Literary Rendezvous
at Rue Cambon invite

Chantal Thomas


Charlotte Casiraghi and Anamaria Vartolomei

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For the sixth edition of the Rendez-vous littéraires rue Cambon [Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon], the House of CHANEL along with ambassador and spokesperson for the House Charlotte Casiraghi invites writer Chantal Thomas from the Académie française.

Animated by literary historian Fanny Arama, this encounter begins with the presentation of Chantal Thomas’ work which explores a variety of genres — novels, historical accounts, literary essays or chronicles — followed by the reading of an extract from her last book ‘Journal de nage’ by Anamaria Vartolomei. Together, they evoke the liberation of women's bodies, which is fundamental to the work of Chantal Thomas.

Chantal Thomas

Chantal Thomas is a novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and academic. She has taught at several American universities and was nominated director of research at the CNRS in 1989, and later emeritus director of research at the CNRS. As a specialist of the 18th century, she has written on Sade, Casanova, Marie-Antoinette, salons and the spirit of conversation. Cafés de la mémoire (2008), Memories of Low Tide (2020) and East Village Blues (2019) are autobiographical evocations, as well as Journal de nage (2022), which recounts her unconditional love for swimming as a form of liberation. She will be admitted to the Académie française in June 2022.

© Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
Cafés de la mémoire, Chantal Thomas, © Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Réflexion », 2008, Points, 2021.
Chantal Thomas, Memories of Low Tide, Translated in English by Natasha Lehrer, © First published by Pushkin Press, 2019.
East Village Blues, Chantal Thomas, © Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2019, Points, 2020.
Journal de nage, Chantal Thomas, © Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2022.
© Académie française.

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Chantal Thomas, an Offbeat Writer

If there were one noise that could summon up the life and work of Chantal Thomas, it would be the sound of the sea receding over the beach: the friction of a caress that comes and goes, embodying the confident sensuality of nature and its promises. Chantal Thomas is inseparable from the dunes where she was born and whose well-roundedness she embodies. They simultaneously shape and unmake each of her graceful strides, each of her bold choices that are swept into unknown waters by the ebb of the waves. Her view of the world – which she has always travelled widely – is that of a woman possessed by the idea of freedom, intent on examining it and relishing all aspects of it, assiduously, with the casual solemnity of people who distrust the madness of reason.

The Concern for Freedom

What has Chantal Thomas retained from her childhood in Arcachon? Everything, it seems. Her liveliness, her open-mindedness, her poetry, her spirit of obvious familiarity with the whole world. She reminisces sporadically about it in Cafés de la mémoire (2008), Souvenirs de la marée basse (2017) (Memories of Low Tide), Café vivre (2020) or De sable et de neige (2021), recalling her parents’ personality, her aspirations as a young woman around the time of May 1968, full of strong convictions and a marked spirit of independence. These pages build up the portrait of a child who was sensitive but not sentimental, of a young woman who was naive but not innocent, inquisitive but not impatient, who, one imagines, was intense, though self-possessed at all times. Arcachon, Bordeaux, Paris, New York: at the age of thirty, Chantal Thomas had already lived several different lives, all characterised by the refusal to take a step back. Her love of literature led her to study texts written during the French Revolution, a romantic period if ever there was one, during which people showed their true colours and loyalties endured forever.

Alive to the unfairness of certain women’s fates that make her indignant, Chantal Thomas continues to study and examine the basis for the misogyny directed at historical figures. Why was Marie-Antoinette remembered mainly as a “wicked queen”, who was frivolous and flighty when she should have been, according to received wisdom, serious and responsible? Why, in the 17th century, did the educated, aristocratic women called Précieuses stir up the contempt of men and future generations who indulged in the same eccentric behaviour without coming in for the same type of judgement? Why did the revolutionaries arrest the wife of the Minister of the Interior, Mme Roland, instead of him, when she was a woman who had enthusiastically defended in her memoirs the freedom and honour of all women who dared to strive for independence? This is what we discover in La reine scélérate. Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets (1989) (The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette), Souffrir (2004), or Un air de liberté. Variation sur l’esprit du XVIIIe siècle (2014), erudite as well as romantic essays which, to our delight, propound the concern for freedom that has always occupied Chantal Thomas’s thoughts.

Chantal Thomas shares her literary enthusiasms in these numerous essays on the 18th century, but that is not all: they are elevated to the rank of an art of living. We learn about the joy of suffering with the Marquis de Sade and Sacher-Masoch; about the passion for conversation with the calm Mme du Deffand or the enthusiastic Germaine de Staël; about the penchant for rebellion through writing with the Princess Palatine, the sister-in-law of Louis XIV.

