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Rochefort, Christiane (1917–1998)

Rochefort, Christiane (1917–1998)

French feminist writer of novels and nonfiction who harshly condemned the abuse of women in what she considered a brutalized, patriarchal society. Pronunciation: Christie-AHN Roch-FOR. Born on July 17, 1917, in a working-class district of Paris; died on April 24, 1998, at Le Pradet, France; studied for several years at the Sorbonne; married for four years.

Returned to Paris after spending several childhood years in the province of Limousin (1922); became successful author with the publication of her first book (1958); won Roman Populiste award (1961); film version of Le Repos du guerrier appeared (1962); fired as press attaché at Cannes Film Festival (1968); participated in Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF) demonstration at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (1970); participated in MLF campaign publicizing prominent women who had undergone abortions (1971); joined pro-abortion group Choisir (1972); won the Prix Mèdici for La Porte du Fond (1988).

Select works—fiction:

Le Repos du guerrier (Warrior's Rest, 1958); Les Petits enfants du siècle (Children of the Century, 1961); Les Stances à Sophie (Cats Don't Care for Money, 1963); Une Rose pour Morrisson (A Rose for Morrisson, 1966); Printemps au parking (Blossom on the Tarmac, 1969); Archaos ou le jardin étincelant (Archaos or the Glittering Garden, 1972); Encore heureux qu'on va ver l'étè (Luckily Summer Will Come Soon, 1975); Quand tu vas chez les femmes (Now It's Time for the Girls, 1982); La Porte du Fond (Rear Exit, 1988); Conversations sans paroles (Conversations without Words, 1997).

Selected works—nonfiction:

Les Enfants d'abord (Children First, 1976); Le Monde est comme deux chevaux (The World Is Like Two Horses, 1984).

A leading feminist author, Christiane Rochefort wrote over a dozen books, including both novels and nonfiction. Her works, which incorporate large doses of black humor, presented a scathing picture of women's constricted life and subordination in modern French society. A key theme of much of her writing was the way in which a woman's loving impulses were likely to be manipulated and betrayed. Rochefort's feminist writing has been described by Diana Holmes , a leading scholar of her work, as "closer to that of Anglo-American feminist novelists than to that of her French contemporaries." Holmes points in particular to Marilyn French and Fay Weldon as the English-language authors whom Rochefort most resembles.

Working mainly within the conventional forms of the novel, Rochefort was able nonetheless to present a number of radical messages. Her interest in sexuality, as well as her consistent frankness in discussing relations between men and women, often brought accusations that her writing was pornographic. She was especially vocal in expressing her concern for children's rights. Her most successful and influential book was La Porte du Fond (Rear Exit). Published in 1988, it raised in memorable fashion the dilemma of a young girl who is abused for seven years by her father.

Rochefort found a special target in the shallowness and oppression of a consumer society, and she stressed the harmful role of such desired possessions as automobiles and television sets. Some of her novels were set in an imaginary past or future, devices which she used in order to explore the injustices of present-day society. Others took place explicitly within contemporary French life where she found the world of new housing projects to be harsh and intolerable. "I sadly realize the oppressive power of modern urbanism," she wrote. Nonetheless, while the author's earlier works pointed out society's problems, in her later writing she offered what Lucille Frackman Becker called "alternative societies, utopias conceived from the feminist point of view."

Rochefort's heroines were faced with the situation familiar to women of marrying a man whom they love and from whom they expect a satisfying life. But she made it clear how such expectations were doomed to be disappointed in a society that devalued women and refused to endorse their wishes and ideas. Her bitter and ironic tone often reached the reader through a narration presented by the main female character in the story.

Rochefort was never forthcoming about her background, but at her publisher's insistence she provided some information about her life. The writer was born in the 14th arrondissement, a working-class district of Paris, on July 17, 1917, studied a variety of subjects for a time at the Sorbonne, and dabbled in "painting, drawing, sculpting, making music." She also wrote for her own pleasure. To support this life of artistic exploration, she took a number of office jobs, worked as a newspaper correspondent, and wrote film criticism. For a time, she held the post of press attaché for the Cannes Film Festival. Her apparent unruliness in that post led to her dismissal in 1968.

