Friday, 8 July 2016

Book Review: Five Women on a Galley by Suzanne Normand

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2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

The years following the Great War of 1914-18 were a difficult time, not least for women who were forced or wished to earn their own living. During the war many of them worked because most men were away on the battlefields of Europe and somebody had to do their jobs. After the war those men who had survived returned and reclaimed their jobs pushing women back into the roles of wives and mothers. But above all among the young generation there were women who refused to be confined to kitchen, children and church as before. Society made them pay dearly for their freedom as shows the semi-autobiographical novel Five Women on a Galley by Suzanne Normand that is almost completely forgotten today. Set in Paris in the first half of the 1920s – which qualifies it for Paris in July hosted by Thyme for Tea – it surrounds five friends striving for independence and happiness.

Suzanne Normand was born in 1895. She was a French novelist and journalist, but despite her long career she is quite forgotten today judging from the fact that on the Internet hardly any information at all is available on her. Moreover, it seems that none of her books is actually in print. Apart from her most important novel Five Women on a Galley (Cinq femmes sur une galère: 1927), which has been translated into various languages and is available as book-on-demand in German translation, she published a notable number of untranslated ones like for instance Marie-Aimée (1929), Rencontres (1930; Meetings), Madame Tolstoï (1932), La Reine Hortense (1948; Queen Hortense), and Le rendez-vous adriatique (1954; Adriatic Rendez-vous). She also wrote the short-story collection Mes histoires de chats, quatre sans pédigrée (1966; My Cat Stories, Four Without Pedigree), for which the Académie française awarded her the Prix Broquette-Gonin 1967, and a couple of non-fiction works, notably travel books together with Jean Acker. Suzanne Normand died in 1981.

An invitation to dinner at the bourgeois home of Regine who remarried for reasons of convenience serves the “we” narrator as a starting point for looking back on two years in the early 1920s, when she, Regine and three other friends formed a close party of Five Women on a Galley. Aged between twenty-four and thirty years, they all live in the Quartier Latin in Paris. The story of the five begins after recently divorced Regine settled down in an expensive, yet seedy hotel because her marital status and limited resources make it virtually impossible for her to find better lodgings. With the help of Gilberte who is production manager in a publishing house, she gets some correcting jobs that help her on without however allowing her the life-style to which she was used during her marriage. Gilberte is a widow. She lost her beloved husband in the war and is the only one of the friends who has her own apartment and a tiny fortune to support herself along with her job. The other three took the opportunity to rent a furnished apartment together. They are the journalist Laure who writes feuilleton and local news for a daily, quiet Reine who teaches a few lessons at a private school, and Maguy who is the private secretary of a bank manager and a fervent as well as uncompromising advocate of female independence. Their existence is characterised by the daily fight to make ends meet because their salaries are meagre and by the constant humiliation for being single women who wish to stand on their own feet and to live free love. Moreover, each one of the five is in love with a married man and thus doomed for endless misery. During a holiday at the Riviera paid for with the last remaining pearl of a sting, an old friend introduces Regine to wealthy Frédéric…

In French already the title of Five Women on a Galley is tell-tale because the noun “galère” is used to refer to a difficult situation or hard work. In fact, the novel gives an idea of the miserable lives that single women often had in France in the 1920s because unlike men they were asked to slave for salaries that hardly sufficed to cover running costs. Moreover, society took it for granted that either they put up with constant discrimination and humiliation for the sake of freedom or they became respectable wives and mothers. Suzanne Normand knew what she was writing about because as a divorcee who had to work for a living she found herself in the same situation. And maybe it was to emphasise that she was only one of many why she preferred a rather unusual first-person-plural point of view to the more limited perspective of a narrating “I” as would have suggested the fact that the novel sprang from the author’s diary. The vivid description of all the little hardships that the friends have to deal with and the occasional extravagances that they allow themselves as well as of the emotional ups and downs implied in their love affairs with married men who don't really care about them brings all five women fully to life.

All things considered, I haven't regretted reading Five Women on a Galley by Suzanne Normand for a moment although from today's point of view the friends seem rather wretched, even contradictory because on the one hand they hold their freedom in highest regard and on the other hand they emotionally depend on the married men they love no less than they would if they were their husbands. It was an interesting read, notably as a snapshot of the living conditions of women after World War I, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a forgotten classic and a testimonial of early twentieth-century feminism I gladly recommend it here.

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  1. Wow! You know, your description of this book reminds me a little bit of the characters in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Have you read that? My review:

    1. No, I haven't read The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing yet although it has been on my stack of books to read for years. Shame on me!

      However, judging from your review it's a lot deeper and more varied than Suzanne Normand's little novel - but then there are 35 years between the first publication dates of the two and that should make quite a difference regarding starting point and approach.

      Thanks for your comment, Judy!

  2. Thanks for sharing this on a new to me writer I may never get to read. As soon as I saw she produced a collection called Cat Stories I liked her!

    1. I agree - writing a book about cats definitely speaks for the writer!

      You probably haven't noticed, but among my list of reviewed books there are two surrounding cats: The Cat by Colette and The Guest Cat by Hiraide Takashi. And in Swell by Ioanna Karystiani there's a beautiful white cat as kind of secondary character.

      Thanks for your comment, Mel!

  3. I haven't heard of this author or book either. It's heart wrenching to read about hard times for people who are being discriminated against. Still working today to change that, I suppose.
    On Mondays, I have a meme called Dreaming of France. Come play along if you get a chance. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

    1. Thanks for your comment, Paulita!

      In fact, Five Women on a Galley was pretty hard to find... If there hadn't been the book-on-demand German edition available(although I'm not at all fond of translations of books that I can read in the original language), I might never have had the chance to discover this author.

      I'll have a look at your blog to see if the meme is for me, but I must admit that I rarely participate in this kind of activity. Only challenges tempt me ever again and more of them than is good for me ;-)

  4. How interesting! Seems a book ripe for discovery by Persephone (do they do translations?) or some of the other publishers who are reviving lost works by women.

    1. Yes, it's a pity that Five Women on a Galley is out of print. Maybe my review helps to interest a publisher to bring out a new edition/translation... I don't have the contacts, notably not in the English-speaking world.

      Thanks for your comment, Lory!


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