The Other Life of Catherine M.by Catherine Millet
“A haunting story of fragile female identity, sexually gained, violently lost.” —The New York Times Book Review
Catherine Millet’s best-selling The Sexual Life of Catherine M. was a landmark book—a portrait of a sexual life lived without boundaries and without a safety net. Described as “eloquent, graphic—and sometimes even poignant” by Newsweek, and as “[perhaps] one of the most erotic books ever written” by Playboy, it drew international attention for its audacity, and the apparently superhuman sangfroid required of Millet and her partner, Jacques Henric, with whom she had an extremely public and active open relationship.
Now, Millet’s follow-up answers the first book’s implicit question: How did you avoid jealousy? “I had love at home,” Millet explains, “I sought only pleasure in the world outside.” But one day she discovered a letter in their apartment that made it clear that Jacques was seriously involved with someone else. Jealousy details the crisis provoked by this discovery, and Millet’s attempts to reconcile her need for freedom and sexual liberation with the very real heartache that Jacques’s infidelity caused.
If The Sexual Life of Catherine M. seemed to disregard emotion, Jealousy is its radical complement: the paradoxical confession of a libertine who discovers that love, in any of its forms, can have a dark side.
“An honest, brutal piece of confession and self-analysis.” —The Guardian (UK)
“Readers will scamper after every morsel of this delicious, disturbing account.” —Bookforum
“[The] author of the sensational erotic memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. follows up with a somewhat similarly salacious, achingly candid, though more rueful chronicle of how she felt after discovering her longtime partner’s pattern of philandering. . . . unflinching.” —Publishers Weekly
“A haunting story of fragile female identity, sexually gained, violently lost.” —The New York Times Book Review
“[Jealousy] is like a conceptual work of art: if the first book was the performance, then the second one is its commentary.” —Liberation
“Jealousy is a painful, stifling, deeply moving love story. It is not the dark counterpart of The Sexual Life but rather its continuation. . . . Astounding.” —Le Monde
“A brave and wise little book . . .Millet writes eloquently and intelligently about the most painful of topics.” —Tom Callahan, BookReporter.com
“Seldom has any writer since Proust written in such a fine, profound and clever way on jealousy.” —Les Inrockuptibles
“[Millet] explores, like an archaeologist, the layers of anguish and pain, of consciousness and the unconscious, struggling in order to understand the unbearable feeling of being jealous.” —TITU
Unless one believes in predestination, it is clear that the circumstances of any encounter with another person, which, for the sake of ease, we attribute to chance, are in fact the result of an incalculable series of decisions taken at each crossroad in life, which secretly steer us towards them. Even the most important of these encounters may not have been consciously sought, or even desired. Rather, each of us proceeds like an artist or writer, who constructs a piece of work through a succession of choices; a gesture or word does not inevitably determine the gesture or word which follows, but instead confronts the author with a new choice. A painter who has used a touch of red may choose to mute it by juxtaposing a touch of violet; he may choose to make it sing with a touch of green. In the long run, whatever mental image of the painting he may have started out with, the sum of all the decisions he takes, some of them unforeseen, will give a different result.
Thus we lead our lives by a series of acts which are in fact far more considered than we care to admit—since to take full and clear responsibility for them would be a great burden—but which nevertheless set us on the path of people we have unknowingly been gravitating towards for some time.
How did Jacques’ face first register on my field of vision? I could not say. Elsewhere I have written that I was struck by his voice, as heard twice removed by a tape machine (it was a recording) and the telephone (down which someone played the recording to me). On the other hand, there is no visual image lodged in my memory signaling his epiphany in my life. A curious fact, since I am blessed with an excellent visual memory but have no ear at all. Perhaps it is precisely because my ear is relatively little used that I have managed to isolate one of the rare occasions on which it was sensitive, whereas my eye is so much in use and so ready to observe details, at times, it seems, indiscriminately, that I sometimes feel like one of those mad people who are unable to sift and order the visual signals which reach them from the outside world. Thus my first image relating to Jacques is a Gestalt, his presence as a dark, dense mass, inseparable from the surrounding space, which was lighter, white or rather cream coloured, its depth—I remember this quite clearly—delineated by a board fixed to the wall, serving as a work surface, and the door which led to the toilet.
