In Anne Marsella’s* warm and funny The Baby of Belleville, hierarchy is put to rest, making room for an all-inclusive Paris, a Paris where equal time is given to French feminist philosophers, aristocrats, plumbers, DJs, shepherdesses and kung fu experts. Here, you’ll see Paris at an oblique angle. And yet at the same time her stories seem uncanny in their familiarity, as stories of love and motherhood often are.
What I really like about her books (I also recommend her novel Remedy, where the protagonist works in the fashion world), are her unusual heroines. Intelligent, good-in-their-skin but still self-doubting. Never doubting, however, their bodies. Marsella writes women who take belly dancing lessons without self deprecation: an antidote to chick lit. Her protagonists also have an uncanny ability to read the needs of other humans, and especially artists. In The Baby of Belleville, the protagonist Jane hires a plumber who turns out to be a talented creator. He makes a fantastical, mosaic toilet for her, asking 200 euros for his work. As Jane retrieves the money she feels tears coming on, “The truth was, I was being pulled by two contrasting emotions – the tragedy of spending two hundred euros on a toilet and the unforgivable slight of paying an artist so little for so much.” She sends him home with some Tupperware filled with osso bucco and risotto, remarking that “artists love to be fed Tupperware dinners, homemade meals they could heat up at their convenience, thus avoiding the creative drain of dinner socializing.” (123)
Marsella contextualizes a very rich area of Paris in her novel, and being walked around the northeastern quartier evoked in The Baby of Belleville as if you live here is one of the great pleasures of the book. Jane often walks past the “Communist Egg” (I will never manage to pass it without thinking of this name again) and meets fellow mothers at Café Cheri(e) (for a nursing group called “la leche league”) before going to Tati for discounted shopping when she feels like a pick-me-up.
If you're a nut for sentences (one of my grad school professors is into Gary Lutz, and this Lutz essay forever changed the way I read), Marsella’s got some mind-blowing language going on in her books. Here’s just one lovely example: "We peer out at the stretch of fields around us, the ubiquitous citrus trees coiffed in wooden trellises, the villages in the distance, the usual roadside eyesore" (277). And I loved the description of Jane's baby’s first steps: “It is like watching Neil Armstrong softboot the moon, only better” (338).
Next I want to read her Patsy Boone, a departure for Marsella as it was written in French, mixing – no joke – precious 18th century French literary language with modern parlance. Her previous novel Remedy, about a woman working in fashion in Paris, had fun with fashion-ese – showing its strangeness – in a similar way.
Excerpt of The Baby of Belleville after the jump.
Here is one of the many hilarious appearances of a French feminist thinker – called Special K. A woman of great mind and greater contradictions:
‘I’m reading about Angelina Jolie,’ she says in response to my surprised look. There is not a trace of defensiveness in her voice. Here is a woman who knows no shame, who could parade proudly like Lady Godiva and never bat an eye. There is a decidedness about her, and one senses a hermetic meaningfulness to her actions; though their sense might escape most, a Tupperware tightness protects them from the outside agencies of ridicule and judgement. I do have a great deal to learn from her! And if only my mother could take a lesson or two…
‘She is to play the role of my heroine, Penelope, in the adaptation of my latest novel.’
‘That’s fabulous news! Goodness! Your book is going to Hollywood! And Angelina, well, she’s quite big isn’t she? What does Glamour have to say about her?’
‘Quod me netrit me destruit.’
‘Oh! Does she parlay in Latin?
‘Her tattoo does.’
‘She wears a tattoo across her lower stomach that spells this out.’
‘It means, “What nourishes me also destroys me”, is that right?”
‘Precisely. And this is the crux of our predicament, is it not? How does one nourish without destroying? How does one give life without giving death as well? This brings us back to the subject of maternal madness, Jane, and how Freud failed to take into account that THE DESTRUCTIVE DRIVE CAN BE REDIRECTED THROUGH SUBLIMATION TO BRING ABOUT A RETURN TO THE CARING ARTS…
Special K’s thought is cut short by a phone call from Umberto Eco. Throughout the book, all of her theories, even when she speaks, are in caps.
Oh, blessed are the books that give grad students a chuckle!
*A short while ago, I found out that Anne's workspace is one building away from my home apartment, which really does make Paris feel like a village.