Reading Mademoiselle Gantrel

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Mademoiselle Gantrel appears in my mind from time to time, snow-capped and distant, like the Alps. Arriving at our house at Smith College for evening cocktails, she stamps snow from her high leather boots, shakes the fat flakes from her beret and steps up into the house, turning right toward the lights and laughter, to the long living room where Katie, another freshman, and I are waiting for her with glasses of sherry and clove cigarettes. Mlle finds us, smiles her half-smile, and plucks a filterless Gaulois from her pack.

“The sensual detail in Colette’s prose is remarkable,” she says in French, pinching a shred of blonde tobacco from her tongue.

We listen, Katie trying to exhale O’s, me trying to keep from coughing (I have not yet started smoking in earnest).

“She was a great observer, one of the very best. You can learn everything you need about life by reading Colette.” Le desir, les choix de femmes. Desire, the choices of women. We were hot on those topics that first year at Smith, and we thought Mlle Gantrel had the answers.

*

Mlle taught a class on the 19th century novel, and that spring we read Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, and the first installment of Proust’s memory-soaked masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past. Mlle handled the fat tomes in class carefully, reading aloud, her Parisian accent gliding over the r’s and h’s smoothly, like her miniskirts over her long sweaters. She talked of Balzac as if discovering a secret, of Flaubert as if he were an illicit lover. I sat in the front row, desperate to be seen but too afraid to raise my hand. I had never heard of anyone speaking of books as a private but shareable delight.

Katie was the only other French major in the house, and was the first person I’d met with a hyphenated last name. Katie was from Worcester but told everyone her home was Falmouth, her parent’s summer residence on the Cape. She wore bandannas and flannel shirts and ate Cheerios for dinner, into which she dropped several ice cubes. She wore braces that interfered with her French vowels, which already sounded too open in her eastern Massachusetts accent.

While Katie chose French Studies, I chose French Literature, which seemed purer, like Mlle Gantrel herself: single in the conventional sense, but in the profound sense, deeply attached—to the study of literature and to initiating her students to its pleasures and secrets. We had other professors: bespectacled Madame Rochat, who taught advanced seminars in literary criticism; Mlle Vanpee, a plump medievalist who often lost her temper with us. And Madame Weed, an American, who, when you didn’t do your homework, said, “Tough darts.” But it was Mlle Gantrel Katie and I gossiped about in the evenings, puzzling over her lectures. It was Mlle Gantrel whom we dubbed the Goddess of French Literature.

I sat up late at night with several dictionaries, plodding through the French version of whatever we were reading, books with stiff white pages and too many lines of text and an inflexible spine I feared cracking. Then I read the chapter in an English paperback bought at a used bookstore in town, trying to isolate equivalencies and translations, but always in vain. In class, there was no time for translation, only Mlle Gantrel, who we were sure spent most of her time reading. The bags under her eyes attested to this: deep purple pockets that for the first time seemed appealing giving her a look of sleepy surprise, of being burdened with the weight of literature and the task of enlightening us to look—look!—at what Monsieur Balzac had to say.

At Thursday evening cocktails, we stood with her in the long sea of a living room dotted with islands of wingback chairs and ottomans and lamps, where girls did Sunday crossword puzzles or sipped Friday afternoon tea. Students gathered around professors in corduroy blazers or tweed skirts, people who seemed burdened by footnotes and bibliographies. Mlle Gantrel was light, moveable, and as full of possibility as the stories we read in class that refracted multiple meanings but stood alone and took no secondary sources to understand.

When Mlle plucked tobacco from her tongue with her thumb and ring finger, we noticed it was bare. “You must go to France,” she said. “You cannot believe the springtime, the Seine, and the Latin Quarter. You must visit the famous writers, the studio of Hugo, see the papers of Flaubert…it is astonishing….”

We squinted into the smoky room and saw ourselves on junior year abroad, frolicking on the Left Bank with artists in berets like hers.

