Why should I miss the dirty icicle in La Femme de Gilles, when I can still see “long, black snow-covered hedges” and that “heap of stones” Elisa sits on in the dark during chapter five? It’s not as if we lose her landscape. I don’t know, that page of acute seeing seems good enough for essays in class. “The woman she spots at the table represents Elisa as she was earlier that day, happy and ignorant,” you write, “but this aspect of herself is perishing, strangled to death by her dawning knowledge; this is why she ‘knows’ her and passes, a witness to murder …” At the moment this woman appears she is already a dead Elisa. The polyps on the trees in Octave Mirbeau’s Calvary, 1886, tr. Louis Rich, a book I never even finished, are at least alive: “I recall the park, its enormous trees, strangely twisted, eaten up by polypes [sic] and moss”? That was enough, so I closed the book. (A grackle is drinking from a puddle outside.)
Femme is so constructedly constructed, so smart, so architectural – and yet I finished it, which, as I admitted, is more than you can say for me and Mirbeau; I went through the steps, the fragments of news about the character’s alleged past, lined up and coming together, just as the shock hitting Elisa on the pages around the “dirty icicle” comes together too, in sections: this is a book that teaches you itself quite patiently. Bourdouxhe makes her tragedy like a curriculum. The ending she was planning towards was hanging over her the whole time, even when she was saying in chapter one, “Life is sweet.” As she wrote about Elisa dreaming over her tub “staying still for a moment, soaking in the softness” she was seething with purpose. By the end of this uninnocent chapter, with the husband fed on rice pudding and the little girls bathing in warm water, we’ve probably guessed that someone is going to die. The happy ending has already occurred and now we’re only left with the sad one. Who’s it going to be? Right now everyone is up for grabs. Will it be the husband? Will Bourdouxhe give us a surprise by dropping a roof tile on one of the girls? Was it Seven Little Australians that conditioned me to expect girls in books to die because something falls on them? Didn’t we lose a lot of Ruskin’s dashes; didn’t his editors change some of them into other punctuation, or am I guessing too much because John Lewis Bradley, the compiler of The Letters of John Ruskin to Lord and Lady Mount-Temple, 1966, tells you in the introduction that he is a responsible editor who retained them against reason? “Ruskin’s odd spellings and excessive use of dashes remain.” So, these ineffables or polyps or spasms or scriptless convulsions are still there, and no one can say they represent anything distinct.
I have been trying to find a way of getting down this week – it is so tempting – your promise of quiet – and I should indeed like so much to come – were it possible – But an infinite number of cobweb threads fasten me here – inexplicably – but not to be broken. The strongest being a dim thread indeed – leading I know not where through labyrinths of old times. I’ve just got into some depth about the Egyptian things – and if I leave my work ever so little the sand will all blow in upon me again.” (26th of September, 1864)
At this point in his life he is knotting himself up in the death-figure of Rose La Touche, another dash.