Here is my mother’s diary entry for Boxing Day 1947. I reproduce it verbatim. It is handwritten in blue fountain pen in a personal diary, which she kept secret all her adult life. She wrote as she thought and since she had no intention of publishing it, she didn’t go back and proof-read it! What is remarkable, is how excellent an account it is of a highly perplexing novel, by a young woman whose wartime, Glasgow university training was in Modern History (Major) and Geology (Minor).
‘ 26 . .12 . 47
Combat avec l’ange — Giraudoux.
There is the strange comfort of complete unreality about this novel. Not that the characters lack veracity — it is just that they belong to a strata of society as out of touch with everyday life — or rather the life of the ordinary person bourgeois or working-class — that one might just as well be reading a fairy tale.
No fairy tale, however, would concern itself with the multiple workings of these complicated mind of Maléna, altho’ the restoration of her original life & habits after her struggle with poverty & sordidity is true to form.
It is difficult to understand what is the main theme of this story. The title, the action is surely Maléna’s effort to make herself into a being worthy of her lover — a being who understands & supports life in all its cruelty & deceptions — & her failure to be anything but the delightful, charming creature that nature & money had intended her to be. As the author-lover tells us she is delightful & charming we assume that she is so; in actual fact to the reader she has no character at all. She is not a living human being who we come to know as chapter follows chapter. From time to time a few indications are thrown out as to indicate ways in which she passed the time or personal idiosincracies [sic] in which she had indulged but Maléna is more a vehicle for abstract thought than a pulsating human being. What is more everything everybody with whom she comes in contact is similarly an abstraction whether it be the solitary, poverty-stricken human man with the spectacles without which he was helpless or her friends & acquaintances at the race-course — not of them are individuals; they are symbols of a strata of society like the crucifixion of some early Flemish primitive which is so divorced from the people we see in every far from human flesh & blood that is pure expression of agony. In both cases the wonder of it is that one’s emotions are touched. A human being who has the wonder of living is scarcely ever completely tragic but when instead one is faced with a personified tragic quality the sorrow of it is almost too much to bear. The tragic little figure of the man without his spectacles, quite alone & at the mercy of an attacking humanity is quite desperate.
The only human being in this peculiar description of mental activity is Brossard. & he has nothing to do with the current of the story at all nor have the people who have anything to do with them. He happens to be the ‘chef’ of the ‘raconteur’ & that is all — if the references to him were removed and collected to make an article it would be an extremely interesting account but in the novel it is merely a rather worrying interruption which one feels should be explained away.
In other words the power of this book lies completely in the expression of a mental struggle going on in the mind of a being whom we [k]no[w] little or nothing of. We see her at this moment of her life which comes to most of us at one time or other but which usually has to be dealt with in the frame of a normal working existence. Maléna a charming nonentity undergoes it detached from human society. She may walk & talk with her friends & acquaintances but there is an almost invisible test tube surrounding her so that when she does go out to contact humanity she cannot even begin to get near it. She is so busy trying to consciously save her soul that she almost loses the minute quantity of it which she already had in her possession.
Giraudoux’s style emphasises this juxtaposition with separation of the real & the unreal. The moment an ordinary activity — such as that of the small boy taking the bottle of milk home — comes within Maléna’s orbit it ceases to be ordinary & takes on a dream, or rather nightmare quality. It is no longer a normal human action full of latent excitement — it has become a process whose effect on Maléna is like a science room experiment.
As a novel does all this lead us anywhere. Does one learn anymore of humanity — its thoughts & actions? Does one leave the book with an understanding of a new character, a new way of life, the interpretation of an old way or the feeling that a person, a situation has been set before one & explained away as far as it is possible. Je crois que non! Personally, I finished the book with the same sort of feeling as I do on awaking from a particularly lucid dream when I ask myself ‘now why did that particularly vivid scene arise before my eyes & for what reason did those distinctly spoken words follow each other in that sequence[?]’ Life & its more pressing problems always prevent the enquiry being pursued. It is always pleasant to see human beings in love being brought together so the end of the story is quite satisfactory but for Maléna & her lover never would I give another thought — they mean even less than those hectic, dream like sophisticates who crossed one’s vision at the first cocktail party — creatures without character, without vision & without purpose.’
