The renowned art historian, Catherine Millet was born in 1948 in a suburb of Paris, in Boi-Colombes. She only ever referred to a childhood of suffering and daydreaming in her two novels, The Sex Life of Catherine M. – which caused a stir around the world for its candour – and in Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M. In A Fairy-tale Childhood (which was released in Hungarian by Magvető Publishing House for Margó Literary Festival) she describes in detail her girlhood experiences and how she was able to process these experiences. Millet, who besides writing is the editor of a modern art journal, Art Press, is perhaps most open in her latest work; not only is she giving us a glimpse into her private life, but into her imagination, too.
Why did you write your adulthood, your sex life first and your childhood second? Should the reader be familiar with the previous books, and should the latest be read with them in mind?
The reader of course has every right to read my books in any order they please – despite the fact that I didn’t tell my life’s story in the order it happened. It’s worth knowing, I wrote my first book about my sex life after I’d lived through the crisis of jealousy, the topic of my second book. It was as though in some respect I’d been starved of my sexuality, but then writing the detailed descriptions and afterwards I felt I’d won it back, I’d got hold of it again. The third book, however, A Fairy-tale Childhood, was a kind of response or explanation to why there was so much freedom in my sex life. I was searching my childhood for why I entered adulthood without any moral a priori.
In The Sex Life of Catherine M., explicit expression dominates the narration, while in A Fairy-tale Childhood at times it’s poetic. Was this contrast intentional, or were both simply necessary for the divergent periods of your life?
Yes, the two styles aren’t the same. When I began The Sex Life of Catherine M., my express goal was to create pure, factual descriptions. Back then I’d no intention of acting the psychologist. But in the next two books it was important – given their subject matters – that the writing, the style be resolute: it wasn’t important merely that I introduce plot, ideas, but how I introduce them, which words and metaphors I use.
In A Fairy-tale Childhood, there’s emphasis on the narration of your personal experiences, but also on social-historical descriptions. Why did this come so much into the foreground?
In this book – much more so than in the other two – I strove to give context to the period I lived in: the social-historical background of when my dad returned from being a prisoner of war. While writing A Fairy-tale Childhood I read a lot of Balzac, which among other reasons is how the second chapter came about, where I describe, or try to reconstruct at least the petit-bourgeois milieu of Paris, more precisely a suburb of Paris, Boi-Colombes.
In the same chapter, during the analyses of the family photos, I could sense your experience in art history. Was any “professional gaze” intended?
Of course, my work played a crucial role: these pictures were always of unusual importance to me. Since my childhood, sight was important for me since I have a very visual memory (right now I could find my way back to the hotel I slept in last night). When I was looking at the family photos, I paid attention to the tiny details, just like an art-historian or a critic, who never only looks at the whole picture. I worked in exactly the same way I write a review: I set out all of the photos in front of me, and inspected them and analysed them with the same eye I use with works of art.
How did you begin writing an autobiographical work, rather than fiction?
I started with fiction: in the novel I mention that I wrote short stories and amused my friends with them, or rather I embroidered the original stories of my family. But more and more I think really great literature today is more or less always autobiographical, there are no more criteria about various moral or social expectations which in the past stopped Flaubert, Balzac or Dostoyevsky telling their own stories. These expectations, these strict rules have dissolved and that’s why it’s possible today to write open and honest autobiographies. Socially we’re empowered – women, too, now – to candidly tell our own life stories, when previously writers hid behind fiction, or masked their experiences as fiction. Last summer for example I was reading Simone de Beauvoir whose texts are mostly autobiographical, and her writings confirmed my view.
Did you write this novel as a better means of processing and understanding your childhood?
I think words make it possible for us to position ourselves as quasi witnesses who don’t experience events, but observe them. Not only is it important that through language we can share our suffering with someone else, by doing so it can end up providing comfort and help – but the moment we can explain ourselves, we can describe our suffering, we take a step further away from the initial emotion. And as that minimal distance is created, a possibility presents itself for us to analyse things, and to be help to ourselves.
What’s more difficult to write about, the (more) conscious acts of your adulthood or the more instinctive ones of your childhood which have to be analysed later?
Naturally, it was much more difficult to write about childhood, since there weren’t really any eye-witnesses who could help me remember certain things. I tried to remember the feelings I’d had as a girl, which of course was only partly successful. Writing about our childhood requires us to sink deeper into ourselves and to formulate those feelings which we discover while we’re “immersed”. For example, when I write about my relationships with the girls in my class, I had to remember the time when they put me in “quarantine”, they “locked” me in the school – in the beginning it was a very unhappy period for me, an extraordinarily powerful experience. So I had to discover these deep-rooted memories so I’d be able to put them into words.
Besides photos, were there any other diaries, writings, documents you dug out to write the book?
Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a diary, I had different documents: letters, postcards which I’d sent to my family or classmates, and their letters back. I still had my notebooks which I’d written stories in as a child. These all helped me to remember.
At the end of the book we can find your ars poetica: to write about things which haven’t been said, about intimacy, about vulnerability. Did you actually decide this so young?
As an art critic I devote my time to and defend works which would once have been called avant-garde. When I judge a work, I ask myself if I’ve already seen this kind of picture or not. With a book, the question is whether I’ve read it or not. If I haven’t then I have to write it. And yes, I did decide this at that age.
Can we believe the narrator when she explains that shame is secondary, unimportant if we have an open relationship with God? How can we distance ourselves from social expectations, is faith the only way?
It helped me a great deal that I believe in God, since I was brought up in God’s love, and he forgives us everything. I had regular “business” with God, I viewed him as a friend, we settled everything between us, and I managed to cut myself off from other expectations (social and parental). When I spoke to God, I confessed my sinful thoughts and actions, ultimately knowing God would forgive me these.