Simone had a knack for falling in love: if she had been an actress, she would have been said to be a quick study. (Fortunately she also had a knack for falling out of love.)
A Woman, In Bed is not quite what I expected. It’s about a woman giving in to her lusty nature during World War I and II. At the start she is filled with romantic notions, but I liked her far better when she was old and no longer had the sand of youthful sleep in her eyes. “What was in store for Simone? She had as little sense as that wambling goose, only a premonition that nature was up to no good.” One wonders how different her life would have been had she repressed her desires and stuck through her first marriage to Luc. Probably just as much mental torment in the repression as in embracing her selfish wants. We find her at the start of the novel, infant son Marcel in tow, at her Mother’s boarding house. Her husband remains in Istanbul, where the threat of fevers and illness made it vital for her to leave during her pregnancy. Her son has not yet met their newborn child. She spends her days bored by caring for her child, and longing for letters from her husband, who though she doesn’t love, certainly likes the admiration and passion, love he feels for her. A vanity of sorts. As a mother, she is disinterested, even if she tenderly cares for her son when he returns from war many years later. Likely the only emotionally charged moment that her son holds dear, after-all, she kept him alive. But that is later, first there is her lover and Marcel is still an infant. She meets Jacques Melville when he stays at her mother’s boarding house, and does all things improper. To say she is wanton is an understatement, in fact her husband notes that his wife won’t be the faithful sort early in the story. So begins their love affair, but then he leaves, letters pass between the two until husband Luc’s thick letter with steamship tickets arrive and she is to return to Istanbul. It isn’t long before she is pregnant again and all to happy to abandon her husband for her ‘parturition’, happy to know she will once again be close to her lover, Jacques, even while fat with pregnancy. She finds a letter waiting for her from her lover, and immediately writes him. After she gives birth to Odette, she decides early on to wean her daughter within weeks, saving her body for her beloved alone.
Before long he has booked a visit and seduces her with a book of poetry, together again she cannot hide her desire and love, visiting a poet with her lover she has, with her very own hands, ‘cast herself outside the bounds of decency.’ She experiences all manner of debauchery by his side, even morphine. If she longs for love, to crawl inside of Jacques and know him to the very core of his being, she will spend decades trying to understand this closed off man. It is years before he finally discards his wife and children to marry Simone. The reader learns the ghosts of his own past, the time he spent in Madagascar, how his first wife Sala seduced him, how they came to be married. He is of a nature that will not be tamed, that resents the responsibilities and demands of marriage, of the silly notions of love. He blanches at Simone’s blatant adoration, while also welcoming all the indiscretions.
She learns that flirtations feed his fire, that her attempts at flaunting other man before him only make him hungrier for her, and so she takes many lovers, nothing to it. Other women aren’t a threat, for now. They marry, she finally has what she wished for, and as they say ‘be careful what you wish for.’ War is a rupture all throughout the novel, threatening her very son’s life. It isn’t just about her sexual revolution, she is complicit in an incident during the French Revolution. Something horrific and too real, that Jacques really doesn’t want to hear. There are many ‘animal acts’ that we civilized human beings partake of in times of war. Her hunger isn’t just sexual either, times are lean and because of war there is genuine hunger no amount of soup can fill. In time it will be her turn to be discarded now and again by her beloved Jacques for another, disgusted by her frailty, her disease. Naturally he finds some new confection of a woman, even if he does love Simone in his own strange way, he cannot remain faithful, it’s not in his nature. Some might think, ‘it’s her just deserts, for having come between he and Sala’ some will think ‘well, that’s what happens when you chose a selfish, fickle man’. What love is safe, be a woman pure or not? When she suffers a mysterious illness of her own, her passions aren’t diluted, oh no! She takes yet another lover, the stuttering, genius Pierre Laurent. There is a tenderness there, as she attempts to teach him the ways of love. Her body betrays her through life, as much as it pleases. A body that birthed children, nursed them, that welcomed many lovers and gave her much pleasure and now, a body that has a will of its own, behaving in direct defiance of its mistress. It steals her tongue, paralyses her very hands, and lucky for her she has Marie- Claire to care for her. What happens when your language is gone, and with it no way to speak your thoughts, all you have is your lonely mind?
This book isn’t for every reader, it took me a while to get into it but there is a rich story within. No, she isn’t the most admirable woman and certainly as mothering goes, cats are better mothers (couldn’t resist a Gone With the Wind quote). Simone’s life is consumed by men, make no mistake, but the real stranger (to my way of thinking) is her own heart, and her very physical body. I had to laugh a little, because even while Jacques children always kept an affinity to their mother’s side (long after she had died) they almost seem to feel Simone, the seductress, got what was coming to her but in truth their father is just as culpable, more so than Simone. If she was due a dish of punishment, wasn’t their father due a heaping serving of his own? We all suffer in love whether we earn it or not, and what of Jacques and his abhorrent treatment of the women he ‘loves?’ Somehow a woman is always to blame. There is also something very telling in his dismissive attitude when he learns of Simone and Laurent, as if her illness conjured a silly story of passion. As if once she has a ‘disability’ she is no longer capable of inspiring passions in herself, or another, since he isn’t moved to passion but revulsion towards her. As if her mind has gone to the birds, cannot connect with reality, he really does dismiss her as a feeling, living breathing human being.
I didn’t focus so much on the sexuality, though it’s an enormous character itself. I think there is a lot more happening beneath Simone’s unquenchable hunger. I flinched at the moments she thought only of herself while leaving her children behind to be with her lover, ‘Mama! Mama!’ little hands grasping air. That’s not my own nature, I was always the opposite, had to be pried from my children, I know that sounds smug, but the truth is not all mothers have that maternal warmth. Yet, the men are always absent, and why is that ‘forgivable’? Oh yes, the times… the times… It’s funny, she spends so much of her time waiting on men to notice her, to return to her and there she remains always waiting. Some have other diversions, such as new lovers, and yet another the mistress of death. She is certainly self-indulgent which may keep readers from really forming an emotional tie to her. She is needy, from the start we know she didn’t love her first husband but the attention he gave her. She never fills herself, she can’t, the maw of her soul leads to a bottomless pit that cries for more. No one will ever be enough, and she certainly doesn’t give the love her children need. I honestly don’t think she has anything to give, too busy looking for outside fulfillment. Waiting for someone else to give her meaning, satisfaction, a life.
A story that can sometimes be too wild for some readers,may be just the thing for others. The novel speaks of the impossibility of self-fulfillment, at least through lovers. Simone’s body asks so much of her in many ways she is, for a long time, a prisoner to its demands, as so many of us are.
Publication Date: June 5, 2018
Cinco Puntos Press