*

I was from a small town in western Massachusetts but told people I was from the Berkshires. My parents had dropped me off at Smith that fall and driven away, leaving me with an aloneness and terror that was total. We had driven to campus over old Route 9 in their Citation, whose hatch was crammed with boxes. I sat on the hump between them, clutching my pillow. After unloading into my single room in the “maid’s quarters” and meeting Annie, a girl from China in the room next to mine who, because we didn’t have roommates, would be my “burning buddy” for fire drills, my parents and I sat on the back stoop of my dorm, Martha Wilson House.

“Well, baby, just take it easy. Scope it out first,” my dad said, his eyes shifting over the ivy-covered walls.

My mother seemed in a hurry to get back into the car. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” she said. “You’re always fine. Call us.”

No clear connection remained of my parents after they left, no talk threading our minds, no commonality weaving our experience. Our inner lives were hidden to each other; we were like strangers, so that after they drove off in the Citation, I had the disorienting feeling that I’d come from nowhere, had been sprung whole, just as I was, into the living room at Smith College.

FullSizeRender_2I joined a clique of girls who talked about viable political systems, alternatives to marriage. During late night talks, we played cards and smoked pot, which I’d done once or twice before, and squinted into the softly-lit room, listening to Jim Morrison intone on the stereo about the end.

I began to make my way through the feminists—Greer, Millet, Friedan, and Steinem, who was photographed getting out of limos in white go-go boots on the arm of a handsome man and also seen in her tinted aviators speaking to a rally of women about abortion.

I studied Marx and Nietzsche but loved Sartre and the Existentialists, for whom la vie and la vide—life and emptiness—were just a consonant away. They described the “nausea” of existence, which I took to mean the queasiness I carried with me all the time that first year.

Katie, who transformed into Katherine with Mlle Gantrel, and I—merely Janette—assessed Mlle after every class. We could recall the brand of her cigarettes, the length of her fingernails, the shape of the mole above the right corner of her mouth. There were her brains and her beauty, and her first name, Martine, which spoke of the new possibility of making a man’s name into a woman’s, a man’s world into our own.

But it was her aloofness that drove us wild—her own interest in the books, the language, and the hard work of literature, her not caring if we were coming along for the ride or not. We watched her engage with the text, her passion for it surfacing in a kind of icy purpose. Cool, I realized for the first time, was this aloofness cresting over the hot lava of passion. We speculated as to whether she had many lovers or none at all. Part of us wanted to believe she was saving herself for something else, Literature perhaps, or the Academy, anything that made her virtuous and strong and wise.

*

Mlle Gantrel moved easily around the living room at Smith, a room I had found thrilling and intimidating, edging up to the grand piano in our living room only after a semester to run my fingers along its soft ivory keys. The piano, the books, the wingback chairs and conversations in them, the belief in rational debate, hours spent reading and thinking, were foreign where I came from. These were endeavors I had picked up from an aunt and that lived mostly in my mind. I was a great fan of Agatha Christie, less for her mysteries than her reliable characters—tall handsome men, beautiful smart women, and glamorous actresses with whom I felt a commingled destiny.

My French teachers growing up were Madame Beauchamp, a Canadian with fat dimpled arms and blue-powdered eyelids, who quizzed us weekly on vocabulary; Mr. Sylvester, who taught the Big Mac song in French: le biftek hache, sauce special, lettuce, fromage, cornichon, onion, sur un petit pain sesame; and Mrs. Krause, a Portuguese beauty, her pretty face caked with foundation, eyes liquid lined, as she combed the aisles in her pumps, a cardigan slung over her shoulder, teaching us how to use the telephone. Ne coupez pas!

When I got accepted to Smith, my aunt, who had always sponsored my forays into art, frowned and said, “All the lectures will be in French, you know. This is not like up at Taconic High. The books, the reading, everything.” I remember sitting in my first class that fall reading Les Grands Meaulnes and understanding it and wondering, was there something my aunt didn’t know about me?

I had decided to major in French because it gave me a form, a container to pour myself into, a vantage point to observe a world that was not yet mine. It was also the only thing I knew. I crept into it hesitantly, reading aloud in my room Proust’s long breathless sentences. I couldn’t understand them well but they sounded profound. I wanted to improve my accent and my ability to be taken for deep, just in case I wasn’t.

