Existentialism and Escape to Essence in the Works of Valérie Valère

by Richard A. Mazzara
Existentialism and Escape to Essence in the Works of Valérie Valère
Richard A. Mazzara
The French Review
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Existentialism and Escape to Essence in the Works of Valbrie Valitre

by Richard A. Mazzara

THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE is to introduce readers to the little known but timely work of Valkrie ValGre, which echoes not only the intellectual and esthetic trends of the twentieth century but certain particularly important humanitarian concerns of our day. The strong philosophical bent of the dis- turbed, short-lived novelist make her an introspective, lyrically expressive narrativist, not unlike Sartre and Camus on the one hand (McMahon), or Hesse, Gide and Woolf on the other (Freedman). ValGre's preoccupation with the way the physical world brings about differing and frequently most unexpected responses in a person's consciousness remind one also of the nouueau roman of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet. She is interested chiefly in the effects produced by events on her principal characters, then, in whose minds the conflicts of her works are based and by whose hermetic, even claustrophobic points of view both plot and structure are largely determined (Scholes and Kellogg). As ValGre probes the complex, shifting realities of human beings, and the relationships between their realities and language, that of others and their own, used to describe and fix them (Frye), she focuses especially on children and adolescents. Choices are made, existences created, and essences distilled, to which the young characters cling so desperately that, like ValGre herself, they are willing to die in order to preserve them (Wilson).

In her first work, Le Pauillon des enfants fous (Paris: Stock, 1978), the author (age seventeen), who is also the unhappy narrator (age thirteen) in this tragic autobiography of her confinement in a mental institution, experiences nausea frequently as an anorexic rebelling against her dreadful family, society, and the hospital, all conspiring to force her to eat and conform. The narration is conducted largely as an exterior monologue, the narrator recreating scenes from the past and narrative present as needed, but changes to interior monologue during Valkrie's most anguished moments when reality becomes intolerable. Rarely does she find a sympathetic human being; one adult alone, her mathe- matics teacher, treats her as an equal. The only peers with whom she feels some solidarity are her brother, several other anorexic girls, all mistreated as she has been, and one young aide in the hospital. If eventually Valkrie gives in to adults, it is to regain her freedom for the purpose of trying to commit suicide through starvation again, which is her existential goal. Meanwhile, Valkie attempts to sustain herself in the hospital that is a prison by dreams of liberty



and release from the nightmare of existence, which is more a prison than ever, one that she will never forget. Indeed, after several more years of such existence, and two novels later, Val6rie Va16refs life came to an end.

Malika ou un jour conlrne tous les autres (Paris: Stock, 1980), with its relatively well defined plot, two carefully developed principal characters as the narrators, and an interesting format, best fits the pattern of a structured conventional novel among Va16refs works. Malika, age nine or ten, and her brother, Wilfrid, age fifteen, live in a world of their own, though not entirely of their making. In alternating chapters throughout the book, each gives the reader his or her interpretation of a situation or an episode, experienced jointly or separately, feelings and aspirations. Like Val6rie, they use colloquial, often tough language in dealing with the anguish and absurdity of life, and move from exterior to interior monologue as they cope with reality relatively well or badly. They have a housekeeper, who does not reside and has little contact with them, in lieu of a non-existent mother and a virtually non-existent father, the latter returning from his travels only occasionally, usually with a girlfriend, to see that the children have enough money and to check perfunctorily on their progress in school. Although they hate it and their boring, tyrannical, hypocritical teachers, representatives of the adult world and society also, they feel compelled to attend school and to maintain good standing. Otherwise, they keep largely to themselves, doing homework, performing various chores about the apartment (the housekeeper does not seem to do much), reading, drawing, or painting, listening to music, or else roaming about Paris, going to the movies or restaurants (the housekeeper cooks only spaghetti), indulging in shopping sprees. Wilfried's brief, unfortunate, but intense love affair with the older, sophisticated Hkl6ne makes the incipient incestuous relationship between the incredibly mature Malika and her brother surface, after which they retreat increasingly to their lonely dream world, in or out of the apartment, where the ugliness of the real world cannot touch them. Yet Wilfried realizes that this is only wishful thinking and that, to prolong the idyllic winter holidays, they must escape to their father's country estate, where neither he nor school authorities can reach them. This, too, is a vain hope, of course, which precipitates their final liberation; for the police do find them-in bed together. With this damning evidence, not to mention the rest, their indignant "father" plans to put Wilfried in a reformatory and henceforth "protect" his supposedly violated little girl. Thus, the children have no choice but to commit suicide: Wilfried takes the poison that they had saved in the event of separation, and Malika, desperate to rejoin her brother-lover, runs into moving traffic and is killed.

