BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 07 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

Weather Girl

Marie Darrieussecq's A Brief Stay with the Living

BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 07 JUN 03

In 1884 John Ruskin delivered an extraordinary lecture, a masterpiece of demented climatography entitled 'The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century'. Something has happened, claims the visionary critic, to the skies above Europe. Where once the weather, good or bad, had at least the virtue of being discernibly, predictably foul, or fine, now an eerie, hazy, raggedly indistinct and spectral cloud has begun to loom over the continent. Not just the smoky emanation of domestic and industrial pollution, it heralds the more unnerving advent of a cultural clouding-over, a period of bad psychic weather, 'dead men's souls' adrift in the ether. In short, Ruskin's storm cloud is the perfect image of his own characterization of the 'pathetic fallacy': the poetic fantasy that the natural world, and particularly the weather, shifts about in uneasy complicity with the author's storm-tossed consciousness.

If there is a contemporary equivalent of Ruskin's ghastly weather forecast, it is surely to be found in the sublimely disorienting fiction of the French novelist Marie Darrieussecq, whose novels obsessively cast psychological disarray in terms of an astonishing meteorology: clouds of unknowing, pressure drops of anxiety, advancing fronts of unease. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote that the images conjured up by memory have no dates, only seasons: we recall not the static precision of chronology but the diffuse sensation of a particular climatic mood, the weather's temperament. Darrieussecq is in thrall to the notion that we experience the world not as discrete bodies and minds at odds with an external universe, but as a torrent of atmospheric shifts. Such is her fascination with the elemental intricacies of air, wind and water, that time and again her plots and characters are eerily overcome by the barometric fluctuations of her prose.

In fact, Darrieussecq's plots often seem like the merest pretexts for her explorations of extreme physical sensations. In her first novel, Pig Tales (1997), the physicality is real, if bizarre: the book's female narrator is turning slowly into a pig. At first, her body seems to bloom pinkly with an unaccountable eroticism; later, she is a shambling, snorting hybrid; finally, a happy porker. Pig Tales is a grotesquely comic meditation on the ambiguous border between human and animal, between civilized notions of acceptable female physicality and an altogether more earthy, lusting and rutting, embodiment. It also frames its author's interest in the frontier between consciousness and physical reality in a recognizably Magic Realist mode: a literalism Darrieussecq would later abandon for a more intense, if abstracted, realism.

Darrieussecq's second novel is a ghost story of sorts: My Phantom Husband (1999) is narrated by a woman whose husband goes out to buy a loaf of bread and never returns. Her subsequent slide into insanity - via chasms of doubt, landslides of fear - is rendered in giddy, spooked metaphors. This is a novel of apparitions, its narrator hallucinating her husband's Cheshire Cat presence in a series of increasingly excruciating scenes. Darrieussecq formulates a narrative voice almost entirely out of an idiosyncratic nebula of similes: 'that was the last time I had a sense of myself as whole, complete, intact; from then on I grew dim and diffuse, like a galaxy turning to vapour in the far distance.' Everything is shifting, uncertain: a kaleidoscope of phantoms and hypnagogic after-images, atmospheric alterations glimpsed from the corner of the eye as looming shadows, 'a sort of densification of space, the kind to weaken the strength of the sun, as though through a filter; an almost palpable thickening of the air before me'.

My Phantom Husband also marks the beginning of a marine obsession in Darrieussecq's writing: the seashore as the mind's edge. This trope finds its most luminous expression in Breathing Underwater (2001), where she neatly reverses the premise of the earlier novel: here the central character has walked out on her old life, taking her young daughter to live by the sea, where they are pursued by a private detective hired by the woman's husband. But narrative amounts to almost nothing in the face of a certain queasy seaside mood (the book's French title is Le Mal de mer - 'seasickness'). Breathing Underwater is a story of erosion, of an unreal topography in which land and sea merge, and consciousness falls away like a collapsing cliff edge. Darrieussecq's knack is to catch the vertigo of loss in the conjunction of geography and weather, the vague sense that the place you think 'you' are is just a provisional spur of not-so-solid ground, a fragile promontory that could give way at any moment: 'it's not welcoming, it's rather that you have no choice, the way you'd fall off a building or a monument without a guard-rail. It's hard to visualize the edge of this thing, hard to decide precisely where it is, how far away.'

While Darrieussecq is keen to assert her independence from French literary tradition (beyond a fairly obvious allegiance to the late Modernism of Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute), she seems to have a clear precursor in Virginia Woolf. In fact, her most recent writing looks like a concentrated effort to rewrite Woolf's The Waves (1931), a novel that ebbs and flows between a host of competing narrative voices. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote of Woolf that her 'waves are vibrations, shifting borderlines inscribed on the plane of consistency as so many abstractions'. For Darrieussecq, whose latest novel, A Brief Stay with the Living (2003), borrows Woolf's technique as well as her oceanic obsession, the wave is one more resonant natural image for a state of psychological drift, a condensation of her meteorological imagination: 'it's impossible to watch the sea and remember it, recall its mobility - or else remember the sea like a face, in frozen images, like seeing ghosts in photos you move about. White lines rolling onwards, in the back-to-front film ...'

At the end of A Brief Stay with the Living, Darrieussecq appends a list of those without whom 'this book would not exist'; alongside Descartes, Diderot and Pascal are David Bowie, Talking Heads and The Cure. Apart from marking a generational specificity (Darrieussecq was born in 1969), her choices suggest the ambiguity of a writer who offers apparently straightforward narrative pleasures, then gleefully shifts ground to an unsettling experimentalism: all somehow conventional but teasingly odd, adrift in the mainstream. Her writing brings to mind another aquatically oriented eccentric: Kate Bush, whose Hounds of Love (1985) is half airy dreams of flight ('Cloudbusting', 'The Big Sky'), half drowned in pelagic torpor ('Under Ice'). Darrieussecq is similarly untethered, cast off into oceans of metaphor, submerged in something rich and strange.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.