“So many books have been written with Paris as a character and there are so many clichés about its seductive beauty, as a writer you need to find your Paris and step away from the great dark magnet that it is. Often the dark Paris is what is most interesting.” Alicia Drake
The vision of Paris as an intellectual’s city with writers and artists chain-smoking on café terraces, arguing about literature, art and Existentialism has been consigned to the attic by most contemporary novelists at work today who are worth reading. Tatiana de Rosnay and Alicia Drake are two such writers whose vision of the City of Light is anything but a picture postcard. They graced the stage at this year’s Beyond Words French Literature Festival at the French Institute in South Kensington.
There is, of course, some superb non fiction on offer which gives a genuine, riveting, and rather more leftfield take beyond the usual stereotypical reads – my favourite being the memoirs of late, great John Calder who I was lucky enough to know. The Garden of Eros: The Story of the Paris Expatriates and the Post-war Literary Scene is essential reading for anyone curious about visionary entrepreneurs operating in the publishing industry of yesteryear, and the Paris-London-New York golden triangle.
A forgotten Paris is described by the late Lesley Blanch in her memoirs On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago) in which she describes Russian Paris of the 1920s with theatre director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, and the beleaguered capital in 1945 when she was there with her younger husband Romain Gary, ambitious and unknown. “Romain developed a hunger for the atmosphere of the studios where a circle of newer artists worked. Long evenings would be spent trudging along the icy ill-lit streets and interminable boulevards. Public transport was scarce, very few people had cars then, and we had no money for taxis, which were rare.“
The City of Light
Tatiana de Rosnay was born bilingual, to a British mother and a French father. She started writing age ten in English, and then the French came in. The Rain Watcher, just published by World Editions – reviewed HERE – was written in English and translated into French. As the author is bilingual it is tricky for her translators since she has her own way with words. The book she is working on now is being written simultaneously in English and in French and is therefore growing in two languages separately. She does not deliberately choose the language in which a novel is written, it just happens naturally. With twelve published novels, four collections of short stories, two biographies, several other books and three film adaptations under her stylish belt, she is one of France’s most read authors.
Fashion journalist, Alicia Drake, lived and worked in Paris for eighteen years and only recently returned to England with her husband and children. Her compulsively readable biography, The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, brilliantly brings to life the bitchy, hedonistic, narcissistic worlds of the late designer, Karl Lagerfeld, and his infamous rival, Yves Saint Laurent.
Her just-published first work of fiction, I Love You too Much, “is a French novel even though the American publishers made it less foreign which was quite a tussle in certain places.” The action came to her in French as she sat in the local library in Abingdon doing research and writing the first draft. The dialogue came to her in French so she then went back and rewrote it in English.
Alicia Drake: “Narcissism is a huge thing for me and the darkness that comes with that state of being. It is something that obsesses me in all my writing, and it is significant in Paris. The other theme in my books is Paris itself – its geological literary strata fascinates me.”
Both The Rain Watcher and I Love You too Much feature dysfunctional families who get on well on one level and talk to each other, but only superficially. The characters want to be able to talk to each other, but can’t. Each novel features a confused adolescent boy grappling with what emerges from beneath the surface . . . with what they are told and what they witness. What happens when the adults’ glamorous veneer cracks and secrets and lies leak out?
Both novels have rain-streaked cover images evoking a certain kind of romantic Paris. One features Notre Dame’s towers, as iconic as the twin Towers were for New York, and the other a typical nineteenth-century apartment block façade with a slate grey roof and chimney-pots seen through a window and its curlicue wrought-iron balcony.
Tatiana de Rosnay: “My vision of Paris is a dark Paris and not one that everyone sees. The place has changed. I present a Paris that is very different to what people imagine. It inspires so many people and romance and chick lit writers and is so very different to my city.”
Melancholic and disturbing, both novels are beautiful reads and a painful reminder of how one person’s reality is another person’s lie.
Simone de Beauvoir: the mother of feminism
“Simone de Beauvoir has been a very important role model for me, as she has been for lots of other women, and in that sense she has been a mother, the mother some of us perhaps wished we had ourselves.” Ann Oakley, British sociologist, feminist and writer.
Moving on from the book-lined splendour of La Médiathèque to a packed Ciné Lumière, a very different line-up of strong women was on offer.
