Tsipi Keller reviews Incest by Christine Angot

Translated from the French by Tess Lewis (Archipelago Books, 2017)

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
—Muriel Rukeyser

Literature, Christine Angot has said in an interview, has no other purpose than to persuade the reader of the veracity of the telling, even if implicit in every affirmation is the shadow of doubt. Ever since her books began to appear, she’s had to fend off accusations and criticisms that her books are not novels, they are not literature, she is using her “real” life and the lives of those around her—and she has been suitably punished by being sued for it. These are her detractors, readers who demand a different kind of literature, preferably the familiar, plot-driven variety. Precisely the kind of readers Angot foresees in her very first novel, Vu du ciel (1990), which she addresses to angels and to God, hoping that no mortal opens it accidentally. (“Alors, je destine ce livre aux anges et à Dieu et ne souhaite à aucun mortel de l’ouvrir accidentellement.”)

Those who appreciate the kind of literature that engages the intellect and the imagination (think writing by Marguerite Duras, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhardt) do not consider or judge a novel in terms of biographical truths or untruths. They do not look for a plot. A plot actually bores them. Nor do they look for neat constructions and solutions. Their pleasure lies elsewhere, in a deeper truth, in a mind that does not recognize limits and borders and “good manners.” For such readers, the sublime, and the less sublime, are equally fine if honestly and bravely explored. Céline, one of Angot’s cherished models, would have been in this group: “All that is interesting happens in the shadow. We know nothing of the real history of men” (Journey to the End of the Night). Another model is Hervé Guibert, who strove for simplicity, stripped his texts to the bare bone, and used his own life as raw material for his work as a writer and photographer.

Angot is a versatile writer. In addition to the novels she has published in the past twenty-five years, she has also written plays, and has co-written Claire Denis’s new film, Let the Sunshine In (2017). She is prolific and controversial. And demanding of the reader. Which may explain why it took so long for her writing to appear in English. Translated by Tess Lewis, Incest is Angot’s first novel to be published in the Anglophone world—by the pioneering Archipelago Books—but it is certainly not the last. There is no plot in the usual sense, and no “order” and no “structure.” She offers no moral or meaning; indeed, it is up to the reader to pay attention and bring his or her sensibilities to the text. Angot is not in the business of logic making, of elucidating, explaining, or consensus-building. There are deliberate repetitions of words, phrases, names, obsessions, fears, and the occasional “Yes, I know, I’ve already said it, let me repeat myself if I want.”

Still, this is not to say that Angot’s Incest lacks a plot altogether. Rather, it suggests a different kind of plot, of tension, of conflict. It is rich, intimate, and pulls you in, as you recognize her private inner workings as your own, even if, unlike her, you’d never fully admit them to yourself or to another person. You witness your own mind hurling itself against others, against you, and worse, against itself. Angot uses facts, sometimes names from her life (she’s more circumspect now—more about this later), puts them in a blender, and the result is a mosaic, some parts coherent, some not. Call it technique, call it artistry. The book is a paean to life, a torrent of words, a love letter to Love, to Gratitude for Being in Love, puncturing the wall of the Now with details and incidents of the Quotidian, and “a few minor worries from time to time.”

Her books are an incantation, biblical in their onrush of verbs, nouns, names, and deliberate repetitions (yes, I, too, repeat myself) in the service of rhythm and camouflage, compelling you to read on, for sound, for cadence, for poetry. I’m a woman of no convictions, she says. I’m a woman of strong convictions, she also says. It’s as if she were saying: The two of us (you and I, reader) are in a maze of my creation; let’s see how you, we, fare. She puts everything on the line; she is not embarrassed. She tells us, “Incest is the book in which I present myself as a real shit, all writers should do it at least once.” She lays herself bare and invites us to take a bite.  

At the center of Angot’s first-person narration is an intense, volatile, fascinating three-month affair between Christine and a woman named Marie-Christine (a friend says: “It’s crazy how pretty the name Christine is and how ugly Marie-Christine is”). We also hear about Léonore, Christine’s six-year-old daughter, the love of her life to whom she dedicates all her books; Claude, Léonore’s father, who is Christine’s former husband and now a close friend; Pierre, the perpetrator of the titular incest thirty years before, and now ill with Alzheimer’s, like his father before him; Christine’s former and current analysts; and friends and acquaintances in Christine’s orbit. As the pages begin to accumulate on the left (assuming you’re holding a book in your hand), you begin to recognize the names, to make connections, to form opinions, and you realize you’re part of the constellation, you’re a listener, a participant, you are not a passive reader, since Angot engages you directly. You are her savior; she relies on you (“It’s the clinic or talking to you. To you. Writing is a kind of rampart against insanity. I’m already very lucky that I’m a writer”). There’s a present tense, and a past tense, and there are flashbacks that are in the present, that are the present, that are present now and always will be.

