Et Alors?

The autofictional project of the French writer Constance Debré describes a woman ‘packing it all in’ to lead an anti-bourgeois, vagabond existence – rejecting conventions and dumpster-diving for Ladurée macarons in the sixth arrondissement. Seven years ago Debré, whose monastically shaved head and multiple tattoos have become iconic in Parisian literary circles, renounced her career as a lawyer, along with her role as a wife and mother, to become, in her words, ‘a writer and a lesbian in the space of the same week’. Her first work of autofiction, Playboy (2018), was an account of exiting the straitjacket of heterosexuality. Her second, Love Me Tender (2020), recently published in English by Semiotext(e), unravelled the association of womanhood with motherhood by recounting the legal battle between Debré and her ex-husband over the custody of their son Paul. Nom, which appeared in France this year, is the third instalment in this literature of severance – challenging the readers attachments to family names, as well as other markers of lineage and heritage. Debré’s writing aims to eradicate all origins and backstories, and with them the social roles they enforce, replacing them with an ethos of radical self-fashioning.

Debré’s biography justifies her aversion to origin stories. Born in Paris in 1972, she was the only child of journalist François Debré and debutante-turned-model Maylis Ybarnégaray, both of them long-term heroin addicts who shared a dealer with Françoise Sagan. Her grandfather on her father’s side was the French Prime Minister Michel Debré, the so-called ‘father’ of the Fifth Republic; on her mother’s Jean Ybarnégaray, a onetime minister in the Vichy government who was arrested for his involvement with the Resistance. The Debré family, which also includes world-class concert pianists and seven members of the Académie française, has been labelled the ‘French Kennedys’.

Debré, for her part, studied law at Panthéon-Assas University and was elected second secretary of the Conference of Lawyers of the Paris Bar in 2013 – an honour for which she was profiled in Le Monde. Her first two published works, Un peu là beaucoup ailleurs (2004) and Manuel pratique de l’idéal (2007), read more like philosophical reflections than works of narrative fiction; both are indebted to the auto-theoretical writings of Georges Perec and Roland Barthes. The first interrogated the experience of ‘opening to nothingness, to slowness, and to latency’ from the perspective of an unidentified narrator. The second offered a ‘dictionary of survival’, in the mode of A Lover’s Discourse. It name-checked various exclusive Parisian nightclubs and poured scorn on the suburbs: ‘La province is a very ugly space one has to traverse when going between Paris and the countryside.’ The critical reception was hostile. In keeping with her impulse to leave the past behind, Debré has since excised them from her public bibliography.

Arriving after a decade-long hiatus (during which time Debré left her job and marriage), Playboy abandoned this philosophical mode and attempted to sketch a portrait of ‘Casanova in the feminine’. Casting Debré as ‘the boy of the story’ (le garçon de l’histoire), it shattered expectations of a ‘good girl’ from a haut-bourgeois family. The author was unapologetic about equating traditional images of masculinity with the pursuit of personal autonomy. Her literary heroes – Hervé Guibert, Jean Genet, Guillaume Dustan – were, she claimed, bolder in rejecting social mores and carving out distinct identities than any of their female counterparts. Accordingly, Debré’s descriptions of lesbian sex were such that feminist critics denounced them as misogyny dressed up as queerness (one particularly incendiary passage stated that women were ‘made to be handled’ (‘Une femme est faite pour mettre la main‘). A more generous interpretation would be that Debré’s target was not women per se, but anyone who fails to ‘think for themselves’, or substitutes passivity for self-reliance.

Love Me Tender contained familiar elements from Playboy (lawyers’ hearings, sexual conquests, wandering around Parisian garages and kebab shops), but was more concerned with the role of the mother, whom Debré presents as the ultimate scapegoat in French society. ‘Mother is worse than “woman”’, she writes. ‘It’s closer to servant. Or dog. But less fun.’ The work recounts how, as a result of institutional lesbophobia, Debré lost custody of her eight-year-old son after she began to pursue her project of sexual and artistic emancipation. Yet it steadfastly refuses to reify or idealize motherhood, which is cast aside just as Debré’s panoply of feminine accessories – dresses, high heels, makeup – were jettisoned in Playboy:

I don’t see why the love between a mother and son should be any different from other kinds of love. Why we shouldn’t be allowed to stop loving each other. Why we shouldn’t be allowed to break up. I don’t see why we shouldn’t stop giving a shit, once and for all, about love, or so-called love, love in all its forms, even that one. I don’t see why we absolutely have to love each other, in families or elsewhere, and why we have to go on about it the whole time, to ourselves, to each other.

