Patterns of Submission and Domination in the work of Sébastien Japrisot

Before Sébastien Japrisot started publishing crime fiction of an almost Machiavellian cunning, he had a brief but highly successful authorial career under his own name of Jean-Baptiste Rossi. He was born and raised in Marseilles, where his father deserted the family and left him to the care of his proud and slightly neurotic mother, if we can believe the anecdote that survives of her continuing to hang men’s underclothes on her washing line in order to fool the neighbours. He attended a Jesuit college and was something of a rebel, skipping his lectures at the Sorbonne in order to write his first novel, which he published to great acclaim at the age of seventeen. Les Mals partis was awarded the Prix de l’Unanimité in 1950 by a distinguished jury which included Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Aragon and it seemed to herald a remarkable literary career. Yet Japrisot only published one other novella under his real name and then he worked as a translator and in advertising until his first crime novel appeared in 1962. The decade or so of creative silence marks an intriguing barrier between Rossi and Japrisot during which the author’s literary imagination ostensibly went through a major overhaul. Yet in their fascination with entrapment and obsession, with violent emotions and literally fatal love affairs, the early works by Rossi nevertheless have some significant light to shed upon the genesis of Japrisot’s crime fiction and his fundamental preoccupations.

These early works are notably different from the clever, complex, tongue-in-cheek style of his thrillers, although elements such as the marginal but tenacious interest in religion remain a constant across his oeuvre. Instead in these initial writings, the tone is serious and darkly dramatic. In Les Mal partis, a bright but rebellious 14-year-old boy in a Jesuit school falls passionately in love with a 26-year old nun, soeur Clotilde.[1] Their relationship flourishes under the constraints of the Occupation, and they take advantage of a morale-damaging bomb attack on Marseilles to flee their town and live for a while in a secret idyll. The house belongs to soeur Clotilde’s family, and so it is not long before she is recognized and the circumstances of her liaison attract vindictive attention from the local community. The novel ends with the lovers forced to part, their future uncertain. Visages de l’amour et de la haine, the other Rossi vehicle, tells the dark tale of a claustrophobic relationship between a mother and her consumptive son.[2] As a strategy of evasion the son marries and for a while seems to find contentment, but the death of the couple’s newborn baby throws him into despair, and provokes him to recreate the same rageful, abusive relationship with his wife that he shared with his mother. We can see significant similarities between these two texts in the way they explore passion within absolute limits of confinement and in an atmosphere of impending doom. The extraordinary intensity of the relationships described by Rossi repeatedly creates situations for their protagonists that weigh life and death in the balance, that make love into something apocalyptic or catastrophic. Love in these texts functions structurally to impose either/or choices on the protagonists, threatening to make their lives or to break them, and issues of power are intrinsic to the way relationships are played out. Indeed a pattern emerges within the oppositional couples carved out of the narrative, be they in the form of lovers, or indeed mothers and sons, pupils and teachers, a so-called free populace and the enemy, that shows the protagonists repeatedly exploring the tensions between submission and domination in their interactions. But the fact that love is often to the death, and that power in the relationships depicted is so close to corruption and abuse, seems to offer an incipient foundation for the kind of emotional and psychic landscape in which crime flourishes. The hothouse, fever pitch atmosphere of these early works creates the perfect context for the often illogical but determined transgressions of the literary thriller. It is the purpose of this study, then, to consider the tension between submission and domination in these early works by Rossi, and subsequently to explore how this tension reappears, reconfigured in striking and unusual ways, in the crime fiction of Sébastien Japrisot.