FullSizeRender_3In truth, without my parents’ rules, I was lost. I was all appetite, no articulation. I didn’t know what I wanted. Or, rather, what I wanted was this: to be free of their control, but more than that, freed of my urge to go deeper into it. The conflict throbbed inside me like a fever. I was plagued by dreams of vertigo: dangling on the ledge of my hometown savings bank, awaking with a thud, heart pounding into the mattress. These dreams haunted me for years as I tried to find fixity.

I followed my new group, taking notes of the songs they liked, which seemed to come from a radio station that didn’t reach my hometown. The Jesus and Mary Chain. Gene Loves Jezebel. Echo and the Bunnymen.

Getting along with them meant taking on their music, their slang. I bought resale clothing, most of it black, got good at gin rummy, and at sprinkling leaves of pot into dollar bills and rolling them into perfect spleefs. During a fire drill, I awoke to Annie pounding at my door, which I hadn’t heard because I had been passed out after vomiting into the plastic pink tulip-shaped garbage pail after too much rum. On Parents’ Weekend, I got caught in the stairwell between two sets of parents carrying a three-foot bong between floors.

But in French, with the shushing sounds on my palate, the lilting waves on my tongue, I felt weighty and grave. In French, I was a woman in control of her desires. I was a woman with desires. I paused more, clasped my hands, and sliced the air into categories. I frowned when I spoke. I used more saliva, revving the r’s under my uvula. I shrugged a lot.

In French I approached, with Mlle Gantrel, new punctuation—apostrophes, cedillas, and hyphens—and long sentences that turned this way and that, discovering that there were many ways a mouth could turn, lips could move, a tongue could roll. I began to write in my journal in French, copying out phrases from Cocteau (“I am a lie who tells the truth.”) and Baudelaire (“Intoxicate thyself!”). I never spoke French out of class, rarely joined the campus French table at lunch, did not move to Dawes House, the French-speaking dormitory. French was the books, the literature, the untouched, untapped part of me.

We never saw Mlle Gantrel on campus lazing with students in the quad. She was in class, discoursing on literature and life, or she was gone, presumably to one of the professor houses on Green Street where I wondered if she missed France, got Le Monde delivered at home, called a lover in Paris. This was a temporary place for her, this small private American women’s college. It was perhaps part of a university exchange, but she seemed dropped in from nowhere, alien and astounding.

FullSizeRender_4Her outfits were unique—high-heeled boots, a green leather skirt, a sweater of shedding angora that would have looked pitiful on a classmate but on her looked interesting. It was out of the norm, as were her looks, sharp and angled, the bones of her jaw tapering into a sweetheart chin, that exasperated hair. She rarely smiled like the American professors did.

On weekends there were parties and studying at Neilson Library, often in the lounge, where we would smoke and eat candy from the vending machines until midnight. When we flocked into town looking for something to do, I wondered if I’d spy Mlle at Bonducci’s, the first café I’d ever been to, and whose tiny round tables seemed crammed with too many chairs until I learned the tables were only for coffee cups and the chairs for lots of people, for the café was about conversation.

Katie and I continued to puzzle over Mlle’s lectures, over the shape of the mole above her lip, the way she crumpled her lips around a cigarette, how she tucked wool sweaters into her miniskirts without a bulge. Everything was thoughtful, profound, up for discussion. Mlle Gantrel’s words were full of punchy conjunctions—afin que—and clarifying rephrasings—c’est a dire—going around again into the words for more meaning, with something pointy about her voice telling me, Look, look!

*

The French classes were held in Hatfield Hall, an old house with creaky floors and noisy radiators. It was overheated and dry. When Mlle Gantrel arrive to class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the first thing she did was throw open the windows. “Bonjour classe.”

“Bonjour Mademoiselle!” we chorused, eager to please.

Then she’d start unpacking her briefcase, offering a word or two about campus events or the weather at her native pace, absorbing us into her thoughts. We leaned into her fluency, watching her long arms digging into her bag, silk sleeves fluttering, as she unearthed her books and long yellow legal pads while the cool February air rushed over our cheeks. There was something girlish and fully formed woman about her, or maybe it just seemed that way from where I was sitting, on the cusp of my own tumultuous turning.

