Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon invite

Camille Laurens

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For the second edition of the Rendez-vous littéraires rue Cambon [Literary Rendezvous at rue Cambon], CHANEL and Charlotte Casiraghi, ambassador and spokesperson for the House, have invited the writer Camille Laurens.

Animated by literary historian Fanny Arama, this conversation begins with the actress Lyna Khoudri reading an excerpt from 'Fille', Camille Laurens' latest novel. The writer then discusses her body of work, the female condition and the power of literature in the construction of a life.

Camille Laurens

Camille Laurens has written ten novels, including Dans ces bras-là (2000; In Those Arms, 2004; In His Arms, 2004), Celle que vous croyez (2016; Who You Think I Am, 2017) and Fille (2020; Girl – ongoing translation by Other Press), all published by Gallimard and translated all over the world. She has also written several essays, including La Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (2017; Little Dancer aged Fourteen), about Degas's famous statue, and Quelques-uns (2012; Some Words), about her love of words. She has a regular literary column in the Le Monde newspaper.

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Camille Laurens
as seen by Charlotte Casiraghi

Turbulent Bodies, Tremulous Words

How can we write about desire and what motivates the most intimate part of our lives without fear of missing the mark, of lapsing into sentimentalism or shamelessness, or falling into the typical pitfalls of autofiction, often deemed navel-gazing, narcissistic or overly psychoanalytical? Camille Laurens meets the challenge of sharing with us her mental and emotional landscape, of basing her writing on her life as much as on the living matter of words. Her writing is a writing of desire. She always invents a language to translate the untranslatable, a language of the body, a hyper-responsive language in which the power of the words creates a feeling of dizziness and heady disorientation: “I want to reproduce the giddy exhilaration of the waltz in my books.” She takes the risk of inhabiting what Marguerite Duras called the site of passion, and so allows us to access our most untamed and most indecipherable thoughts: “It’s about deciphering what exists within us already in a rudimentary state, indecipherable to others, in what I call the 'site of passion'” To immerse ourselves in a book by Camille Laurens is to agree to let go, to lose our bearings to such an extent that we question our identity and its melancholy depths. We emerge paradoxically stronger, purer, clearer. Her works take us into that sometimes unreachable place of anguish which is also the emotive site of our innermost subjectivity, our secret garden.

Charlotte Casiraghi

Camille Laurens, Neither You Nor Me, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Ni toi ni moi, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2014.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Masterclass France Culture, 2019.
Marguerite Duras, Suspended Passion, Translated by Chris Turner, © Seagull Books, 2016.

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Camille Laurens
as seen by Fanny Arama

Camille Laurens crescendo

Camille Laurens was born in Dijon and knows that the city’s former motto was “Moult me tarde” (“many await me”). This Balzacian detail is irrelevant: it belongs to a different time. Camille Laurens's art consists in attempting to dismantle the illusions planted in our minds and hearts at an early age by the past, by our genealogical and topographical heritages, and by conventions, which include language, the most obvious and most highly concealed of them all. Consequently, Camille Laurens, or rather her prose, works a poetic magic to take that place in our minds and hearts.

Portrait of the writer as a detective

Camille Laurens emerged with Index (1990). In this, her first novel, she depicts her heroine's descent into the maze of identity and all that authenticates it: emotions, desires, memories, civilised behaviour, the quest for “truth”. Index formed a tetralogy with Romance, Les Travaux d’Hercule (The Labours of Hercules) and L’Avenir (The Future), which bear the stamp of the novelist’s Oulipian influences. These four novels portray heroes and heroines who strongly resemble the great solitaries of medieval chivalric tales. They set out recklessly to find adventure, shield on arm, and come back accompanied by the Unexpected, that sombre friend, that double of themselves, who never leaves their side. There is always, somewhere in these early works, a model little girl who turns out badly: she is too fond of puzzles, treasure hunts, and cannot – nor will not – resist temptation. As in the stories of the Countess de Ségur, which we read with nostalgia for a vanished innocence, these early works fluctuate between light-heartedness and a seriousness of tone. Their plots, continually subverted by an inopportune female narrator, reveal the confusion caused by the personal ambitions of numerous lost or found characters. They are derived from film noir, Greek tragedy and a miscellany of black humour. Writing at that time for Camille Laurens was, it seems, “a sort of sophisticated distraction, a brilliant game”. Imagination took precedence in her writing, until she was destabilised by an appalling event – the loss of a child.

