Our column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
The French writer Inès Cagnati was not unknown during her lifetime, but she was deeply unwilling to play the public role that helps a writer secure a place in the canon, or to spread her fame beyond national borders. Her three novels, written over the course of the seventies, each won or was nominated for France’s most prestigious literary prizes, but the recent New York Review Books edition of Free Day (Le jour de congé, her 1973 debut), is the first English translation. The irony of her embrace by the French literary establishment lies in Cagnati’s deep sense of alienation from the country in which she was born and raised. The daughter of Italian immigrant farmworkers, Cagnati grew up poor and isolated in the small town of Monclar, in southwestern France. She spoke no French until she went to school, and although she eventually became a teacher and a novelist in the language, she described her naturalization as a French citizen as a “tragedy.” The weight of multiple forms of estrangement—of language, culture, class, and gender—settled heavily on her as a child and shaped her as a novelist.
The popular vision of rural southern France as a place of sun-dappled ease and beauty is not the southern France that appears in Cagnati’s books; hers is a place where tough, alienated people scratch out a thankless existence. Cagnati’s parents were part of a wave of immigration from Italy to southwestern France between the wars, agricultural workers who were lured by the promise of lush and abundant farmland to fill the gap left by the twin depopulating forces of World War I and mass migration to cities. Faced with a “marshy, rocky,” unforgiving reality, they nonetheless dug in and helped revive the rural economy. By the time Cagnati was born in 1937, more than eighty thousand Italians were living in the region around Monclar, and running more than half of the farms. Yet because the stories of poor rural people, often unable to read and write, are easily overlooked, it’s a period and place that could have been forgotten. Cagnati’s novels are of primary importance in shaping the memory and bearing witness to this history. They help complicate the widely held French faith that the country’s rural areas hold some kind of true and unsullied national identity.
Free Day is a story stuck in a young girl’s head. Like her creator, fourteen-year-old Galla is one of five daughters of an insular immigrant farming family, who has managed to persuade her parents to let her attend high school, twenty miles away. She rides back home for a visit every two weeks on her decrepit, beloved bicycle. The trip narrated in Free Day follows the structure of her regular journey home, but is unscheduled, for reasons that are only slowly revealed and thus shadowed by a sense of doom. The narrative is constantly interrupted by forays into Galla’s past, memories that lurch between the extremes of affection for her mother and younger sisters and sudden eruptions of brutality at the hands of her father. In Liesl Schillinger’s translation, Galla’s narrative voice alternates between the boldness of an instinctive rebel and the fearfulness of an abused and haunted child—often in the same breath. Her emotional vocabulary is dominated by extremes: like and dislike, love and hate, wonderful and terrible. When she can, she sings to express what she can’t articulate, though this is often misunderstood: at her little sister’s funeral, she sits on the wall and sings to comfort her sister in the cemetery, then finds herself scolded for her heartlessness. As Schillinger puts it:
Translating Galla’s idiom was extremely challenging; she was writing in French; but her first language—like Cagnati’s—was Italian. That guided and narrowed the breadth of her expression, which, I think, focused and concentrated the authenticity of her voice. Her narration, the inner thoughts she revealed, seemed to me more devoid of pretense than any I’d encountered before.
From the beginning, we are plunged into Galla’s perspective—she is defiant, solitary, tough, argumentative, but also tragically limited in her power to change things. She traps herself in obsessive circles around repeated phrases, recurrent images:
I leaned my bicycle against the wall of the barn and left it there. I could have kept on dragging it until it was in front of the house, as usual. It’s not more than fifty yards. But I’d had enough of my bicycle. Of pedaling. Of pushing it. Of pedaling. Of pushing it. And, in the end, carrying it. Completely enough. I’d had it. Because all of that had been going on for three or four hours, maybe more, even, and there comes a point when things have gone on long enough, and you say: No.
A chain of violent incidents run through the book, against a backdrop of everyday cruelty—her father’s beatings are hardly rare enough to warrant description. The more poignant scenes of cruelty, often enacted against animals or children, underline how helpless she is to control either her circumstances or her memories. The crying of a salamander, left to die slowly impaled on a hook, unconsciously becomes the sound of her ancient bicycle, which starts to squeak like a salamander. This transference of suffering happens repeatedly. When she hits a patch of black ice and tumbles off her bike, her concern is all for her rusted ride—“As for me, I banged my knee again, which started to hurt a lot. Poor bicycle.” Her memory can be a safe place to store stories, songs, and poems, but it’s treacherous, too, and hard to control: “I don’t have many good memories, and if I go on recalling the same ones, they get used up, and they’re no good anymore. After that, there’s nothing left.”
