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Christiane Rochefort (1917-1998)

 

French writer, social critic, and feminist, who examined in her novels the situation of women and children, female sexuality, and struggle for personal freedom. Rochefort gained international fame with Le Repos du guerrier (1958, Warrior's Rest), which was made into a film in 1962, starring Brigitte Bardot. Les petits enfants du siècle (1961), another widely translated novel, was a commentary on the French government-assistance epoch. Rochefort received Prix du Roman Populiste in 1961 and the Medicis Prize in 1988.

"Je suis née des Allocations et d'un joun férié dont la matinée s'étirait, bienheureuse, au son de "Je t'aime tu m'aimes", oué àla trompette douce. C'était le début de l'hiver, il faisait bon dans le lit, vien ne pressait." (in Les petits enfants du siécle, 1961)

Christiane Rochefort was born in Paris, but the first years she spent in the province of Limousin, before her family moved to Paris where she lived all her life. During Rochefort's career as a writer, little biographical information was published about her. She was the only child of working-class parents. Her father worked as a telegraph operator.

After attending the lycée Fénelon, she studied medicine, psychology, and ethnology at Sorbonne, and worked later as a model, actress, and newspaper correspondent . In addition she tried her hand as an artist. Along with a number of other French public figures, Rochefort signed the Manifesto of the 121 September 1960, formally called the "Déclaration sur le droit à l'insoumission dans la guerre d'Algérie", the statement "respecting and judging justified the refusal to take up arms against the Algerian people."

At the Cinémathètique Française, Rochefort cooperated with Henri Langlois, the legendary film archivist. Langlois' concept of film archiving clashed with professionalism of the Cinémathètique and André Malraux, who was the Minister of Culture, tried to impose a new administrator in 1968. Langlois started with his staff and film personalities a counter attack, which they won. At Cannes film festival Rochefort worked as a press secretary for 15 years, but was dismissed in 1968 from her post at Cannes for her "freedom of thought". In the same year the festivals were closed by the events of May 1968; François Truffaut and other prominent directors rallied to stop screenings in support of striking students and workers.

However, writing was Rochefort's calling; she published nine novels, though the Julliard Publishing House rejected the first manuscripts of Rochefort and Marguerite Duras, too, because they were too intellectual. Her first book, Cendres et Or, came out in 1956. At that time she was over 40. Rochefort had divorced after a marriage of four years – accroding to some sources because she though that a marriage restricts a woman and her creativity. Rochefort said in an interview that her husband forced her to choose between being married and being a writer; she choose to be a free woman. In 1971, with other activists, she lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the name of "the one more unknown than the unknown soldier, his wife."

Warrior's Rest, published in 1958, just missed receiving the Prix Fémina – after a battle between women jurors, the prize went to Café Céleste of Françoise Mallet-Jorris. Also the Académie Goncourt squabbled over Rochefort's work, but it won a newly created award, the Prix de la nouvelle vague (Prize of the New Wave). The book was a huge success, sold 600,000 copies, and broke the conventional view that it is impossible for a woman to depict male erotic fantasies.

Warrior's Rest is an anarchistic and sadomasochistic story, based partly on Orpheus and Eurydice. It concerns Geneviève Le Theil, a young Parisienne, and Jean-Renaud Sarti. Renaud is an alcoholic former soldier, he has lost his hope after the bombing of Hiroshima. Ten years later he tries to kill himself in a small-city hotel. Geneviève finds him accidentally, saves his life and becomes Renaud's lover, having with him her first orgasms. Renaud is violent, he beats her and separates her from her family and friends. They travel to Switzerland and Italy. She is going to have a child by him and Renaud wants to marry her. He insist on trying to rehabilitate himself by going to the clinic he calls the Great Washing Machine. Rochefort herself identified with Renaud, the male antihero, not with Geneviève or Rafaële, to whom Geneviève is attracted.

