19 December 2013

Jocelyne François: Les Bonheurs (1970; repr. 1982)

I use labels so that I can easily consult my posts, although it seems like ghettoising to use the term 'lesbian literature' for this book, which wears no badges and is not even about homosexual identity: it's just about two women who happen to be very deeply, passionately in love.

It's also strongly autobiographical: as I understand it, the character Anne is based on the author Jocelyne François (born 1933), and the character Sarah on her lover Marie-Claire Pichaud, who was for a short time a singer and later – as Claire Pichaud – an artist.

Jocelyne and Marie-Claire met and fell in love in Catholic school, and although they became lovers they separated, Anne marrying and having children and Claire having a heterosexual relationship. But several years later they re-united permanently and lived in Saumane-de-Vaucluse for twenty-five years – François meeting and becoming friends with the poet René Char from nearby L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – before they removed to Paris for health reasons.

Les Bonheurs is narrated by both Sarah and Anne (usually as if in epistolary form), although it is not always immediately clear who is speaking at a particular time: the second person singular 'tu' is used almost all of the time, and the reader's knowledge of the narrator is often only ascertained from the a direct address to the addressee: yes, this is a kind of experimental novel.

The questioning, reminiscing narrative prevails, only occasionally interrupted by snippets of conversation, and the novel begins with Sarah remembering her relationship with Anne – who's now married to Michel – with great pain and longing. Although Sarah is now in a relationship with Jean, a married man, she can't forget Anne, and a letter asking her to come and see her for a few days when her husband's away soon finds the lovers in each other's arms, making passionate love, making up for lost time.

Sarah returns with a copy of Anne's diary smuggled out in the bottom of her bag, and for about fifty pages we read of Anne's feelings about her marriage and childbirth, but more importantly of her undying love for Sarah. On the second page of the novel we have learned that a certain Ulrich originally separated them, but it is only in the diary that we find out that he was a priest who fed Anne with religious poison and told her that the young girls' relationship was unnatural. Anne's marriage, long mulled over by Sarah, was only a desperate measure: although no dates are mentioned, the book is set, after all, in the Catholic France of the 1950s.

The book ends in Anne and Michel's divorce, but it is hard fought: fighting is the operative word here and men are seen as warriors, battling for territory overseas (the humiliating Algerian war being in the background) as well as battling for female territory. Michel only very slowly comes to realise that his wife has physically enjoyed Anne's body in the same way – only much more intensely –as his: the phallocratic fallacy.

Sex, according to Michel, is binary. He asks her:  'Eh bien, Anne, entre vous deux, comment se répartissent les rôles? Tu est l'homme ou tu est la femme?' – 'So, Anne, just between the two of us, how do you share the roles out? Are you the man or the woman?' Anne's reply is delightful: 'Pourquoi? Tu a eu l'impression d'être un pédéraste en vivant avec moi? 'Why? has living with me made you feel like a homosexual?' He of course objects to this, so she continues: 'Eh bien, Jean ne s'est pas senti péderaste avec Sarah. Tout le monde est homme et femme à la fois' – 'Well then, Jean didn't feel like a homosexual with Sarah either. We are all male and female at the same time.' Ah, if only we all understood that though!

It seems very fitting to add that one of Marie-Claire Pichaud's songs (of about 1962) was called 'Nous n'irons plus en guerre' – 'We're not Going to War Anymore'.

Jocelyne François went on to write four more autobiographical novels – Les Amantes (1978), Joue-nous 'España' (1980), Histoire de Volubilis (1986) and La femme sans tombe (1995) – and three diaries.

I'd not heard of Jocelyne François until a couple of weeks ago when I noticed this novel in the French section at Waterstones, Deansgate, Manchester: it was a 1990 reprint of the 1982 edition, still priced in French francs at that date, and I find it a little difficult to believe that the shop had had it on the shelves for so long as there is only a little sunning to the spine and slight soiling of the bottom edge. Anyway, I thought it something of a bargain at £9.50: it's been out of print for some years, and Bookfinder.com only shows a few copies available worldwide. And although the Library of Congress has both editions, the British Library doesn't have it at all, and it's never been translated into English.

This was quite a find – not just a very rare book, but what I call a significant one too.

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