I should say that we were having to concentrate on a page in a catalogue where there was a piece of text he’d written, which we had to correct by hand. We had been working for several hours, sitting side by side in the narrow office. I can still see the page, the text printed in characters imitating those of a typewriter. I can also see the house of the friend where he took me to dinner once the tedious job was done, and the bed, doubling as a sofa, on which we sat chatting after the meal; I can even still make out the faces of one or two of the other guests. But what marks out Jacques at that moment is still not his image, but a very discreet gesture, in which he just brushed my wrist with the back of his index finger. The circumstances of this memory enable me to identify a phenomenon I have observed at the moment when sensual pleasure first starts to stir; my visual attention seems to focus less on the actual object of my desire than on what surrounds it. In fact it is a reflex we all have in public, to put people off the scent. It affords the twofold pleasure of contact and dissimulation: we gaze intently into the eyes of the person on our right, to distract attention from the person on our left, who is stroking our knee under the table. But could it not be, also, that we respond generously to the blossoming of one of our senses, so that, in this instance, even as my skin was enjoying the touch of a man’s hand, softer than any I had ever known, or ever would know, my eyes could focus all their curiosity on his friends?
The image appears slowly in the developing tray of memories. I can recall, without hesitation, the position of our bodies in his bed the following morning, while, as often happens at such times, a voluble exposition of our selves as social beings succeeded the hasty exposition of our physical selves, and although I can still judge the exact level of daylight in the room during this exchange, it is only in memories from a later date that I begin to see the outline of his face and fill in the details of his features.
Significantly, in these memories, which belong to a period when our relationship was already established and steady, the image is not a close-up, which might have shown his face, with the expression in his eyes or mouth, but, at first, an establishing shot: for example, I see him parking his motorbike on the pavement opposite, and track him as he crosses the street, detaches his body from the rolling stream of other passers-by and comes towards the terrace of the café where a group—myself among them—is waiting for him. It seems to me that it is now that I notice the slightly elongated rectangle, the regularity of his head, accentuated by his short-cropped hair, which is already beginning to thin at the crown. This geometry is echoed in the square-set torso—the shoulders, waist and sides seem all to be of equal measure—accentuated by the loose- fitting shirt. In other words, I could only register his features by taking time and—literally—a step backwards, in imitation of certain painters who work in the old-fashioned manner, taking several steps backwards to get a better sense of their subject, the relation, proportionally, to the setting, and the effect of contrast with it.
I did not have a laser, instead of eyes, with which to pierce the world’s haze and immediately cut out the face of Jacques Henric. Although I had retained the childhood habit of drifting off into daydreams, my imagination respected its boundaries and I never imported into my life the ideal image of a man, formed in my imagination and projected onto the features of every man I met. I was twenty-four; I had been born in the Paris suburbs, in an unpromising environment, which I left aged eighteen, my only baggage the books I’d read. I needed, therefore, to widen my experience of the real world, and I yearned to discover new worlds, just as others at that time were taking to the open road, their rucksacks on their backs. The backpackers did not settle somewhere straight away. Similarly, it was not until my eye had “photographed” a wide variety of groups that I felt the desire to draw a ring around one face in particular. Romantic clich’s were not my thing then; they still aren’t today and I could never say that I recognized Jacques as one in a thousand; no, it was rather that until I’d met a thousand others I could not know that at the root of my relationship with him was a feeling whose nature and durability distinguished it from all others. Just as when faced with an intriguing, but apparently banal painting, which conceals an anamorphosis, you try to discover the precise angle from which, out of disparate elements, the laws of optics will enable you to perceive an astonishing coherent object, so at first I had to find my bearings in life, and then, having gleaned various different impressions of a man, in circumstances which did not particularly distinguish him from the others, put them all together to find standing before me the one who would move me more than any other. From Jacques, the understated gesture of a caress with the back of his finger. From my side I recall no one particular decisive move. After the dinner I went back home with him. Did he need to be any more explicit for me to feel I was invited? I’m not sure he did. That was how I lived at that time. I remember nothing of the journey from the friend’s house where we had had dinner to the studio where he lived. Are travellers always interested in the middle of their journey? As I attempt, in these opening pages, to recall the circumstances of my meeting with the man whose life I share, it is the starting point, all those years ago, which comes back to me. The explosive fuse from which my going home with Jacques that night was the distant echo: a race across a garden. The circumstances were these.
