20 December 2014

Lorette Nobécourt: La Démangeaison (1994)

The expression 'Génération Houellebecq' has been used to describe contemporary French writers not of a recognisable school – and indeed many who could assume this label are often very different from each other – but of a number of writers preoccupied with themselves, the body, sex, and perhaps with the state of France and the world in general. Such writers of course include Michel Houellebecq, but also Virginie Despentes, Nina Bouraoui, Christine Angot, and Lorette Nobécourt.

Michel Houellebecq's first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, was coincidentally published in 1994, the same year as the publication of Lorette Nobécourt's first novel, La Démangeaison (lit. 'The Itching'). The subject is psoriasis – very acute psoriasis, lasting a number of years, and from which Nobécourt herself suffered in childhood and youth. This book is a fictionalisation, with the protagonist Irène as the narrator.

This is a short novel, but no easy or quick read: it is painful, and Nobécourt makes no compromise with the readers' sensibilities. Before the first page of text, the quotation is by Nietzsche: 'the serpent would die if it didn't change its skin'. The novel takes us beyond good and evil, but the particular remark about skin is very relevant here: it is full of words such as 'skin', 'scratching', 'itching', 'sores', 'swellings', 'pus', 'blood', 'scales', 'wounds', 'smell', 'marks', 'scabs', 'oozing', etc. The reader is forced to some extent to identify with the victim.

Irène has suffered from psoriasis since about six months of age and her bourgeois parents have never shown her any affection and her mother sometimes beats her. Her psoriasis is a mark of her difference, making her a stranger in the world she strives to survive in. She speaks early on of washing in icy water her skin lacerated with 'hieroglyphics', and the language of the body will play a part later in the story.

Irène sees her family as complete hypocrites, making the external show of caring by attending church every Sunday but in private being anything but caring to their sick child. Unsurprisingly, Irène initially sees herself as guilty, as 'abnormal'. But she knows her mental state is preferable to that of the others around her.

One day, pushing her little sister on a swing the corners cracks her head hard and she has to have an operation. But she refuses an anaesthetic, fearing that during the operation they'll take sometime out, or put something in that will cause her to wake up like them, without 'la conscience de mon être: 'the consciousness of my being'.

Irène comes to be her illness, to love it. Her parents are only too willing to send her to a small boarding school, where although the other girls call her 'Caiman' and 'Hippocampe' in reference to the loss of her scales and the roughness of her skin, but at least she can immerse herself in the solitary pursuit of reading. And later she writes and writes in school notebooks, writing the scratches of her body into word.

On leaving school Irène, being freed from her psoriasis, finds a job as a proof reader until the marks return and make it impossible for her to go back to work. The relationship between her marked body and her sexuality is strongly felt not so much so her masturbating alone in bed, or at peep shows, but in her rapport with Rodolphe.

Rodophe is about fifteen and doesn't ask any questions about her body marks, and as he masturbates her she teaches him to scratch her, harder, and harder, and harder. Their sexual relationship lasts a few months until he has to go on holiday with his parents. Then he returns, and she is taken to a psychiatric hospital for, it seems, killing him.

In the last paragraph there are suggestions of an unreliable narrator, when Irène says she's lied a great deal, that she never had a younger sister, she's the eldest, but that changes nothing in the end, as the extremes of psoriasis are real.

My other Nobécourt posts:

Lorette Nobécourt: La Conversation
Lorette Nobécourt: En nous la vie des morts

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