The bonds of submission and domination are most clearly represented in the brief but troubling novella, Visages de l’amour et de la haine that Japrisot also published in 1950 and which reads in parts like a case history. When the story begins, twenty-nine year old Paul Folley lives in miserable seclusion with his widowed mother, weakened by the severity of his tuberculosis. Paul’s illness confines him to his mother’s care, which he experiences as vindictive and suffocating: ‘Elle croyait le tenir, elle portait sa mort, à lui, sur le visage, comme un masque. Elle se persuadait qu’il ne s’échapperait que pour un seul voyage, qu’il demeurait jusque-là tel qu’il était, fermé et enfermé, chaque jour plus loin d’elle et toujours sa chose, dans une lente agonie.’ (12) The ostensible reason for the mother’s hostility is due to the sins of his father, who abandoned her for other women and left her alone with her bitterness transferred now onto the son she holds ‘prisoner’. But the tone of the narrative has a faintly fantastic, deeply psychological air, with the bond that ties mother and son together made of more tenacious stuff than simply misdirected revenge. Paul makes a bid for freedom by engaging himself to the first young woman he meets, the ungainly, unattractive Simone, who sees his artificial protestations of love for what they are, but who marries him anyway, as a placebo for her own isolation. When he delivers the news of his engagement to his mother, she receives it as the death-dealing blow it was intended to be – ‘Il la sentait derrière lui comme déjà morte, souffrant de son impuissance’ (40) – but Paul does not manage to embrace his freedom with the lightness of heart he anticipated. The strength of their negative bonding persists beyond the escape from immediate incarceration and as time goes by, Paul begins to miss his old torturer. He expresses his lack of ease as a kind of posthumous attack by his mother, to whom he cannot help but grant tremendous powers: ‘L’éloignement tant désiré lui devenait intolérable: elle ne l’atteignait plus, elle était morte dans son coeur, mais elle le rongeait en y devenant pourriture.’ (53) It may seem logical in some ways that the vampiric aspect he has always attributed to his mother should mean that she has a life within him beyond the symbolic ‘death’ of their relationship. But it becomes clear that Paul actually longs for his mother’s oppressive nearness in order to feel fully himself, in order to give way to his desire to hurt and experience her response as a twisted form of love. Her actual death, announced by telegram, leaves Paul forlorn and broken, torn between the memories of a kiss she once gave him so that ‘le reste n’était plus qu’un mauvais rêve’ (64) and the fear of her continued life within his mind: ‘son front ridé allait se pencher vers lui, durant des nuits de cauchemar, son sourire de mauvaise foi allait le poursuivre et le ramener au passé.’ (64-5) The overwhelming deathliness of the relationship cannot be avoided; at all times in this brief novella, the reader is reminded that only one of the participants in this relationship can survive, at that at the expense of the other. And yet, paradoxically, this very equation is the basis on which Paul finds his ontological security.

In psychoanalytic terms, the relationship between Paul and his mother appears to be one of arrested separation. In Soleil noir, Julia Kristeva insists that healthy individuation is based upon a separation from the mother that accepts she is not in the place of the Phallus, and that this can only occur through an act of fantastically murderous violence: ‘Le matricide est notre nécessité vitale, condition sine-qua-non de notre individuation […] l’objet maternel étant introjecté, la mise à mort depressive ou mélancolique du moi s’ensuit à la place du matricide.’[3] In the earliest stages of object relations, the child has the hazy impression of a vitally powerful mother, all-controlling, omnipotent, and the source of all the child desires. Clearly such a situation cannot continue if the child is to achieve self-sufficient subjectivity, and so, caught in a double bind – wanting to separate from the mother but feeling that separation is impossible – the mother is made abject in order to precipitate the division. The abject is what is on the border, what threatens distinctions, and as an embodiment of what is both menacing and undecidable, it provokes a response of horror and defensive aggression. It is an intriguing and fundamental paradox of classic psychoanalysis that the resourceless, amorphous infant must exist somehow instinctually in such emotional extremis in order to make the first, great break towards unique subjecthood, and so it is not so surprising that the most recent child development theorists work with a process of separation that may well begin in the earliest stages of infancy but which can only be accomplished over the course of many years.[4] In the character of Paul Folley, Rossi presents us with a young man who has not only ground to a stalemate in his battles with his mother, but who will prove to be incapable of transcending his confused, murderous desire for her. As is the case with most unfinished developmental processes, he will instead transfer the fragmented ruins of separation onto his other intimate relationships. It is no coincidence that his decision to marry Simone, and his unlikely persistence in courtship, despite her lack of looks and her mistrust of his motives, culminate in a miserable proposal scene in which ‘elle ressemblait à quelque chose de grotesque et de désespéré. “Une immense forme sans couleur et vie, se dit-il, quelque chose d’écoeurant et de pas tout à fait humain.”‘ (36) This is hardly orthodox lover’s discourse, but it is an almost textbook perfect description of the abject. His seemingly irrational attachment to Simone can be understood not simply as an expedient escape route, but as a form of comforting recognition. She can be viewed as a familiar extension of his mother, and whilst he has a relationship with both of them, the qualities of the abject are split, with power, virility, longing and hatred placed on the mother, grotesqueness, revulsion, pity and formlessness placed on Simone.

