Living Fictions

The French writer Christine Angot has built a career out of provocation. In spite of a purported desire to be ‘read, and not seen’, she is a familiar presence in the French media, regularly dispatching unpalatable opinions and clashing with her interlocutors. Notable recent appearances on the late-night television show On N’est Pas Couché have seen her draw unpopular comparisons between the Holocaust and the American slave trade, as well as excoriate the French Green Party spokesperson Sandrine Rousseau to the extent that the latter burst into telegenic tears. Promoting her latest novel, Le voyage dans lest (2021), on the L’heure bleu radio show in the autumn, she was asked of its contents by the host Laure Adler, ‘More incest?’

Ever since L’inceste (1999), Angot’s work has chewed over the same intractable subject: the sexual abuse of her autofictional persona, Christine Angot, by her estranged father Pierre. That book, which also scavenges the fallout of the narrator’s first sexual relationship with a woman, begins ‘I was a lesbian for three months’ – in deliberate, arch parallel with the counterfactual opening sentence of Hervé Guibert’s era-defining À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990), ‘I had AIDS for three months.’ To equate lesbianism with an AIDS diagnosis requires, as Paul Preciado has noted, above-average levels of chutzpah. Yet audacity is a shrugged-off given for Angot. The astringency of her prose and public persona reflects an eagerness to antagonise a literary establishment which for many years consigned her to the status of media kindling or a therapeutic ‘diarist’. Only last year did she receive a nomination for the Prix Goncourt, having proved herself, with Le voyage dans l’est, to be a ‘real writer’ at last.   

Born Christine Schwartz in 1959 and brought up in Chateauroux by her Jewish mother – the antisemitism of French society is another contentious preoccupation – she attended university in Reims but left after a year to pursue writing. Throughout her childhood she was deprived of even the acknowledgement of her father, who left her mother for another woman in the early 1960s, but re-emerged in her early adolescence and began to abuse her. Surprisingly, Angot chose to adopt his surname when her work began to be published in 1990. Her debut, Vu du ciel, which appeared when she was 31, centred on the posthumous perspective of a little girl following her grisly rape and murder; her second novel, Not to Be (1992), was a Beckettian exercise which portrayed a dying man’s thoughts in his hospital bed. Angot lived in Bruges, Nice and then Montpellier, where she moved with her partner Claude and daughter Léonore (the subject of her 1993 novel Léonore, Toujours), both of whom recur as fictionalized avatars in her oeuvre, before finally settling in Paris. Much commentary has orbited the unanswerable and uninteresting question of who the ‘real’ Christine Angot is, something which the author has both condescendingly rejected and playfully indulged, publishing a book titled Subjet Angot as well a collection of staged ‘interviews’ baiting the media’s appetite for gossip.

Un amour impossible (2015), recently published in English as An Impossible Love, marks a moment in which Angot sought to shift the spotlight. The ‘impossible love’ of the title refers not to the abusive relationship with her father, but to the more universal, knotty nature of the maternal bond, which, Angot intimates, requires ‘a whole book’ to circumscribe. Angot is often perceived as untranslatable in English – partly because her prose is sometimes cloaked in heavy psychoanalytic garb – but Armine Kotin Mortimer has produced an impressive rendering of the novel which preserves its subtleties, such as Angot’s sensitive depiction of the gap between mother and daughter, which widens once Pierre dies. Christine becomes increasingly resentful of her mother’s failure to incriminate him and testify to the unutterable crime: ‘In the years that followed, I began to attribute my failures to her. I accused her of not having examined her conscience, of having stayed in analysis only three years, of having found an easy guilty party in my father, of not having reflected on her own responsibility for what had happened to me.’ 