Her writing career began late with the publication of her first novel when she was 41 years old. The first three of Rochefort's novels appeared between 1958 and 1963. Each was identifiably set in the France of the era, and each reflected the concerns of the female narrator. Rochefort was particularly interested in examining how the desires of her heroines collided with society's limited offering of roles for women, and her militant stance was a precursor of French feminist writing which soon began to appear in large quantities. In the view of Holmes, "All her writing is fuelled by a spirit of militant opposition to the dominant values of her society and by the belief that writing has a political function." Rochefort claimed that she wrote with anger against an unjust world. It was a world that she saw as dominated by a male elite and characterized by smoothly running institutions based upon the principles of technological progress and economic growth. In such a world, women's needs and desires were guided or suppressed in the interest of the male elite. Holmes suggests that Rochefort's work tried to challenge this unjust arrangement "by implying an alternative femininity that would be subversive rather than supportive of the patriarchal order."

Anger is one of the constants in my work—it has to be, simply because there are numerous reasons to be angry.

—Christiane Rochefort

When Le Repos du guerrier (Warrior's Rest) appeared in 1958, it was a spectacular commercial success that reached the bestseller list and was translated into 20 languages. Here Rochefort presented a less self-aware heroine than those who appeared in her later works, but she began to make clear her view that a woman's sexual appetites exposed her to a range of exploitation. The heroine, Geneviève Le Theil, is only partially conscious of the way in which society manipulates her. Infatuated by the sexual pleasure she gets from her alcoholic lover, she supports him, even as he abuses her and uses her money to sink even deeper into his addiction. Her life takes another unfortunate turn when she is hospitalized for tuberculosis. Rochefort closes her story with Geneviève married to the same ne'er-do-well. She is about to bear his child, and he is trying to use medical help to cope with his addiction. Thus, at the novel's close, the heroine is still tied to a dominant, but visibly flawed male companion. The book was made into a film in 1962 by Roger Vadim starring Brigitte Bardot .

Her second novel, Les Petits Enfants du siècle (Children of the Century), won her critical acclaim, and for it she received the Roman Populiste prize. The book directed its satire at the government policies that encouraged French women to have large numbers of children. Narrated by a young woman from one of these large families, the book condemned the era's social conformity and state intrusion into private life. In Rochefort's view, woman's subordinate role was bolstered by the temptations of a consumer economy. Since the most ready way to increase the family income was to have another child and to draw the resulting state benefits, the urge for possessions plunged women ever deeper into domestic busywork and unwise pregnancies. The book's young protagonist remarks bitterly that she was born only "because of family welfare payments and a legal holiday." Writes Holmes, "it is a related cluster of policies and attitudes that are the objects of the novel's angry derision." In Becker's words, women are degraded by the French system of promoting family life which offers financial rewards for having children and "has transformed the institution of marriage into a legalized form of prostitution."

At the close of the book, Rochefort deliberately shocks the reader by altering the attitude of the heroine. The woman, who throughout the story had irreverently cried out against the cult of motherhood with which she was surrounded, ends up pregnant and ready to marry her baby's father. He is a television installer who will provide well for her. The two of them were looking for an apartment in one of the country's new working-class housing developments, and the woman was reassured when she realized that she would be able to get a maternity grant from the government.

In her third work, the satire Les Stances à Sophie (Cats Don't Care for Money), Rochefort placed her story in a more elevated middle-class family in the France of the 1960s. Nonetheless, the process of bringing a woman into conformity with the needs of a patriarchal state remained a key theme for Rochefort. Céline, the heroine of the novel, is married to Philippe, a rising young executive in the booming French economy of the time. Earlier on she had pursued a hedonistic lifestyle, and Philippe is shown in a constant effort to circumscribe his wife's expression of her personality by defining what proper behavior should be for a woman. Céline is forced into the role of a child-like creature whose ideas cannot be taken seriously. Her husband's directions for her conduct instruct Céline to "be pretty and silent." In both Les Petits Enfants du siècle and Les Stances à Sophie, writes Holmes, "the acquisition of a gendered identity is seen as a process of repression and coercion."