Adelaide Bon and her translator Ruth Diver discussed The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, published by MacLehose Press; an autobiographical novel about a childhood shattered by a rape that takes place in the stairwell of a Parisian apartment block one day in the month of May. The nine-year-old girl hides her suffering behind a smile and shuts down, drinks and struggles with panic attacks. She carries the trauma of what happened into adulthood. Twenty-three years after the attack she finally finds her voice and speaks up, finding at last the words to describe sexual trauma and violence.
“The jellyfish spread their umbrellas wide and let their silky filaments dance in the icy waters.”
In Spring 2016, Adelaide and eighteen other women faced the serial rapist who caught them in his poisonous tentacles, at the Palais de Justice in Paris. Over seventy known victims had been attacked between 1983 and 2003, along with hundreds of other little girls who were unable to file a complaint.
“Society has always been male; political power has always been in the hands of men,” Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo movement has highlighted the number of women who have suffered sexual harassment and rape, and has revealed how the prevalence of PTSD in assault survivors is drastically higher than hitherto realised. Therapies for sexual-assault-related PTSD are in need of radical improvement, as are attitudes in society as a whole. Yet while the film mogul is justly condemned and held to account, the US President is backed by the White House in his denial of allegations against him of sexual assault or harassment; branding the women as liars. His assertion that the women who have come forward accusing him were not attractive enough for him to sexually assault says much.
Victor Hugo and Baudelaire – everyone’s favourite French Romantics
Negar Djavadi described how there was no language to describe intimacy and the body in Iran as to do so is taboo. After arriving in France and discovering the French language, reading de Beauvoir was a shock. Disoriental, published by Europa Editions, is the story of three generations of women from a family of intellectuals who were political dissidents. Djavadi arrived in Paris in the early 1980s, age eleven. The book opens in a fertility clinic, and flashes back and forth between life in Iran and life in France. It is a story of integration and disintegration with history woven in. She had not wanted to describe revolution and exile as others had done, but wanted to tell a bigger story – a saga. So she wrapped up her experiences inside the story of a whole group of people. Her parents’ view of France back in Iran was idealised and romanticised. Literature stopped at Victor Hugo and de Beauvoir was only known because of Sartre. So when she arrived in France it was disconcerting since the modern country she landed in was anything but the fantasy France she had imagined it to be.
Women at Work
“I am a quiet, observational reporter who lets people talk. I do nothing huge like covering the war in Iraq. People spoke openly to me, let me into their lives and told me things. Without their generosity opening up I could not have done the book,” Joanna Biggs, author of All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work
Audre Lorde, who died of cancer in 1992, never had an official UK publisher until now. The Silver Press is a new feminist publishing house founded by London Review of Books editors Joanna Biggs and Alice Spawls, along with Verso communications director Sarah Shin. Your Silence Will Not Protect You, the first ever British edition of Lorde’s poetry, essays and speeches, has just been released.
“On ne nait pas femme, on le devient / One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” Simone de Beauvoir.
“Castor” (“The Beaver” as Sartre nicknamed his companion) started what could now be called the first #MeToo movement, asking women to speak up, and to exist. The Manifesto of the 343 demanding abortion rights was a way for women to take back power of their own lives and find a place outside the home. Women had to see themselves with new eyes. “You can’t wait for a man to liberate you, you have to liberate yourself,” she stated.
The Silver Press publishes books about lives its founders have never see or experienced, and cannot fathom. Joanna Biggs was impressed by de Beauvoir’s sense of entitlement to be a writer, rooted in her coming from the bourgeoisie, and how she was an active feminist. Her views about the need to change the whole of society’s fabric, over and beyond tackling women’s issues, remain as relevant as ever.
Biggs expounded on the need to find a new language to talk about violence in a way that is not mixed up with sexuality, and use words precisely to describe harrowing events and taboos. Today, homosexuality and transsexuality are the greatest taboos around the world – transsexuality in particular since you are supposed to be a boy or a girl, and the idea of being something in the middle which transgresses boundaries is unacceptable to society. “The limits are where the oppressors and dictators lie in wait.”
She finished her presentation by discussing All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, her first book, published in 2015 by Serpent’s Tail, which explores the diversity of jobs across the UK. From footballers to shoemakers, care workers, potters and sex workers, Biggs looks at the way work shapes a woman’s identity. The book shows different types of womanhood and how a woman is defined by the real, the norm.
Un Ménage à trois
De Beauvoir was a product of the tight, closed-minded French bourgeoisie. Her Frenchness is liberating café society which we do not have in the UK, although the milieu she grew up in and escaped from is not so different from the English upper-middle class.
