Works of French writer brought to English reader

by Robie Liscomb

With what she calls "a bouquet" of three books published last June by Edinburgh University Press, Dr. Jennifer Waelti-Walters (Women's Studies) has given readers of English two novels by contemporary French writer Jeanne Hyvrard and a critical introduction volume that illuminates Hyvrard's work, placing it in theoretical context and arguing for its importance.

The blossoms in this bouquet are Hyvrard's third novel, Waterweed in the Wash-houses (published in French in 1977), in an English translation by Elsa Copeland with an introduction by Waelti-Walters; Hyvrard's twelfth book, The Dead Girl in a Lace Dress (published in French in 1990), translated by UVic professor emeritus Jean-Pierre Mentha and Waelti-Walters; and Jeanne Hyvrard: Theorist of the Modern World.

Very little of Hyvrard's writing has been translated into English. Prior to the publication of these books, the only other Hyvrard novel available to English readers was her second, Mother Death (Nebraska, 1988), translated by Laurie Edson.

Hyvrard, born in Paris in 1945, trained as a political scientist. She has lived and travelled extensively in the Third World and teaches political economy in a technical high school in Paris.

Waterweed in the Wash-houses is a stream-of-consciousness narrative from the standpoint of a woman who is labelled mad. It draws on images from the Tarot and alchemy and is organized in relationship to Hyvrard's reinterpretation of the beginning of the book of Genesis. Copeland, a Catholic nun who taught at Loyola University in Chicago, devoted the last three years of her life to translating the book, and, upon her death, her religious order asked Waelti-Walters to edit it for publication.

The Dead Girl in a Lace Dress deals with a troubled mother-daughter relationship from the standpoint of the young daughter. It is written in short anecdotal sections, each of which examines the implications of a turn of phrase that the mother habitually uses to impede her daughter from making direct contact with the world.

While her work is known in France, Hyvrard is not a prominent figure in French literary society, and she is read more outside the country. Waelti-Walters, in Jeanne Hyvrard: Theorist of the Modern World, argues that her work should be considered alongside that of such better-known feminist writers as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.

The central concern in Hyvrard's writing is the lived experience of women in relation to social and economic forces that largely shape their lives. Her writing has evolved, says Waelti-Walters, into a vehicle that links the personal and the global in a way that the cold rationality of a social science text does not.

"In her writing, various themes run together, combine and recombine in ways that produce knowledge in an intuitive or pre-rational form. All the complexities of the world are there; all the information and insights and paradoxes are there."

It's not that Hyvrard is anti-rationalist, argues Waelti-Walters. "Hyvrard believes that reason has its place but that it provides a restricted, constricting and linear perspective on the world where everything is interconnected and where it is necessary to acknowledge the 'chaos' and think things together-fusional thought."

Waelti-Walters draws parallels between Hyvrard's literary style and scientific chaos theory, both of which examine apparently chaotic systems and illuminate patterns of order that recur at different scales of perception. Where chaos theory finds persistent patterns of order in, for example, fractal geometric shapes, Hyvrard locates similar patterns at various scales of women's experience from the personal to the global.

Some people at the University may remember Hyvrard as a Lansdowne visitor and guest of the Department of French Language and Literature in 1988.

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