Giraudoux’s novel draws on conventions of surrealism and the absurd, while narrating a slice of social reality. He destabilises the reader by having a first person narrator, Jacques, who writes an intradiegetic narrative, increasingly about the beautiful, exotic, wealthy, Latin American Maléna, her domestic life, her social encounters and her private agonies as the novel progresses, as if he were a third person narrator. All vraisemblance is lost when our narrator tells a story that in reality he has had no access to. As a feminist literary critic, I would also say that this destabilising narrative device confers authority on both the male author and the male protagonist-narrator, while taking agency away from the female protagonist, whose story my mother quite rightly identified as being central to the novel.
So why is Jacques there at all? Well, sexual politics in that society were unequal. From internal evidence I would say that the novel is set during the inter-war years between the Great War and World War II. Men have all the political power; woman’s role, especially a woman of the rich leisure class such as Maléna, is to be cultured, decorative and pleasing to men. And this is in fact Maléna’s dilemma. It leads to her breakdown in reason, which condition is named at the end of the novel as neurasthenia. Post second-wave feminism, we have a much clearer understanding of the gender politics surrounding the feminine condition named neurasthenia that male medical practitioners diagnosed and treated from around the fin de siècle well into the twentieth century.
My mother didn’t see the point of the narrative interludes away from Maléna, when Jacques is at work as private secretary to le Président du Conseil Brossard. (The depiction of Brossard is a barely disguised portrait of Aristide Briand, as the brief introduction to the 1946 edition makes clear.) Yet, the study of a ‘great man’ wrestling with the international politics of a world on the brink of war and desperately trying to maintain peace, shows us the other side of neurasthenia, as male anxiety in the face of modernity. Brossard’s health is severely compromised by the unequal struggle and he eventually dies. On his death bed, Maléna is summoned to be the ‘angelic’ presence that will console him in his finally moments. And by this stage in the novel, Maléna has come to her senses, so to speak, and resigned herself to this feminine role.
It should also be noted, that the comic sub-plot around Maléna’s domestic arrangements, where she is ruled by her ex-nurse, Amparo and her family, mirrors this state of malaise even further, when Amparo’s husband takes to his sickbed to be pronounced near death, only to be miraculously restored to health. Amparao’s daughter, Baba, adds a further note of absurdity with her fixation on an imaginary world of exotic creatures, especially elephants that Maléna is obliged to collude with. Baba is of course very distressed when she reads in a magazine that such imaginary creatures actually exist. The real is stranger than the imaginary, as Maléna’s wandering around Paris and the Bois de Boulogne demonstrate.
So, despite its narrative quirks, combat avec l’Ange presents a compelling analysis of the inter-relation between sexual politics and national and international politics. Through narrative metonymy, Maléna’s emotional confusion and temporary psychosis stands in a contiguous and intertwined relationship with the turbulence and instability of international diplomatic relations and the dehumanising effects of poverty and the class system. She illustrates the ways in which human judgement can be knocked off kilter and become worryingly fallible. The ways in which a person (and by analogy a nation) can misdiagnose her sense of malaise and then seek solutions, which only confound the original problem even further.
The choice of ‘Jacques’ as the narrator’s name alludes to the participants in the French Revolution, who used this appellation to identify themselves to one another. Jacques is inevitably a political being and Giraudoux shows how the personal and the political are inextricable. He conducts his private life in the interstices of his work commitments, dividing his allegiances between affairs of state in the company of a great statesman and affairs of a sexual nature in the house of a great Madame. His morality is neither than of traditional Catholicism nor of a pure revolutionary egalitarianism; by the 1930s a whole series of moral muddles and compromises have become the norm. Maléna is more disturbed by this than Jacques, but being a woman and therefore powerless, apart from through the powers of female beauty and persuasion, her sensitivity to the failure of the original ideals of égalité, fraternité & liberté can only result in psychological breakdown.
Her choice at the end of the novel is to descend into irreparable madness or to resume her normality, as if it were an item of clothing to be kept in her wardrobe and put on every day before facing the world. The novel ends with the following conclusion: ‘ce qu’il convient de dire c’est que la Providence sait tenir la balance parfaitement égale entre l’être et le néant…’ In 1943, Jean Paul Sartre published L’être et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. The philosophical argument of that existentialist text and the narrative exploration of Giraudoux’s 1934 novel agree fundamentally on the state of the human condition in twentieth-century Europe.
My mother commented that: It is difficult to understand what is the main theme of this story.’ She concluded that:
The title, the action is surely Maléna’s effort to make herself into a being worthy of her lover — a being who understands & supports life in all its cruelty & deceptions — & her failure to be anything but the delightful, charming creature that nature & money had intended her to be.
In 1947, did she too worry what role as an adult woman she might carve out for herself in post-war Europe?