Forbidden fruit: Trierweiler and Hollande in 2002, three years before "the kiss in Limoges". Photo: Paris Match/Getty Images
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It started with a kiss: Valerie Trierweiler’s memoir

Jane Shilling finds a blend of syrup and venom in this kiss-and-tell book by François Hollande’s former partner. 

Thank You for This Moment 
Valérie Trierweiler; translated by Clémence Sebag
Biteback, 298pp, £18.99

Among the candidates competing to stand in the 2012 French presidential election François Hollande had two distinct advantages: he wasn’t the right-wing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, with his eventful marital history and high-maintenance pop-star third wife, Carla Bruni. And he wasn’t Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Hollande’s rival for the Socialist candidacy until his campaign was inconveniently interrupted by his arrest in New York on a charge of attempted rape (subsequently dismissed, but not before all sorts of lurid allegations had emerged).

By contrast with these two flamboyant figures, Hollande was the most unobtrusive of high-fliers: a graduate of the elite French civil-service academy, Éna, he looked, with his receding hairline, ill-fitting suits and rimless specs, like a blamelessly dull provincial accountant.

His private life seemed blameless, too. For over 30 years he had shared his life and raised four children with his partner, the beautiful and ambitious Socialist politician Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election. After the high-octane tohu-bohu of Sarko and Strauss-Kahn, Hollande must have looked deliciously dull. But that was before Valérie Trierweiler entered the Élysée Palace.

Trierweiler’s kiss-and-tell-memoir of her nine-year relationship with Hollande, which ended abruptly this January when it emerged that the French president was having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet, sold almost half a million copies in the month after its publication in France. Though positively reticent by Anglo-Saxon standards (there are, mercifully, no Tony Blair-style revelations of bedroom action) it is still explosive stuff in a nation where the extramarital shenanigans of politicians such as François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac were common knowledge, but discreetly hidden in plain sight.

But Trierweiler has a notorious tendency to speak her mind – never more than in the “Tweetgate” affair of 2012, when she caused a scandal by tweeting her support for the man standing against Hollande’s former partner, Royal, for an MP’s seat.

In her memoir, she blames her outspoken­ness on her working-class background. She was born Valérie Massonneau in Angers in 1965, the fifth child of a disabled father and a mother who bore six children by the age of 20. Trierweiler studied at the University of Nanterre and the Sorbonne, and at a party held to celebrate Mitterrand’s victory in the 1988 election, the then president’s roving eye fell on the pretty 23-year-old.

“I believe we have met,” Mitterrand said. They hadn’t, but by convoluted means the exchange led to her landing a job on the influential weekly Paris-Match. “François Mitterrand had impacted my fate . . .” she writes. “How could I have imagined that one day I would be with another president?

How indeed? At Paris-Match Valérie got to know a fellow journalist, Denis Trierweiler. “Even before we were in a relationship, I had dreamt he would be the father of my children.” Dispensing with her first husband, Franck Thurieau, who barely gets a mention in the memoirs, she set about living the dream: “I had no other plans than to build both my personal life and my career – François Hollande was not part of either of these plans. I even changed my surname . . . I wanted to show that I belonged to my husband.”

Despite this wifely devotion, by 2000 the rumours that she was having an affair with Hollande were strong enough to trouble Royal, who confronted Trierweiler and Hollande as they were enjoying a discreet lunch. “Caught red-handed. I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she hissed, according to Trierweiler, who replied that they were discussing the Tour de France. “My aplomb,” Trierweiler notes, “irritated and impressed her in equal measures.”

Hollande apparently used to tease Trierweiler about her humble origins by calling her Cosette, after the guileless waif in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and throughout her memoir she presents herself as a bewildered provincial innocent, propelled by unsought-for love into a cruelly sophisticated world of political manipulation. Although she was frequently in contact with Hollande in the early 2000s, “I was not yet aware of the electromagnetic field that sparked between the two of us as soon as we were together.”

When it happened, it was apparently all Royal’s fault: “The intervention of a woman who feared our love above all else no doubt played a part in it becoming a possibility in my eyes.”

After that it all gets a bit complicated. The chronology of her book zips bafflingly back and forth between the aftermath of her brutally curt dismissal as First Girlfriend and the brief flowering and melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of her affair, which finally achieved lift-off with The Kiss in Limoges on Thursday 14 April 2005 (“That date will always mean something to me”).

She had accompanied Hollande on a business trip to Limoges, after which he asked her to join him at a meeting in Tulle. She refused: “I knew what ‘come to Tulle with me’ meant.” Instead, over a modest dinner of waffles and a crêpe, “We spoke about our relationship for the first time . . . What passed between us in that moment is indescribable, it was like a scene from a film. A kiss like no other kiss I’d ever shared with anyone.”

The upshot was, as she coyly puts it, that “François did not drive back to Tulle that evening”. Alas, “the kiss in Limoges was the starting point of a downward spiral”. First Royal decided to stand as a presidential candidate, insisting that Hollande support her campaign. When she lost, she chucked him out. “I can easily imagine,” Trierweiler muses, “that during that period François behaved with Royal as he did with me during his affair with Julie Gayet – which is to say that he was the king of doublespeak, ambiguity and perpetual lies.”

At last it was Hollande’s turn to run for the presidency. After his election in 2012, Trierweiler became – depending whether you believe her version or the spiteful gossip of the Élysée aides and journalists who unaccountably took to briefing against her – either his rock or a millstone around his political neck.

Certainly she had an unerring knack for a gaffe. Among many lulus, the one that stands out is the moment at his post-election celebrations when Hollande kissed Royal and Trierweiler jealously demanded that he kiss her, too, “on the mouth”. The eagle-eyed press lip-read, identified the words, and gleefully published them.

Trierweiler complains that, as president, Hollande became a different man from the one with whom she fell “crazy in love”. Before taking high office, he was tender, funny, a lover who “knew how to waste time”. Afterwards, she claims, he became a chilly, duplicitous, tyrannical rotter who said nasty things about disabled people and the poor, calling them les sans dents, or “the toothless”, and blamed her for everything, especially his lack of popularity.

“Everything I have written in this book is true,” she asserts, claiming that she was deliberately drugged to stop her from turning up at a presidential event in Tulle shortly after the break-up. Since then she has divided her time between good works, fending off the president’s pleas for forgiveness (he texts her up to 20 times a day, she claims) and composing this memoir with its inimitable blend of syrup and venom.

Rambling, self-justificatory and lachry­mose, it reads like a transcript of one of those drunken post-break-up conversations you have with your best friend late at night, and wish you hadn’t in the morning. Then again, it has made Trierweiler extremely rich and compounded Hollande’s political travails by making him appear not just cold and duplicitous, but ridiculous.

Halfway through a five-year term beset with scandal and failure, with unemployment rising and his approval ratings at a record low, the last thing Hollande needed was this most unflattering of intimate portraits, in which he appears as a cross between Iago and Mr Bean. Largely untroubled by infidelity, the French electorate may prove to be less forgiving of pusillanimity when it comes to the presidential elections in 2017. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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