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Pierrette Fleutiaux: French novelist who explored intimacy and the immigrant experience

Camille Mijola
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Pierrette Fleutiaux: French novelist who explored intimacy and the immigrant experience

Pierrette Fleutiaux was the French novelist whose explorations of intimate relationships wowed her country’s literary scene.

Despite lending generous slices of her life to her rich, nervous novels, her own story was largely that of a serene, book-absorbed child who would grow up to be a teacher and an award-winning writer.

The youngest of two siblings, she was born during the Second World War to two academics – she compared this to Obelix from the Asterix books falling into a vat of magic potion, modest though she was about the degree to which it empowered her.

“There was nothing – no TV, no video games, no radio,” she said in 2015. “But, because I lived in a school, there was a library. I wasn’t allowed to do much. Women were not allowed to do much, and little girls were allowed to do even less. But I could go to the library as many times as I wanted.”

Fleutiaux – whose novels include Nous Sommes Eternels (1990) and La Forteresse (1979) was born Pierrette Adenis in Guéret, a town with a population of less than 10,000 in the Creuse department in central France.

Fleutiaux was made an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters for significantly enriching French culture (YouTube/Mollat)

She spent the best parts of her childhood with her younger brother at her grandparents’ farm. She recalled warplanes thundering pass, glimpsing members of the French resistance in action and a moment of hospitality when her grandparents looked after two injured German soldiers (one was kind, the other one terrifying, she later said).

The unusual place she called home – the all-boys school where her parents taught – was not just where she encountered literature. Here, aged 14, she met the 15-year-old boy who would become her husband.

She trained to be an English teacher and, at 27, moved to New York with her husband and son. Fleutiaux fared well there; aside from teaching English at a French high school, she got work as a model, an editorial assistant and a translator for the UN; but most importantly, she also began writing in English, then in French.

Her first novel Histoire de la chauve-souris (The Story of a Bat), was published by Julliard in 1975, when she left New York for Paris. It explored the relationship between a woman and the bat living in her hair – amazingly, this debut was prefaced by one of the most important Latin American authors of all time, Argentinian novelist Julio Cortazar.

From then on, she continued teaching in high schools and writing successfully. In 1985, her book The Queen’s Metamorphoses – a feminist rewrite of fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood – won the Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle short story award.

Five years later in 1990, she won the Femina award, voted by an all-female jury, for her most acclaimed – passionate and almost taboo – book, We Are Eternal.

Fleutiaux continued to teach and write for most of her life. She joined French authors’ body SGDL (Societe des Gens de Lettres) in the Nineties and became its director of cultural affairs in 2008. Between 2014 and 2017 she was SGDL’s vice president.

Her last book Destiny, a semi-autobiographical novel published in 2016, was born out of a real-life encounter with an immigrant woman on the Paris Metro. The novel explores the relationship that is established between a plain, bourgeois Parisian woman in her 50s – not without a refreshing dose of self-deprecation – and a Nigerian immigrant woman who’s expecting a child. She considered this book, and literature in general, were a way to fight against the mounting fear of migration, which she regretted profoundly.

“What France is doing, or not doing, I find it appalling,” she said. “It makes me sad that the country I live in, the people I live with, behave like this. Europe was always a place of mobility. What we see in the Calais Jungle, it’s to roll on the floor with sadness.”

“It’s not about integration, just giving people what they need to survive. Giving them food, school, they’re capable. I find we don’t trust them. We just have to have to push ourselves a little. It’s not going to ruin us.”

She was also an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, the state award conferred to individuals who have significantly contributed to the enrichment of the French culture.

Pierrette Fleutiaux, novelist, born 9 October 1941, died 27 February 2019