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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Les Guérillères

Monique Wittig

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To purchase Les Guérillères

Title: Les Guérillères
Author: Monique Wittig
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 1971)
Length: 144 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Les Guérillères - US
Les Guérillères - UK
Les Guérillères - Canada
Les Guérillères - Canada (French)
Les Guérillères - India
Les Guérillères - France
Die Verschwörung der Balkis - Deutschland
  • French title: Les Guérillères
  • Translated by David Le Vay

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Our Assessment:

B : creative, fairly effective approach

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 10/10/1971 Sally Beauman

  From the Reviews:
  • "With Les Guérillères, Monique Wittig achieves another revolution in our understanding this time, of women rather than of childhood. What she has almost miraculously achieved, at one throw, is the first novel (or hymn, for this book is close to epic poetry) of Women's Liberation. (...) Les Guérillères treads a path between serious epic celebration and satire of the entire form but, so deftly is the novel written, this ambiguity does nothing to diminish its impact. (...) It could be that the topicality of her second novel will make it something of a cult book -- which would be no bad thing." - Sally Beauman, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Les Guérillères has a classic-epic feel. It is presented in paragraph-long bits of history, mythology, sociology -- all, for much of the work, about 'the women', as men are only introduced very late in the novel. There is an underlying structure of sorts to it, as the novel begins with what can be considered the foundations, moves towards conflict (that's when the men come into the picture), and concludes with a triumphal, optimistic resolution.
       Interspersed between the narrative every few pages is a page with a list of capitalized (female) names, save (after an introductory piece) one first and last of these, which go further with some explanation. So, at the beginning:


       Unity among womanhood is emphasized -- but individuality also retained: so also while many of the pieces speak generally of 'the women' individual actors are frequently mentioned by (full) name. The 'eye of the cyclops' also is represented in the large 'O' that is also featured on several interspersed pages -- symbolic, too, as: "the O, the zero or the circle, the vulval ring".
       The book itself resembles the 'feminaries' described early on, and frequently alluded to:
The women are seen to have in their hands small book which they say are feminaries. These are either multiple copies of the same original or else there are several kinds. In one of them someone has written an inscription which they whisper in each other's ears which provokes them to full-throated laughter. When it is leafed through the feminary present numerous blank pages in which they write from time to time. Essentially, it consists of pages with words printed in a varying number of capital letters. There may be only one of them or the pages may be full of them. Usually they are isolated at the centre of the page, well spaced black on a white background or else white on a black background.
       Les Guérillères is an origin-story, a re-imagining of feminine unity in fundamentally restructuring society and civilization. It's a radical rethinking that eventually even goes so far as to suggest the entire present-day record is too compromised and that even: "the vocabulary of every language is to be examined, modified, turned upside down, that every word must be screened", and that:
all the books must be burned and only those preserved that can present them to advantage in a future age. [...] They say that in what concerns them everything has to be remade starting from basic principles.
       The narrative long does not acknowledge men because the vision of society it embraces is so fundamentally different from the familiar patriarchal one. So also, despite the story being one of myth- and history-making, it is not presented so much as a counter-movement; instead, Wittig imagines a foundation that is able to ignore (and/or erase) that familiar (largely male-centric) basis:
They say they have no need for myths or symbols. They say that the time when they started from zero is in process of being erased from their memories. They say they can barely relate to it. When they repeat, This order must be destroyed, they say they do not know what order is meant.
       The women seek a complete redefinition, ab initio: "They say they are starting from zero. They say that a new world is beginning". Eventually, however, that brings them into conflict, Eventually, combat becomes a necessity.
       The enemy is the male -- the other, responsible for that other-world in which it is women who are entirely secondary --, in a narrative that has avoided mixing sexes.
       The first men are even introduced as 'cripples' -- and:
Look at his timid springless gait. In his cities it is easy to do him violence. You lie in wait for him at a street-corner one night. He thinks you are beckoning to him. You profit by this to take him by surprise, he hasn't even the reflex to cry out. Ambushed in his towns you chase him, you lay hands on him, you capture him, you surprise him by shouting with all your might.
       War, acted out, is as much about the motions, as the actions -- symbolic, as much as real (making also for less actual carnage). As the women explain to the men, their goal isn't conquest: "we have been fighting as much for you as for ourselves". The breaking of the male-centric world is a necessary step, this: "last possible war" the one to upend the long-standing hierarchies and allow for a new, united foundation. It's one of the few places where Wittig perhaps gets carried away with the sunniness of her vision:
Today, together, let us repeat as our slogan that all trace of violence must disappear from this earth, then the sun will be honey-coloured and music good to hear.
       Only occasionally are male-female relationships addressed -- but Wittig leaves no doubt as to the failure of institutions such as marriage:
Iron plunged into ice is cold but colder still is the lot of the young girl who has given herself in marriage. The young girl in the house of her mother is like seed in fertile ground. The woman under the roof of her husband is like a chained dog. The slave, rarely, tastes the delights of love, the woman never.
       The female body is reveled in, but while Wittig welcomes an unbound sexuality and awareness of the body she warns of the dangers of fetishizing (new-found) freedoms:
The women say that they perceive their bodies in their entirety. They say that they do not favour any of its parts on the grounds that it was formerly a forbidden object. They say that they do not want to become prisoners of their own ideology.
       So also, her women can readily counter the usual arguments, their approach a much more fundamental reïnvention -- on their own, new terms:
They say, men have foreseen everything, they have christened your revolt in advance a slave revolt, a revolt against nature, they call it revolt when you want to appropriate what is theirs, the phallus. The women say, I refuse henceforward to speak this language, I refuse to mumble after them the words lack of penis lack of money lack of insignia lack of name. I refuse to pronounce the names of possession and non-possession. They say, If I take over the world, let it be to dispossess myself of it immediately, let it be to forge new links between myself and the world.
       Though a radical narrative, Les Guérillères is disarmingly not aggressive. While clearly completely condemning the status quo (much less the historical record ...), in, for the most part, not directly attacking it but rather essentially simply reducing it to rubble and building atop it Wittig's narrative comes across more as constructive than angry. The division into two camps, and the focus entirely on a female sphere for much of the novel, does give a sense of oversimplification -- a black and white depiction -- but it ultimately stops short enough of absolutism. The narrative voice, both immediate and distancing, is effectively unnatural -- appropriate for a text that is foundational, like some translation from the classics.
       Les Guérillères remains an interesting novel -- very much a feminist text (and never pretending otherwise), but also a creative work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 September 2018

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Les Guérillères: Reviews: Monique Wittig: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Monique Wittig lived 1935 to 2003.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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