Art by Lyne Lapointe
Excerpted from the book Panics by Barbara Molinard, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, out now from Feminist Press.
Click here to read "The Vault," one of the pieces from Panics mentioned in this note.
It was the summer of 2017 and my apartment didn’t have air conditioning, so I spent most of my free time sitting by one body of water or another around Rhode Island. I was doing research on Marguerite Duras’s nonfiction writing for a cotranslation project with Olivia Baes that would become Me & Other Writing, a collection of Duras’s essays. Under the shade of a tree by the lake in Lincoln Woods, I was reading through Le monde extérieur when I stumbled upon Duras’s preface to Barbara Molinard’s Viens, an unfamiliar book that immediately piqued my interest. A funny feeling crept over me as I read Duras’s description of Molinard’s work. I was struck by the lines “What we’ve collected in this book represents a very small portion—maybe a hundredth—of what Barbara has written over these eight years. The rest was destroyed.” There’s Molinard’s prolificness, a clearly voracious need to write, and then there’s the destruction, a sign that the writing wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Or that it was, but publishing the writing wasn’t the point. In either case, this “we” indicated that Duras was close enough to this woman, admired her writing enough, that she felt Molinard’s work needed to be saved from her “enemy,” Molinard herself, who ripped to pieces everything she wrote almost as soon as it was put down on paper.
Duras’s preface is also smattered with entire sentences in capital letters. An aggressive proclamation that “EVERYTHING BARBARA MOLINARD HAS WRITTEN HAS BEEN TORN TO SHREDS.” Not Duras’s style—Duras taking on Molinard’s style, a form of tribute. The words “enemy,” “suffering,” “agony,” “absolute night” jumped out at me. Duras was telling a story, about a woman and her loneliness, her devastation, her hope that somehow writing would ease the pain and allow her to express something “neither invented nor dreamed” but “lived.” I was compelled by Duras’s insistence that some remnant of this woman’s work had to be witnessed and celebrated. The capital letters communicated an urgency, but there was also something disturbing about them. Barbara Molinard was a woman disturbed, and Marguerite Duras was a woman moved by her disturbance. And then there was me, another woman, moved by how moved Duras was by Molinard’s disturbance, the two of us moved by one woman’s attempt to render an intolerable life slightly more tolerable.
Barbara Molinard (1921–1986) was born in Paris and lived out her days in Auvers-sur-Oise with her husband, the filmmaker and photographer Patrice Molinard, and their two daughters, Agnès and Laurence. She married Patrice in 1945 and worked with him in his studio until 1960, when she began to dedicate herself entirely to writing. Despite all the years of devotion to her craft, despite the countless pages she wrote, Viens is the only book that survives. Her mental health struggles, combined, perhaps, with crippling fear or self-doubt, kept her trapped in a destructive cycle that prevented her from ever sending any pages to a publisher. So what happened when Marguerite Duras and Patrice Molinard finally wrested these fourteen stories from Molinard’s “enemy” and brought them to Éditions Mercure de France, who published the book in 1969? Seemingly, not much. The book fell out of print, and the rights eventually reverted back to Molinard’s two daughters. I don’t know how many people have read Viens, or the stories excerpted in the journal La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1962 under the title “Paniques,” which is where the English title I chose comes from. Despite Duras’s endorsement, Molinard did not go on to publish anything more. It seems unlikely she could have been persuaded to do so. But what I read that day by the water immediately got under my skin: I had to read this book. Who was Barbara Molinard, and what would her writing sound like, feel like?