I was an adolescent. As I have said, I loved reading, but I was very bad at maths and I was made to take private lessons at the house of another girl, a friend who had similar difficulties. It so happened that the young man who taught us wrote poetry, and had even founded a little journal with a group of friends. The day of the last lesson came and we said goodbye at the door of the house where my friend’s family lived. I suspect my memory has exaggerated the amount of time it took him to walk down the garden path to the gate, because I still have the sense to this day that at that moment I entered upon the first big dilemma of my life. A dilemma dilates time. It is a torture which slowly, painfully, extracts contradictory arguments from the mind and examines them, returning now to this one, now to the other, in order to reinforce them. For the first time I was about to be able to tell someone who would understand the vital significance of the statement, that I was also a writer; the force of the words rose up within me, I had to release them, the reflex as imperious as if, having held my breath for too long, I had had to start breathing again. I was gullible, convinced that one’s future could be determined, as I had read and had perhaps been taught, by a chance but decisive meeting with an older person, by some prophetic utterance they might make; I had in mind the kind of mythical tale whose rhetorical devices and perennial role in literature would be brought to my attention much later by that learned and delightful work The Image of the Artist, by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz. But at the same time, pubescent shame held me back. I would be making a fool of myself in front of the boy and my friend. They would both think that I had invented this ruse so as to keep in contact with him: as well as being good at maths and a poet, he was very handsome. Such was prejudice, people would assume my motivation came more from a desire to go out with him than from a love of literature. Or, worse still, they would think I was one of those love-sick schoolgirls who think it cool to Write Poetry. Of course, I knew myself that my literary tastes had existed long before I met him, and that what I wrote was in no way connected with him, but I probably already had some sort of subliminal self-knowledge (acquired at a very young age by one who aspires to write—and perhaps even predating the aspiration—placing her from the very outset in the role of witness to the world and to herself) which told me that, even so, the suspicion was not entirely ill-founded. My determination to use books and works of art to gain access to a way of life other than the one offered by my upbringing went very deep, but I already had sufficient insight to realise that the charms of the maths tutor pandered imperceptibly to that determination. At least, that was how it seemed to me, at an age at which one prizes the purity of one’s desires.
But it is also an age at which we still have a dream of the future, a dream based on the miraculous possibilities our imagination lays in store, before life teaches us that it can be steered down paths which are less idealized but more plentiful and diverse. It seemed impossible that such an extraordinary chance would come again. As he placed his hand on the handle of the iron gate I called out and went running over to him.
And so it came to pass. I asked if I could see him again, to give him some things to read. He fixed a date. His manner was attentive and unsurprised. I interpreted this as a slight weariness, as though he had known what I was going to do all along and his kindly air concealed a reproach for my having wasted his time a little by my hesitation. I went back to my friend, who did not seem surprised either, and asked no questions. Thus, in a very short space of time, after an intense inner struggle, I had apparently taken the most important decision of my life and no one batted an eyelid. Had they not noticed? Or was it because they had so often heard me trying to sound interesting, expressing unusual or absurd ideas, or because I had a habit of embellishing stories, they had already categorized me as an eccentric, a sort of half-way house between the family world and that of artists? I was intrigued by this failure to react. It fuelled my inevitable questioning of my future place in society, which I tried vaguely to envisage, along with the reaction it would provoke in other people.
Some writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction, may have been attracted to the activity by a pure love of books. I am not one of them. For me, the love of books has never been an absolute. It is mingled with the desire to live in a different world to that of my earliest youth, in which the only extension outwards was that of the dining room table, the leaf added for my first communion, and that of my brother, as well as for New Year’s day get-togethers and some birthdays—with conversation appropriate to the occasion orbiting around it. I would be the last person to scoff at the cliché: literature as escapism. The rue Philippe-de-Metz in Bois-Colombes, where I was born, and where I spent my childhood and teenage years, was unusual in design, like a rectangular fortress in the middle of an estate of suburban villas. It was short and narrow, and composed of high, solid brick buildings, each of them virtually identical. Luckily, the second apartment we lived in was on the top floor—the seventh—and I would read by a window which gave onto a courtyard, but had nothing overlooking it. In order to escape to other lands, other times, the reader must be able to adopt the mobility of the heroes, and sometimes that of the authors themselves. The signals I received from the artistic and literary world, up on my seventh floor, came via Readers’ Digest and Paris Match, and one of the contemporary models I had access to was Francoise Sagan, who was young and famous, like her characters, drove sports cars, and whom I had once seen in an interview on television explaining how to conceal a yawn at a smart party by taking a slug of whisky or a drag on a cigarette.
