An interview with Claire Bretecher

When I am doing the job, I think about the job, I think about making a page which is consistent and which is as expressive as possible and there you are, that’s what I am thinking about, because otherwise it does not work out, you see…

For the portrayal of feminine adolescence, there is not an artist in the world more admired than Claire Bretecher. Her drawings tell of pride and uncertainty, anger and incompetence with an accuracy which disturbs more than simply pleases: you feel that you are in the company of a friend when you read an album of Bretecher and the reading is therapeutic so much so that you ask if helping lost spirits is not part of her mission. Claire has a simple answer to this question:

Not at all, but in fact now I know that that exists, and it is extremely pleasing to know. But at the same time, it is disturbing because when I cannot find ideas, I say to myself: ‘Well that’s not going to last long’.

Claire talked to us at the time of the publication of her latest album “Allergies”. We see the heroine, Agrippine defending herself from the threats which come from all directions: dust mites, parents, men, peanuts, love. We can try to find in these defensive attitudes a sort of icon of our time. Bretecher brings us down to earth, and guards against any attempt at intellectualising [her work].

There was a time when I was looking for a sort of line, so as not to set off completely in the fog, a sort of vague idea that could lead to several variations and there was a time, you know, all the newspapers, all the press at the same time were talking about the same things – I don’t know if it is the same elsewhere but in France it’s like that – and at that time, at that very time, everyone was talking about allergies. It must have been springtime, or something like that, in the end, be it radio, television, newspapers, allergies, allergies, allergies, an incredible number of books were published, so there you are, I said to myself “this is it”, because you can start with the psychology of allergies, and then button up my mouth, that’s always good.

The quality of the drawings is wonderful, starting on the first page even, we see Agrippine on her bed cutting her toe nails half dressed “Please KNOCK” she says to the grandmother who has just come in without giving warning: “I could have been in bed with Prince William”.

Yes, that’s… good, the French girls are all in love with Prince William too…:

The relations between the generations is a recurring theme in her work:

Yes, that’s maybe true, personally I don’t think so at all that it’s a reflection but I think that it is rather that of the adolescents, like that, but it is clear that the world in which Agrippine’s grandmother lives is not the one that Agrippine lives in, so she has a bit of trouble adapting, like me, for example, or like many people and the older you are, the harder it must be.

I do not intend to make especially a thing about inter-generational relations, but it is however quite funny when we have someone who is, I don’t know, 16, 17, well she has her family, she has her pals, she has her grandparents… so that leads off a bit in all directions, that allows different behaviours following the people with… there you are!

Does she find herself involved in the conflicts in her books?

No, not at all, I am not a part of that at all; perhaps at the extreme position I would be closer to her great grandmother in my thinking. But no, I am not there, simply when I started she must have been 14… 13, 14 and now she is 17, 16, 17 nearly 18… I don’t want her to be a grown up either, because,… it’s better that she has some concerns about discipline… very, very, very vague ones though.

We see psychological concerns mixed with allergies which are rather physical, After consulting an allergy specialist, Agrippine announces triumphantly that finally she is going to be able to eat snails in nutella [1], but she is also free from her love of Persil Wagonnet [2]. The juxtaposition is funny, but Claire defends wanting to say by this that some allergies are a result of dysfunctional psychology:

I think that it is a way of thinking that starts, however, happily but get’s lost… maybe because about, I don’t know, 20 years ago, when we used to stamp our feet and say “you did that deliberately; be that on your head”, but now we know however that there are external causes and that people, who have asthma for example, the poor souls can do nothing about it; so there you are, that’s my opinion.

Another strong point in her work, the usage of a style to represent spoken language. “Quoi?” becomes “Kwa?”, “Qu’est-ce que tu as achete?”, becomes “Kesta achete?”. Don’t look in the dictionary! She writes like we speak. Beyond these plays on words specifically French, Claire sees in her personality a rather universal character:

I think that, at our level, from our point of view… in the end we are people who do not have any dramatic problems, all the people in Europe have the same information, have the same type of television, they have much, much, much more in common than not in common. So that can be applied in quite a lot of countries.

Bretecher has been successful worldwide, in prestigious newspapers like the Sunday Times and the New Statesman in England as well as a little everywhere in the world, but she has never lost sight of the humility which is at the heart of her humour:

When I look back I find that it seems very straight forward, because it is true that when I was a girl I wanted to do this, but in fact it was not… it seemed like that… it’s always the same, seen from here, even to me… at the same time, I know very well that it was not at all like that because I had years when I was not doing it at all, when I was training or then it was the time of the hippies, I had lost sight completely and there were breaks… lots of them, and it was almost… that became a little more focussed when I worked at Pilote [3] and then at Nouvel Observateur [4], so then that was really, that’s when it started all right.

And projects for the future?

I don’t have any. I have just finished this album and so you see I am going to rest on my laurels, or my supposed laurels, for the moment, my hoped for laurels, and then afterwards, we’ll see.

[1] Nutella is a kind of peanut butter which is popular in France with adolescents.

[2] Persil Wagonnet is the pen name of a blogger.

[3] Pilote was a weekly comic strip in France published from 1959-1989.

[4] Nouvel Observateur is a weekly, left of centre, review of the news in France.

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