With an eye to the ''I“

Camille Laurens then turned her eye to the ”I“. Initially, by writing the heart-breaking story of her son’s death, in Philippe (1995). This is the first of her texts in which the cracks in her personal life showed through the writing process. This hymn to love goes hand in hand with thoughts on her own discourse, and examines the role of writing in relation to insurmountable events: deaths, break-ups, unspeakable experiences. This marked the start of a series of novels in the ”autofiction“ or ”self-writing“ genre, whose female narrator addresses themes favoured by an entire French literary heritage, whose prestigious reputation Camille Laurens was continuing. Dans ces bras-là (2000, In Those Arms; In His Arms), L’Amour, roman (2003, Love, a Novel), Ni toi ni moi (2006, Neither You Nor Me) are steeped in the works of La Rochefoucauld, Racine, La Fontaine and Molière. These illustrious 17th-century moralists met the challenge of exposing humanity’s incorrigible, tragic flaws with a lightness of tone that was both unprecedented and benign. In these novels, the female narrator, Camille Laurens’s double, tackles first and foremost the question of love, the only subject capable of debunking pretensions to the truth and of revealing the complete absence of an authentic narrative of the ”self“. All identity, all existence is a fiction, as revealed by the Other.

Full sun

Camille Laurens’s voice contains echoes of all the voices of those in love who say Yes!, of all the ”lunatics curious" about love, planning the perilous ascent rendered so mythical and deadly by Icarus. This is a vital voice, the voice of desire and ecstasy, of gratitude, of the voluptuous happiness of being alive in the flesh. A voice that probes the depths, reviving buried memories, nameless secrets and unspoken fantasies. The heady raptures of desire described by Camille Laurens transport her characters into another dimension of reality and examine its legitimacy. Adolphe perfectly encapsulates the issues running through all Camille Laurens’s novels about love. Published in 1816 – in the twilight years of the Napoleonic era of conquest – this intimist gem by Benjamin Constant explores the limits of human affection through the lens of individual freedom, a modern new morality which still torments our contemporaries (Adolphe is bowled over by Ellénore, he uproots her from her settled life, then abandons her, causing her death). There are many indecisive, weak and erratic men like Adolphe in the imaginary world of Camille Laurens, who enjoys poking about in the ruins of deconsecrated love. We might be tempted to think at first that a large part of her work is a brilliant legacy from French chivalry, as reinterpreted by the Hussards and Roger Vailland’s cold gaze. However, unlike these male predecessors, it should be stressed that Camille Laurens has more than one string to her bow when it comes to her prose. Firstly, there is the sensitive, elegant generosity of her abiding love for men, never ignoring or scorning the enigma they represent. Then there is the poetic quality that has always defined her texts. This is an intermittent yet obvious thread, a relentless, firm difference, from them, which is sometimes all-embracing, sometimes devastating. Men are admired, examined, judged, but always loved, observed and heard in a language that can compete with the loveliest declarations found in Alfred de Musset’s Nuits (October Night):

“But your illusion lasted so short a time.
Do not offend the day when it is of her you speak;
If you wish for love, you must respect your own.”

In Camille Laurens’s novels, love, even at its most fickle, its most lackadaisical or its most disastrous, is taken seriously: it is respected. Dans ces bras-là (2000, In Those Arms; In His Arms) seems to be a variation on the men in her life, from father to husband, from first love to last lover, from passer-by to reader. The author never succumbs to the calculating, cynical language that has become so familiar since Casanova’s Histoire de ma vie (The Story of My Life). We watch the female narrator, an obedient girl, abandoning her polite behaviour for something quite different as she meets and gets to know men. The conventional trust she places in adults is undermined by a suspicion of profound deception, which is often expressed indirectly through the body and its language. Camille Laurens never writes to condemn; she always writes to make do, do better. L’Amour, roman (2003, Love, a Novel) attempts to establish a genealogy of love: are we inevitably predetermined to love the way we do? How is a couple formed? Isn’t love a simple linguistic invention that we appropriate to falsify and elevate ephemeral attachments? Ni toi ni moi (2006, Neither You Nor Me) carefully examines the pain felt by bodies which have drifted apart after the illusions created by the materiality of a gesture or a word. With Celle que vous croyez (2016, Who You Think I Am), Camille Laurens’s feminist spirit emerges more forcefully. Her heroine shrewdly watches life going on in full swing while she languishes on the sidelines, and tries to use subterfuge to solve the problem. Madness and schizophrenia rear their ugly heads: there is nothing more novelistic than someone hitting a wall. Fille (2020, Girl) is the history of this ancient wall and of liberation through words: “Sometimes, a sentence is all you need to bring down monuments. Donjon of dread, ramparts of shame, the tower in which you were both prisoner and jailer collapses, and suddenly you’re in full sun, and there are no more lethal arrow slits.”