I never went out with the poet, who gave maths lessons because, it turned out, he was married and had a small daughter. But I did see him a few more times; we met in a café and, always in the same attentive, but slightly distant manner, he would comment favourably on what I had given him to read, and make small suggestions, or comments. One day, when he couldn’t come, or it suited him not to be able to come, he sent a friend to make his apologies. Possibly the second important decision of my life was to accept the friend’s invitation, but this time without any sense of the possible consequences which would follow. His friend wasn’t good-looking, and he wasn’t a poet, but he was single. Of the group of friends who ran the poetry journal he was the one least constrained by university or family ties, and he was financially independent; he was an enterprising young man, and his role in the group was to deliver copies to bookshops and collect the money from sales. When they decided to expand the activity of the journal by opening an art gallery, Claude was naturally found to be the person most available and qualified to run it. The journal failed, while the gallery thrived. It was in this gallery that I spent those hours correcting the catalogue along with Jacques. I had been living with Claude for four and a half years.
The picture album in our memory follows a system of classification in which the order, the corrections and the repetitions are often surprising, challenging the accepted version we have of our life. My memory of the outline of Claude, the first time I saw him, is considerably more precise than the one I have of Jacques. His stance is rather stiff, solemn almost, and although he has his back to the light I can see his expression as he introduces himself: “You don’t know me, I’m a friend of Patrick, he—” He gives me an appraising look. He sees me in bright daylight, a golden light, as it is springtime, which shines through the glass pane which goes from ceiling to floor of the half-landing. Claude has a car, if he feels like it he can decide to drive all night to the sea. It was during an escapade of this sort that I lost my virginity. Throughout the early years we spent together, Claude did a lot of driving: we would go see the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Cassel, and Prospect in Dusseldorf. There were exhibitions all over Europe: in Berlin, Cologne, Rome, Turin, Naples, we would head off to shows at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp, or at Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf. In 1972, Claude opened a second gallery in Milan, where I often went with him because I was working on the magazine Flash Art, whose director was one of the friend—lovers with whom I began a long-term relationship during that period. Just as I loved living between two cities, I loved going from one man to another.
The third decision was an act of long-term commitment, even if at the time it was made on the spur of the moment, as a reflex response to a challenge. Like a little shell which floats to the surface when the depths which have long lain motionless are suddenly disturbed, it was a small and insignificant remark, the kind you make without thinking, but only once a great deal of inhibition has been overcome, the kind which relates to a prosaic and everyday detail, but which will change the course of your life. I began living with Claude before even bothering to take my bac. The moral autonomy immediately conferred by one’s first sexual relationship, together with my forays into a way of life which, I discovered, you could make up as you went along, had distracted me, both de facto and in practice, from the discipline of school and family.
Inevitably, my mother expressed concern about my chosen means of making a living. One day when I had dropped in at the rue Philippe de Metz to pick up some Tupperware or perhaps some clean laundry, I replied spontaneously, without even having thought about it before, and simply because I thought it would satisfy her at that moment, that I intended to write freelance articles on art for magazines. She pretended to believe me. I knew myself that I could never earn enough money doing that, but even so, unexpectedly, I found myself committed by this reply, carried away by my own boldness. For the first time, I had mentioned my desire to write to someone outside the circle of idealistic young people publishing a journal of intimate poetry, and I was even exceeding the boundaries of intimacy by seeking to satisfy this desire out in the world: it would be my job. What had been intended only as a remark to put my mother’s mind at rest, and let her daughter off the hook in her impatience to get back to her young lover, gave substance to a desire possibly more urgent than that propelling her towards that lover, but which had remained buried, being so much more enigmatic and difficult to explain. Years earlier, I had copied out these words of comfort, written by Balzac: “Nothing forges the character so much as a secret hidden at the heart of a family.” My secret was none other than these notebooks, in which I wrote down quotations, poems of my own, openings for novels. From this point on, writing would cease to be a secret, almost shameful activity, and would be openly acknowledged; it would not merely be normal, but interesting, original. Whenever someone asked me what I did I could say: “Art criticism”. That would surprise them, I’d be left in peace.