I forced myself to talk soon, knowing if I didn’t I would fall into numb silence, some inner shutter closing and hard to reopen. I’d ask about the date of publication, or how the books were received, obvious questions but I wanted to look attentive. I expected a cursory answer, but she would often say, Ca, c est une tres bonne question, and spin it into some serious matter. I felt unfaithful with my English versions, but I wanted more than ever to get to the heart of Balzac or Flaubert. I wanted to know what they had to say about life, why they were masters, and why Mlle Gantrel got that dreamy look when she spoke of them.

The novels told stories of injustice. These writers were acute observers of people as social organisms. The force of society, of the group and its roles and responsibilities as it clashed with the individual were their themes. This was also the topic of late night conversations in the dorm. We attacked Reaganomics, censorship, the privileged girls around us. We talked about socialized medicine, communal day care, and our newfound freedom—what would we do with it? What kind of society would we build? Society was a mess, we concluded, and turned to the next Doors album or joint. Smoking dope was liberating, as was Jim Morrison and The Grateful Dead. Disgusted with our own generation, we idolized the past, looking for permission for passion, for excesses of all kinds—men, martinis, marijuana. “Enivrez-vous,” I chimed in, adding my new mantra from Baudelaire. “It doesn’t matter whether through wine, poetry, or virtue. To not be martyred slaves of time, party!”

But with Mlle Gantrel, combing through the books, the French version and later the English, I was learning another kind of bliss, one that came through intense focus, a burrowing of vision, a scarcity model reminiscent of Mlle’s thin beauty. At the heart of our studies was the explication de texte, showing that the way to examine a book was to look at it closely and very carefully. You needed nothing else but your eyes, your brain and your heart. Mlle Gantrel would read and re-read a passage aloud—always important was this new awareness and reverence for words, their sound and shape as well as function—then back up over a word several times and start to muse about its significance, its placement, and its multiple possible meanings, sitting right there on the top of page 159. I was exhilarated, my brain squeezing to take it in. Had I really understood? Really, you could do this?

FullSizeRenderI had often overlooked my own insights, never realizing they were valid, that I could be part of the story, that as a reader, like it or not, I was implicated. I thought there was one theme, one interpretation, something out of my grasp that I had to wait to be told. Now, with Mlle Gantrel, there was a splintering open of new ways to think about literature, books, to listen to myself, to be alert to my own feelings. Mlle Gantrel, long and lean, was teaching me how to read.

Growing up, I read to escape, to get lost, to transpose myself in some way into the book to become a part of it. I couldn’t answer questions about the book; the point was the book, entering into it, being it while reading it. There were few books in the house and they were never discussed. By my mother’s bed was a stack of medical thrillers with names like Coma and Brain that I secretly read, making sure to keep her place. I sat often with my father’s barbering manual, a heavy leather-bound book, fingering the silk pages and wondering what went on inside him when he saw the diagrams of shavers and scissors. I couldn’t get enough; I always wanted to be reading.

My mother worried about my overdoing it. I wore thick glasses already. “Your eyes!” she said. My father would turn on extra lamps. My mother insisted that I set the table, get washed up for dinner, do something. Now, there was Mlle Gantrel in her high boots leaning lazily against the desk asking us to look at the word, the choice the author made. It was a sign of pleasure and respect to linger over and ponder such things. She was taming my imagination, wrapping it around something real in the world, and I discovered I was good at it. I could pause, consider, distance myself and gradually make my own theories. Mlle showed me how to look at the most obvious things, the words on the page. Imagination was not flight of fancy, but started with what was in front of you.

*

The piece de resistance that spring was Madame Bovary, another fat white paperback whose spine was unwilling to give up its pages easily. On the back was Flaubert’s famous quote, “Madame Bovary, c ‘est moi.” I am Madame Bovary. I didn’t get what he meant at all by such a ridiculous assertion. Flaubert had been a wild romantic turned realist. While the other novels included a broader cast of characters, Flaubert devoted all his words here to describe the foolish hopeless passions of one woman, Emma Bovary.

I didn’t know yet that the book was a triumph in point of view, the narrator inserting the author’s views and opinions throughout. The story was not just about Emma’s doom but that of the greedy middle class from within which she came. The narrator hovered over people and events, infusing them with commentary. Nothing was objective.