The high school is Galla’s sole escape, yet it is far from a haven. Instead, it is where she is made to feel her strangeness and her poverty most acutely. Her bright-green smock, which she’s sewn from remnants of a hand-me-down dress, contrasts loudly with the regulation pink blouses the other girls wear. “Most people just assume that, if you have something, you simply bought it,” Galla notes, in a brilliantly concise encapsulation of poverty. If she has something, it’s been handed down, begged from her family, or stolen from Prisunic, the unglamorous chain store in town. Founded in 1931, Prisunic was a fixture in French towns until the early aughts, and for many years the “Prisunic cashier” was political shorthand for an ordinary working-class woman—yet to Galla, it’s a place of such abundance that nothing she takes will be missed.
Though Cagnati was hyperaware of her own immigrant identity, Galla does not understand herself explicitly as an ethnic outsider. In a school lesson dealing with racism, she freely sorts her few Vietnamese and black classmates by intelligence, and mocks her teacher’s display of emotion while telling the class about Toussaint Louverture. Distracted and bored, she interrupts to ask whether black and red ants can mate, earning herself a detention. Galla’s sense of alienation is most deeply rooted in her poverty and her rural existence. Her foreignness is a difference among differences, another load to bear.
Similarly, the fourteen-year-old’s awareness of herself as female is only nascent, throbbing at the edge of her consciousness. She takes note of her mother’s back-to-back pregnancies, of the vague bogeymen of “the old Spaniard” in the marshes and the concierge at her school who “looks at bottoms,” and of her teachers’ insistent belief that any girl cutting school must be doing so to see a boy. But for the moment, these are lessons learned but not felt. Galla notices beauty and ugliness in her classmates, but doesn’t connect it to sexual value; her friend Fanny is beautiful the way sunshine is, unreachable and somehow part of a different order of existence. Being beautiful is a sign, for Galla, that Fanny must have been wanted by her parents, not a sign that she’s going to be wanted by a man. When Fanny tells Galla that she’s beautiful, too, or when she glimpses herself in a mirror propped in a store window in town, she doesn’t recognize herself.
In a rare interview on Swiss television in 1989, on the occasion of her short-story collection Les pipistrelles, Cagnati comes across as soft-spoken and serious, and utterly uninterested in alleviating anyone’s discomfort, certainly not that of the elegant interviewer making sentimental generalizations about childhood, nature, French identity, writing. The interview is included as an appendix in the NYRB edition, but onscreen, it’s blunter still. Again and again Cagnati, chain-smoking in a red sweater and twisting her necklace in her fingers, rebuffs the interviewer. Is it a comfort to write? “It’s terrible to write,” she replies. She lives in the countryside, she says, as she’s unhappy in town, unhappy with people. “With everyone?” the interviewer asks, and gets another firm oui. It’s why her main theme is isolation, why she cares about telling the stories of the poor and the silenced, of children, the elderly, and those deemed mad.
The deep, helpless love of a child for its mother, the desire to be noticed and welcomed, runs through Free Day and through Cagnati’s second novel, Génie la folle, as well. The novel is narrated by Marie, the young daughter of the “crazy” Génie, who has been cast out by her middle-class family for becoming pregnant while unmarried. Génie clings to an erratic, precarious existence as a farmworker and refuses to speak to anyone. Marie trails behind her, desperate for any sign of affection. It’s a love that is always partly hedged with the terror of loss.
Like Galla, Cagnati escaped her impoverished childhood through studying, although she, too, felt acutely like an outsider at her high school, unable to understand the language or what was being asked of her. Her education, nevertheless, allowed her to qualify as a teacher, and for most of her career she taught literature at a prestigious lycée in northwest Paris. In 1977, after she won the Prix des Deux Magots for Génie la folle, Le Monde noted that she was living in Brasília with her engineer husband and her son. Two years later, when her third book was published, Cagnati was back in France, photographed for Paris Match in her country home, playing, reading, and roasting chestnuts with her young son; her husband is present in one picture, leaning out of their tight circle. In the 1989 interview, Cagnati does not mention him, describing her son as her only true family. “Is that not excessive?” the interviewer asks, to which she responds with a shrug. “Not if I don’t make him feel it that way, no.” Yet as she makes clear in her fiction, familial love is not so easily directed or controlled as that.
Free Day predates by a few years the vogue for autofiction, the term coined by the French novelist Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 for the creative blurring of imagined and lived experience. Yet in its evocation of the looping, obsessive, unpredictable movement of memory, it could easily be seen as a forerunner of the genre. In Doubrovsky’s words, “L’autofiction, c’est comme le rêve; un rêve n’est pas la vie, un livre n’est pas la vie.” (“Autofiction is like a dream; a dream is not life, a book is not life.”) Free Day often moves like a dream, or a nightmare, down unwanted pathways. Just as fog and darkness turn the familiar marshy landscape into a place of hidden horrors, so unwanted memories yank Galla out of complacency into grief. In the hands of writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, autofiction has tended to examine the interplay of life and art in relatively privileged settings. Cagnati is a bracing antidote. She refuses the comforts of artistic achievement or maturity. She refuses to mitigate the pain and isolation of childhood, which she seems to pull, unvarnished, out of the past.
Joanna Scutts is a cultural historian and critic, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.