When the gallery opened Claude went to introduce himself to the editorial team of Les Lettres Francaises, run by Louis Aragon, and he had become friends with a few of the people who worked on it, including Georges Boudaille, who was in charge of the “art” pages. It was to him that I took my first ever review of an exhibition. Editors like beginners, to whom they can give little jobs that real journalists don’t want any more, but who are also on the lookout for new subjects. That is how I found myself writing for Lettres Francaises as well as a number of other magazines which started up at that time, as a specialist in conceptual art, which involved the kind of intellectual speculation I enjoyed. For a few years, Claude shared this interest, and the copy I was correcting with Jacques was for the catalogue of the first exhibition of conceptual art ever shown in Paris. I was too immature, of course, to appreciate that my intuition, the day of my dramatic hesitation before the attractive teacher—poet, was actually well-founded. Our internal means of transport, which convey our intellectual and sexual passions, travel along tracks which may touch, and are permeable. Not always, but often. If I had been able to step back a few years, I might have realized that my dream-world was already imbued with this mix.
During the holidays, my mother, who did not drive, often signed us up for coach trips. It was during one of these that we arrived, one evening, in one of those picturesque villages which have been transformed into stage sets for the “artistic life”, to appeal to tourists, who will then purchase ceramics of dubious taste. We went into a café. At the back of the vaulted room, a group of young people sat listening, while one of them played the guitar; there was a girl in the group. Naively, I saw in her a young bohemian who lived in the village, about to spend an evening, perhaps even the night, listening to music, singing, entering a pocket of time without constraints, while I would be getting back on the bus. As I watched them, the idea came to me that one of them would notice me and, from some kind of sign on my face, would realise that I belonged, by virtue of my aspirations, with them. What do you pin your hopes on when your family circle has no social connections, and could not even begin to imagine any means of helping you realize your intellectual or artistic ambitions—quite simply because they are unaware of the existence of certain activities, certain ways of living, not to mention making a living—and you yourself are still too much within that circle to know yourself what steps you might take, and are still far from being able to produce anything concrete which might justify such steps? You dream, you wait for the mythical meeting at the crossroads. In my case, the culture from which the models for my fantasies were drawn was that of romance. I could imagine no other way of escaping from my suburban world than one involving, perhaps, a providential stranger who would notice me on the concourse of the Gare St-Lazare and would pluck me from the slumbering crowd. The idea was not fully formed, but it was clear that because I was a woman, my salvation would come from a man who would, of course, discover my aspirations, my talents (of which I was quite confident!), but would pick me out, in the first instance, on the basis of my face. I had kept my thoughts about the group to myself, but my mother must have noticed my interest in them. As we were leaving the café she opined forcefully that the girl probably “slept around.” Several times, during my childhood, I heard my mother use the word “whore” of a film actress or any other woman who flaunted herself, and each time what shocked me was not the vulgarity of the word but the sudden nature of the outburst, when no one had even asked for her opinion of the woman in question, as well as the tone of hatred in which she spoke. At such times I felt ashamed of my mother, as though she was the one who had behaved indecently.
There was no room in my daydreams for the most likely scenario, which was the one which actually came about, in which there would be two of us, leaving the same small town somewhere out on the line from the Gare St Lazare, that we would help one another on the journey, and go through our sentimental and professional education together. For the one respect in which it did follow the pattern of the original story was in the close conjunction of social emancipation—the ways Claude and I found of thinking and working outside the conventional norms—and sexual liberation.
We had sex together, we had sex together with other people, and each of us with other people separately. Once this pattern had been established, it was never made official. What I mean by this is that we never made any kind of verbal contract, and just as we never actually decided to become a couple, we never bothered, either, to define individual actions which our situation disallowed, even once we had discovered through painful experience that at particular moments, which lay beyond our control, it was necessary to have what we did not quite dare call taboos. The alternative was unbearable. As far as I remember, no great declarations of love passed between myself and Claude before I moved into the little apartment where there were certainly two chairs, but as yet no table, nor did we spend much time discussing how I was going to contribute to the rent. Similarly, over the next few years, when the punching and the weeping set in, once an incident was over, we never chose to comment either on the incident itself or on its occasionally violent nature. I am not even sure the word “jealousy” ever crossed our minds.
