Ruth Rendell, L’Analphabète, Paris, Librairie des Champs-Élysées (Le Masque no 1532, 1978 ) new translation, 1995
Ruth Rendell, who died yesterday, was not only one of the most distinguished English crime fiction authors, the impeccable writer of more than 60 best selling books (25 of them featuring Inspector Wexford – often presented as a British Maigret- and 14 written under the pen-name Barbara Vine). She was a peer for the Labour Party in the British Parliament. Her attention for the social context and the particular settings of her novels was commanded for modernising British Crime Fiction.
Her 1977 novel A Judgement in Stone (London, Hutchinson) begins with the line : Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. This is a cool statement about the Crime genre, saying that it is not just about to the whodunit. And a clear indication that crime is a product of socio-cultural circumstances. Rendell was comimtted to represent it that way. The plot, and the social classes antagonism it is based on (servant kills masters) is reminiscent of a well-publicised French Criminal affair: the savage murder of their employer by two young women, the sisters Christine and Léa Papin, two maids from Le Mans, in 1933.
Le Petit Journal, 30/09/1933, Gallica, BNF
The horrific crime (the victims had their eyes gouged out), and the class struggle narrative it lent itself to, inspired a number of artistic works in various media. Most notably a masterpiece by Jean Genet. Genet who himself had experienced as an orphan, a thief and an outcast various forms of social violence (as Sartre would recall in his lengthy biography of him) based his 1947 drama Les Bonnes on this story (although he underplayed that influence). The play was adapted on screen, too, in 1974, and another film, directed by Jean-Pierre Denis, Murderous Maids (Les blessures assassines, 2000) presented the original story of the Papin sisters.
Poster of Genet’s Les Bonnes, by Adrien Bernad-Brunel, Théâtre du Tricorne, 2014
Jean-Pierre Denis, Murderous Maids (Les blessures assassines, 2000)
But the two works which probably highlight best (and help explore further) the cultural tensions inscribed in Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone both came after its publication in France in the series Le Masque, under the title L’Analphabète in 1978. The first one, Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal book on the sociology of culture, Distinction, was published in 1979. Subtitled Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste it reveals how social domination is based on the classification of cultural practices. Turning Marxist analysis on its head it shows that cultural hierarchies create social inequalities (rather than just resulting from them). Cultural inequalities are more stark, and more rigid even than those based on wealth. Cultural exclusion (and its organisation, and reproduction) can look as inescapable and just as maddening as poverty in a system which favours accumulation.
The second work was Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Rendell’s novel for his 1995 film La Cérémonie (with Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Cassel). Although the social message is rather mixed, it is a cold dissection of bourgeoise culture and its far from inclusive virtues. The title echoes Genet’s play. It also stresses the subjects it is dealing with : the rituals of social relationships and the coexistence of social classes, the routines through which unavowable cultural handicaps can be concealed, the role of television (omnipresent in the film) and the opera; the stripping down of cultural privilege, and the mise en scène of social revenge.
Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Claude Chabrol, La Cérémonie, 1995, English Poster