Since I discovered his Goncourt-winning Un aller simple in 1995, I have always loved Didier van Cauwelaert's quirky, touching and gently ironic novels. But my heart sank when I learnt that his most recent work Jules (Albin Michel: 2015) tells the story of a blind woman whose sight is miraculously restored. I was worried that this would be a simplistic celebration of the cure whereby Alice's new sightedness would bring her all the happiness and hope denied her by her blindness.
The novel's opening page did nothing to allay my fears. When the sighted narrator Zibal first glimpses still-blind Alice, his lascivious gaze objectifies her by its insistence on her physical appearance:
Hauts talons canari, minishort rouge et top turquoise, elle ne risquait pas de se faire écraser par temps de brume. N’eût été le labrador qui la guidait au bout d’un harnais, ses grandes lunettes noires seraient passées pour un accessoire de star soucieuse qui son incognito se remarque. Les cheveux blond-roux maintenus par un chignon en broussaille, les seins libres sous la soie quasi transparente, un sourire de rendez-vous amoureux allongeant les bavures de son rouge à lèvres, c’était une aveugle particulièrement voyante qui faisait bien davantage envie que pitié. (Jules, Didier Van Cauwelaert (Paris : Albin Michel, 2015, p. 7)Zibal’s emphasis on her physical appearance reduces Alice to nothing more than a collection of sexual attributes without taking any account of her personality, context or even name. She is nothing more than an anonymous ‘aveugle’ who is completely defined in relation not only to how she looks to him but also how she does not look at him. In addition, the form of the text further emphasizes Alice’s objectification. She appears to be defined according to the controlling gaze of a male first-person narrator whose words are motivated by his desire not only to possess her sexually, but also to possess her metaphorically by capturing her in and via his text. This dual act of possession is rendered possible precisely by the very thing which makes Alice attractive to the narrator, namely her blindness. Alice is unaware that she is being looked at in this way and is thus even further objectified by the silence of the controlling gaze and the conspiracy between the sighted gazer and the reader which it establishes.
Happily, this narrator-reader complicity is shattered by the irruption of Alice's voice into the text. As the narrative progresses, Alice and Zibal recount alternating chapters so that a dual first-person perspective is established which destabilizes what the reader thinks he or she knows about both blindness and sightedness. Unlike her friends and colleagues, Alice is not overjoyed when she regains her sight. Far from it. She is horrified by the world she can now see and feels abandoned and lost without her guide dog Jules:
L’enthousiasme autour de moi, l’émerveillement que suscite ma guérison me laissent un sentiment de solitude honteuse que jamais le handicap n’a provoqué. Le devoir de bonheur auquel je m’astreignais, par fierté et instinct de survie, est remplacé desormais par un simple code de décence. Je n’ai plus le droit d’aller mal. (pp. 86-7)
By regaining her sight, Alice has lost one of her defining features; she is no longer herself. It is almost as if she is in mourning for her blindness. She hates the person she has become almost as much as she hates the way her friends celebrate her cure. She sees every congratulation as a betrayal of her blind self, evidence that despite the fact that she was happy being blind, all her sighted acquaintances secretly thought she would be better off sighted.
Van Cauwelaert's sensitive depiction of Alice's reactions to her new state of sightedness is a startling reminder that blindness is not a tragedy. Through a fast-paced (if somewhat far-fetched) tale of love, loss and loyalty we meet a collection of wonderfully eccentric characters who encourage us to abandon our own misconceptions about beauty, happiness and the tyranny of appearances. Without giving too much away, this is a thought-provoking, surprising and engrossing tale about how we see each other and ourselves. Highly recommended.