The story was adapted into screen in 1962 under the title Love on a Pillow and directed by Roger Vadim, starring Vadim's ex-wife Brigitte Bardot in their fourth film. In the comedy Bardot bestows her pleasures on young man, hoping to divert his intended suicide. During the filming Bardot announced that she intends to retire from the screen. A stage version from 1961, starring Ralf Vallone, was a flop.  Marlene Dietrich, who had an affair with Vallone, was under consideration for the role of Geneviève that went to Françoise Prévost.  Vallone had adapted the novel for the stage, too.

Les Petits enfants du Siècle (Children of Heaven) received the Prix du Roman Populiste (the Populist Prize). Rochefort's second novel satirized the French government's post-war policy of providing family allowances in order to increase the national birth-rate. The story started with the words "I was born of the family subsidies..." Rochefort focused on a working-class family living in a huge project on the outskirts of Paris. Philippe is a television-installation man. Josyane Rouvier, the narrator, is a tough working-class girl. She has grown up in a housing project and has gone through an adolescent sex affair with an elder man. She becomes pregnant by a nice young man, Philippe, whom she genuinely loves, but plans to produce children in order to acquire consumer goods.

Rochefort's view is pessimistic: the novel ends with Josyane succumbing to romantic love and continuing the cycle of child production, following the fate of her mother. "Whether or not one agrees with Miss Rochefort's black-and-white view of the Benevolent State, her talent is unarguable," wrote the Village Voice (September 6, 1962). "In "Children of Heaven" there is bite and sharp satire, and - as M. Rouvier would say about his second-hand Citroen - it holds the road well."

Rochefort's novels were often simultaneously ironic and confessional. The first-person narrator of La porte du fond (1988) makes part of her life "to be a pain in the arse to as many people as possible." Rochefort depicted the struggles of social outcasts and sexual minorities, and contrasted conventional language and attitudes with innovative use of slang and colloquialisms. Central themes - in the spirit of sexually free 1960s - were repression of female sexuality and creativity in contemporary society. Lesbian relationships represent a potential challenge to patriarchal norms and the nuclear family.

Les stances à Sophie (1963, Cat's Don't Care for Money) borrowed its storyline from an obscene medical students' song and followed it from a female point of view. Céline, the narrator, leaves his old way of life after meeting her husband's best friend's wife Julia and enters into a lesbian relationship with her. Rochefort suggests that marriage is little more than an institutionalized form of (unpaid) prostitution. "The novel is mostly a criticism of middle-class, upwardly mobile male attitudes, ego, competitiveness, and insensitivity" said Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters (Damned women: Lesbians in French Novels, 1796-1996, 2000, pp. 122-123)Les stances à Sophie, which has been filmed twice, became very popular in France.

Rochefort's first fantasy book, Une rose pour Morrison (1966), was written in twenty-four days, in a state of trance. This work more experimental in its style than her earlier novels. Archaos ou le Jardin étincelant (1972) was an utopian fantasy, which explored the theme of female power. Achaos, a lost kingdom in central Europe, is a threat to its neighbours because it allows sexual freedom to its women. According to Archaosite philosophy, works of love are better than those of riches and wars. The king has opened the Royal Castle to all women who need a refuge from their husbands, boyfriends, or parents. Princess Onagre, twin sister of King Govan, has founded a convent dedicated to the enjoyment of the present and to meditation.

Besides novels, Rochefort published short stories and essays, appeared in Bernard Pivot's legendary television program, Apostrophes, and translated into French writings by her partner, the Israeli artist, columnist, playwrigt and novelist Amos Kenan. She also translated John Lennon's En flagrant délire (In His Own Write) with Rachel Misrahi. Ma Vie revue et corrigée par l'auteur (1978) was Rochefort's account of her own life. In Les enfants d'abord (1976), a collection of essays, she saw children as the oppressed class. The theme continued in last work, La Porte du fond, a story of incest. The book received Prix Médicis award, and was translated into several languages, including Finnish. Written in confessional style, the writer approached her subject from the feminist point of view. Rochefort died on April 24, 1998.