So in many ways, Paul bonds with Simone because he sees in her an alternative form of his mother, but one that this time he can dominate. Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love details the process by which failed instances of separation result in relationships of domination and submission, tracing the tendency back to the intricate movements of response between mother and child that promote or undermine mutual recognition. Recognition ‘is that response from the other which makes meaningful the feelings, intentions, and actions of the self. It allows the self to realize its agency and authorship in a tangible way.’[5] What is crucial in Benjamin’s model is the delicate balance between mother and child for recognition. The mother must respond to the infants needs for attention and stimulation, but when the child wishes to regulate his own arousal by turning his head away, the mother ideally steps back from the interaction, permitting the child a pleasurable sense of his ability to regulate the other. If the mother reads the child’s lack of response as an implicit critique of her skills or demands his continued interaction with her, the child feels a loss of both inner and outer control. As Benjamin says ‘we see how the search for recognition can become a power struggle: how assertion becomes aggression.’[6] The consequences of an intrusive or over-anxious mother are embedded in the child’s developmental processes like a figurative thorn in his flesh: ‘He is never able to fully engage in or fully disengage himself from this kind of sticky, frustrating interaction. Neither separateness nor union is possible. […] Thus the child can never lose sight of the other, yet never see her clearly; never shut her out and never let her in. […] In a negative cycle of recognition, a person feels that aloneness is only possible by obliterating the intrusive other, that attunement is only possible by surrendering to the other.’[7] A pattern of interrelating is set, and two distinct positions appear to be offered to the subject: domination, with its impossible fantasy of omnipotence, and submission with its impossible surrender of the self to the reflected glory of a higher authority. Yet the very conditions of this meeting of unequals constrain the participants to a battle that cannot be won. The tension between domination and submission must at all costs be maintained, as the debilitating struggle in relation to power defines both parties: ‘If I destroy the other, there is no one to recognize me, for if I allow him no independent consciousness, I become enmeshed with a dead non-conscious being. If the other denies me recognition, my acts have no meaning; if he is so far above me that nothing I do can alter his attitude toward me, I can only submit. My desire and agency can find no outlet, except in the form of submission.’[8] And this is complicated further in the experience of the boy child, who, in order to fulfill the conditions of his gender, must renounce entirely his earlier identifications with his mother. Hence the ugliness and aggression that characterize Paul’s relationship to his mother can be understood as part of a continuing cycle of negative recognition, one in which rage must be turned outwards onto the other, for its only other possible destination is inwards and onto the self. Yet Paul’s longing for the battle with his mother to continue beyond his supposed ‘victory’ in marriage, and his sense of utter emptiness and desolation when his mother finally dies are equally inevitable; the fight itself made him meaningful, and in the event of her death a large part of his sense of self dies with her.