Emma! I felt a cold wind over my shoulder when I read her. I abandoned completely the fat white version and was glued to the soft yielding pages of the used paperback. The subtitle of the book, “Patterns of Provincial Life,” rang out like a warning siren. Emma Bovary was trapped in self-thwarting small-mindedness, in yearning she could never escape, not unlike my mother, a woman whose passion, it seemed, had been squandered on Renuzit sprays and Saran wrap, wall-to-wall carpets and minivans. The stupidity of provincial life resonated, as did the middle class concern with money over substance, a glutted empty satiety.

Emma Bovary’s greatest sin was not her adulterous love affairs but her delusion. And this part struck with startling clarity. Trapped in yearning, Emma was a victim of romance novels, spinning fantasies she preferred to life, pining for a past that was both futile and ever-attractive. Emma embodied the itchiness of the bourgeoisie, its dissatisfaction with itself, its constant need to keep up with the Joneses. Bovary lived a life of pure imagination; she was imagination run amuck, of daydreams untethered to anything practical. Her reckless pursuit of her passion was her doom.

I could see, too, that I was heading in the same direction. I was split: part of me felt nunnish in my studies, carrying my fat white books like a Bible to my chest, sole and calm and apart. The other part of me careened into a riot of men, a haze of pot smoke, deafening dance tunes every weekend. Madame Bovary was about passion, something I had long felt an abundance of, in addition to a pent-up revving energy that I rarely knew what to do with.

Around this time that I went to see Mlle Gantrel in her office. I rarely spoke to her alone, never waiting for her after class or pursuing her at office hours. When Katie and I invited her to Thursday cocktails I murmured and nodded while Katie struck up loud, open-voweled conversations.

I found her in her office in Hatfield Hall, tucked in at her desk in a silk blouse, with her books and colleagues around her. I felt like I was seeing into my future: books, academics, I knew it was destined for me though I was beginning to doubt it would be in French. The lectures were escalating and I could hardly keep up with the discussions. And my desire had changed. More than speaking French fluently, I wanted more of this thinking, this turning of books in the hand like prisms, looking at them from all angles for the colors of light shot through. And something in Bovary was reaching me, some dire message about fessing up and being true to myself, otherwise, disaster loomed.

“Bonjour,” she said, sliding out and getting me a chair. I watched her go, slim and tidy and accomplished. I began to outline my thoughts. She followed along, nodding, but we hit a snag. She tried to explain, I couldn’t understand. Something about her proximity made me quieter than usual. I was wearing a costume of French to access a depth and sophistication I didn’t have.

Mlle went on, saw what must have been the numb look in my eyes, and when I asked her to repeat, she reverted, before I could stop her, into English. The words sounded chiseled and unfinished, and she fell at that moment from a great height in my mind—from where I needed her in French to bring me to an untouched and untapped part of myself—and now appeared homeless and fractured, her thinness now a brokenness.

*

I don’t remember my grade in the course. I am guessing it was a B: unremarkable, mediocre, invisible, as I was to her surely. If I walked into Hatfield Hall today, would she remember the confused inarticulate girl in the front row, all desire, no words?

FullSizeRender_1Recently, I returned to my yearbook to find Martine Gantrel. I opened The Madeleine, a black leather book whose end pages are inscribed with Proust, dunking his spongy shell-shaped cookie into his tea: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.” There she was, smiling that half smile, looking softer than I remembered, the jaw less angled, the hair not frizzy but smooth. The Goddess of French Literature was fair and unadorned. “It is plain,” Proust said, “that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself … ” The woman who taught me that a life of the imagination started with what was right in front of me. All I had to do was look. Look!

***

Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.


Janet Pocorobba is an associate professor of writing at Lesley University and associate director of their low-residency MFA in creative writing. A former writer and contributing editor at Metropolis magazine in Tokyo, her articles, essays and reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Harvard Review, The Writer, Kyoto Journal, Indiana Review, Provincetown Arts, American Athenaeum, and elsewhere. She lives in a cabin in Vermont, where she keeps a blog of rural life at www.onsodompond.wordpress.com and is writing a book about women, her local co-op, and community. More from this author →