The Enchantment of the Eighteenth Century

In Les Adieux à la Reine (2002) (Farewell my Queen), Le Testament d’Olympe (2010) and L’Échange des princesses (2013) (The Exchange of Princesses), Chantal Thomas shares her knowledge of the Enlightenment and transforms dynastic trials and tribulations into high society drama. In these historical novels, she evokes the vagaries and cruelty of royal life in a delightful recreation of everyday life under the monarchy, with its customs and laws, its secrets and disadvantages. No one else conjures up the gardens, inner courtyards and concealed staircases of Versailles, that secluded and highly-coveted estate, with so much spirit and familiarity. With tact worthy of a diplomat, she manages to describe the type of hidden motivations that topple kingdoms. She transforms characters into matchless storytellers from the “old court” - miraculous survivors displaying old-fashioned civility – a court which, from Louis XIV to Louis XVI, shaped the gallant identity of France and assured its prestige in the eyes of the courts in Vienna, Madrid, Moscow or Scandinavia. There is no one better than Chantal Thomas for describing the enchanted kingdom of the Château de Versailles and its gardens; sometimes over the top, sometimes fanciful, but always lavish. Versailles is the antechamber of her imagination, the scene of her daily wanderings but also the place, in the past, where Fashion was determined. The place where an eccentric style of dress adopted by the queen might become law.

If the 18th century is brought back to life by Chantal Thomas as an enchanted century, it is because it embodies the field of possibilities. And perhaps, for the first time in France, the locus of a new expression of radicalism. We discover this on reading her account of the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, a controversial author whom she was one of the first to study in her role as a researcher in a university setting. Casanova also enjoys a special place in Chantal Thomas’s work: that absconder who made a profession of seduction, and whose memoirs demonstrate the penchants of all lovers of freedom: a liking for travel – without luggage, but not without a ticket –, departures, meetings, and profound thought under cover of lightness. Casanova and Sade were privileged to be born male, and they shucked off rules and social constraints, with a certain amount of difficulty, of course, but without dishonour, at least. This was rarely the case for women during the same period — they were able to escape the constraints of their fate, when they could, through writing and high-society and literary salons, however. The novels and essays by Chantal Thomas provide an essential diverging view of the French Revolution, often from the point of view of women in power, women who in fact had no power at all…

Swimming as Ritual

Chantal Thomas’s autobiographical stories are like the Arthurian legends which invented the return of characters: like Queen Guinevere, Lancelot or King Arthur, her writings frequently feature Mother Ocean, with her tides and storms, Grandfather Cheminot, a hero from her childhood, and Father Silence, who kept silent to the end. In them, the writer describes the changes caused by the advent of annual paid leave in 1936, the respite afforded by leisure activities and beach sports, her mother Jackie’s obsession with swimming and her desire to make it her daily routine, without reducing it to a job.

Chantal Thomas’s predilection for ocean swimming makes its way onto every page of her works and becomes indissoluble from her need to write. Swimming to test out her body, making it a bulwark, stimulating it by exposing it to the elements, swallowing a mouthful of saltwater to savour her freedom, regained with every stroke. In pages both poetic and philosophical, Chantal Thomas gives us a life lesson. Her works teach us to embrace the peaks and troughs of existence, to appreciate the music of the world and its silences, to treasure its moments of grace and disgrace. In her Journal de nage (2022), she tells the reader about her most private hours, those spent in the water. Her account contains all the depth of Chantal Thomas’s past experience, her insatiable appetite for sea horizons and for dry land. Despite the casual look of a holiday notebook, it teaches us to cultivate wisdom and beauty in a language that is as clear as fresh water.

Fanny Arama

Listen to the full Literary rendezvous


Cafés de la mémoire, Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Réflexion », 2008, Points, 2021.

Souvenirs de la marée basse, Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2017, Points, 2022.

Chantal Thomas, Memories of Low Tide, Translated in English by Natasha Lehrer,

© First published by Pushkin Press, 2019.

Café vivre, chroniques en passant, Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2020, Points, 2021.

Chantal Thomas, De sable et de neige,

© Mercure de France, « Traits et portraits », 2021.

La Reine scélérate. Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets, Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, 1989, Points, 2008.

Chantal Thomas, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, Translated by Julie Rose,

© Zone Books, 1999.

Chantal Thomas, Souffrir

© Payot & Rivages, 2004, 2006, 2018.

Chantal Thomas, Un air de liberté. Variations sur l’esprit du XVIIIe siècle,

© Payot & Rivages, 2014.

Les Adieux à la Reine (Prix Femina), Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2002, Points, 2020.

FAREWELL, MY QUEEN: A Novel by Chantal Thomas. Translated by Moishe Black. English translation copyright

© 2003 by George Braziller, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

Le testament d’Olympe, Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2010, Points, 2011.

L’échange des princesses, Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2013, Points, 2014.

Chantal Thomas, The Exchange of Princesses,

© Other Press, 2015.

Journal de nage, Chantal Thomas,

© Éditions du Seuil, « coll. Fiction & Cie », 2022.

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