I am often asked, as a literary translator, how I find the projects I pitch. The answer is that it’s usually instinct, a vague gut feeling I get when I read an excerpt from a book, hear someone talking about a book, see a book on a shelf, find out about an author. I get the sense that the book is going to speak to me in some deep way that nothing I’ve read in English has, that some dormant part of me will awaken after living inside the book, inhabiting and regurgitating the author’s words in my translation. That there is a piece of me I’m not yet fully aware of that exists in these books like some kind of deranged reverse horcrux, and that I am somehow less alive, less myself, before I’ve absorbed a given text into me. That’s the feeling I had when I read the preface to Viens. I knew this book would be eerie, unsettling, utterly exacting in its expression of the alienation of womanhood, motherhood, wifehood. The solitude within the family unit. The unbearable within the ordinary. The placidness within the panic and vice versa. The need to write a way out of something that can’t otherwise be expressed.
And so I set about trying to find a copy. It wasn’t available anywhere online. The French publisher didn’t have a PDF. I walked into the Providence Public Library one day, knowing about interlibrary loans but with very little hope in this particular case. I was amazed to find that my local librarian could borrow it from the Princeton University Library and have it to me in two weeks. The day the book arrived, I speed-walked down the hill to the library and arrived out of breath. In my memory I’m in a red dress, but that can’t be right. The book was so unassuming with its plain white cover. It seemed like some kind of heist that I was able to walk out the door with it. I took it straight to the bookstore where I worked at the time and began reading it between helping customers.
As soon as I read the first story, “The Plane from Santa Rosa,” I knew the book was exactly what I’d imagined it would be. Molinard’s voice is a singular one. Her writing is disturbing and heartbreaking, fascinating and compulsively readable, teetering on the edge of, and then plunging fully into, insanity. Her stories are moody, manic, sad, erratic—hovering somewhere between the longing to make others understand how Molinard saw the world and the simple need to express a particular worldview, an acute instability of mind. They are full of odd twists and turns that often go nowhere or bring you right back to where you started, like tiny nightmares. Full of characters who don’t seem to be aware of just how warped their realities are and instead doggedly persist in playing the game. And full of strange and frantic realities, stifling existences where nothing seems to follow any kind of logic. They are absurdist, bizarre, and unlike anything else I’ve read.
Each story recounts a haunting, sometimes upsetting or surreal experience, usually focused on one character whose world appears normal until suddenly something shifts and we realize everything has slipped out of control, or maybe their tenuous grasp on reality was never there to begin with. “The Plane from Santa Rosa” begins with a woman at the airport asking about the time the plane from Santa Rosa will arrive, how many stops it will make, the length of each one. She has much to prepare. She rushes around the rest of the afternoon, trying on dress after dress, fur after fur; there’s no time for tailoring, everything has to be just right for her friends, the dinner, that very night. She hurries back to the airport and watches every passenger get off the plane until she is alone in the deserted terminal. In “The Meeting,” a man takes a train to an unknown town and immediately gets lost. He grows increasingly disoriented and decides to walk with his hand on a high wall that never seems to end to ensure he doesn’t get turned around. This goes on for months. Eventually he decides to try scaling the wall. In “The Vault,” Molinard narrates to Duras how the sight of a vault in a cemetery inspires her with the obsessive idea to sleep inside it for three days. She makes all the necessary preparations and is on her way until her husband and doctor intervene. Then she starts to feel pains all over her body, realizing these are the pains she would have felt had she slept on the floor of the vault for those three nights.
“The Headless Man” tells the story of a woman who finds herself sitting on the same bench every day, watching people pass and transform abruptly before her eyes into monstrous, grotesque animals. Then she encounters THE HEADLESS MAN, who promises to help her in her ever-thwarted quest to make the 5:30 p.m. train, which she can never seem to reach in time. In “The Cage,” the longest story in the collection, a woman named Berthe, who is unspeakably lonely, walks through a zoo, distraught by the sight of the animals in their cages. She finds happiness at last when she meets a man and they fall madly in love. But one day he insists on taking her to the zoo, where he develops an obsession with a snake after he hallucinates that the snake is trying to communicate something important to him.
