Claudine has always been pretty and Pauline has always been ugly. But when
Claudine wants to become famous, she enlists gloomy Paulinewith
pretending they’re the same person. Yet just as things take off,
Claudine commits suicide. Pauline hatches a new scheme, pulling on her dead
sister’s identity, inhabiting her apartment, and reading her mail. As the impersonation
continues, Pauline slowly realizes that the cost of femininity is to dazzle on
the outside while rotting away on the insideand
that womanhood is what ultimately
killed her sister.
|Publisher:||Feminist Press at CUNY, The|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Virginie Despentes is an award-winning author and filmmaker and a noted French feminist and cultural critic. She is the author of many award-winning books, including Apocalypse Baby (winner of the 2010 Prix Renaudot) and Vernon Subutex (winner of the Anaïs-Nin Prize 2015, Prix Landerneau 2015, Prix La Coupole 2015). She also codirected the screen adaptations of her controversial novels Baise-Moi and Bye Bye Blondie.
Emma Ramadan is a literary translator. She translates from Providence, Rhode Island, where she is also co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar. Her translations include Sphinx and Not One Day by Anne Garréta, Monospace by Anne Parian, and The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui. She is a recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for her translation from the French of Ahmed Bouanani’s The Shutters.
Read an Excerpt
There are two windows side by side in Claudine’s living room that look out onto Rue Poulet. Nicolas and Pauline each take one, and leaning outside they talk sporadically. They look below. A man passes, a bass guitar case in hand. A couple goes in the other direction, they’re glued to each other, they don’t talk and they slow down to kiss under the windows before taking off again. Apartment opposite, a guy types on his computer keyboard. Pauline spins her glass of burning brown, she has the feeling that everything has simplified. Her desires have become whole, less irksome, things are clearer, plainly outlined. And she finds herself laughing often. She forgets to ask herself how she’s behaving, if what she’s saying is right, she forgets to keep tabs on herself again and again and feels relieved. She asks: “Why did she do it?” “I would feel less stupid if at least I knew. I was supposed to be her friend, the guy she could count on. And the only thing I was capable of noticing was that she took a lot of drugs… but I do drugs so much too that it didn’t alarm me at all. I didn’t find it strange, the desire to be wasted all the time, with the life we live.” “What kind of life did she live?” “You didn’t talk on the phone, now and then?” “She lied to me all the time. She’s always been a compulsive liar, so I was skeptical… but I didn’t think it would go this far. She said she would make some cash, a whole load of it. She said, ‘In this city, money is everywhere, you can’t even imagine. You just have to be in the right place at the right time, and you’ve hit the jackpot… and I’m in, I’m swimming in cash.’ I rummaged through her things, there were bank statements. At first I was furious that she was on welfare because I thought it was a scheme to get a little more while she was overflowing with money. And then I dug deeper, and she had almost no other money coming in…” Nicolas doesn’t say anything, lets her continue, taking advantage of her drunkenness to find out some things. She drinks more, a tiny sip, she’s furious about what she’s learned. She continues: “She told me she was a dancer, that she had so many things going on, she couldn’t find the time to do it all. Modern dance. Since showing up here, I see why they call it modern. Same for the concert: she presented the idea to me as if it were pure generosity on her part, almost like she didn’t need me. She was in contact with everyone, the big shots in the area kept calling her, they were all crazy about her. There was a lot of money on the table, like I was lucky to get a piece of it. It could have been a reality, but she had no idea. Little Miss Liar.” “Everyone is like that here. Except for those who don’t have to pretend to be important anymore because they actually are. This isn’t a city where it’s okay to fail. If you admit straight up that you’re not making it, you make everyone else too scared, losers contaminate everything, like they’re contagious…” “It’s the same for everyone. Why was it absolutely necessary for her to have a better life than the rest of us?” “Because it’s human. This doesn’t mean anything to you? On veut vivre et pas survivre! Un deux un deux trois quatre. On veut pas vivre pas survivre.” He moves away from the window and starts to do a sort of dance where he lifts one leg forward and then the other and hops in place, kicks the air. His head moves from right to left, he hums something at the same time. Pauline watches him and finds it bizarre to see him let go of himself like that, it makes her think there’s another him, barely still alive inside him. Like the famous nesting dolls, a new Nicolas enveloping another, but sometimes a younger Nicolas comes to take a victory lap and dance a little. He’s clearly very drunk. He’s become quite red, already sweating a bit. He tacks on: “Do you