Nate D's Reviews > The Girl Beneath the Lion

The Girl Beneath the Lion by André Pieyre de Mandiargues
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Aug 13, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: surrealism, calder, read-in-2012, france, 50s-unrealist
Recommended to Nate D by: souls on the wing
Recommended for: lurkers in shoreline pine groves
Read from August 10 to 13, 2012

Of the many facets of the surrealist program, the pure unrestraining of desire is probably least interesting to me at this point. To be fair, I'm sure this was a much more significant point in the earlier, more repressive times of surrealism's conception. And of course even now there is much of great interest and relevance that can be said of desire. However, it also seems that, for a certain period and subset of surrealists, addressing underrepresented desire didn't really have to amount to much more than a classier kind of erotica. Hence the apparently uninteresting synopsis of this novel, which follows a kind of idealized sensual and sexual awaking of a girl on holiday in Sardinia. After arranging a tryst with a stranger on the beach on a seeming whim, she then carefully orchestrates the next two days to set up the perfect first experience.

As an interrogation of desire itself, this is beautifully written, but seems a little lacking in depth. In particular, as one of the two other reviews on GR notes, it seems much more in line with the fantasies and desires of the male author/narrator than those plausibly belonging to female lead Vanina. Although, to his credit, Mandiargues does flesh in her psychological background in a few well-placed bursts to greatest narrative effect. And though it may feel more like a male fantasy, Mandiargues is also careful to make it clear that all of the real power and agency in the brief relationship rest entirely in Vanina's hands: everything plays out exactly to her specifications to the point where it could be argued that she's actually using the seducee she "gives herself to", in a rather odd, veiled way. Nothing here in this idealized pure desire really speaks to my actual values in relationships, but there's a certain interest there nonetheless. I didn't put it down in frustration, at least, which is totally a possibility whenever I'm reading a middle-aged Frenchman's idea of a young girl's first love.

On the other hand, as noted by the only other review, this has a tremendous sense of place. Mandiargues' Sardinia is place of dusty empty towns and beautiful spirit-haunted desolations of shore. Not that there's anything supernatural here, but the whole is far elevated by the atmosphere and mythic context he constructs. For instance, a passage on local legends:

They discussed the gulls that the fisherman and his wife believed were souls in search of a body, coming to scream around the houses where there was a wedding bed of a body laid out for burial; and they mentioned certain toothless dogs, encountered only at night and supposedly hosts to souls in torment, that would take your hand in their cold, smooth mouths; they spoke of a great white skate that appeared on the surface of the sea and would vanish only after having heard the service for the dead chanted aloud by the crew; they discussed the eels that left the tide-pools during the heat of the day to couple with the snakes among the rocks of the beach; and they mentioned the other serpents that tempted the goats to strange nuptials and made them give milk by biting their udders.

Which leads me to what may actually be my favorite aspect of the book. I began this a day after beginning, also, Anna Kavan's posthumous collection My Soul In China: A Novella And Stories, and the toothless dog myth immediately leaped out at me. Here, possibly, was one of Kavan's sources. More, as the book continued, I realized that Kavan had actually reconfigured the entire novel into a cynical assessment of the sexual liberation of the times. (And so, also, a ready shared reaction to some of my reservations). Lucky to encounter these little-read books so closely together as to be able to fully recognize the correspondences.

Incidentally, though that's almost the same cover, I have the Grove Evergreen edition from 1958 (E-126).
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Declan (new)

Declan I read that many years ago, but can't remember a thing about it. Can you give me a little reminder please?

Nate D Review underway right now! Actually it seems kind of awkward that goodreads prints these to the update feed the moment I hit "read" even if I'm still writing the review.

message 3: by Declan (new)

Declan I still can't recall it, but it does sound intriguing. You had some reservations about it though, to judge by your rating? I had the Calder copy with the usual awful cover (

Nate D I still haven't actually written the review! Soon!

(Though yes, that cover is pretty awful. This Grove version is the above image in a really nice turquoise,)

message 5: by Declan (new)

Declan Apologies if I seem to be rushing you Nate.

Nate D Reviewed!

message 7: by Declan (new)

Declan Now I do have a vague memory of the relationship that is central to the novel and my not being very taken by it. I can well imagine that if I reread it now I would be much more impressed by the descriptions of the "dusty empty towns and beautiful spirit-haunted desolations of shore", as you very nicely put it.

message 8: by Dave (new)

Dave 'The Girl Beneath the Lion' was a considerable source of inspiration for my novella 'Self's Blossom' - David Russell

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