Élisabeth Badinter’s theory of maternal ambivalence predates Love Me Tender by several decades, but the novel breathes new life into her ideas: ‘I haven’t seen Paul for six months… Sometimes I can’t remember his face’. The narrator is adamant that guilt or shame will not compromise her commitment to a new life, lived on her own terms. Walking through her old neighbourhood one afternoon, she comes across her former family home:

I guess the windows on rue Descartes should bring back memories of my second life, my family life, my life as a straight person, before I took an automatic rifle to it. I guess these things should make me feel nostalgia, sadness, regret. But no, nothing.

Debré’s sprezzatura writing is the literary equivalent of a shrug: a swashbuckling ‘Et alors?’ that goads the reader into calling the author’s bluff. (‘Do you really not give a shit about other people?’ one of her lovers asks halfway through the book.) But despite her persistent efforts to obliterate sentimentality, Debré’s narrator struggles with the reality of an affectless existence. ‘It’s important to have limits so you don’t lose yourself in the chaos’, Debré writes. Her various practices of self-improvement and self-assessment can appear as attempts to cover the void opened up by the loss of her son and husband. She does daily lengths in a public swimming pool, a ritual that persists throughout the trilogy, punctuating its narrative. Yet this attempt to impose discipline on her life also signals Debré’s desire for weightlessness, her impulse to float above the surface of events.

Beneath Love Me Tender’s wise-cracks – ‘You gain ten years when you become gay. Everyone knows that’ – there is a serious argument being made: that French society has rendered motherhood and lesbianism incompatible. Debré imagines what her former social circle are saying about her now – ‘She isn’t really a mother because she isn’t really a woman because she doesn’t really love men’ – and reflects on the inescapability of such attitudes. Towards the end of the novel, she observes that her most recent relationship with a woman only began to progress once she renounced her connection with her son. Debré presents this as a legitimate decision to elevate her own desire above the sanctioned bonds of dependence and care-giving. Yet the note struck at the end of Love Me Tender is equivocal: ‘Now I send Paul texts, I have his number. Sometimes he replies, sometimes he doesn’t.’

Nom continues to track this evolution from unapologetic divestment to a more complex state of emotional ambivalence. Whereas Playboy and Love Me Tender staged offensives on straightness and maternity, Nom rakes over Debré’s storied childhood to disentangle family history from functional selfhood. (In spoken French, ‘Nom’ can easily be heard as ‘Non’, or a robust ‘No thank you’). ‘A name is nothing, it’s like the family, it’s like childhood, I don’t believe in it, I want nothing to do with it,’ her narrator claims. Yet the defensive posture of maintaining a persona who ‘cares about absolutely nothing’ softens a little, here. The cataloguing of a parade of women lovers gives way to more abstract meditations in the vein of her first books: musings on how our collective obsession with origin stories might be traced to the decline of Marxism and the ongoing popularity of psychoanalysis (at least in a French context). To arrive at such insights, Debré dedicates a fair amount of pages to the life of her intimidating father and glamorous mother. Yet her incisive, manifesto-like pronouncements pierce through this history. Above all, a fierce refusal of victimhood prevails. Her priorities are clear: ‘It’s not my name, it’s my body which most interests me.’

It is tempting to conclude that Debré’s project is about forging one’s own laws rather than submitting to society’s: becoming the highest sovereign of one’s own state. But it may be more accurate to say that her fiction aspires to a kind of lawlessness – a condition of detachment that rejects bourgeois codes and comforts, in line with the author’s aristocratic upbringing, but does not offer a coherent alternative. Debré is part of a recent crop of Francophone writers who write about sexuality as a principled decision, a commitment to a particular way of life. Like them, she gives readers a roadmap for combusting their lives and starting anew. Yet she is also aware of the bruising fallout that can follow such acts of self-invention. Radical decisions have radical consequences; Debré’s trilogy could be read as a sober attempt to take responsibility for them. As she puts it, ‘Writing in the first person is always to write about the people you love, and to hurt them in the process. That’s the way it is.’ Et alors?

Read on: Ryan Ruby, ‘Privatized Grand Narratives’, NLR 131.