In Obsessior~ blanche (Paris: Stock, 1981) Va16refs protagonist, Gene, a young novelist who has successfully published a first book, is experiencing writer's block as he attempts to create part two of a second work. Besides smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee or whiskey in his stark, lonely apartment, Gene's virtually sole activity is writing; and the author, here in third-person narrative which probes and reflects the character so fully that the reader may accept it as first-person, studies his compulsion (possibly hers also) to fill up the block of white sheets. Apparently in need of reassurance, a change of scene and, above all, some human contact-there is never a reference to family or friends in Gene's life-the young man sends part one of his novel off to his publisher for an opinion. Responding to the new editor's reply, Gene calls for an appointment and begins to see Prisca socially, soon entering into a homosexual relationship with him. Degraded as a man, belittled as a human being, frustrated as an author, Gene nevertheless feels an attraction as well as revulsion-Gene's need is in fact that of a son for a father-for Prisca. Unable to write during the day and forced to accompany Prisca to pornographic shows at night, Gene begins to believe that his editor-lover is stealing the work that he imagines he is producing. Yet even when they separate, Gene continues to seek Prisca in other men, scrubbing himself raw after each encounter as he had after making love with Prisca. Unsuccessfully, he seduces a woman to see if he feels clean in a heterosexual affair, then decides to push his masochism to the extreme by demanding payment as a prostitute with his next male partner. His madness and frustration increasing, Gene attacks his dictaphone equipment and type- writer, catching and lacerating his fingers in the keys. Horrified at having ruined his beautiful hands, he rushes himself to the hospital where he undergoes surgery, and where he makes contact with a psychiatrist. A friend of Prisca, now guilt-ridden and anxious for Gene's sanity to be restored, Dr. Aurel succeeds in replacing completely-better than Prisca had-that other Gene who keeps him from working. By pretending to write Gene's novel, except for the conclusion, the doctor somehow makes Gene, who had thought that Aurel, too, was stealing his work, aware that only he can write it. Gene gets to work and completes the job in short order, simply to realize that he is satisfied only when creating, but that once an obsession has been cured, he is faced with another block of white paper to fill and a new obsession. Fortunately for his sanity, as he races to discuss his latest work with Prisca, he is killed in the traffic. Va16refs now well established pattern is repeated for the third and last time in her work, although not in her short life.

The first two of Valgre's works are most timely in their presentation of some of the problems and solutions of children and adolescents in the world today, problems and solutions that she experienced personally or observed closely, and that caring adults are increasingly concerned with. Moreover, one suspects that as a writer she was possessed by the obsession blanche, an obsession that the reader can appreciate as representative of many that may possess any sensitive person, young or old. The author-narrator of Le Pavillon des enfants fous has lived with self-centered, uncaring parents. As the family background is presented, whether through the narrator's bitter recollections, flashbacks in which scenes are recounted and dialogues quoted, or visits in the hospital, the reader learns of the range of sexual perversions, excluding incest, and games, involving lovers and other couples, that have preoccupied the parents whose marriage has ended in divorce. Even worse is the hypocrisy of both parents in


their pose-before society in general and their children in particular-of propriety and especially of concern for their son and daughter. In fact, all they have ever cared about is that the children "behave" and cause them no trouble. After their divorce they try to use them as weapons, blaming one another or her brother, with whom she shares some solidarity, for Valkrie's condition. At every opportunity they absolve themselves of any guilt and, if they shower attention on the girl, it is chiefly a show for others and to have her "cured" and out of the hospital as soon as possible to minimize the shame they experience in society. In Malika the young sister and older brother clearly have joined forces because of the almost total absence of parents. The father, when he is mentioned or puts in a rare appearance, closely resembles Valbrie's parents, and there is no caring adult to take a parent's place. It would seem in many respects a carefree life for Malika and Wilfried, but they are forced too soon to be adults in ways that a responsible adult would judge undesirable. Above all, they are forced to rely on each other for their every need. At their ages the burden is too great emotionally, and their tragic end is inevitable. In Obsession blanche it is Prisca who represents the perverted, unfeeling adult who, after having contributed in large measure to Gene's mental and emotional imbalance, experiences guilt and makes impatient efforts to solve Gene's problems and thus belatedly relieve his own conscience.

Apart from the family, other institutions violently criticized by ValGre in these works are those that traumatized her the most personally, notably the mental hospital in Le Pavillon. The reasons for Valkrie's illness are clear and, if she is to be prevented from starving herself to death, her anorexia must be treated medically, for her mother cannot and will not cure her. The question asked repeatedly by the girl is whether she does not have the right to do with her life what she will. Having rationalized her desire for suicide, she does not consider herself mad. She is furious at the incarceration, the force, the lack of privacy, and especially at being put in the company of children who are retarded or crazy as well as with the emotionally disturbed. The reader is sympathetic, experiencing pity and fear at Valkrie's past and present, wishing her to live but aware that her life to date has not been worth living. He is relieved when she decides to eat and try freedom again, for there is still hope; yet he realizes that there is little when, as a minor, she must return to her mother and conform or be faced with being committed again. The conclusion is bound to be a tragic one, as is that of Malika. The responsible adult reader knows that children cannot make a life for themselves without genuine parental involvement, however conservative or liberal.