The relationship with Simone, one that begins uncertainly with Paul’s undisguised attempt to dominate her entirely, offers at this point unexpected possibilities for a fresh start. Simone’s gentle, persistent loving provides Paul with the unlooked-for opportunity to recalibrate his emotional responses. But this is nothing compared to her pregnancy onto which Paul projects the hope that ‘quelqu’un ira qui n’est pas moi, mais qui est moi.’ (73) A chance, in other words, to fantastically traverse the process of separation with the opportunity of a better outcome, a way to assuage the demons of the past through the idealized possibilities of the future. But Paul’s investment in his unborn child is another psychic mistake because it again places the burden of cure on some power outside of his self. Paul embraces a position of submission in relation to his forthcoming child that proves to be his downfall. When the child dies he is utterly distraught, and his baleful fury is forcefully directed towards Simone, whom he accuses of being complicit in the ‘murder’ of his mother. A new battle commences between them, more bitter, more openly aggressive and more deathly than the one he conducted with his mother, and it is equally a battle that binds them tightly together. Paul’s health rapidly deteriorates and Simone looks after him, echoing the position of the mother, but engaging her own self-destruction as the ending suggests she will inevitably become infected with the illness herself. The sombre conclusion sees them together, torn between hostility and dependency and, according to differing timescales, awaiting death.

This is in no way a piece of crime fiction, but it is a narrative in which relationships between individuals are criminalized, infected at their very origins with a potent mix of love and hatred that threatens the security and viability of the self. In these early novels, Rossi is exploring an emotional landscape that is like a medieval map of the world, where small, violently guarded colonies founded by other people rear up out of the unchartered wilderness that is the self; it appears to be inherently dangerous territory, where anything could happen. The relationships in Les mal partis are equally structured by transgression and aggression but the organization of lover and enemy is more conventional. The affair between 14-year old Denis Leterrand and soeur Clotilde is represented as a coup de foudre, an event to which they must both submit and which draws violence into its slipstream. Both suffer physically from the intensity of the event, feeling lethargy, a creeping self-disgust, and in the case of Clotilde, loss of self-esteem. But the battles begin when the spirituality that has been the first love object in both their lives is destroyed by their liaison; in both cases the first fatality of their love for each other is their belief in God. Physical violence in the real rapidly blossoms from their union, and this is most apparent when the couple retreat to the countryside and provoke the attacking fury of the villagers, culminating in Denis being badly beaten by the local baker. The transgressive nature of the relationship between Denis and Clotilde forces them into secrecy and flight, a position of illegality that aligns them once, uncomfortably, with fleeing Nazi soldiers. In situations of unusual constraint, it is easy, Rossi suggests, for the unorthodox, even if it is something intrinsically non-threatening like love, to become demonized, to present a negative and alarming face to a hostile and defensive world. We can see that what fascinates Rossi in these early texts is the inherent violence of emotions when they emanate from a subject whose vulnerability is extreme. In such a situation murderous aggression, generally a taboo force within the social world, is seen as an inevitable product of a menaced psyche. Murder, then, for Rossi, nestles very close to the grouped forces of love, vulnerability and fear.

When Rossi returns to the literary scene transformed into Sébastien Japrisot, the preoccupations with violent love, fearful submission, demonic possessiveness and extreme vulnerability return in new and intriguing patterns. One text in which these traits are fundamental to the interactions between the protagonists and essential to their motivations is La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil.[9] This narrative recounts the perplexingly uncanny road trip undertaken to the south of France by Dany Longo, a minion in an advertising agency who ‘borrows’ her boss’s car for a long weekend, only to find herself running into accounts of her own passage through the towns and villages of France several hours previously. Trapped within Dany’s confused and fearful consciousness, the reader must wonder whether she is mad, schizophrenic, or caught up in a bizarre encounter with a ghostly doppelgänger, until the discovery of a dead body in the boot of the Thunderbird carrying a note from Dany in one of his pockets seems to indicate the presence of a more fatal human hand. From this nightmarish scenario, Dany will eventually emerge triumphant, having uncovered the truth of the situation and laid to rest some of her own crippling anxieties en route, as it were. This is most certainly a work of crime fiction, but it is also at another level a Bildungsroman, which traces Dany’s evolution into a sense of her own agency and power and that sees her undertake a journey not just towards an elusive solution to a murder, but also as she says, a ‘voyage vers moi-même.’ (237)

