French Review, 83.1, par Elizabeth Berglund Hall, Ithaca College (NY) (en anglais)

Michèle Desbordes’s Les Petites Terres, one of three novels published posthumously, is an autobiographical account of the death of the author’s lover, a writer twenty-five years her senior, who suffered in his last years from Alzheimer’s disease. It is a story of apology and grief: an apology to her unnamed lover for having left him for a career in Martinique, and grief for the loss felt during that separation and the more permanent one following his recent death. Four words, capitalized and unpunctuated accentuate this overall tone in the book: « CE TOURMENT CETTE PEINE » (43). In her attempt to describe the torment and pain at the loss of her lover and her own guilty conscience, Desbordes takes the reader on a plodding journey through her relationship as well as her various travels to Martinique, Orléans, Paris, Cayenne, Germany, parts of Africa, and Italy. Her wandering observations through countries and continents reflect the author’s indirect approach to the subject of her lover’s death and her own mournful acceptance of this death. Both writing and suffering require some distance, she analogizes: « huit kilomètres et tout l’éloignement nécessaires à la souffrance comme à l’écriture » (62). Writing this novel in particular, Desbordes intimates may be a Herculean task for her, one that she will constantly restart and never find the distance or the right voice and words to complete.

Desbordes describes Les Petites Terres as, « les morceaux, les fragments (bribes, parcelles) unis, indissociables, les bouts de soi, les bouts d’écriture […] cette écriture présente, morcelée, jonchée de morceaux, bribes, parcelles » (31-32). The repetition found within this passage echoes the aspect of timelessness and immobility that the reader experiences upon reading Les Petites Terres. A minute exploration of a certain time and place which at the same time encompasses the past and the present, the novel’s digressions also point to movement without progress, to motionlessness. The author imagines, for example, writing the story of three sisters who close themselves off from society, waiting until there is nothing left to wait for, the project being to create a non-story: « fabriquer non pas une histoire mais une absence d’histoire, montrer le temps immobile, le temps invisible » (19). Another image is that of a man who while not immobile, never progresses in his path; for twenty years the narrator notes him climbing up the mountain, returning at the end of the day. The author observes that this man/actor/character has become the story that she wants to write, not unlike the absent story of the three women, or the story that she is presently writing.

The difficulty of writing the story of her lover’s death is the underlying theme of the novel. The author writes directly to her deceased lover, and so the novel reads as a long, last love letter: « Je ne t’abandonnais pas » (115), she pleads as she describes her care for his corpse. Each evasion from the topic at hand–the digressions, the references to other literary works, the travels themselves–reinforces the author’s inability to directly approach the topic. In the end, she does manage to give the reader the details of the death and its aftermath, but the epilogue begins with the statement: « Je ne me vois pas finir ce livre, ni aujourd’hui, ni plus tard. Je ne me vois non plus le continuer, aller plus avant » (117). While her lover was so sick as to have forgotten the novels he had written by the end of his struggle with Alzheimer’s, Desbordes asserts that neither she nor he could be captured in her words in any case, that they can only be glimpsed through fragments. Although short, Les Petites Terres is dense and reflective, the style as fluid and wandering as the author’s self-described life.