Her relationship with Sartre was a mental-intellectual one. She was passionate about her younger lover, Claude Lanzmann. This ménage à trois on holiday makes for a riveting read in Lanzmann’s memoir The Patagonian Hare (Atlantic UK/Farrar Straus Giroux). It is perplexing that she had wanted to marry Lanzmann, and to live with him, (he did not want to, and went off).
Having sat alongside Lanzmann as a translations editor during the summer of 2014 when he read through his memoirs in English, I came to understand what it was like to work with an intellectual juggernaut, and what a monstre sacré (sacred monster) truly is, in reality.
A first edition of The Second Sex in the window of Maggs Bros. Ltd, rare books and manuscripts is going for 1250 GBP: the reward of success.
Imogen Sutton: “We are all caught in the way of daily life but de Beauvoir avoided it, lived in hotels when younger, then won the Prix Goncourt, [in 1954 with The Mandarins], got a studio flat, and ate out.”
Daughters of de Beauvoir
“Kate Millett was absolutely wonderful and not scary, but a very warm person . . . de Beauvoir opened her up to other ways of being and was an example to us all,” Imogen Sutton
The evening culminated in a rare screening to a packed cinema of Imogen Sutton’s documentary, Daughters of de Beauvoir, based on her book published in 1989 by The Women’s Press.
Imogen Sutton: “I started reading de Beauvoir when I was fifteen and still have my copies that are falling apart from my mother’s bookshelves. In my twenties I wanted to make a film about Simone de Beauvoir. I’d left the BBC to become an independent film maker, and went back to the arts department. I told the executive what I wanted to do. He thought it was a boring idea, but went along with it because the Arts Council had put up £50,000 to make the documentary. Eventually it went out and got coverage in all the newspapers and five star ratings even though I was told it was bad and untransmittable. It won a major film award and nobody ever mentioned it again. In terms of my encounters with de Beauvoir, I was absolutely gripped by this woman who had this incredibly interesting life, it is something to do with not just her writing, but her life, and her example as a woman who tried to be independent, and perhaps not quite making it. Those contradictions about de Beauvoir were the things that appealed to me because we all have those contradictions, and yet she somehow rose above them.
“The Second Sex fed into various things that were going on . . . the whole consciousness movement and the idea that a woman is political. She enriched that for me. And the autobiographies are so detailed, it is extraordinary really, the way you see the minutiae of a woman’s life, a thinking-writing intellectual maybe, but still an ordinary woman’s life. The autobiographies I had read before were about men’s lives.
“What we get [in the book Daughters of de Beauvoir] is what these women say in its entirety, they are talking to you as if they are friends. In the documentary too, you hear what they say from the side so they don’t intrude at all. You are with them as though they are friends.”
The discussion after the screening chaired by Sarah LeFanu with Imogen Sutton, Margaret Drabble and Kate Muir raised the question, WHY, seventy years on, are we still fighting for equality and justice? The consensus was that nostalgia is a trap for the unwary, since advances have been made in the fight for women’s rights advocated by de Beauvoir. Society’s expectations vs. reality take time to evolve. The job market has changed enormously. Women are less oppressed than in the 1950s, and many are actively working to change the world. For example the study of rape trauma syndrome denial is no longer marginal, but has gone mainstream.
Margaret Drabble: “I bought [de Beauvoir’s] books as they came out in paperback. I read my way through her. She was a kind of model, and at times a scary figure, you did not always want to go there . . . I was in a constant dialogue with her.
“She was much better at autobiography; she was schematic and not a great novelist as writing fiction is too trapped and structured. She believed that life is more surprising than the novel. Force of Circumstance is gripping – the physical sense of daily life as lived, the recall of the physical moment, the joy of the moment – and she is wonderful at travelogue. It is better than anything in the fiction. Her sense of lived life is terrific. There is a lot in common in de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook even though the latter is a proper novel.”
“I found the question why she and Sartre did not have children so very interesting . . . several of the women in the film did not have children because they did not like their mothers. Did it not occur to them that if they had children they would be totally different people from their mothers?”
Imogen Sutton concluded that there is far more awareness now, and the issues today are about politics, class and race. People look at different aspects of feminism in different ways now. However women’s lives were, and still are, changed in a moving and dramatic way by reading The Second Sex. And she quoted Kate Millett: “Somehow, Simone de Beauvoir has become a part of us: a heroine, but an equal too.”
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