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Camille Laurens: Dans ces bras-là (UK: In Those Arms, US: In His Arms)

Laurens writes autofiction, i.e. fictional autobiography, so we must assume that the events describes in this book are based on fact. The reality is, like her creator, the heroine/narrator is called Camille, she is a writer and librarian, she is married and has a son who dies at birth. By her own admission, she is not too fond of women and prefers men, not just as lovers but as friends. Indeed, she has never had a close female friend. The book describes her relationships with the various men in her life. There is, of course, her father, with whom she is close, though he is not very affectionate. She seems far less close to her mother. There is her mother’s lover (her parents later separate). There is her grandfather. She pities her father as he has no mother, till one day the mother turns up. Apparently, she had had a lover soon after Camille’s father was born, and her husband had presented her with an ultimatum – the lover or the child. She had chosen the lover. But now she is visiting. There is also Camille’s great-uncle, a pedophile who touches her up at every opportunity. When she raises the matter with her grandmother, she is told to keep quiet and say nothing to anyone about it. Other men include her publisher, her (imaginary) brother, her reader, the casual affair, the forgotten man (a man with whom she had had a fling but forgotten, till she saw his name in the newspaper) and Jesus.

Above all, however, are her lovers. She starts early. Her first love is when she is very young. She never recalls, she says, a period when she was not interested in boys, like other girls. The first one – four years old – had lost a hand in a car accident but she steers him round the dance floor by the elbow. The second is Lionel. She is seven and he is eleven. There is Michel, her boyfriend at school, who dumps her but they sort of drift back together again. Meanwhile she is in love with her teacher and they meet before he, too, disappears. They bump into one another two years later and start an affair, with her paying for their holiday to Greece out of her savings. There is her husband, whom she marries soon after they meet, with only the two of them, with two witnesses at the registry office, both telling their parents later. Initially (after three days of acquaintance!), both hesitate. He is living with an older woman and she has a boyfriend – Amal, a Moroccan – who has gone off to New York and whom she was planning on joining. But they both break off their other relationships to marry. There is even a fantasy lover in which she imagines being treated badly. While married she has an affair, with a colleague at the school where both she and her husband work, a German teacher, despite the fact that she despises things German. But, above all, there is Abel Weil, her psychiatrist.

Nearly all the other chapters are given titles of the men who are the subject of the chapter – father, husband, lover, publisher, fantasy man, etc. However, those with Able Weil are all called alone with him, except for the very last, which has his name. She starts (and ends) the book with him, describing in detail her visit to him and the building where he works from though, till the end, we learn little about him. Many of the chapters with him are nothing to do with him but merely Camille describing to him, as her psychiatrist, her feelings about events and, in particular, the various men in her life. Occasionally, there will be something about him as a person though, till the end, rarely. She seems to be in love with him but it is not unusual for a patient to be in love with her doctor. However, it is in the chapters about him that she is able to expound on her feelings for men, her need for them but her concerns about them as well.

For Camille, men are all important but they are just as important to Camille the writer as to Camille the woman. That they are grist to her literary mill is all too apparent, though there is nothing wrong with that. There is no plot, except for the unfolding of her life, not always in chronological order, but, while her short chapters on the various men and her psychoanalytic sessions might not work for some, I found it fascinating to watch her build up a view of men which showed her dependence on men but without too much dependence on any one man, even her father. We are all, whether we like it or not, made up of the other people in our lives and if Laurens chooses to focus on the men in her life and leave her mother, her sister and her daughters aside, why not?

Publishing history

First published in French 2000 by P.O.L.
First published in English in 2003 by Bloomsbury
Translated by Ian Monk