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A Taste For Freedom
by Joan Thomas

IN The Man Who Painted Stalin, the Quebec feminist France Theoret writes the subtext of women`s lives. Her point of entry is the existential struggle of all human beings ("It is the faceless neuter of coming to terms with life alone;` she writes, in the odd syntax that characterizes this volume), and her concern is with the way in which the effort to live authentic individual lives is complicated and impeded by the fact of being female. The title piece occupies half of this volume of eight stories. It is about Louise, who has a "terrible taste for freedom." Her decision to become an academic is a radical act (the time is, I think, the early 1960s). She has no models, she is inventing her life from scratch. "She doesn`t think too much about the trial and error inherent in research;" Theoret observes. Like all of the women in this book, she lives in emotional exile from a family who can no longer comprehend her. Louise believes that she has escaped the oppression of conventional marriage by leaving the working class. The man she begins to love and eventually marries is a brilliant artist and actor who offers Louise the promise of intellectual companionship. In "Fascination;" another story, Evelyn married because she "dared to hope that together they would vastly increase their energies:" Theoret traces the myriad of ways in which both women are in fact diminished by marriage: by the burden of domestic work, their own habit of acquiescence to men, their sense that they must justify themselves and their endeavours, and the necessity, in an intimate relationship, of vigilance against "inadmissible emotions." The title story illustrates the very different realities the sexes face in love and work. Mathieu has always assumed his right to success in the larger world and to the automatic support of family and the academic community. Louise marvels at "the astonishing simplicity with which he moved smoothly from an intention to its realization:" She is the catalyst for his work; he inhibits hers. In a powerful statement of the danger to women of partnerships with men, Theoret renders Louise invisible by the end of the narrative. The story becomes Mathieu`s, the book is titled for the man. All of this fixes women in a fierce dilemma (only one of several dilemmas Theoret identifies in the book), for relationships are destructive both in the staying and the leaving. In "Fascination;" Evelyn, who deeply desires collaboration in her life and her work, commits an act of violence against herself in leaving her lover. By the end of the story, she "is wearing the head of a man, she has neutralized herself...she is wearing her most handsome suit." There is no denying the sombre nature of these stories. The women portrayed here have not experienced exceptional poverty or abuse; they live lives of bitter loneliness simply because they choose not to become a cliche. Theoret`s characters find that large chunks of their lives are spent in deconstructing the myths of femininity that limit them. At 35, Liliane in "The Debt" "has just had time to collect the missing pieces of her own history` The Man Who Painted Stalin offers such a wealth of meaning at each reading that any review must be considered a work-in-progress. France Theoret`s dense prose, devoid of conventional dialogue, requires high concentration. The language is sometimes awkward, occasionally obscure, no doubt partly because the book is in translation, but also because her scrupulous concern for accuracy takes precedence over questions of style. It`s not intellectual rigour, exactly, that is required to read The Man Who Painted Stalin, but the willingness to bring these words into the light of one`s own experience, upon which they often release their meaning with terrifying force.

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