From story to story, each character’s voice is unique, but they all share a form of madness, an overarching blur of the real and the absurd, believable enough to be frightening. In my translation, I paid particular attention to heeding each character’s specific sense of the world while honoring the book’s distinctive unsettling tone and Molinard’s startling use of small caps and atypical punctuation to heighten this uncanny atmosphere. These stories may have been intended to impose order on the chaos of Molinard’s mind, but they also alert her readers to the inner workings of a tortured spirit that can’t seem to find peace; a world of little panics.
It’s easy to compare Molinard to writers like Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka, or Leonora Carrington, but she’s also nothing like them, because as Duras says in her preface, these stories are not invented or dreamed—they are LIVED. Molinard did not conjure up insanity; it existed within her. Panics is a challenging, mesmerizing book. It is not writing that aims to please, or that aims for prizes or praise. Barbara Molinard wrote what she needed to write for herself, to get by, to make it through each day, to tolerate the experience of being alive. She wrote through her mental anguish in a way that is palpable on the page, in a way that not many writers, let alone women writers, have dared to do. Panics is a book that could only have been written by Barbara Molinard, for Barbara Molinard. Her voice is a valuable, searing addition to the literary landscape, and especially to the landscape of literature in translation. I believe firmly that awards and recognitions do not determine an author’s worthiness of being translated. That the connection and passion a translator has for an author and their book are testament enough to a book’s merit, to its ability to touch readers and spur them to question their own realities. That an author’s ferocious, urgent need to write can be enough to propel them to other worlds, other languages, and new readers. I can’t think of a better home for this book than Feminist Press, which has long been doing the work of recovering lost literature by women writers.
As soon as I read Viens, I reached out to Barbara Molinard’s daughter Agnès, who generously agreed to meet with me in Paris when I visited a few months later. In the years since then, Agnès has sent me postcards, early morning WhatsApp updates, and countless emails. She has seen the evolution of this translation coincide with momentous changes in my life. She welcomed me into her home during a lull period in the pandemic, talked to me about her mother, asked me about my parents, who live not far from her in France, and shared her mother’s drawings and paintings, which are just as haunting as her writing. I am extremely grateful to Agnès for all of her aid, trust, and patience as this book came together in English.
As I write this note, I am recovering from an illness that left me feeling like my head had come unscrewed for days on end. I experienced it as a frightening shift in myself, my thoughts, my reality. I was haunted by the idea that I might not recover, that this warped world would be my new permanent state. As I slowly return to the familiarity of my mind, I am left wondering: Is this how Barbara Molinard felt?
The truth is that I’ll never know how Molinard felt, or what exactly lived in her mind. What’s clear is that Molinard was a tortured woman with no regard for fame or recognition, and that her book might well have stayed forgotten. But by a miraculous set of circumstances, something else happened instead. Now Barbara Molinard’s Panics will live on the shelves of English-language readers, and may soon also appear in further editions abroad. Perhaps most exciting, Viens will have a new publication in French this year, by Éditions Cambourakis, to accompany the English-language edition. Sometimes as translators, we are tasked with translating the shiny new thing, the prizewinning book, a publisher’s latest lead title. Sometimes, instead, we are destined to cross paths with a long-forgotten book and steal it away from that other, most formidable enemy—oblivion.
— Emma Ramadan
Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI. She is the recipient of the PEN Translation Prize, the Albertine Prize, an NEA Translation Fellowship, and a Fulbright. Her translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, and Abdellah Taïa’s A Country for Dying.
Lyne Lapointe was born in Montréal and lives and works in Mansonville, Québec. By the early 80’s, she was recognized as one of the most promising Canadian artists of her generation. From 1983 to 1994 she created a groundbreaking series of site-specific works with critic Martha Fleming, transforming abandoned spaces into ephemeral personal memoirs, culminating with a large-scale installation at the 22nd Bienal de São Paulo. Lapointe has shown at MoMA PS1; New Museum, NY; National Gallery of Canada; and had a mid-career survey at Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal. Her work is in major collections, including Brown University Art Museum; MIT List Visual Arts Center; Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal; National Gallery of Canada; and Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec.