In Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and forthcoming from the Feminist Press, twins Claudine and Pauline hatch a plan to create the “perfect woman,” with alarming results. The excerpt below reveals the backstory of the mismatched pair.
Window open opposite, the street acts like a loud speaker, Claudine hears a song as if she were listening to it in her own apartment.
Sharp attacks tearing her apart, the same headaches the last few days, but the banging is getting worse, less bearable.
Pink stain of the curtains, the sun setting. Irritated voices below. Reflexively, she leans out the window to see what’s going on.
A man, back to the window in the butcher shop, two men and a woman facing him. It’s the woman who’s speaking, she’s furious, hair covered, pink dress down to her ankles. The two men with her shake their heads to signal they disapprove of what the third is doing. Impossible to know exactly what’s going on, they’re not speaking French. She can’t see them well from so far away, but the man with his back against the security gate doesn’t seem scared.
The flowers have started blooming in the last few days, hanging from other windows.
Her breath shortens, cuts off if she isn’t careful.
How much longer are things going to be like this?
Luck doesn’t change. It’s all bullshit.
On a table, a photo of her and Pauline. They’re nine years old, it’s the only photo where they’re together and dressed the same. It looks like a silly special effect, like a hidden mirror reflecting one face. Two queens on the same card.
She feels that terrible surge that passes through her from time to time. Anger, and she needs to retrace her steps to account for it.
Her father would repeat, “They certainly do look a bit alike, and yet they don’t look alike at all,” letting a knowing glance fall over Claudine. Supposedly he didn’t talk about that in front of her, to avoid hurting her, supposedly he took precautions, because she couldn’t do anything about it. She was the one who was not very clever, frankly, not very smart.
Sometimes her father invited friends to the house, called the two girls over. Secretive conversation, so that they wouldn’t hear, as if they didn’t understand anything at all. Then he questioned them, to demonstrate to the audience how studious Pauline was: cunning, mischievous, and so sharp. And next to her, her sister, who never understood a thing. She did a bad job on her schoolwork, never connected anything with anything, couldn’t convey the desired information. Filled with shame in front of these strangers, she had to open her mouth, say something, if she didn’t say anything her father leaned in toward the other adults, said something mean, disparaging.
And her bitch of a mother, rather than defend her daughter, rather than put a stop to all of it, would bring her to bed immediately, infuriated at seeing her be so stupid. The next day, to console her, she would put her hand on Claudine’s forehead, “It’s not your fault, my angel. With twins there’s always one that picks up the defects . . . my poor angel, there’s nothing you can do.”
Her mother’s stomach wasn’t big yet. She had just learned that she would be having two.
Her father was enraged. Since the beginning of the year her mother had been working, like him, as a teacher at a junior high school.
Before that everything had been clear, easily summed up: he had married an idiot, oafish and dull.
Of course, there were those weeks right after they met when her father would lean toward her—“You are my happiness”—and kiss her nonstop, craft compliments sweet as candy, talk dirty, he couldn’t get enough of her.
And then slowly, as if he were opening his eyes, she became this meager thing. Inept. He didn’t leave her, didn’t cheat on her. He never got tired of watching her mess up every single thing she tried. Never got tired of watching her dress poorly, he who was so fond of elegance. Of hearing her speak poorly, he who so loved intellectual things. Every gesture she made was reproachable. Even her way of rinsing a sponge, of hanging up the telephone, of wearing a skirt.
He never got tired of watching her be so pathetic. And he pitied himself, to have fallen for such a woman. And without ever lifting a hand to her he went after her with all his violence, his entire being focused on demeaning her.
He wouldn’t leave her alone until she cried. And as soon as her eyes watered, his fury would begin: How dare she complain? And what did she know of pain, the burning he felt?
The same way he demanded all the space in the bed, his own distress demanded all the space. He was the most, as a matter of principle. The most tortured, the most sensitive, the most in touch with his emotions, the most reasonable. The one of the two of them that counted, the one at the center.
She possessed only the right to listen to him because he loved to talk for hours. It was her duty to listen to him even if his words destroyed her, implied she was worthless, even if his words suffocated her, never left her any space.
And her mother let it happen, made herself sick, like a woman, in silence. Her body eaten up in big chunks that never completely disappeared, vomiting, careful not to make any noise, at night her ruined sleep knotted up her throat. But above all she would never complain, because he suffered so much. Compared to his experiences, hers were garbage, just showing off her melancholy, who did she think she was . . .
One day, she started teaching, like him, in the same junior high school. And in one year, everything switched.
Her mother turned out to be a good teacher, in any event perfectly capable of keeping the kids in check for the duration of class.
He had always been pretty mediocre, neither loved nor feared, interesting to no one, especially not to his students, who mocked his drinking; rather than picking up on the desperate beauty of the gesture, they picked up on his breath and used it to fuck with him.
And so one day, her mother, correcting homework, was interrupted by her father who, leaning over her shoulder, shared his opinion on a comment she had just written. Without even raising her head, frowning, concentrated, she replied, “Excuse me, but I think I know what I’m doing.”
Her father’s wrath was terrible. At first he tried to make her apologize, but since she persisted he started breaking things and insulting her like he never had before . . . the idea that she could even think of opposing him was intolerable, that she could draw the strength from somewhere to believe in herself in spite of him.
The rage of powerlessness, like a child’s tantrum, took hold of him that night and for the first time he moved from threats to action, started breaking everything until she begged, fear in her eyes, until she was the first to give in.
Her mother quit teaching, shaken by having hurt him so considerably for a job that, in the end, didn’t interest her all that much.
But her father stayed angry. He had always pulled out when he felt himself coming and ejaculated on her stomach, because he was too young to have a kid and because he wasn’t sure—far from it—that he wanted to have one with her. From that day on, he started fucking her like he was nailing something into the ground, all the way inside so she would get a fat stomach and stay put.
But almost as soon as she was pregnant, her mother began to rise up and get comfortable with him. Supposedly she knew better than him about certain things regarding her condition. “Because I’m a woman,” she would reply, shrugging her shoulders. Her mother proposed that they call the twins Colette and Claudine. Her father was firmly against it; she didn’t concede.
“Then we’ll each choose one name.”
And so it was done, her stomach ripped in two.
Copyright © 2016 by Virginie Despentes. Translation copyright © 2018 by Emma Ramadan. Reprinted with permission of the Feminist Press.