“I was never homosexual. I was never interested in breasts. Mine included.” Still, when she meets Marie-Christine, “I immediately fell in love with her mouth, her eyes, the way she walks. Her smell, her sex, the way she moves, her voice. More than anything, the way she looks at me.” She goes on:

My mother said to me ‘love takes all forms.’ Léonore told everyone at school ‘X and Mama are homosexuals.’ Everyone understood. It was perfectly clear. I slunk along the walls in my jacket and big shoes. Slunk along the walls, the barriers, like slicing them, with a razor, slicing veins and my luck. A razor in the rock wall, rock, pierre [stone in French], my father’s name is Pierre, and on this rock I will build my church, that’s literature, I will carve it out, a wall of books, a wailing wall, incest, insanity, homosexuality, holocaust, start strong, my jacket, my big shoes, and my razor.

There’s no attempt to shock and titillate with salacious descriptions. If anything, it’s a cri de coeur. At times she ventures into the sexually explicit, and yet is never pornographic, but simply and plainly descriptive, and, associatively, always aware of the vulnerability of the female sex and the potential for abuse:

Fine, I put my finger in. You never get a chance to touch something like that otherwise. [ . . . ] To touch, to stick your finger in, turn it, take it out again, put it in your mouth, make the vagina’s wetness go into the anus, what you can’t bear isn’t that, but what you saw on Sunday, in broad daylight, the light was streaming in through the wide-open window, I was looking at her sex, the day before I’d read excerpts from Desert Flower, by an infibulated African woman, you could cut it off, I said to myself, with a razor [ . . . ] The open water lily also repeats itself on my daughter.

Propelled by the Christine/Marie-Christine affair, the first section, entitled “No Man’s Land,” runs straight through to page ninety-two. Thereafter, Angot tells us that she needs to put things in order, to take a deep breath:

I’m not Nietzsche, I’m not Nijinsky, I’m not Artaud, I’m not Genet, I’m Christine Angot, I have the means that I have and make do with them. [ . . . ] Time to calm down, to try to be what I am, that is to say, not much. Putting all this less or more in order would already be something, not bad. Everything will be in the proper order from here and maybe even make me happy some day. And I’m going to try to be polite.

Indeed, the following sections are shorter, separated by headings. We witness not self-pity or self-indulgence, but a sharp intelligence at work, one that observes the facts like a lawyer (Angot specialized in European law at the College of Europe in Bruges); there’s bitter humor, and self-deprecation, and passion—relentless, brutal, and honest.  

With authors who are thinkers—authors like Angot—interpretations and extrapolations won’t serve a reader. Incest defies norms of expression, working on multiple levels, making use of associations, leaps, regressions. For this reason, the best way to convey Angot’s style and voice, in Tess Lewis’s fluent translation, is to quote her. Extensively.

“Writing is impossible,” Angot says. “When you’re not yourself.” Were she to lie to herself, to deny herself, this book, and others, would be impossible. Would it be better, she asks, if she were to try to please everyone, to turn herself into “a piece of Kréma candy?” A friend advises: “You should put yourself to the side a bit.” Another friend says: “You have a sadomasochistic relationship with the public.” And maybe she does. She knows that her book will reach only lunatics like herself, and, she asserts: “my little audience of lunatics is my life preserver.” She also knows that: “This book will be seen as testimony about the sabotage of women’s lives. The groups that are fighting incest will be all over it. Even my books are sabotaged. To take this book as a shit piece of testimony will be an act of sabotage.” Having read a draft of her manuscript, her lawyer details in a long letter all the instances of “serious invasion of privacy of persons mentioned, described, etc., whether they are explicitly identified, as is often the case, or identifiable.” Dutifully, reluctantly, Angot changes a few names, but toward the end of the book, in parentheses, she tells us: “I’m annoyed that I changed the names. It makes the book less good. But better that than paying damages.” And so, reader, do yourself a favor and don’t bother your head with questions like, is she telling the whole truth and nothing but? Are these real names or real people?