When the narrative begins, Dany is emotionally disabled by her fears and insecurities; she is a procrastinator and a loner, disorganized, uncertain and anxious. She compensates for this by being very concerned about the image she presents to the world and so when her boss asks her to work an unusual form of overtime at the start of the 14th July holiday weekend, she leaves a note in her office saying she’s going to catch a plane and gets dressed for the occasion in her best white suit. Despising her own talent for deception, Dany nevertheless relies on it for her self-esteem. She has a classic example of what the analyst D. W. Winnicott would call a ‘false self’, the creation of a misleading carapace designed to protect a young self from intrusive or otherwise failed mothering.[10] Dany’s parents died in unusual circumstances during the Occupation, the father was crushed whilst stealing a box of safety pins from a moving vehicle (he was shortsighted like his daughter) and her mother jumped from a window after having had her head shaved in the épuration. Dany was then brought up by nuns one of whom, Maman-Sup, will send her superego-style mental messages during the trip. The wounds of her childhood are indicated early on in the tale when Dany declares that: ‘Les yeux des enfants me sont insupportable. Il y a toujours derrière, la petite fille que j’étais’ (20). The lack of congruence between inside and outside causes Dany all kinds of discomfort, not least by placing her in a permanent position of submission to others. As Jessica Benjamin explains it, ‘The false self is the compliant, adaptive self that has staved off chaos by accepting the other’s direction and control, that has maintained connection to the object by renouncing exploration, aggression, separateness.’[11] But such compliance comes at a terrible price as authentic desire must be continually denied in order to meet the demands of others. When Dany’s boss, having asked her to work overnight at his house, then asks that she drive him and his family to the airport, something she is afraid of doing in a strange car, ‘il me semblait très grand et très fort, je sentais que je me décomposais.’ (52) The choice taken subsequently, to make off with the Thunderbird and take it on an impromptu visit to the seaside, is an extraordinary one for Dany, a tiny act of rebellion and self-regarding desire that happens more as a series of incremental decisions about not going home, rather than a whole-hearted embrace of adventure. But the further she travels towards the fulfillment of her own desire, the more uncertainty Dany suffers: ‘l’angoisse que j’avais déjà ressentie au sortir de l’autoroute s’est installée en moi, dans la zone la plus silencieuse et la plus trouble de ma conscience, et parfois, pour un rien, sans raison, elle remuait brusquement comme une bête qu’on derange, ou comme une autre moi-même qui se retournait dans son sommeil.’ (66) Although the irrationality of this fear is emphasized, its prescience is entirely logical: to the false self, not following orders is a recipe for disaster, and indeed this thought immediately precedes the first sighting of the ‘other’ Dany, and the unexpected attack in the roadside services toilet block in which her hand is damaged. If there appear to be two Danys driving around at this part of the narrative, it is both an intriguing contradiction in material terms, but a wholly reasonable projection on a psychic level. Dany’s act of rebellion in taking the car has unleashed a part of her self that might indeed do anything without the restrictive control of total subservience that the imposition of the false self demands. Dany’s acute sense of confusion, guilt and responsibility and her passive acceptance of vengeful fate seem emotionally coherent in this context.

Furthermore, the narrative gradually reveals two more essential sources of extreme guilt that Dany has harboured for several years without resolution, both of which stem from the kinds of self-preserving acts that the maintenance of the false self would generally forbid. It transpires that several years ago in Zürich Dany had an abortion, an act that seems to compound her difficulties with mothering. On a couple of occasions across the narrative we are told that Dany has a kind of unconscious catch-phrase that she murmurs in her sleep, a sentence whose words are unclear but which suggests either ‘Tu es mort’, ‘Tuez-moi’ or even ‘Tu es moi’ (143). Whilst these phrases at the superficial level of the narrative are designed to indicate either latent criminal tendencies or Dany’s guilt at her abortion, they equally echo the possible positions of the submission/domination relationship as they were set out in Rossi’s Visages de l’amour et de la haine. The morbidity at the heart of the child’s relationship with the mother indicates and anticipates the necessary, inevitable death of one or other in the interests of separation (‘Tu es moi’). For both Dany and Paul Folley the mother’s actual death is premature as it occurs before the child (no matter how grown up) has achieved independent subjectivity. Paul Folley’s solution is to perpetuate his entrapment in the deathly cycle, unable to transcend it. Dany’s fate will be rather different, however. Winnicott suggested that for the child to be freed from the imprisonment of the false self, the answer lies at least in part in ‘the recognition of an outside reality that is not one’s own projection.’[12] This could be achieved when the outside world survived the aggressive behaviour of the child, either fantastic or real, and remained intact and undamaged. In this way the child could be assured of the independent existence of external reality and not sink into the fearful sense of being omnipotently responsible for all that occurs in it (and hence bound to an uncomfortable necessity to be perfectly obedient). Dany’s other guilty secret shows her to be stuck still in the position of excessive responsibility. The other event that troubles her still, and which does indeed prove to be her downfall, dates from a time in her early adulthood when she was a close friend of her boss’s wife, Anita. It concerns an evening out in which Anita drank too much and brought home men who used her sexually. Dany, fearful of the way events were going, abandoned Anita to the men and ran away from the situation, accruing an unresolved burden of guilt.