Verbal awareness

Her essays on literature and language, like Quelques-uns (Some Words) or Le Grain des mots (The Texture of Words), address linguistic usages and the unconscious. They betray Camille Laurens’s physical love for the sensitive matter of language, for the texture that forms the substance of words, for the malleability of their curves: “So in my life there are pages I’ve wanted in the same way as you want a body — with your throat tight, hands trembling — is that too much, does that seem unbelievable to you?”. The words or expressions that she assembles to examine are like diamonds that lose their brilliance if they are not worn. However, when shined by the light, they reflect the whole world, concentrating our gaze through the lens of their translucent filter. The result is a radiant beauty, jaw-dropping in its intelligence and wit. Camille Laurens writes accurately because she always allows words to reclaim the humanity of their history. She reminds us that being a word is to be loved or hated, to be guilty, to be betrayed: to be alive. How can we forget, when we utter them several times a day, the impatience of the word “Yes”, true “sign of desire”, “cosmic word” which “prolongs a conversation started with the universe from the beginning of time”, or the gravity of “Never”, which “frightens because it unfurls the entire span of time before our eyes”? Camille Laurens’s books awaken us to a different world order: the order of words, which is in fact a playful, captivating disorder, a benign assent to all living things. They celebrate the unique energy found only in the vulnerability of those who hunger and thirst, imbuing their every gesture with the grace of a granted prayer.

Fanny Arama

Camille Laurens, Index, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2014.
Camille Laurens, Index, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Index, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2014.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Romance, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.
Camille Laurens, Romance, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Romance, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Les Travaux d’Hercule, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.
Camille Laurens, The Labours of Hercules, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Les Travaux d’Hercule, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, L’Avenir, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2013.
Camille Laurens, The Future, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, L’Avenir, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2013.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Philippe, © Stock, “ La Bleue ”, 2011.
Camille Laurens, Philippe, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Philippe, © Stock, “ La Bleue ”, 2011.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Dans ces bras-là, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2013.
Camille Laurens, In Those Arms, Translated by Ian Monk, © Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2004.
Camille Laurens, In His Arms, Translated by Ian Monk, © Penguin Random House, 2004.
Camille Laurens, L’Amour, roman, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2013.
Camille Laurens, Love, a Novel, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, L’Amour, roman, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2013.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Ni toi ni moi, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2014.
Camille Laurens, Neither You Nor Me, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Ni toi ni moi, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2014.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Benjamin Constant, Adolphe, 1816.
Benjamin Constant, Adolphe, Translated by Leonard Tancock, © Penguin Books, 1964. © Penguin Classics, 1980.
Alfred de Musset, Les Nuits, 1835-1837.
Alfred de Musset, October Night, Translation: © David William Paley, poemswithoutfrontiers.com, 2017.
Giacomo Casanova, Histoire de ma vie, © Le Livre de Poche, “ Classiques ”, 2014.
Giacomo Casanova, The Story of My Life, Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, © Penguin Classics, 2002.
Camille Laurens, Celle que vous croyez, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2016.
Camille Laurens, Who You Think I Am, Translated by Adriana Hunter, © Other Press, 2017.
Camille Laurens, Fille, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2020.
Camille Laurens, Girl, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Fille, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2020.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Quelques-uns, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.
Camille Laurens, Some Words, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Quelques-uns, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Camille Laurens, Le grain des mots, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.
Camille Laurens, The Texture of Words, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Le grain des mots, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2012.] by Sue Rose, 2021.

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Bibliographic record

Sofia Djama, Les Bienheureux, © Liaison Cinématographique - Artémis Productions, 2017.

Sofia Djama, The Blessed, © Liaison Cinématographique - Artémis Productions, 2017.

Mounia Meddour, Papicha,

© The Ink Connection, High Sea Production, Tayda Film, 2019.

Camille Laurens, Fille, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2020.

Camille Laurens, Girl, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Fille, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2020.] by Sue Rose, 2021.

Camille Laurens, Dans ces bras-là, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2013.

Camille Laurens, In His Arms, Translated by Ian Monk, © Penguin Random House, 2004.
Camille Laurens, In Those Arms, Translated by Ian Monk, © Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2004.

Georges Perec, Je me souviens, © Hachette / P.O.L., 1978 ; Hachette, 1998. Ce titre a paru dans la collection “ Textes du XXe siècle ”, dirigée par Maurice Olender, © Fayard, 2013.

Georges Perec, I Remember, Translated by Philip Terry & David Bellos, © Gallic Books, 2020.
Georges Perec, I Remember, Translated by Philip Terry & David Bellos, © Godine, 2014.

Camille Laurens, Ni toi ni moi, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2014.

Camille Laurens, Neither You Nor Me, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Ni toi ni moi, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2014.] by Sue Rose, 2021.

Camille Laurens, Celle que vous croyez,

© Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2016.

Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe,

© Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 1949.

Simone de Beauvoir, Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 1958.

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Translated by James Kirkup, © HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

Virginia Woolf, Instants de vie, Traduction par Colette-Marie Huet, Préface par Viviane Forrester, © Stock, 1986, 2006.

Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, © The Estate of Virginia Woolf, 1976 (reproduced by kind permission of The Society of Authors).

Camille Laurens, Tissé par mille, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2008.

Camille Laurens, Woven by a thousand, Translated from French [Camille Laurens, Tissé par mille, © Éditions Gallimard, “ Blanche ”, 2008.] by Sue Rose, 2021.

Anne Pauly, Avant que j'oublie,

© Verdier, 2019.

Camille Laurens, La Petite danseuse de quatorze ans,

© Stock, 2017.

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