Like the hospital in Le Pavillon des enfants fous, the school is viewed as a prison in Malika. In the latter much more attention is given to that gloomy institution, its uninspired activities, and its dull, hypocritical practitioners, whether professors or students. Although occasionally they are sought out by classmates, neither Wilfried nor Malika have any real friends among their peers, who seem resigned or content with their lot at home and school, and with whom the protagonists have nothing in common or to whom they feel superior. Wilfried thinks of his "copains" merely as rivals for grades, while Malika uses them, male or female, to get her work done. They value what they do out of school far more than what they do in, and the informed adult must admit that most of their extracurricular activities are very worthwhile as well as more fun. Most of all they value each other's company and, after they fall in love, cannot bear the return to "prison." Again, the reader is sympathetic, but knows, as they appear to, that their solution can bring only troubled, short-lived happiness; yet their moments of earthly triumph may be worth the risk of tragedy, which for them is another kind of triumph. There is no evidence of a lesson learned by any adult in ValGre's novel, but surely those who read it acquire greater understanding of the problems and aspirations of children.

The "obsession blanche" is the prison of the creative person who is not happy unless he is achieving. A lack of discipline makes Gene depend exclusively on inspiration, which he forces. This neurosis is exacerbated to insanity when for some reason the inspiration does not come. His madness takes several forms as he tries to place the blame for his impotence and makes Gene very vulnerable to Prisca's exploitation, whose sexual aspect symbolizes the artistic. Aware of his prostitution, Gene seems to attempt artistic suicide, but like most suicide attempts, his is a cry for help. The hospital in this case is a benign institution, for the patient finds a cure for his hands and, albeit temporary, for his soul. Given his nature, the creative inspiration, like the dreams of Val6rie or of Malika, can offer Gene only brief respite; the problem is an underlying one and it does return. The only permanent solution to Va16re1s anguish and sense of absurdity can be death.

The exploration and juxtaposition of different realities are constant preoccu- pations of ValGre, lending her work considerable dramatic tension. Indeed, the author sometimes deliberately stages brief scenes to highlight the drama. In a holiday mood, Malika and her brother stop to admire a group of African street dancers; the crowd admires them, thinks Malika, but does not seem to under- stand as they do the sheer happiness of dancing. Her thoughts soon become more somber. On the eve of Valkrie's discharge from the hospital a troupe of entertainers have arrived to provide a Christmas party for the children. Too cowardly now to refuse to attend, as one of her violent fellows has refused, Valkrie recognizes her former dark-circled eyes and pallor in the mimes' make- up and wishes she could be like them again. Ironically, the world considers her cured, well enough to rejoin society, while she hates herself for not being true to herself and her dream and feels completely disoriented and frightened as the entertainers force her to join them. How can they be pleasant to the awful doctors? Will she be able to face reality on the outside? Later, accepting the actors' invitation to visit them at the theater, Valkrie thinks to make the stage a new dream, but there is no escape for her. She has left the madhouse that was a prison only to find herself a prisoner of sadness in the "real" world of madmen living their illusions and delusions. Riding with Prisca, Gene rediscovers the


lost child in himself, the boy who needed a father and has found him. He wants to hold on to the child, but he is no more than a character in a novel and the delirious dream is soon lost in eternity. Disappointed and disoriented, Gene is nevertheless glad to be with and depend on Prisca. A second sadness takes hold of him, one that is actually relief and sweet, calm joy. At this point they see some street actors in front of Saint-Germain and their audience who envies their freedom with its eyes but insults them with its voice to hide the envy. Gene and Prisca are actors, too, actors in the comedy of life who have grown distant and indifferent through despair, unaware that they still have roles in the play. As they enter the night club, Gene's attitude toward Prisca changes radically, ominously, and the tenderness disappears.

Like many contemporary writers, ValGre is most preoccupied with the way "things" in one's surroundings elicit changing, often surprising reactions in an individual. Exterior action is of slight importance, although much space is devoted to the effects of such action, which is often reduced to the category of a thing either by repetition or recurrent description and analysis. The drama in Valkre's lyrical works takes place almost entirely in the mind of the principal character or characters from whose hermetic perspective on complex, shifting realities the story is told and structured. Less overtly philosophical than other contemporary authors, ValGre probes the psychological so deeply and thor- oughly from either the first- or third-person point of view as to reveal classic existential types, to the extent that existentialism permits of types. Whether accidental or deliberate, the deaths of Val6refs young protagonists must remind the reader of the frequent suicides of today's adolescents. Are they the result of cries for help heard too late or genuine efforts to escape the many problems felt by young people to be insurmountable? Both in reality and in the literature which reflects it, they must be considered statements of these problems, but also, in existential terms, means of fixing essences created by existences of rebellion and artistic creation.

Works Cited

Freedman, Ralph. The Lyrical Novel: Studies in Hermaniz Hesse, Andre Gide and Virginia Woolf

(Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963). Frye, Northrop. The Well-Tempered Critic (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963). McMahon, Joseph H. Human Beings: The World of Jean-Paul Sartre (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1971). Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford UP, 1971). Wilson, Colin. introduction to the New Existentialism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).

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