Carol Bruneau has done a couple of pretty exceptional things in the of writing These Good Hands, not the least of which is introducing us to Camille Claudel, a sculptor living and working in Paris during the Belle Époque of the late 19th and early 20th century. Considered a near genius, possibly superior in talent to her mentor and lover, Auguste Rodin, yet in many camps her name remains connected more to the word ‘mistress’ than to ‘artist’ in her own right.
On this side of the ocean anyway.
Bruneau has been researching Claudel for years, travelling to France several times, visiting places the artist lived and the asylum to which she was committed by her family and where, after thirty years, she died. While in the asylum Claudel wrote to a number of people, but most of them never received her letters because of her sequestration. In Bruneau’s imagined version the letters are written to an unknown recipient, the identity of whom is gradually revealed as her younger self. It’s through these letters that we are privy to Claudel’s life in Paris at the turn of the century, the relationship with Rodin, the passion for her art. Bruneau alternates the letters with journal entries made by the nurse who cares for Claudel and who ultimately comes to understand the (by now) elderly woman in a way that changes her own life.
Bruneau’s obsession with the artist is contagious and it’s impossible, I think, to read this book and not want to see examples of Claudel’s work. Happily, the author suggested a couple of excellent links to appease my need to *see*… the Musée Rodin …and this one, especially wonderful because it focuses entirely on Claudel.
I’m so very grateful to Carol Bruneau for bringing Camille Claudel to North America. And for this opportunity to chat a little about the book… and a few other things too.
1. What literary character did you want to be as a child?
CB—Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne, that’s who—I envied her spunk, her dreaminess, her over-the-top poetic sensibility, all quaintly subversive qualities, and I identified intensely with her love of place. This aspect of Anne was most inspiring, and was imitated/usurped/transferred into my earliest attempts at writing stories.
2. Can you recall one of your earliest pieces? Poem in crayon, a narrated finger-painting?
CB—I vividly remember the magic, at age seven, of stringing words together, first in phrases, then in sentences, and the mind-blowing epiphany: THIS is how you can make a poem or, even more exciting for me then, a story! One of my first pieces was a poem about a hummingbird in rudimentary printing with a crayon drawing of a mutant orange thing with wings. What I remember much more vividly is the ‘novel’ I wrote in Grade Five—a blatant Anne of Green Gables rip-off, only my character was ‘Camilla of the Dingle Woods,’ named for the large park in the neighbourhood where I grew up. I wrote it with a cartridge pen in Schaeffer’s peacock blue ink on loose-leaf meticulously kept in a black binder. I worked on it every day one entire summer. Then it disappeared. I don’t know if someone inadvertently threw it out, or if, suddenly “growing up” in Grade Six, I decided it was embarrassing, and tossed it.
3. What were you reading at fifteen? And can you recall something you got out of a book at about that time, or a special memory of where you read it… at the beach, under the covers, in the back seat on the way to Cape Breton, in class…
CB—Fifteen? Much of that year I was too busy being a teenager to read much outside of school. (Part of the problem was the Grade ten curriculum, which required us to read Lord of the Flies, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea—all of which I hated.) But then we read Thomas Raddall’s Hangman’s Beach, and my imagination was captured—sort of a reprise of my Anne of Green Gables-esque fixation on setting—because much of its story took place a five-minute walk from my house. So I vividly recall walking along the shore of Deadman’s Island on Halifax’s Northwest Arm with one of my best friends, while picturing Raddall’s male protagonist doing the same. Deadman’s is the site of hundreds of unmarked graves of soldiers captured during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. It’s spooky and atmospheric enough without a swashbuckling drama playing in your head. Walking there with my friend that day—it was April, Nova Scotia’s cruellest month, grey, cold, bits of rotten ice on the rocks, and a garbage bag that may or may not have contained dead kittens—I felt myself seeing the place through Raddall’s character’s eyes. This was another epiphany for me, the realization that stories people read—and enjoyed—could be set so locally.
4. These Good Hands is written in alternating letters by Claudel to… we aren’t sure whom (a younger self?)… and diary entries by a nurse at the asylum where she spent the last 30 years of her life. How did you come to choose this (very effective) structure? Was it obvious from the start that it would work this way, or did it evolve?
CB—Great question. The structure definitely took time to evolve. As I worked through numerous drafts I continued to fret over whom exactly Claudel (or Mademoiselle as she’s called in the book) was addressing. For a while I imagined her cornering Nurse as a kind of ‘confessor’ but this quickly became onerous—for Nurse and for me. Subconsciously I was thinking of Mademoiselle’s listener as a muted version of herself, but it wasn’t until my editor/publisher, Marc Côté, pointed out its possibility—the idea of Camille addressing her younger, relatively unscathed self—that I was able to direct and refine her narrative in this way. The technique of using Nurse’s journal entries, on the other hand, came a lot sooner, as the logical extension of her situation and her personality.
5. Given the years of research, were you ever tempted to write a non-fiction account of Claudel? And what has the novel allowed you to explore that the non-fiction would not have?
CB—Writing non-fiction gives me the willies! Although I have made every effort to be as true as possible to the facts of Claudel’s biography, from the beginning my interest was in exploring her character and predicament in ways that only fiction allows or enables. It sounds arrogant, but I wanted to try and give her a voice, to get inside the character of someone so feisty yet so vulnerable and—in just about every worldly way—defeated. I was interested in writing about her art, but never in a documentary or critical manner. Because her work is heavily autobiographical, I saw it as a wonderful pathway into her psyche as I imagined it, and into her creative process. When I began this project in 2005 there was very little fiction about her published in English, although at least one non-fiction writer had published a biography in English. Ultimately, giving Claudel’s story a fictional treatment allowed me the poetic license to get beyond its tragedy. I never entertained the idea of doing a non-fiction account.
6. Please tell me you have a background in art, or at least took classes to research the experience such as you’ve captured on p.33 and elsewhere throughout the book… because it’s all so vivid…“…pinching and pummeling a lump of clay, spitting on it as he worked to keep it moist.”
CB—Ha! Any background I have in visual art is strictly the product of research, observation and experience teaching writing at a visual arts school—in other words, flying by the arse of my pants. I have taken beginner’s classes in life drawing, weaving and pottery, but have little to no talent in these areas. But my sister is an artist, and my job at NSCAD surrounds me with artists, and though as a word-nerd I feel on the outside of art looking in, perhaps this has been a useful perspective for absorbing then using the details necessary to ‘sculpt’ Claudel’s story. I’ve been extremely lucky, getting to see artists at work and visiting the odd studio space not all that different from those Claudel would’ve been accustomed to—and I’m continually discovering and delighting in how the creative process itself crosses boundaries of form and media.
7. To what degree would you say Claudel’s relationship with Rodin was motivated by her passion for her own art?
CB—I would say hugely, enormously—quite possibly completely. More romantic individuals might disagree.
8. Why do think it is that Claudel’s story has been missed in North America? And how is she perceived in France? And why was it important to you to tell her story?
CB—It remains baffling to me how and why Claudel’s story has been so slow in crossing the pond. She is legendary in France, legendary not only for her tragedy—her mental illness and her sad affair with Rodin—but for her art. Perhaps in French Canada people are more aware of her? I don’t know. The first time I went to France I was—naively—shocked to see her picture posted everywhere, to the point of it appearing on buttons and fridge magnets. When I first heard of Claudel and began reading about her life, my initial impression was that she had been committed and confined to Montdevergues asylum quite unjustly. What I discovered over the course of three research trips to France—and getting a clearer sense of how she is perceived there—is that she was in fact seriously ill and, given the stigmas and mores of the times, her family had little choice but to put her away. More is the tragedy when you see her sculptures first-hand. Her work is brilliant, and I have no doubt that had she been able to continue her practice she would have outstripped Rodin not just in achievement but reputation. It’s galling to me how until recently her work has been under the radar, so profoundly overshadowed by his. Though I was initially drawn to her biography because of its tragedy, seeing and experiencing her artwork soon became the motivation to try and create a more expansive, ‘truer’ version of her story: to show her primarily as a brilliant artist who happened to be Rodin’s student, mistress and model—a fiercely talented, feisty woman who devoted everything to her work.
9. Camille Claudel is seated next to you at a dinner party. What single thing do you ask her?
CB—Depending on the party and how early in the evening, it would be why she didn’t ditch Rodin for Debussy. But, no, seriously: There is no suggestion or evidence anywhere that Claudel ever harmed herself or another person. So, depending on how much wine we’d consumed, I’d ask why she didn’t take her own life, or attempt to, as an alternative to those thirty long years in the asylum. I would like to know what enabled her to choose an outwardly hopeless life over death.
10. It’s a visual book that lends itself to walking tours! I can see people wanting to retrace Claudel’s steps, your steps… (I found myself googling all sorts of things, places… and I loved following your photo threads on FB). If you were asked to recommend only three things to see, to someone travelling to France for the Claudel Tour… what would they be?
CB—I love this question. The first stop has to be 19 Quai de Bourbon on Ile St-Louis in Paris, to stand outside Claudel’s former flat, her final home before she was committed in 1913— to go there at dusk and watch the lights on the Seine and know that this was her view. The second stop is Musée Rodin, to see a couple of her pieces exhibited alongside his. (Or, if you prefer to skirt Rodin, visit Musée d’Orsay to see her mistress-piece, Maturity or L’Age Mur.) The third stop, and most vital, is Musée Ste-Croix in Poitiers, home of the world’s only permanent collection of Claudel’s work—where it’s displayed in its glory with no mention whatsoever of her famous partner’s.
Chardonnay or Pinot Noir? Pinot Noir—unless it’s a hot summer day after a trip to the beach, and then chardonnay is good.
Morning or Evening? Morning, before the world wakes up and gets noisy.
Brie or Mille Fueille? Brie, brie and more brie—my favourite treat in the world is cheese.
Mountain or Prairie? (no, you can’t say ‘ocean’) Mountain. (Flat places make me claustrophobic, unless they’re beaches.)
Urban or Rural? This is a tough one. I love visiting large foreign cities and I love walking in wilderness, as in rugged, out-of-the-way places near salt water. (Sorry, but lakes just don’t do it for me.) As for day-to-day living, I must confess I’m a bit of a suburbanite, in the sense that I like living close to amenities but need lots of green space and close proximity to woods and seashore for daily dog walks.
Poetry or Song? I prefer Song, as I’m surrounded by a musical family—but that said, I love lyricism whether words are set to music or not, and a song’s quirky lyrics will hook me as fast as a catchy tune, if not faster.
Dylan (Bob) or Dylan (Thomas)? Bob—as in my response to your previous question.
Keyboard or Notebook? A notebook (and pencil rather than pen) is my go-to device for portability and no-fail simplicity. I love the directness of hand-to-paper transcription of ideas.
First or Last Lines? I struggle with writing both, but find the last lines of novels come more readily than the first lines. It takes a ton of tinkering and tweaking to get them right, either way.
Mittens or Gloves? Mitts, with gloves inside them if winter is as bad as last year’s.
Baguette or Croissant? Baguette, unless the croissant is an almond one (I’m thinking specifically of the almond croissants at Patisserie Patrice et Christof in Chartres, France, which are irresistible).
Because I believe food and books go together, I like to offer a tailor made menu for all @eleven books…
For These Good Hands, may I suggest:
Pommes a l’Huile
Bread and Cheese
au moins une bouteille de vin rouge
Carol Bruneau is a novelist, essayist and reviewer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her most recent book, These Good Hands (Cormorant Books, 2015), is based on the life of French sculptor Camille Claudel. She teaches writing at NSCAD University.
She can be found at www.carolbruneau.com