Apology for the Woman Writing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am

Apology for the Woman Writing
by Jenny Diski
Virago, HK$114

Viewed as entertainment, there are many reasons to avoid Apology for the Woman Writing. That title, for one, which smacks of a 17th-century pamphlet composed by a pent-up abbess in Bavaria. Then there is the opening sentence: 'There her mistress lies in the bed, gasping like a fish.' Hardly the new Dan Brown. Finally there is Diski's lead character, Marie de Gournay: a feminist before the term was a glint in Germaine Greer's eye, an intellectual, and a writer. In one of the book's more memorable scenes, Marie meets her hero - the essayist Michel de Montaigne - and promptly stabs herself in the forearm to prove her devotion. Having asked to be his disciple, the breathless Marie then enquires if he will adopt her. Understandably astonished, Montaigne 'was ready to do almost anything to appease the crazed girl'. And yet, a most intriguing story emerges. While Montaigne does all he can to avoid the swooning Mademoiselle de Gournay, it is Marie who establishes both his name and the literary form he all but invented: the essay. Diski writes with intelligence and narrative skill in this excellent and - yes - entertaining novel.