Certain situations, namely those which we each experienced differently, were unbearable. For instance, Claude might be aware that I was off on a trip and would be joining a male friend. I might happen to come home a day later than arranged. At that point, he would start to suffer, but say nothing. Perhaps he had been suffering before that and simply felt authorized by the delay to express it, perhaps not. Whether it was caused by his unconscious resistance to our freedom, or by some genuine wrong I had committed by returning late, or by something else altogether, I had abused a contract, the terms of which had never been agreed. Freedom was meant to be the rule, but we had never defined the limits of that freedom, either explicitly or tacitly. As a result, the reasons for Claude’s suffering were never made clear. The only way he could show it was by attacking me physically, coldly, almost deliberately; I never saw any anger in his face. His expression was one of concentration, as he judged his punches to the nearest millimetre, according to what was perhaps a sort of internal conversion table from emotional to bodily pain. So, it seemed to me that there was nothing I could do to fix the rule I was supposed to have broken and which had, in any case, been arbitrarily imposed by him. When it came down to it, these scenes in which we each used words and gestures which should have been utterly unacceptable were as free of consequences as if we had suddenly just stopped, in obedience to the voice of a director shouting “Cut!”—and they never influenced my subsequent behaviour in any way.
For my own part, I was aware on at least two occasions of a violent desire on Claude’s part for another woman. The weeping and recrimination this provoked in me were never the expression of a fear that our own relationship might be at risk. Here again, his behaviour remained a mystery to me, especially when his desire was frustrated. I was amazed to find him so fragile, he was normally so self-assured, even if his pain was expressed in a paradoxical way, so that he became even more silent than usual. I watched him with incredulity, in the same way I might have watched a display of witchcraft. Not only did I not know the rules, but in any case, the show was not intended for me. Regardless of whether the object of Claude’s desire was myself or another person, I found I was unable to interpret his behaviour and it just looked to me like a “drive for possession”, one of those emotions which are forged in infancy, but may long outlive it, and which continue to determine the behaviour of many young adults. Indeed, they provided the framework of my own psychology. What I was trying to communicate through my own outbursts and fits of hysteria, during which my body undoubtedly became a battlefield for feelings which I could not adequately put into words, was an essentially narcissistic sense of frustration.
Each time, Claude became interested in particularly pretty girls. Now I was so intoxicated by sexual freedom I had come to think of my body as having unlimited sexual potential, I was certain that I could exploit all its resources in all sorts of different situations, with as many different partners as came my way. If I had ever stopped to think that this certainty was not something I could take for granted, I might have likened my experience to something I had seen done by certain free jazz pianists, Cecil Taylor, or Sun Ra, who were not content simply to play on the strings of their instruments, but also got sounds from the wood, played them in conjunction with unusual objects, or invited the audience to join in . . . This body of mine might never come up against the limits which confined the other aspects of my person. In the short term, it compensated for my shyness in social situations and stood in for an intellectual purpose which was still rather vague. Although of course I never actually expressed it to myself like this, I must have credited my body with a kind of omnipotence, and been afflicted with a kind of megalomania which exclusively affected the way I thought about my body. Added to this was the fact that my freedom ushered me into an arena into which other women rarely ventured, particularly women of my age, and as a result I was able to prolong the privileged status one enjoys as a child, as the centre of attention. There were others prettier than me—not that I was stupid enough to think otherwise, but a woman, especially a very young woman, has a thousand and one ways of dismissing this obvious fact, through recourse to the conjuring tricks of seduction—but still, whenever I had to acknowledge the limitations of my body in a certain area, for example, the first time it was made clear that I was being passed over for someone prettier, I truly bit the dust. I actually bit the sheets on the bed where I buried myself, sobbing, and on occasions Claude’s response was to kick me out of bed.
Neither of us was by nature talkative. Our inability to control our instincts, or to understand our emotions, was largely due to inexperience. The liberation of our bodies and our desires was an essentially expansive process, which would brook no obstacle; the slightest setback plunged us into a state of utter astonishment. However, another force sustained our dogged determination.
