This morning has largely been spent pretending to correct the proofs of Raymond Queneau’s We Always Treat Women Too Well, while secretly luxuriating in Queneau’s beautifully turned phrases and glorious vulgarity. IRA raids, scenes of a sexual nature, and highbrow literary allusion are perhaps not the most obvious of bedfellows, but Queneau provides just that combination in his smutty envisioning of the 1916 Easter Rising, set in a model of Dublin lifted directly from the pages of Ulysses. The slim novel is peppered with Joycean echoes, most obviously in the name of Queneau’s heroine, Gertie Girdle, who indulges in more debauchery than Joyce’s Gerty MacDowell could ever dream of. Originally introduced as a demure post-office clerk, Queneau’s Gerty becomes embroiled with a gang of dissident republicans who take over the post office, unwittingly taking Gertie hostage while she’s in the Ladies. Her arrival on the scene heralds the disintegration of the group, as one by one they become suffused with guilt-ridden lust for “the English girl”.
The basic plot is loosely modelled on James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which features a similar hostage situation. Unlike Chase’s passive, exploited heroine, however, Gertie is the instigator of all manner of depravity as she gleefully thwarts the rebels’ best attempts to behave “correctly” towards her in order to bring honour to their cause. The men’s pitiable inability to resist her seductions undercuts the scenes of violent murder played out in the opening pages, puncturing their pretensions to power. Thus, Queneau subverts that model of gratuitously violent genre fiction he initially appears to be employing.
Indeed, Queneau’s trademark humour is very much in evidence throughout We Always Treat Women Too Well; he clearly relishes Gertie’s transformation from prim postal clerk to self-possessed seductress, and her closest parallel is perhaps Ruth in Pinter’s The Homecoming. The most comic parts of the novel are those in which Gertie utterly disarms her captors, confusing and exciting them in equal measure – though among the 124 pages there isn’t one that isn’t thoroughly enjoyable.