In most forms of entertainment, friendships—and conversations—between women are all too often portrayed as backstabbing, competitive, or simply perfunctory. There’s the withered cliché of the post-coital huddle-up promoted by “Sex and the City,” whereby friends inexpertly repurpose directives from their own psychotherapy sessions; there’s the us-against-the-world friendship, intimacy so exaggerated it becomes suffocation; there’s also, of course, the friendship that’s just waiting to be ruptured by a man. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels break from this tradition, as do other contemporary works about female friendship written by Lauren Fox, Emily Gould, Tayari Jones, Sheila Heti and other women writers. Podcasts are also well-suited to resist these reductions; “Black Girls Talking” and “Call Your Girlfriend” are just two examples of candid creative work. But by and large, the way that women speak and relate in the absence of men is poorly represented in both popular and literary culture.
About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter is an antidote, if an imperfect one, to this cultural weakness. The premise of About Women is simple: two longtime friends, Lisa Alther and Françoise Gilot, began making tape recordings of the casual, frequent conversations they had in Gilot’s art studio in Paris. Originally the recordings were a playful project, an archive for the two women to expand on privately. Alther is 71, a renowned novelist and feminist, and originally from Tennessee; Gilot is 93, Parisian, a painter, and was both muse and partner to Pablo Picasso for nearly a decade. At a certain point, the tapes were transcribed. When the women began to pass the transcripts back and forth, the idea of the book was born, and so began the process of editing, clarifying, erasing, and rewriting.
It’s hard to categorize About Women. First and foremost, the book is not about women; it is about two women, both of whom bring rich experiences and insight, but whose perspectives are nevertheless limited by the parameters of their own lives, however worldly or searching. Both are accomplished in their respective fields; both have lived hungrily, often rebelling against expectation. Their personal narratives are interwoven with historical details and cultural touchstones, but neither woman is speaking universally—as it should be. In the introduction, Gilot writes:
It is a well-known fact that women are often gifted ‘raconteuses.’ Retelling legends or personal remembrances, they transmit the power of speech to the next generation…. it is often thanks to anecdotes relating unusual information that we succeed in taming important ideas and unexpected phenomena.
Speech is where About Women stands out: its representation of the way women speak to one another is impure, given the extensive editing process the book must have gone through, but it’s an approximation, and it rings true, however tailored it may be. The book lives somewhere between No Regrets, n+1’s slim collection of candid conversations between women writers, and Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk, a novel-in-dialogue carved from hours of recorded conversation between three friends.
With a certain lens, About Women could be seen as a discursive shared memoir, selections from two intersecting lives. But given the emphasis on cultural difference—between France and the United States, and their respective women in particular—it seems that the book is also interested in sparking conversation around womanhood, and the different manifestations of feminism over the last century. To approach this book as a book of ideas is, in my opinion, missing the point. Speech is the thing.
Public space has never been entirely hospitable to women. “I knew that women speak to one another differently in rooms without men,” writer and n+1 editor Dayna Tortorici writes in the introduction to No Regrets. “Not better … just differently, and in a way one doesn’t see portrayed as often as one might like.” It’s not that there isn’t a desire in the culture for the things women say to one another in private. It’s that the mainstream culture doesn’t really have a place for them. Women’s conversations and shared experiences are often siloed, even in the seemingly democratic wilds of the Internet.
Conversations between close friends open a wide space for intimacy, assertiveness, difference, and most important of all, fallibility. These days it feels like some of the best writing by women must live in email inboxes. I imagine my own is only a small indication, full as it is with notes and letters from other women, ranging missives about family histories, literary critiques, gynecological wisdom, confessions, revelations, endless existential comedies and sorrows. (On top of that, I work in technology, an industry dominated by men—numerically, culturally, and in spirit—and, well, god bless the back-channel.) When speaking in public is exhausting, speaking in confidence is a relief. Conversations between women clear space in which to stumble, compare notes, and fuck up.
This last point is important. Some of the opinions and reflections raised in About Women will provoke, as perhaps is intended. When the two women discuss street harassment and catcalling, Gilot’s take flies in the face of contemporary feminist discourse: “Those whistles and comments to women in the street in France have a function,” Gilot says, “and that function is to make the whole atmosphere more sexually charged.” Gilot’s argument is that a sexually charged atmosphere leads to less repression, which in turn leads to fewer rapes. (Besides, Gilot argues, “Insisting on being ethical and whatnot makes a culture extremely trivial, pragmatic, and boring.”) It’s far from an airtight thesis. It would be easy to take Gilot to task for this—and Alther does—but that’s hardly the point: About Women isn’t a manifesto; it’s not a guidebook. The book’s vulnerability does not lie in the words exchanged. It is vulnerable because we are allowed to listen.