It was not a very great leap from the lower-middle-class world of the western suburbs of Paris to the art world of the Saint-Germain-des-Pr’s quartier, and the transition did not take long. There were no long years of study, no exams, no specialized knowledge was required, no collateral of any kind, just a predisposition, in Claude’s case for business matters, and in mine for intellectual activity, and a significant share of persistance in both of us. To begin with we didn’t earn much money, but this didn’t stop us either from doing what we wanted to do, or meeting the people we wanted to do it with, so long as they were well-known characters. After a few years we left the studio apartment in the rue Bonaparte and moved to a large, bourgeois apartment in the Beaubourg quartier. Then there was the apartment in Milan. We weren’t rich, but I was quite content if I could look up and see a nice high ceiling above my head, or hear my footsteps echoing on the marble floor in the entrance to the building. I did not need any more reality, just to be able to appropriate the signs I had seen in magazines or at the cinema. The little girl who dreamed over her books or at her window, or who never missed an episode of the TV adaptation of Lost Illusions, could believe, now she had become a young woman, that she had simply been waiting her turn in the wings and had passed through the stage door she had dreamed of, as if it had been no thicker than plywood. Childhood and adolescence form one long period of semi-sleep, during which the things we think about do not yet exercise any influence on our lives, because our family and educational environments offer no scope; our actions only become real once we have left this embryonic sac; in my case, all I had to do was wipe the dust from my eyes. So that the life we led, free of constraints, in a social milieu which at that time was one of the most welcoming and least conformist imaginable, was not an achievement secured after a long struggle, but simply by the expression of our desires. This feeling was reinforced, for me, by the fact that I easily came to terms with what had been, up until adolescence, my religious beliefs.
I had always adored those missals with gilded front edges, whose pages clung together like strands of hair when you tried to leaf through them, and padded leather covers, in which you could leave a neat little dent with your thumb. The one I had been given for my confirmation wouldn’t shut properly, I had interleaved so many illuminated images, acquired at various baptisms and first communions, the kind in which Jesus addressed the onlooker directly, saying “tu”. These had played their part in the development of my taste for books, in the same way as the catechism had been a source of wonderful stories, from which I had gathered that if you had a deep and solid faith—the only difficulty being that of measuring the degree of your sincerity—your hopes would be fulfilled without fail, as though by the wave of a magic wand’my belief in God had been so strong, I was convinced he had a special mission for me. I had the vague idea, for example, of a vast conciliatory undertaking. As my parents often argued, my task was to guide them back to a state of loving, and, furthermore, so to devote myself to others that I would lead them back to the paths of kindness and understanding; from this basis, I pictured my future in an environment in which peace reigned supreme. But this saintly vocation was no doubt just one more way of preparing for the life of a heroine, like those illustrated in my secular reading.
Then the presence of God vanished from my life. It is likely that my certainty that I had been chosen by him had prepared the way for the fantasy I mentioned earlier, of being noticed by a stranger, one who would single out, among thousands, the individual, male or female, whose potential talent would allow them to escape from ordinary existence. As it turned out, when I eventually found my way as a woman, and as a working woman, not by the intervention of the Holy Spirit but at least without reality trampling my dreams, when I saw the—to me—enormous divide between the future I would have had if I’d become a teacher of history and geography, or of literature, as my mother, for whom this would already have represented an improvement on her own situation, had wished, and this milieu in which I was not only in contact with artists, but where the avant-garde freedom in life and thought seemed to open up limitless possibilities, there seemed no reason to abandon my belief in my destiny.
Even when a human being has no belief—or has lost her belief—in the need to submit to God’s law, if she sees her life conforming to a destiny prescribed on the opening pages of her imagination, she is no more inclined to question the path on which she is embarked than she would have been to question divine will. Whatever hardship and suffering I experienced during those years, it never led me to consider changing my life. I weathered arguments with Claude—rather like the anxiety linked to the copy deadlines for the printer of Art Press, the journal we had founded together—with the staying power of the long-distance runner, who is entirely focused on the necessity of maintaining his rhythm and reaching his goal. Being with Claude I had begun to realize the dreams I had nurtured ever since I had been capable of thought and I saw no reason to leave him, as long as these dreams continued to play out in my life, and as long as I could carry on dreaming.