• By Barbara Molinard; translated by Emma Ramadan
  • The Feminist Press
  • 128 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
  • October 10, 2022

A maddeningly abstruse story collection from France.


Readers like a good story, don’t we? Isn’t that why we pick up a book, turn the pages, dig in? Sometimes, the best stories are those we learn of the writers themselves. Think John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole’s mother worked to place his manuscript after he committed suicide, sending it to publisher after publisher in search of a home. Consider Ernest Hemingway and his war injuries, his cold and drunken life in Paris, his standing desks, six-toed cats, and multiple wives. Flannery O’Connor and her birds. It’s akin to celebrity gossip for some of us, this legend and lore of our literary heroes.

Take also the life of Barbara Molinard (1921-1986). This writer — we are told in Marguerite Duras’ preface to Molinard’s one and only collection of short stories, Panicswas incredibly prolific, writing hours and hours a day only to rip to shreds everything she produced. This slim volume of 13 stories and one interview between Duras and Molinard (about a story idea) is all that remains of her years of work.

Panics, fearlessly translated from the French by Emma Ramadan from Molinard’s collection Viens, was originally published in 1969, when Molinard was 48; it was Duras who served as champion for this new edition. If we are to believe Duras’ recounting of the book’s origin, she and Molinard’s filmmaker husband, Patrice, convinced the writer to salvage a few stories (by painstakingly piecing together shredded manuscripts) and allow them to be published as a collection.

Anyway, that is Molinard’s story as we know it today. Write, destroy, salvage, publish, repeat — except for the “publish” part. Obsession and destruction are part of this writer’s story and are part of the stories that make up Panics. Absurd, experimental, and often curiously, unapologetically violent, the book calls to mind the surreal work of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, and even of Molinard’s mentor and friend Duras. One story after another puts its protagonist in outrageous situations that become more convoluted by the page.

“The Severed Hand” begins with a pharmacist who decides to help a man by cutting off his useless, balloon-like thing of an appendage. Then it follows the handless man to a friend’s lodging under the streets of the city, where he encounters a lost baby and increasingly odd, alarming things:

“He moved through the pipe with agility, accompanied by the baby. After climbing for several hours, pulling the child by the hair so as not to be separated from him, he couldn’t help losing him at a bend in the pipe.”

“Happiness,” a story emotionally similar to Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss,” stays close to the perspective of a woman deluded in her joy, only to reach a less-than-happy (but not unexpected) end. Many of these stories follow the desperate searching of their characters through the streets of French towns, jaunts which eventually twist and turn into elaborate, puzzling journeys that rarely arrive at the protagonists’ desired destination.

In other words, these tales are fever dreams not unlike those recorded in Kafka’s diaries. The difference, though, is that Kafka’s diaries were written with surprising and uncensored spontaneity; later, some entries were revised into surprising and uncensored stories. Yet a number of Molinard’s dream-like stories come across as not fully realized. It’s as though her tearing up and reassembling of the pages were a kind of redrafting that resulted in only a baker’s dozen of “finished” pieces that, in collection, become predictably weird and too similar in their execution and effect. After a while, oddness just comes across as oddness.

The collection has been touted as an unblinking inspection of control, mental illness, and death, its absurdities and the writer’s obsessions driving the nightmarish narratives. Readers will feel uncomfortable as they read the just over 100 pages of Panics, but the most interesting feeling that takes hold here is loneliness. Molinard’s characters, even in interaction with others, ache for human connection.

The two stories that most keenly plumb the depths of isolation are “The Plane from Santa Rosa” and “Untitled.” The latter is presented as abbreviated journal entries, observations told in relatively straightforward prose with unsettling precision. “The Plane from Santa Rosa” is the opening story and holds unfulfilled promise for the rest of the offerings. In it, a lonely woman fills her days by waiting for a train, for the passengers she expects to arrive:

“There were kisses, smiles, tears of joy, and bursts of laughter; friendly words and loving, tender words. There was all of it. All. The woman saw all of it. All.

“Now alone, in the middle of the deserted terminal, she thought that it was time to go home.”

If Barbara Molinard had allowed readers more time inside the lonely depths of her characters’ interiors instead of whisking them through dark and dangerous streets toward more dark and danger, these stories might be more satisfying. In fact, were readers permitted to get closer, they may have come to see the tales collected here as the true story of a talented, troubled writer.

Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was named a distinguished favorite by the Independent Press awards. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Tucson.

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