A book that is strictly dialogue—full of reminiscence, speculation, emotion and opinion—is difficult to carry without plot or narrative thread. The odd pleasure of About Women is its fallibility. Portions of the conversation sag a bit, and like anyone speaking about their own life, certain trains of thought can run down into rabbit-holes. But that’s all right. Much like zoning out during a conversation between friends about their common alma mater, it’s fine to flip and choose a bit: tune out, stop back in. It’s an eavesdropper’s dream, notes from the top of the stairs.
About Women is full of poignant microhistories and insightful observations about art, culture, and ideology. Some of the most compelling sections are those where Gilot and Alther swap memories, family stories, and childhood perceptions. They listen closely, and comment freely. “Either a woman is willing to play her part in the social fabric, or she isn’t,” Gilot says, after Alther shares some ancestral biographies. “It sounds as though your grandmother wanted to ameliorate the status quo and your mother wanted to diminish it. You came out of these contradictions wanting just to jump out altogether.”
History and individual experience are never wholly disentangled, and in these pages their intersection has a pulse. The topic of war emerges early on in the conversation, catalyzing questions of feminism, nationalism, privilege and humanity. Alther and Gilot discuss volunteerism—unpaid labor for the benefit of charitable or community endeavors, particularly during wartime—as a uniquely American concept, notably in the framework of feminism. Alther says that during World War II, “women worked in the mills and factories and as maids and on farms, but the wives of the managerial and professional classes didn’t work outside their homes … volunteerism was their work. And maybe it was, as you [Gilot] suggest, to counteract abuses perpetrated by their husbands.” To which Gilot responds, “And to reestablish human values. That’s not unimportant. It was an antidote to raw capitalism.”
Gilot’s recollections of World War II are especially striking. In 1940, due to her participation that November in a commemoration of the Armistice of 1918, Gilot was targeted and placed on a list of student hostages. For several months, she walked daily to the Neuilly Kommandantur to sign in, and was informed that for every German killed, 50 French student hostages would be murdered. Gilot managed to find a loophole: she got a job in the fashion industry and gave up student status. (This story is frightening; it is also the simplest escape from WWII fascism that I’ve ever read about.) Gilot asks Alther at some point how she dealt “with the terror of World War II that [Alther] must have absorbed as an infant,” a question that at first pass seems generous. Upon reflection, however, it’s an acknowledgment of inherited generational trauma, a gesture toward historical continuity and inclusiveness. Alther, who came of age during the Cold War, says, “A phantom bomb was ever present in my childhood.” Of more recent wars—and the present—she states grimly, “It’s a nightmare that seems never ending.”
Sometimes the conversation bounces a bit, or takes an odd turn. At one point, talk turns to children and play, and the role of the Internet, television, and technology. The Internet, Gilot says, is “a virtual reality that’s slightly dangerous because, if infiltrated by fascist ideas, it could result in a complete generation indoctrinated the wrong way.” This is an intriguing statement! Alther replies, “If it’s true that we create our own reality through the power of the imagination, how will such children be able to create their future reality?” Then Gilot follows up with a question about Alther’s Appalachian grandmother. Compelling ideas are introduced, but aren’t always spun out. This is as natural a conversation as any: people speaking out of sync.
Mostly, though, the book contains the warmth that exists between two people who care for, and forgive, one another. It is full of the sorts of articulated speculation and questioning that you can only get away with in the company of someone who already loves you. Gilot and Alther are highly intelligent, thoughtful and perceptive, and they both make mistakes. They’re both finding—and situating—themselves within the broader culture and conversation, crossing boundaries, developing critiques, and making assumptions. At a certain point, Alther says, “It’s possible that by becoming a professional writer, I was trying to fulfill my mother’s thwarted literary ambitions.” Then she turns to Gilot: “Do you think you were fulfilling your mother’s repressed wish to be an artist?” Jesus Christ, I thought, before I realized: It’s a question only a true friend could ask.