“God,” Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace, “gave me being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy stories and tales of initiation. If I accept this gift it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization.”
Amanda Michalopoulou’s novel God’s Wife, published by Dalkey Archive Press in a masterful translation by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, begins with its own kind of authorization in relation to God: the acceptance of a wedding proposal. “It may sound like a lie: I am His wife. We married ages ago. He asked for my hand and I said yes.” From these lyrical and austere lines unfolds a novel that is as difficult to categorize as it is to forget. The plot is simple: an unnamed woman marries God; she finds herself in a frustrating marriage; she begins to write her own story. While it would be too strong to suggest that what Michalopoulou is writing is theology, God’s Wife often reads more like a philosophical treatise than it does a conventional work of fiction. (It’s Dante-esque tripartite structure of “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso” further cements its claims as a kind of “theological literature.”) As she has done throughout her career, Michalopoulou continues to tirelessly and inventively challenge the formal conventions of the novel. Like some of her other works-- such as I’d Like, also published by Dalkey in a translation by Karen Emmerich, a collection of short stories that coalesce into a fragmentary bildungsroman, to her most recent publication Baroque, yet to be translated into English, a novel told in reverse narration, from present to past, taking us all the way back to the moment of the narrator’s conception--Michalopoulou deploys the metafictional, or autofictional, possibilities in the novel in order to expand its aesthetic horizons. As such, God’s Wife is no different, as it uses this philosophical approach to allegorize the struggle of the woman writer and intellectual.
By blending the metaphysical with the domestic, the divine with the mundane, Michalopoulou playfully and profoundly explores a number of themes and ideas regarding female creativity and imagination. God becomes a placeholder for a variety of different societal and historical prohibitions, patriarchy being the most obvious. The God of the novel is the same one both loved and reviled by a number of women theologians and writers: Héloïse, Marguerite Porete, Emily Dickinson, the aforementioned Weil, and Anne Carson all come to mind. (Michalopoulou has directly cited Porete’s work, The Mirror of Simple Souls, as an influence on the writing of her novel.) The central conceit of a marriage to the divine creator allows Michalopoulou to examine the question of what a woman’s writing, an écriture féminine, might look like. Michalopoulou’s frustrated and brokenhearted narrator eventually takes to writing the novel we are reading in order to tell her own version of her troubled marriage. As translator Patricia Felisa Barbeito writes in her introduction, “With the pencil she has hidden in her vagina (and its nod to both Hélène Cixous and Carolee Schneemann), she writes in secret, notwithstanding her husband’s express prohibition, seeking to tear off the pattern of silence that He has imposed on her. Trapped in a story in which she has been hitherto complicit, she tries repeatedly to escape, to rewrite it, but her task is exceptionally difficult: her husband is God himself.”
In No Exit, Sartre famously claimed that hell is other people. Sartre’s words have been misunderstood as a despairing comment at the impossible prospect of real and authentic human connection. What the philosopher was actually trying to express is the idea that there is no individuality that is not, in some way, constituted by the Other. We are, in fact, subjects who exist as subjects in large part because of how Others see us and how we see ourselves in relation to those Others. God’s Wife takes this premise of what it means to exist in relation to the “Other” and extrapolates it to its fullest. As many psychoanalytic thinkers have suggested, Lacan being the most obvious, God is the “big Other,” the ultimate expression of society’s laws and prohibitions. Michalopoulou approaches this question of our relationship to divinity by reinscribing such ideas within the confines of the domestic sphere. Can heaven be other people? Perhaps for a time, yes: “A heart as shattered as mine beats furiously at the prospect of Absolute Love. In His proposal I saw an opportunity for ardor, for devotion...The allure of devotion lies in its absolute surrender, its power to sunder us from our ties to the past.” But what if one cannot surrender? What if one refuses this annihilation of the self, or, at least, refuses the relinquishing of autonomy that often comes with domestic compromises?
Elsewhere in Gravity and Grace, Weil writes that “We cannot offer anything but the ‘I,’ and all we call an offering is merely a label attached to a compensatory assertion of the ‘I.’” What the novelist must eventually contend with, as we all must, is the simple but overwhelming fact of those who exist beyond the finite limits of the self. We are often at the complete mercy of Others, whether they be loved ones or strangers. The sheer acceptance of this fact can be frightening. Occasionally, however, and always through chance, we may find ourselves bound to people through friendship, companionship, even love. At such moments, all we truly have to offer to the Other is the self. Love, fundamentally, is the radical willingness to fully place the existence and needs of another being before your own. Our unnamed narrator comes to a similar conclusion: “I am an individual. Like you. This statement probably sounds banal to you, but when I repeat it to myself I always end up in tears. I wipe my eyes, pick up my pencil. To me, it is the most beautiful, the most useful of objects. Like Him, it creates something out of nothing.” In the entanglement of love, we are not simply creating the beloved, but the self as well. All we might have, in other words, are these acts of simple creation.
Michalopoulou’s greatest theme might be the relationship between ethics, broadly speaking, and the nature of storytelling itself. Who gets to tell the story and why? And what do we owe the Other in the construction of our own narrative, even when that Other is the supreme being? God’s Wife, of course, does not supply easy answers to such questions; it does, however, as all great novels do, leave us seeing the world with new eyes.
by Amanda Michalopoulou
Dalkey Archive Press, December 2019
$16.95; ISBN-13: 978-1-62897-337-2