For further reading: 'What Rest for the Weary' by Joseph H. McMahon, in Yale French Studies, 27 (1961); Christiane Rochefort's Ma Vie revue et corrigée par l'auteur: Autobiography à la dérive' by Helen Bates McDermott, in French Literature Series, 12 (1985); 'Effects of Urbanization in the Novels of Christiane Rochefort' by Anne D. Cordero, in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, ed. Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBien (1988); Feminist Utopias by Frances Bartkowski (1989); 'La Fuite ironique comme refus de l'autorité chez Christiane Rochefort' by Lucie Joubert, in Écrits du Canada français, no 77, janvier (1993); 'Rochefort, Christine' by Carys Owen, in Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Les Mots etincelants de Christiane Rochefort, langages d'utopie by Isabelle Constant (1996); French Women's Writing 1848-1994 by Diana Holmes (1996); Countering the Culture; The Novels of Christiane Rochefort by Margaret-Anne Hutton (1999); Christiane Rochefort and the Dialogic: Voices of Tension and Intention by Pamela Fries Paine (2002) 

Selected works:

  • Cendres et Or, 1956
  • Le Repos du guerrier, 1958
    - Warrior's Rest (translated by Lowell Bair, 1959)
    - Soturin lepo (suom. Outi Nyytäjä, 1963)
    - Film: Love on a Pillow (1962), prod. Francos Films, Incei Film, dir. Roger Vadim, starring Brigitte Bardot, Robert Hossein, Jean-Marc Bory, Michel Serrault, James Robertson Justice
  • La Vérité, 1960 (screenplay, with Henri-Georges Clouzot, Véra Clouzot, Simone Drieu, Jérôme Géronimi, Michèle Perrein)
    - Film 1960, prod. Han Productions, C.E.I.A.P., Iéna Productions, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Brigitte Bardot, Charles Vanel, Paul Meurisse, Sami Frey
  • Les Petits Enfants du siècle, 1961
    - Children of Heaven (translated by Linda Asher, 1962) / Josyane and the Welfare (translated by Edward Hyams, 1963)
    - Vuosisatamme lapset (suom. Georgette Vuosalmi, 1964)
    - TV film 1974, dir. Michel Favart, starring Marie Véronique Maurin, Regine Mazella, Véronique Silver, Pierre Maguelon, Jacques Zanetti  
  • Les Stances à Sophie, 1963
    - Cat's Don't Care for Money (translated by Helen Eustis, 1965)
    - Films: Margarita y el lobo (1969), prod. Escuela Oficial de Cinematografía (EOC), dir. Cecilia Bartolomé; Sophie's Ways/Les stances à Sophie (1971), prod. Les Films de la Licorne, Saroy Films, dir. Moshé Mizrahi, starring Bernadette Lafont, Michael Duchaussoy, Bulle Ogier, Serge Marquand
  • John Lennon En flagrant délire, 1965 (translator, with Rachel Mizrahi)
  • Le Cheval fini, 1966 (translator, with Amos Kenan)
  • Une rose pour Morrisson, 1966 [A rose for Morrison]
  • Printemps au parking, 1969 [Spring in the car park]
  • C'est bizarre l'écriture, 1970
  • Archaos ou le Jardin étincelant, 1972 [Archaos, or the glittering garden)]
  • La Ville bidon / La décharge, 1973 (screenplay, with Jacques Baraties)
    - Film 1971, prod. Baraka Productions, Bavaria Atelier, Parc Film, dir. Jarques Baratier, starring Bernadette Lafont, Daniel Duval, Jean-Pierre Darras
  • Les Tireurs de langue, 1974 (translator, with Amos Kenan)
  • Encore heureux qu'on va vers l'été, 1975 [Still happy that summer is coming]
  • Les Enfants d'abord, 1976
  • Holocauste II, 1976 (translator, with Amos Kenan)
  • Pardonnez-nous vos enfances, 1978 (with Denis Guiot, et al.)
  • Ma vie revue et corrigée par l'auteur, 1978
  • Quand tu vas chez les femmes, 1982 [How to deal with women]
  • Le monde est comme deux chevaux, 1984
  • La Porte du fond, 1988 [The far door)]
    - Sivuovi (suom. Marja Luoma, 1989)
  • Adieu Andromède, 1997
  • Conversations sans paroles, 1997


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