know this one? Quelle sacrée revanche ! Je croyais là un mode de vie ce n’était qu’une vie à la mode!” He continues doing the same kind of dance, but with his feet together and moving his arms in a bizarre crawl, or an unknown jerk. Pauline is embarrassed by it. She finds it funny. But she’s embarrassed to see him let go of himself in front of her. He’s showing her something that sober Nicolas wouldn’t want her to see. Pounding against the wall. He stops abruptly, out of breath, yells: “I already told you never to pound on this wall again, you nasty old hag!” But doesn’t resume his wriggling. He looks for the lighter on the table, jostles the empty beer bottles, picks up a magazine, asks: “So you’re that alone? There’s no one from your old life that you’d regret never seeing again?” “No.” She holds out the lighter that she had actually been holding in her hand, then pushes her glass toward him so that he’ll refill it. She makes an effort to reflect, or to figure out how to explain to him. “Five minutes before I did it, if you had asked me, I would have said that I liked my life. And it wouldn’t have been a lie. I liked my friends, I’ve known them forever, I liked my home… I’ve never really complained about anything. And then there was that reflex. I didn’t have any other choice. It’s so clear to me that there’s no space for me to regret it.” “It’s like that now, it’s the shock of the news, but in ten days you’ll be back to normal and you’ll want to go home. Only you won’t be able to anymore.” “What’s done is done.” Nicolas tries hard to understand. “Why do you hate her so much? Did your daddy love her more?” He said it as a joke, except he hit the nail on the head. Pauline tenses, without even trying to conceal it, her eyes narrow slightly. “She told you that?” Claudine never talked about her parents. Until that night, Nicolas had never paid attention. She had never said a single word about them. He concedes: “Yeah, she said it… She said that her father adored her but that you had been a bit of a disappointment to him.” Then she starts to cry. Really huge tears fed by the 80-proof alcohol. Even she is amazed to find it feels so good, after having so many tears held back and so much weighing on her heart. Nicolas watches her cry, without moving, without really knowing what he hit on, but the last drink was the thickener, the thing that glues you to the chair and entangles reason. He mumbles from time to time. “What I would give to be able to cry like that.” Until they were ten years old, their father brought Pauline with him everywhere. Claudine hated her for that. One day, it was school vacation, a room with bunk beds. It must have been in the mountains, because in this memory they were in their winter clothes. At the table, with friends, their father was running his mouth. An alcohol-soaked lunch, he had gone a bit harder than usual. His eyes riveted to little Claudine, ready to disappear under the table, he seemed on the verge of vomiting, “I can’t believe you two came from the same stomach.” Then he started to really heap it on, bringing his guests over to bear witness, who also would have liked to crawl under the table to escape his questions, “They look alike but one of them’s ugly. Right? It’s funny, there’s barely a difference, it’s just that bovine glimmer in her eyes, it makes you want to smack her. Right?” The children were at the age when parents still speak bluntly, no matter what they’re saying or how unbelievable it is. Their friends took off earlier than planned, visibly angry. Their father had walked around in circles for a few minutes, gestured to Claudine: “Come here, you. You understand how ashamed you made me? Do you understand, you little cunt? Come here for your spanking, come closer.” And he had snapped his fingers as one calls to a dog. The little girl approached, was given a good thrashing. Behind her, her mother cried: “Stop it, don’t work yourself up like that, it’s nothing, stop…” And as soon as he had walked away, she picked up Claudine, sighed: “You’re always screwing things up, huh. You can’t just make yourself forgotten? Go to your room. Pauline, sweetheart, please go play with your sister. Make sure she doesn’t make too much noise, so your father can calm himself down.”
In the bedroom, Claudine was sitting opposite the window, she was swaying back and forth, humming something between her teeth. Pauline had hesitated for a while, searched for the words, then had come up behind her, timidly caressing her hair. Mouth filled with tears, she had trouble expressing herself. “You know, when he speaks to you like that, it’s like he’s doing it to me.” She hadn’t felt her sister’s shoulders tense up, she had continued, really starting to cry: “When he hits you I swear I feel it too.” Claudine had stood up, turned to face her, grabbed her by the hair. Pauline didn’t scream, so that her parents wouldn’t come. Claudine had dragged her down onto the bed. “You’re sure you feel it?” And obstructing her face with her hair, had started to bash her, her little fists striking with as much force as possible against her face. To really hurt her, she had taken the pillow and held it down against her sister’s face with her two hands. To be absolutely sure she heard, she started to scream: “That’s weird, because when he kisses you, I feel nothing.”