At the close of Les Stances à Sophie, however, the heroine demonstrates her independence from her husband and his tangle of restrictions on her behavior by deliberately using vulgar French expletives. She "reclaims the right to a verbal vulgarity that is itself a rejection of codes of feminine propriety," notes Holmes. She also finds a close friendship with another woman that develops into a sexual relationship. Thus, unlike the heroines in her first two novels, Céline escapes the rigid framework of the male-dominated marriage into which she has fallen. According to Becker, this work drew on Rochefort's life for material. She too was married to an affluent Frenchman for several years, and she too moved from heterosexual into homosexual relationships.

In 1966, Rochefort turned to a more unconventional style in her dystopian novel Une Rose pour Morrisson (A Rose for Morrisson). It presented a picture of the future in the same way that Aldous Huxley and George Orwell had done. Some critics saw this society as a highly colored version of the French state with its pronatalist policies. The dictatorial regime Rochefort pictured was particularly concerned to subordinate young women to an oppressive, male-dominated social order. However, unlike male authors such as Huxley and Orwell, Rochefort filled her novel with successful rebels against that regime. The novel ended with the onset of a rebellion like the actual eruption of French workers' and students' discontent in the spring of 1968.

Rochefort's writing took a different direction in her fifth novel, Printemps au parking

(Blossom on the Tarmac). The author now created a male hero, a 17-year-old student. He leaves home, wanders around Paris, and comes under the influence of a young Parisian intellectual who points him toward revolutionary activism. Alone among Rochefort's novels, Printemps au parking ends with two lovers happily linked together, although they are the male partners of a homosexual relationship.

Six years after Une Rose pour Morrisson, Rochefort's sixth novel Archaos presented a utopian alternative for society. Here a repressive kingdom resembling a state out of medieval Europe was transformed into a feminist utopia, a land of sexual freedom and human liberation. It was a world of supernatural abundance in which the hens produced dozens of eggs each day. Its society was so attractive that enemy spies and soldiers who manage to penetrate it were too charmed to return home. As Frances Bartkowski put it in her study of feminist utopian writing, Rochefort presented an "androgynous arcadia of polymorphous perversity" and placed it in "a nostalgic arcadian past."

Rochefort matched her literary criticism of man-oriented French society with an active political role. She was an early member of the French movement for women's liberation, Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF), despite the fact that most members belonged to a much younger generation. Rochefort participated in an important public event sponsored by the MLF. On August 26, 1970, she joined a group of women at France's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where they displayed a banner to remind the onlookers that half of France's population consisted of—presumably undervalued—women.

The following year Rochefort joined more than 300 other women, including Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve , in declaring that they had obtained abortions. Rochefort and her fellow campaigners intended to challenge the laws forbidding abortion and also to increase access to contraception for French women. In 1972, Rochefort joined the pro-choice group Choisir (Choice).

Rochefort's growing emphasis on the problems of feminism led her to a bitterly humorous contribution to the French language. She took the masculine noun écrivain, meaning writer, and adopted the feminine noun écrivisse, meaning "crayfish," as its feminine equivalent. This verbal invention, writes Holmes, "was characteristic of Christiane Rochefort's humour and linguistic optimism."

In addition to her novels, Rochefort used nonfiction to present her criticism of modern society. In Les Enfants d'abord (Children First), which appeared in 1976, she took up the issue of children's rights. With typically heated statements, Rochefort declared that children were an oppressed minority and parent-child relations hopelessly corrupt. The family, which she continued to see as one of the worst features of a patriarchal society, silenced children in the home. Meanwhile, the school system brainwashed them to fit society's purposes

Rochefort's concern for children and the harm they suffered in contact with their parents took a new turn in the late 1980s. She now entered the heated debate over the sexual abuse of children within the family. In La Porte du Fond, she spoke out on the question of responsibility for such repulsive actions: did that responsibility reside solely in the adult, or did the child share in the culpability?

