seen by her daughter Jeanne (Maryse’s mother) with utmost disapproval.

Apart from a brief period when Victoire fell in love with another, causing a period of separation from her daughter, and a significant turning point in their relationship, she would stay loyal to the Walberg’s all her life. Though she could neither read or write, she accepted her life, despite suffering the disapproval of her unforgiving daughter Jeanne, who would obtain an excellent education and position, marry a man twenty years her senior, removing all risk of insecurity that she’d observed in her mother and previous generations, determined to avoid a similar fate.

In an interview with Megan Doll, in Bookslut Maryse Condé explains her desire to write about her grandmother:

Maryse Condé‘The story is, of course, about my grandmother but the real problem was my mother. I lost my mother when I was very young — fourteen and a half. And during the short time that I knew her I could never understand her. She was a very complex character. Some people — most people, the majority of people — disliked her. They believed she was too arrogant, too choleric. But we knew at home that she was the most sensitive person and I could not understand that contradiction between the way she looked and the way she actually was. So I tried to understand as I grew up and I discovered that it was because of a big problem with her own mother. She seems to have failed; she had the feeling that she was not a good, dutiful daughter. I had to understand the grandmother and the relationship between my mother, Jeanne, and her mother, Victoire, to understand who Jeanne was, why she was the way she was, and at the same time understand myself.’

Condé also finds a connection between her and Victoire through their creativity, her grandmother’s through her renowned cuisine, Condé’s through her writing. At times she almost appears to channel her grandmother, as she senses what she may have been thinking or why she reacted in a certain way,  connecting with this mysterious woman who was so different to the mother she knew, a woman equally misunderstood by the community around her.

This was the perfect follow-up to Tales of the Heart and an intriguing look into the impact of circumstances of birth of three generations of women, how the past constantly threatens and can mock one’s position in the present, somewhat explaining Jeanne’s instinct to distance herself from her illiterate mother while fulfilling her ambitions and then her guilt at having treated her mother badly, when she only wanted the best for her.

The two books I have read were translated from French into English.

To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

A relationship ends, prompting the author to plan a journey that follows the course of the River Ouse in Southern England, a river that has changed over time, through man’s battles, interventions and industrial/agricultural practices.

To The RiverAs she walks the river, Olivia Laing narrates a number of those historic events, occurrences that the river today bears little trace of, including the last immersion of Virginia Woolf, her pockets laden with heavy rocks as she strode with purpose into the river, her corpse emerging downstream three weeks later.

“Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream.” Virgina Woolf

The narrative meanders like the river might have done, had it not had its more interesting aspects and life-filled curves, sliced and straightened long ago, making it in parts more like a dredged canal. By bringing disparate events together in one narrative, Laing attempts to connect history to the landscape, reviving ghosts of the past, on a route where no markers inform the casual walker of its gruesome days gone by.

It is an attractive premise, to walk the length of a river as a form of therapy, writing and researching its length, though rather than submerge as Virginia Woolf was so drawn towards doing and did in this same river, Olivia Laing’s journey is more one of, walk, pause, reflect on great battles and digs, other lives lived, move swiftly on.

She spends little time reflecting on her own troubled narrative, the barely mentioned Matthew, a ghost-like figure never fully formed, their dilemma not shared on the page, instead it is the river we begin to grieve for, her character sliced and cut and reformed to meet the purpose of man, ignorant of the smaller life forms dependent on it for survival.

Deflecting attention away from her own purpose, Laing has written a tribute to a little known river, a metaphor of life, with all the events that chip away at and form its character, though its true essence remains.

She recalls the brutal Barons’ War of the 13th century, the dinosaur hunters of the 19th century at a time when that word had not yet been invented and the many writers whose lives and works were inspired or touched by rivers.

“I’d been thinking that morning of  The Wind and the Willows, and it struck me that if it had nurtured my love of rivers,  might also be responsible for this faint mistrust of woods…”

As she recalls listening with her sister to tapes of Kenneth Grahame’s stories of Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger, she tells the tragic tale of the author’s son Alistair, aspects of whose nature were immortalised in the character of Toad, his difficulty adjusting to the expectations of public school and university life and his premature death. This event segues into the question of whether A.S. Byatt in her novel The Children’s Book, who casts a character who writes children’s stories and uses her children as inspiration, has created an epitaph for Kenneth Grahame.

Of particular interest to those familiar with the landscape and interested in its history and of Virginia Woolf, it provides a brief introduction to many subjects, meandering off course at times. The book may have held my attention more, if the author had reached deeper into her own inner journey, though perhaps these lessons are realised long after the physical journey has taken place.

“Water,in Woolf’s personal lexicon, represented a way of slipping the superficial self … and ducking down into a deeper, nameless realm.  When Virginia writes about writing, the images she employs are liquid. She is flooded or floated; she breaks the current. When the books are going well she plunges off, happy as a swimmer, into the marine element of private thought.  When the work is going poorly, however, when headaches prevail,  or sleeplessness sets in, her descriptions begin to acquire a nightmarish dryness.”

Trip to Echo SpringOlivia Laing combines a present day physical journey with threads of the past, as she does with The Trip to Echo Spring, a journey across America via a topographical map of alcoholism that examines the link between creativity and alcohol apparent in the books of John Cheever, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.