This evening turns out to have been a source of festering rancour for her boss, Anita’s jealous and possessive husband, who, on discovering that Anita had shot dead her latest lover, decided to frame Dany for the murder and then kill her in a fake suicide. This husband and wife partnership, Anita and Michel Caravaille, return us to familiar ground in Japrisot’s work with their bruising war of covertly murderous aggression structured on the seesaw of submission and domination. If Dany and Anita were once best friends, it is partly due to their similarity; Anita is described by her husband as ‘désespérément attirée vers ce qui la brise’ (266) and has had any number of lovers during her marriage, thus humiliating Michel and provoking his considerable violence. Michel is the more interesting character, however, having endured a sad, humble childhood that has cast him in the mould of an over-zealous protector of children. Every criminal act he has undertaken has been for the sake of his daughter, Michèle, he will claim, for whom he has ‘un attachement sans frontière, sans partage, totalement fanatique’ (259), and to protect a wife of whom he declares ‘Je l’aime avec la même pitié que ma petite fille parce que je sais, contre tous les autres, qu’elle est réellement, misérablement, une petite fille elle-même.’ (267) This is not quite so noble when put in context, however; in order to win Anita he confesses to having raped her and then married her once it turned out she was pregnant, and his aim to protect his daughter’s innocence embraces the intention to kidnap Dany and force her to swallow sleeping pills. It becomes apparent that regressed emotional development is once again center stage in murderous intention as the urge to protect children emanates from Michel’s own sense of childish wounding: ‘C’est facile de tuer,’ he confesses to Dany, ‘c’est facile de mourir. Tout est facile. Sauf peut-être de consoler une minute celui qui est resté enfermé en nous, qui n’a pas grandi, qui ne grandira jamais, qui n’arrête pas d’appeler au secours.’ (276-7) It is intriguing, the extent to which Japrisot links unresolved childhood traumas to truly murderous violence. Michel Caravaille is a logical extension of Paul Folley, as a man who will do anything to assuage the unbearable memory of constraint and suffering. Once a certain emotional landscape is put in place within the minds of Japrisot’s protagonists, murder and mayhem become the inevitable consequence.

A brief detour into another of Japrisot’s novels, Piège pour Cendrillon offers us another, even more telling, perspective on both the maternal origin and the inherent murderousness of the submission/domination relationship. This novel focuses on the undecidable identity of Japrisot’s heroine, a young woman who wakes up after a house fire that has left her with amnesia and a face remodeled by plastic surgery. Either she is Micky Isola, a young, spoilt heiress, or her poor friend, Domenica Loi, both of whom were in the house when fire took hold, one of whom has been burnt beyond recognition. The vertiginous oscillation between these two identities can veil the overarching power relationship between Japrisot’s heroine and the machiavellian governess, Jeanne Murneau. From the moment the heroine wakes up, Jeanne’s behaviour towards her combines elements of the phallic mother and the prison guard, her domineering will indistinguishable from a compelling and profound expression of love. As the narrative picks its way between the possible and yet undecidable identities of Micky and Domenica, it becomes clear that whichever young woman she was, her very survival seems to indicate her guilt, acting under the aegis of Jeanne as the original criminal mastermind. Jeanne exhibits the perfect paradoxical combination of damaging and protective maternal attributes as the woman who plotted the murder and insisted that Domenica bury her face in a burning nightdress to make sure she is suitably disfigured, but who oversees and directs her every move with excessive loving care. In the end, the heroine makes the radical and unprovoked move of shooting dead a young man who is attempting to blackmail her; in this way the question of her guilt is resolved, but the act is undertaken in the name of Jeanne: ‘maintenant, on ne pourra plus inquiéter Jeanne, elle me prendra dans ces bras, elle me bercera jusqu’à ce que je m’endorme, je ne lui demanderai rien que de continuer à m’aimer.’[13] In this moment, Japrisot transfers, once again, to the adult arena, the desperate longing for formative, nurturing maternal love that is so overpoweringly essential to the child. It becomes something that the child within will literally kill for.