The book was written from the standpoint of the victim, recalling from her present-day adult perspective childhood events 20 years in the past. The father's viewpoint was conspicuous by its absence. Instead, in the child's mind, the reader discovered how the father manipulated the girl and, for a period of seven years, forced her to accept his intrusions on her body. In the view of critic Margaret-Anne Hutton , Rochefort was directing much of her ire at the entire structure of a patrimonial society with a special jab at traditional Freudian theory. Sigmund Freud had come to assert that his patients' memories of childhood sexual assaults were nothing more than fantasies. He stated as well that female children developed incestuous wishes toward their fathers as a normal part of their sexual development.

Rochefort dedicated the book to Jeffrey Masson, author of The Assault on Truth. In that book, he had defended the sexual abuse memories of children as genuine. Masson and others condemned Freud for cowardice in refusing to face the possibility that many adult males were, in fact, sexual predators toward their own daughters. She also broadened her attack to include Christian beliefs, whose commandment seems to require a child to honor her father in all circumstances. And she struck as well at the patriarchal nuclear family, in which the father enjoys the powers of a military dictator. Writes Hutton, "In an age when the legal rights of children are coming under increasing scrutiny, Rochefort has produced a powerful and timely text." Despite the emotional nature of the material, Rochefort told the story in a sober and measured fashion that drew wide-ranging critical praise. Her success was marked most clearly when she received the prestigious Prix Mèdici in 1988 for the book.

Rochefort remained active as a writer and involved citizen to her death, appearing frequently on French television to offer her views on literature. She published a final brief novel, Conversations sans paroles (Conversations without Words), in 1997. That same year, she also presented her public with Adieu, Andromède, a collection of aphorisms, prose poems, and other miscellaneous writing. In a last surge of political activity, she took on the right-wing political party Front National and opposed its efforts to censor books. Rochefort died at the age of 80 on April 24, 1998, at her home in Le Pradet near the Mediterranean port of Toulon.

Diana Holmes has characterized Rochefort's vision as "a Romantic one, with overtones of Rousseauism." Rochefort saw the human condition as one "which in its natural state can achieve the most cosmic of harmonies, but which is deformed and shrunken by societies whose whole culture radiates from principles of power and of materialism." In the view of Lucille Frackman Becker, Rochefort "carries on the tradition of those who refuse to accept the world as it is … who seek to establish a free and equitable society."

sources:

Atack, Margaret, and Phil Powrie, eds. Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1990.

Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Becker, Lucille Frackman. Twentieth-Century French Women Novelists. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1989.

Bridgford, Jeff, ed. France, Image and Identity. Newcastle, Eng.: Newcastle Polytechnic, 1987.

Crosland, Margaret. Women of Iron and Velvet and the Books They Wrote in France. London: Constable, 1976.

Holmes, Diana. French Women's Writing, 1848–1994. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Athlone, 1996.

Hutton, Margaret-Anne. "Assuming Responsibility: Christiane Rochefort's Exploration of Child Sexual Abuse in La Porte du Fond," in The Modern Language Review. Vol. 90, no. 2. April 1995, pp. 333–344.

Kessler-Harris, Alice, and William McBrien. Faith of a (Woman) Writer. NY: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Sartori, Eva Martin, and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, eds. French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

suggested reading:

Green, Mary Jean, Lynn Higgins, and Marianne Hirsh. "Rochefort and Godard: Two or Three Things about Prostitution," in The French Review. Vol. 52. February 1979, pp. 440–448.

Jardine, Alice A., and Anne M. Menke, eds. Shifting Scenes: Interviews on Women, Writing, and Politics in Post-68 France. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Penrod, Lynn Kettler. "Consuming Women Consumed: Images of Consumer Society in Simone de Beauvoir's Les Belles Images and Christiane Rochefort's Les Stances à Sophie," in Simone de Beauvoir Studies. Vol. 4, 1987, pp. 1959–1975.

related media:

Love on a Pillow (French-Italian film, 102 min.), titled Le Repos du Guerrier in France, starring Brigitte Bardot and Robert Hossein, directed by Roger Vadim, 1963.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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