At University I took course entitled Feminism, Stories of Love and Desire. During this ten week course we studied various novels by French female writers which talked about feminism, love, unconventional relationships and sex. We discussed these novels in class. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we discussed sex in class a lot too.
One of these novels really struck a chord with me, and today, nearly fifteen years later, I am thinking about this novel again.
The book was called Les Vaisseaux du Coeur by Benoîte Groult. Les Vaisseaux du Coeur literally translates as The Vessels of the Heart, but when it was made into a film it was given the English title Salt on our Skin.
Les Vaisseaux du Coeur is about a female Parisian intellectual who has a decades long ‘relationship’ (liaison might be a better descriptor here) with a Breton sailor. They meet with varying frequency over the years, often in exotic locations, to escape, to indulge and to have sex. Good sex! (Like I said, we discussed the sex A LOT in class).
Early on in their unconventional relationship he asks her to marry him. She declines. As a Parisian intellectual she cannot envisage a future as a sailor’s wife. Their liaison continues in secret (he ends up marrying someone else) and they meet, at least twice a year, for the next 20 or so years.
There are two things about their unconventional relationship that I do not like.
First, I cannot condone the extra-marital affair that he undertakes and that she is complicit in. Although I am not married, and have never been married, marriage is an institution that I believe in. Once two people have made a promise to each other I think they should keep it. I am sorry if I am being excessively traditional in this regard.
My second dislike with regard to their unconventional relationship is perhaps more subtle and relates to their social class. There is an implied superiority / inferiority dynamic in their relationship. She is the intellectual; he is the dullard. She is refined; he is a sexual beast. She is a city dweller; he is most definitely not. She is complex; he is simple.
Les Vaisseaux du Coeur is branded a piece of feminist literature. If the roles were reversed and she were the dullard, simple, country bumpkin sex object and he were the refined Parisian intellectual, I can’t help but think that feminists would be up in arms. How dare a novel objectify, simplify, patronise a woman like that? To me, feminism is about achieving equality of the sexes. If Les Vaisseaux du Coeur is ‘feminist’ literature, it is certainly not a brand of Feminism that I would subscribe to.
I was thinking about Les Vaisseaux du Coeur today because, like the protagonists in Groult’s novel, I need some time just to focus on me. In fact, having left a controlling relationship not so long ago I need to focus on restoring me.
These days, I often feel that I live three parallel lives.
First, there’s the planet of Cygnet. My son and the apple of my eye, he is the person who I look at and wonder what I have done to be so lucky in life. When I am with Cygnet I am with Cygnet 100%. He has my undivided attention … or at least that’s the aim. He still managed to cuddle a random stranger from behind (thinking she was me) as I knelt down to pick up my dropped keys in a coffee shop at the weekend.
Then there’s the planet of work. I returned to work when Cygnet was 7 months old, 6 weeks after I had separated from his father. Cygnet’s father and I were still living together. It was an horrendous time and sometimes I look back and wonder how I got through it. But I did get through it. I got through it by using my work as my escape. By focussing 100% on work during the hours I was there (which are full time hours) I was able to put the other stresses to one side. Not forever, but for eight hours a day 5 days a week. The distraction of work got me through a difficult time. I also excelled. I am proud to say that when I am at work I excel. When I am not at work I don’t even think about it.
Thirdly, there’s the planet of ‘me time’. This time is limited. In my experience, and I recognise that my experience is different from many single mothers, one of the differences between lone parenting and couple parenting is that as a coupled parent you may get your free time in short but frequent bursts. Your partner might take your little one to the park for a couple of hours while you meet a friend for coffee or have your nails done. Wishful thinking? Sorry!
My experience as a single parent is that this ‘me time’ comes less frequently but in larger chunks. For me these are chunks of 24 hours when I can get my nails done, go to a gallery, meet a friend for dinner and the theatre and get an uninterrupted nights sleep. In reality I tend to do the washing and strip some wallpaper and potentially dabble in a bit of dating.
I feel like my three planets are being held in a solar system at a precise distance from each other by a series of complex and delicate magnetic fields. It is a tenuous and temporary balance, easily disrupted.
A don’t think that my delicate solar system could cope with another planet, a planet of relationships entering the magnetic field.
I already have a fractious co-parenting relationship with my ex. We are currently going through a difficult patch as he is being his normal controlling self and I am trying to pluck up the courage to resist (more on this in a future post).
I often think about the challenges that a prospective partner would face entering into a relationship with me. The ex…the omnipresent ex…who still dictates my mood and sometimes my self-esteem will be around for the next couple of decades.
Then I think about the challenge of ‘blended’ families and step parents and logistics and finances and the complication. Oh my god the complication! I just can’t face it. My three delicate planets would collide and explode. I don’t think that I could manage it, or that I want to try to manage it.
So this is where, at the end of this blog post, I finally return to Les Vaisseaux du Coeur. Putting aside the extramarital affair and putting aside the inequality in the relationship, there is something about the relationship described by Groult that is very appealing.
I could meet with someone twice a year, we’d perhaps have some sex, but we’d definitely have a lot of relaxed, meandering and indulgent conversation. Conversations that don’t have to end because a deadline has to be met, or because routines and complicated schedules have to be followed, or because we are just so bloody knackered by the complication of it all that we just don’t know who we are any more. This is what I want. This kind of relationship really appeals.
I want the easy-going, the unconventional, the escapist, the part-time, no not even the part-time, the very-little-time version of a relationship.