Sunday, April 19, 2020

La séquestrée de Poitiers, by André Gide

Gallimard, 1977
138 pp


A few weeks back the name Blanche Monnier cropped up during an online discussion, reminding me that I had a book about her case  on my foreign language shelves.  Oho, I said to no one, reading this book might be a great way to pull my brain away from coronavirus stress.  First of all, it's in French so it's different from my general reading fare,  and then, of course, Monnier's story is so bizarre that I figured it would hold my interest for the duration.   It did. 

I first came across Gide's interest in both the Monnier case and that of Marcel Redureau (also included in this volume) a while back while reading Sara Maza's excellent Violette Noziere: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris (University of California Press, 2011), so I picked up this little book, but by the time it arrived I had likely already moved on to something else and so the poor thing sat gathering dust until the recent above-mentioned conversation.   Reading it now, I'd only made it through the first few pages and I was glued.   As someone who reads mainly to try to understand what Gide calls the "unexplored regions on the map of the human soul, the terrae incognitae," and reads historical crime to see what it says about various facets of contemporary society,  I found both cases covered in  La Séquestrée de Poitiers to be utterly fascinating, and I can certainly recommend it to others with the same mindset.

 Based on a multitude of documents on the case which Gide studied, the book begins with the story of Blanche Monnier, although here the family name has been changed to Bastian and Blanche's to Mélanie, who was found living in horrific conditions after twenty-five years of confinement in her mother's home.  The case made for sensational headlines since the "respectable" Monnier family had been held in high esteem for many, many years.   I will refer to her as Mélanie since it is written as such here, but think Blanche.  On receiving an anonymous letter that "a spinster" is "locked up" in the home of Madame Bastian, "half-starved ... for the past twenty-five years -- in a word, in her own filth," the attorney general of Poitiers ordered the Commissaire of police to go the address on rue de la Visitation to investigate.  It seems that the story told in the letter was true;  Mélanie was removed from the home and taken to the hospital, while her mother and her brother were arrested. While I won't go into any detail (if you wish to read about it, you can find one version here) the point of Gide's examination of this case was this:  how was it that this "monstrous-seeming case" which led to "public outrage," one  "... in which Madame Bastian and her son appeared clearly guilty from the start," could end "with the accused being acquitted?"  It's actually in combing through what these documents reveal about life and society in this provincial town that the real answers are discovered.

from All That's Interesting

Next up is the case of Marcel Redureau, a fifteen year-old boy who in 1913 seemingly for no reason went to work one day and killed his employer's entire family and their servant,  leaving only a small boy behind. Seven people lay dead in a most gruesome fashion, and Redureau was arrested and confessed that it was a particular remark made by his employer that had set him off. While the crime is particularly heinous, Gide's focus here is on the prosecution and the trial of this boy, which I won't go into, but which led him to question the "current psychological expertise" which "doesn't allow us to understand everything."  And then of course, there's the jury, which clearly failed in its duty ...

 Thom Nickel states in his 2016 article at The Spirit of The Riverwards that Gide, who had a "fascination and even obsession with crime and punishment,"  could see "facts that judges and jurors overlooked."  He goes on to state that "Gide recorded his impressions and analyses of judicial cases while serving as a juror," writing about them in depth,
"examining both the facts of the case and the background of the accused in a way that dovetailed with his lifelong rejection of traditional morality." 
 which is beyond evident throughout this little book.  Don't get hung up on the somewhat sordid details ... it is well worth reading for Gide's understanding of what's actually happening in these two cases.


 Note: To those people who had asked me if there was an English translation and to whom I said no, I didn't realize it at the time, but these two cases are part of a larger work I just bought today called Judge Not(originally published in 1930) translated by Benjamin Ivry.