The punchline and title of Raymond Queneau’s 1947 novel We always treat women too well (On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes), comes on the last page. Just before he is shot dead, Corny Kelleher, one of the 1916 GPO garrison, is still grumbling about women, while insisting that the British, especially, acknowledge how chivalrously he and his comrades conducted themselves towards Gertie Girdle, who has been their captive for the duration of the siege.
Corny has not been a very brave or effective soldier, but like many who practise that trade from the time of Homer on he is precious about his posthumous reputation. One of the ironies of this final scene is that the last two rebels to be shot Corny and Dillon are gay sweethearts. But like his straight comrades, Corny has, throughout, masked a fear of women with bluster and the flourishing of his machine gun.
In his preface, Queneau makes it clear that he (or more precisely, his fictional mouthpiece, Sally Mara), is writing a fable, not a history. He shrinks the epic of the Easter Rising to a playful roman noir, in which Gertie wrecks the rebels’ pose as would-be tough guys. She is a post office clerk who somehow can afford the latest fashions from Paris. Emerging from the ladies’ lavatory just after the killing of her boss, the postmaster, Gertie responds coolly to the changed situation and rapidly gets the measure of her seven baffled captors.
Mention of the flush toilet prompts Queneau to many gags: Gertie affects a prim reserve about pulling the chain, lest it be heard, though not to flush would not be correct either. For her, the toilets, like the postal system, are evidence of the superiority of British civilisation. In The Tin Drum, Günter Grass also knocks humour out of the siege of a post office: in Danzig. As in Dublin, the filing cabinets, rubber stamps and hatches proclaim these buildings to be miniature outposts of discipline and decorum.
Gertie is right to suppose that the rebels, though they have killed gratuitously and slapped the female staff around, will hesitate to break down the door of a ladies’ toilet. They do. She fakes maidenly alarm: “I am alone in their hands.” But the note is coquettish. Gertie reflects on her dilemma in the language of romantic novelettes, but she is the toughest character in the book, a femme who is literally fatale, a “praying mantis”, a Medusa who leads men to death via the tiny petrifaction of their erections. She is cheeky and chic; wears her hair in an Eton crop and goes about without underwear. Whilst the rebels (partly to score off each other), try to play the part of captors, she refuses that of captive.
The battle for Sackville Street (the rebels call it O’Connell) is merely a backdrop. Within the GPO which functions almost as a character the true source of tension is the correct conduct by Republican heroes towards a woman of unionist sympathies, who, smart in both senses, fills some with desire and all with dread. Queneau neatly subverts the conventions of the gangster-moll dynamic. Seducer and survivor, the heartless Gertie is last seen sticking out her tongue at the corpses, as she moves back into the arms of her British naval commander fiancé a silly toy soldier, in his own way as inadequate a male as the rebels.
Queneau admitted that his direct experience of Ireland amounted to an hour’s stopover in Shannon on his way to the USA. It hardly matters: his 1916 Dublin is a literary concoction, and anticipates his most famous work Zazie dans le Métro,(1959), which also has a resourceful female protagonist and is full of the poetry of a city. An admirer of James Joyce, Queneau took many of the rebels’ surnames from Ulysses. The heroine’s first name, too, recalls the young one who caused the commotion for Leopold Bloom on Sandymount Strand. But Queneau shows none of Joyce’s concern for accurate location. Indeed he shifts the GPO to the corner of Eden Quay to allow a gunboat to shell the building at close quarters.
The plot of We always is driven by how Gertie’s presence undercuts the rebels’ romantic pretensions. For Queneau, purity, whether in love or in war, is bogus. But though he fabulates the events, he uncovers an unquestionable distinction: the Irish and the English talk and therefore think differently. Full of sly and bawdy word-play, We always is essentially about language. When the rebels, self-importantly, set out to interrogate Gertie, there rapidly develops an exchange between two incompatible mind-sets, unnoticed by all the characters. As a fastidious European intellectual, Queneau sounds equally snooty about her matter of fact observations and their verbose speculations: both non-Cartesian, non-scientific. They are all uninformed about the different transmission rates of sound and light, and that Pascal invented the wristwatch. Neither her catchcry, “God save the King”, nor theirs the anachronistic “Finnegans Wake” is rational. In fact her interrogation wanders into desultory but undeniably interesting philosophical chat, as O’Rourke, the medical student, wonders, how as an agnostic she can claim that God will save the king. Only in the conversation between Gertie and the gay tailor, Dillon, is there any communication, probably because they are discussing fashion. The Irish give Queneau more scope for paradox: they are Catholics “with a tendency to atheism”.
Queneau relishes an exaggeratedly phonetic spelling of English words as heard by a French ear (vatereprouf, ouisqui, darlingue) and draws on mid-twentieth century slang. He plays also with traditional novelistic conventions: of the fifty chapters, some amount to only one paragraph, some to only one sentence, many of these of one or two words.
Other than their indulgence in rhetoric, Queneau’s rebels share few traits with their historical precursors, being to varying degrees uncouth and sexually inexperienced fantasists from the margins of Europe. Some are troubled less by the murder of a civilian than by the indecency of her lifted skirt and splayed body, which gives Gallagher an erection. As for their view of the struggle, they swing from groundless optimism to black fatalism. Their guns are manifestations of their manhood, but some cower as the bullets fly. Naive dreamers or clownish bullies, they are no match for Gertie. As part of the deglamourising of public events, it is her deflowering by Caffrey that is the most dramatic incident of the occupation. That she incited him does not lessen the coarseness of his conduct: there is a certain poetic appropriateness in his ultimate fate. Her later bout, with Callinan, is more tender, but afterwards she is unperturbed and as she tucks into whiskey and lobster, (their foraging has yielded exotic rations), she is scornfully disapproving of their table manners.
Only Gertie, and to a small extent, Dillon the tailor who (by a coincidence that could have come from Ulysses) had been working on her wedding dress before these évènements began, are given the luxury of an inner life. Queneau makes sparing use of first names for the lads, but they are discriminated by their dialogue, evoking varying levels of sympathy. O’Rourke the medical student is – surprisingly and hilariously shy and naive about love. The most polite and educated of the rebels, an image of him sniffing his hands, scented by Gertie’s armpits, is endearing. As a pendant to her violation by Caffrey, Corny’s subjection of O’Rourke to a depilatory session (with sealing-wax), approximates a rape. If the language is staccato, the action is fragmentary, narrated in terse, cinematic fashion. A Hitler lookalike pops up in a pub. Ghoulish set pieces, like the Keystone Cops-like disposal of bodies from a wheelbarrow into the Liffey, are narrated in such deadpan prose that they seem hilarious. That war is mostly monotonous is neatly captured in the way everyone waves when a Norwegian yacht heads downriver on the high tide. As if illustrating Marx’s comment about how history happens, Queneau has skipped the tragic register and gone straight for the farcical.
We always treat women too well is out of print in English. On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes is available in Folio paperback.
Pauline Hall’s most recent publication is The Cream of the Milk, a limited broadsheet edition of thirteen clerihews on famous and infamous Irishwomen.