In La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil, however, a happy ending is reserved for Dany. The tide begins to turn for her when she encounters a trucker, nicknamed Sourire-Gibbs whose own origins as an orphan have been turned to good account. In response to her question whether he bears any resentment towards his abandoning mother, Sourire-Gibbs replies ‘Vous savez, pour abandonner son gosse, je presume qu’elle devait avoir ses problèmes, elle aussi. Et puis, je suis là, non? Elle m’a quand même donné le principal. Je suis content, moi, d’être là.’ (226) This evocation of the life-giving mother, as opposed to the death-dealing one begins to change the emotional climate for Dany, and combined with the messages that appear in her head from Maman-Sup, she finds enough courage in herself to solve the mystery, confront Michel and emerge victorious. Having been constrained by an absolute submission to her fate, Dany flexes her subjective muscles and finds she can act without paying an intolerable price for her freedom. Her leap into agency is both confirmed and confined, however, by the happy ending, in which she marries the best friend of Sourire Gibbs and changes her name to Dany Laventure, an optimistic gesture towards a relationship that is not based on the principles of submission and domination, but on free-wheeling engagement with external reality. But Dany’s story provides Japrisot with a new kind of perspective on the fierce and damaged souls of failed parenting. Those forced into positions of submission are pre-prepared victims, whilst those who scrabble for the highground of domination can make excellent murderers. Within a certain mental and emotional landscape, murder becomes the natural extension of love, and those who are closest to you are least to be trusted. It provided a formula whose clever and unexpected permutations informed Japrisot’s work throughout his career.



[1] Les mals partis, Sébastien Japrisot writing as Jean-Baptiste Rossi (1950). This edition Paris: Éditions Denoël, 2000. Any subsequent page references in brackets after quotation.
[2] Visages de l’amour et de la haine, Sébastien Japrisot writing as Jean-Baptiste Rossi (1950). This edition Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1987. Subsequent page references in brackets after quotation.
[3] Julia Kristeva, Soleil Noir. Dépression et mélancolie. Paris: Gallimard, 1987, p. 38.
[4] Kristeva would no doubt agree that the process of separation is perpetually open to completion, but my point is only to gesture towards a shift in emphasis, from classic psychoanalysis with its interest in the intrapsychic dimension and its stages of development, to the intersubjective school of psychoanalysis where the focus falls on the ongoing progression of relationships.
[5] Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love. Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988, p. 12.
[6] Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 28.
[7] Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 28.
[8] Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 53.
[9] Sébastien Japrisot, La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil (1966). This edition Paris: Éditions Denoël, 2001. Subsequent page references in brackets after the quotation.
[10] See ‘The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications’ in D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (1971). This edition, London: Penguin Books, 1988, pp. 101-111.
[11] Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 72.
[12] Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, p. 37.
[13] Sébastien Japrisot, Piège pour Cendrillon (1965). This edition, Paris: Éditions Denoel: 1999, p. 209.

2 thoughts on “Patterns of Submission and Domination in the work of Sébastien Japrisot

  1. Pingback: Japrisot and Salinger - Winterings in Trans-Scythia Winterings in Trans-Scythia Japrisot and Salinger - Winterings in Trans-Scythia | The Dilettante abides

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