Angot has explained how she could not ‘leave a hole in the place of my mother in my books’. But as with L’inceste, whose sentences disintegrate and splinter the more the narrator probes its eponymous subject, the effect is of getting closer to an object without ever truly touching it. Like looking at the sun a beat too long, Angot’s childhood memories dazzle her otherwise precise, insistent prose. ‘Trying to write’, Angot observes, ‘for me is trying to remember what it was like inside. Inside of things, in the middle of living. Not having a thesis or a discourse “on” or “about” something.’ To make a book about her mother would be to reduce her consuming and ambivalent role within Angot’s life.

The title also signals the book’s representational ambitions, its presumptuous narration of the moment Angot’s parents met, and her subsequent conception. This affected omniscience – for how could Angot really knowthe intricacies of her parents’ doomed encounter in such granular detail? – rescues the novel from any narrow debates about veracity. While in L’inceste, where reflexive, metafictional elements perforate the narrative, reminding us that we are reading a constructed literary artefact, An Impossible Love immerses the reader in both the solipsism of the two lovers and the wider world of French society in the 1950s, which is so cinematically evoked that the director Catherine Corsini adapted it into a lush melodrama in 2018. In place of the earlier novel’s meditation on incest as both a corporeal transgression and a seismic violation of the codes of representation, An Impossible Love marshals the tropes of detective fiction, seducing the reader with what Angot has called the ‘libidinal energy’ that pulses beneath trauma narratives.

In further contrast, Angot declines to render the abuse – or indeed the affair between her parents – in salacious detail. In Mortimer’s translation, Angot describes the relationship between her parents as ‘inevitable’ but also ‘unpredictable, incongruous’. It ‘escapes from the social order’ because the pair descend from polarized milieux: he from a multilingual bourgeois family in Paris; she from a small-town where the sole cultural ventilation came from the local cinema. The iron barrier of class, rather than mothers or daughters or the conditions of incest, is perhaps the substrate of An Impossible Love: the divergent sensibilities which mean that Pierre, while declaring his love for Rachel over long, intertwined afternoons and evenings, could never marry her, nor recognize their daughter as his own. ‘He had warned you from the beginning’, Christine reproaches her mother at one point. ‘Contact with his social person – by which I mean his milieu, his identity – was out of the question.’

In interviews, Angot has scorned ‘testimonial literature’ as the sole genre afforded to survivors of abuse. The latter, she argues, have been permitted to ‘speak as much as they want’, yet their writing is rarely considered capital-L Literature. Still, there is something reportorial about the forensic prose of An Impossible Love. In preparation, Angot studied other writers’ texts about their mothers, including Georges Bataille’s Ma mère and Annie Ernaux’s Une femme (whose mode of sociological excavation bears some similarity to An Impossible Love, though Angot never goes quite as far as Ernaux’s bracing self-effacements). But Angot wanted her own effort, she says, ‘to be as if the little girl herself was writing.’ The result is that the text oscillates between the cadences of lullaby and an almost clinical register. The second mode is perhaps marginally more successful, in its counterposing of legibility to the hazy relativity that makes incest possible in the first place: the refusal to acknowledge the lines of filiation that make a father a father, a child a child.  

Angot’s account of maternal indebtedness and entanglement recognizes that the autofictional self, though often viewed as narcissistic, is always embedded in a wider terrain of relationships and references. She is often criticized for repeating herself, for grimly circling the same narrow subject, much like her forebear Marguerite Duras – another survivor of abuse whose work folded and re-folded the worn fibres of her childhood. Yet Angot is interrogating the difficulties of persisting, of continuing, of somehow living in the present – and through her writing – despite a devastating past. An Impossible Love ends with an extended dialogue between mother and daughter in which Rachel, while making notes on Christine’s latest manuscript, interrupts the process to recall a memory of picking cherries in the garden of their former home in Chateauroux. The passage is vivid and resonant, yet it is not straightforwardly nostalgic. In typically rebarbative media appearances, Angot has suggested that there is no distinction between real and fake, nor true and false in literary writing. There is only ‘alive prose’ and ‘dead prose’. There are words that remain on the page, and those that somehow manage to transcend themselves. Angot’s writing lives. 

Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, NLR 31.