The Words to Say It is the story of a difficult birth, an ultimately triumphant odyssey through near-death and madness to life. Dedicated to ‘the doctor who helped me be born’, Marie Cardinal’s autobiographical novel recounts her birth and delivery from her mother—but the birth and delivery are not as we commonly understand them, and the doctor who delivers her is not an obstetrician. He’s a Freudian analyst and the psychological birth he oversees is as traumatic, bloody and physically demanding as any physical birth. In a seamlessly constructed narrative, Cardinal writes the rich layers of her character’s experience: her three-year unexplained haemorrhaging that no drug or doctor can cure; the regular visits to her analyst in a Parisian suburb; her growing recognition that he can help her despite her scepticism; the flow of words that replaces her flow of blood and revives her sun-drenched, jasmine-scented childhood under the blue sky of Algeria. The Words to Say It is about what it means to be a woman born into the constraints of middle-class, 20th century western Europe, about mothers, inheritance and madness, and about the alchemical potency of words. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, whose films plumb the depths of the psyche, called The Words to Say It ‘One of the most remarkable books I have ever read.’
Published in France in 1975 and translated into English in 1983, The Words to Say It became an international bestseller and a classic of psychoanalytical literature. The novel opens with a description of the damp, poorly lit cul-de-sac in a Parisian suburb that will become the narrator’s salvation. For seven years, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the cut-de-sac is her life: ‘I know how the rain falls here, how the inhabitants protect themselves from the cold. I know how, in summer, a life which is almost rustic establishes itself with geraniums in pots and cats sleeping in the sun.’ The narrator has escaped from a sanatorium with a single desperate purpose: to enter one particular house on this street to see the doctor she hopes will save her life. Her psychological collapse so horrendously manifested in physical symptoms—torrents of blood flow almost incessantly from between her legs—that she is forced to realise there are only two paths left for her to travel: analysis with this noted Freudian psychoanalyst or suicide. As a 30-something woman with three children, for their sake she chooses the former.
The rigorous, relentless analysis she undergoes is a strict, traditional Freudian one: she speaks into the silence of her doctor’s room while he sits listening behind her. He is not interested in her physical symptoms, her bleeding; he is interested only in her stories, her words: ‘Talk, say whatever comes into your head; try not to choose or reflect, or in any way compose your sentences. Everything is important, every word.’ Miraculously, without drugs or operations, through words alone, the doctor achieves what no other has been able to: her bleeding ceases immediately. But this is only the beginning.
No gynaecologist, psychiatrist or neurologist had ever acknowledged that the blood came from the Thing. On the contrary, I was told the Thing came from the blood. ‘Women are often “nervous” because their gynaecological equilibrium is very precarious, very delicate.’
She discovers that she’s ashamed not of the blood that had been flooding out of her, but of ‘what was going on inside of me, of this uproar, of this disorder, of this agitation; no one should look, no one should know, not even the doctor. I was ashamed of the madness.’ This is the Thing, the unknown force inside her that she must uncover and articulate in order to live—and to do so she must travel back on a wave of words to her troubled childhood in Algeria.
Several months into her analysis her doctor begins to interrupt her talk. His interventions are infrequent but their effect is mind-opening: ‘Such and such a word, what does that make you think of?’ he asks. And she discovers that the word he has picked out from the sea of words is ‘the key to open a door I had never even seen’. Through this painstaking process of picking through her words, she returns to life, utterly transformed into herself. The Words to Say It is remarkable for the skill with which Cardinal weaves together the two strands of her narrative: the ordinary chronology of her present, chaotic life in the muted light of Paris as she regularly attends her appointments with her doctor, struggling to survive her devastating symptoms while bringing up her three young children (her husband lives in Canada), and the uncontrollable associative chronology of the meandering path of her memories of her Algerian childhood in the 1930s and 40s.
The Words to Say It is astonishing for its story of the extraordinary healing power of words and the marvel of the ‘beautiful, complicated organisation of the human mind’. Because her analysis is Freudian, which is so focused on words, the novel is engaged at a profound level with the naming of things—with the finding of words—in order to delineate (and thereby diffuse the terrific power of) the unnamed, which she initially calls the Thing: ‘Words were boxes, they contained material that was alive.’ And it is words that are her guide through the labyrinth of her past and that become her road to life:
I began to speak of my mother, never stopping until the end of the analysis. Over the years I explored the very depths of her being, as though she were a dark cavern. Thus did I make the acquaintance of the woman she wanted me to be.
Born in Algeria in 1929, Marie Cardinal studied philosophy in Paris and taught at the universities of Salonika, Lisbon and Montreal. Her first novel, Ecouter la Mer, was published in 1962 and won the Prix International du Premier Roman. In 1983 a film adaptation of The Words to Say It was released in France, Les Mots pour le dire. Directed by Jose Pinheiro, it starred Nicole Garcia as Marie, for which she was nominated for a Cesar Award for best actress in 1984.