A novel by Rachilde. 215 pages soft cover. Available through Rutgers University Press; 109 Church St.; New Brunswick, NJ 08901. $12.95.
The republication of Rachilde’s novel “The Juggler,” now translated into English for the first time since its original publication in 1900, marks a rediscovery of the prolific French author Marguerite Eymery Vallette (known as Rachilde), notorious in her time but eclipsed since. Witty, passionate, and elegantly composed, “The Juggler” weaves together complex theories while maintaining a poetic, mythical quality.
Juggling historians might appreciate the emergence of a new image for the juggler in literature. In Rachilde’s work, juggling keeps its traditional flavor of mystery and exoticism while playing a central role both literally and metaphorically. The aristocratic heroine, Eliante Donalger, is in fact a juggler and amateur performer – possibly the first hobbyist juggler to appear in a work of fiction. Though unusual for a woman in her position, her juggling skills do not exceed the realm of possibility. Her act consists primarily of juggling three daggers, with a dramatic shoulder throw to finish.
“She juggled very simply, but really, with heavy knives, quite sharp, and what would have been ordinary for an artiste at the Folies Bergere or Olympia, seemed amazing for a society woman.” She also performs flamenco dancing with exceptional style and expression (a la Francis Brunn)!
Wrapped in an air of mystery and intrigue, the singular Eliante Donalger dominates the novel as well as Parisian society. The story is actually a prolonged tete-a-tete between the widowed, worldly Eliante and the young, idealistic Leon Reille, a medical student who becomes obsessed with unraveling the secrets of Eliante’s personality. Yet he is almost afraid to learn too much about her past and what it has made her. Loathe to spoil the mysterious power of her attraction by giving away the secrets of her soul, yet dying to pass on her knowledge to a younger generation, Eliante draws out the drama while Leon urges her to perform her finishing trick before she is ready to pass the hat.
Eliante’s avoidance of physical passion is bound up with her artistic desire for immortality, a yearning which increases as her youth fades. During Leon’s first visit, she torments him by claiming to be in love with a life-size alabaster jug which “has stayed young because he has never cried his secret to anyone.”
Eliante’s fantastical imagination leads her to channel her sexual energy into her artistic pursuits – juggling, dancing, writing – and she seems satisfied with platonic relationships when it comes to humans.
“I find it absurd that a man cannot have an intimate chat with a woman… even one he loves.” While feminists might applaud these futuristic speeches, Rachilde leaves many ambiguities, implying that Eliante’s philosophies are self-defeating:
“Love, everywhere love! and she, the great actress, or the great victim of her own juggling, perhaps still did not know what it was, practically speaking. Vibrant and above the earth like a flaming torch consuming itself, she kept it all and yet dreamed of giving it all.” Whether Eliante’s view of love is truly her ideal or just a response to an imperfect society which typecasts women is left for the reader to decide.
Eliante’s juggling act symbolizes both her isolation from the rest of society and her contradictory desire to communicate and entertain. While Leon admires her skillful manipulation of daggers, he laments the fact that they separate her from the rest of society: “…she juggled to please herself. It was as though one could feel another blade both perfidious and passive vibrate in her. She amused herself naively, absolutely, with the unusual pleasure she procured for them, and she needed too the acute desire of the looks focused on her, all the vibration of an atmosphere charged with amorous electricity.”
For Eliante, the act of inspiring love overshadows the details of love-making, and it is in her role as entertainer that she finds the heroic and artistic parts of herself. Eliante goes to bizarre lengths to fulfill her creative desires, leading us on to a macabre conclusion which might leave readers wishing that plastic clubs had been invented 100 years earlier.
Rachilde’s characters are so colorfully drawn that it is easy to lose track of “The Juggler’s” larger pattern, but clearly this is a work of ideas which invites the reader to ponder the balance between love and art, providing rich food for thought though few definite conclusions. The beauty of the language (even in translation) must be experienced first-hand, and the use of juggling contributes much to this highly unusual and inventive novel.
by Cindy Marvell
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