Pierre, the incestuous father, is mentioned in passing throughout the book, but we get a fuller measure of him toward the end, when, with near clinical precision, Angot finally gets it—or him—down on paper. Calmly. Trying, as she says, to “be polite.” Pierre Angot, married to wife Elizabeth, and a father of two young children, a boy and a girl, Christine’s half brother and sister, who don’t even know she exists until much later. Pierre Angot, a respected linguist, a lover of languages. Suave. Worldly. A man who knows the names of plants, of animals. Who knows everything. Who reads Le Monde religiously, fanatically, every day. Pierre, who reprimands and lectures his fourteen-year-old daughter about the “basic rule of politeness,” “the laws of hospitality,” when she spends a week in his home. The home of his family. Pierre, who thinks nothing of sleeping with his daughter in the marriage bed while his family is away on Easter vacation. (In her 2014 book, Une semaine de vacances, Angot returns to that week when her father, for the first time, “ventured to [her] genitals.” A fact she kept secret until it burst out of her a couple of years later.) Marie-Christine informs Christine that Lacan called perversion “père-version”—the version of the father.

Angot tells us that when she met Pierre for the first time, she thought he was extraordinary. “I, who had never had a father to introduce to my friends, all of a sudden I’d be able to tell them how extraordinary he was. I was charmed. [ . . . ] Charmed. Like you can be by someone you love.” Eight days later, disillusionment sets in. He comes into her room to kiss her goodnight, like a good father would, and kisses her on the mouth. “I didn’t understand. I understood very well.” In eight days he goes from an ideal, unhoped-for father, to a father who tells her he loves her and kisses her on the mouth. He tells her that he finds her extraordinary. She dazzles him, and she, the child, wanting to please him, wanting “desperately to be nice” to this new father, keeps her disgust to herself. She tells us she “seduced” him. She seduced him, inadvertently, simply by being herself.

“I’m very sorry to tell you about this, I’d so much rather be able to talk about something else,” she apologizes to the reader. Léonore, it dawns on her, “is his granddaughter, she could have been his daughter, that’s enough.”

During the three months of her affair with Marie-Christine, Christine thinks she is going insane. She even considers having herself committed to a clinic, like Robert Walser did. Instead, she leans for support on Foucault, who, like her, “refuses to make any diagnosis but finds in the madness of Artaud, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, and Hölderlin the final instance of the work of art: ‘Where there is a work of art, there is no madness; and yet madness is contemporary with the work of art, since it inaugurates its time of truth.’” She keeps saying: “We love each other. I’m sure we love each other. Why is it we don’t know how to be together? The two of us? Peacefully, happily.” Her life has been infected by Pierre, who “left a mark” on her. Christine remarks, “what with the incest I can’t manage to feel like I’m anything much.”

She describes writing as “an act of exorcism, an attempt to expunge from the heart, the soul, all the filth and pain inflicted by others.” “Writing,” Angot says, “is not choosing your narrative. But taking it, into your arms, and putting it calmly down on the page, as calmly as possible, as accurately as possible. [ . . . ] It can take an entire lifetime for a writer to take in his arms something that doesn’t concern anyone.” She is resolved to make the reader understand. If she fails in this book, she’ll write others. “And in the end, all the readers will have understood.”

It is time for me, too, to slow down the pace and suggest that you, reader, take Incest into your arms and let yourself experience Angot as you would music, or an image of great evocative power. Put aside your resistance. As Nabokov noted, the author does battle with the reader, but it’s a battle without winners or losers. It’s a battle of persuasion, of bringing two strangers together. Angot won me over because I favor authors who reveal themselves. As a writer, I envy her freedom, her great spirit and courage, her ability to open up, come what may. It’s as if she is saying: One day I will die and be no more. But now, alive, no one and nothing will stop me from saying what I need to say. And here, again, is Céline: “When the grave lies open before us, let’s not try to be witty.”

And a final note on the translation. In my view, the best translators are dedicated practitioners in intuition, and Tess Lewis is one such translator. Reading Incest, it feels as though Angot, so very French, is speaking to us directly in English. Such fluidity in translation comes from accumulated practice and familiarity with various forms of composition. Lewis, the recipient of many translation awards, also translates from the German (most notably another Archipelago book, The Angel of Oblivion, 2016), and is equally at ease translating poetry, prose, and drama. May we be blessed with more of her kind.