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A rage to live

The choices made by Constance Debré—as described in her novels— have shocked people in her native France. Turns out, she doesn’t care
July 10, 2024

“I don’t want to talk about my life,” says Constance Debré. It’s a surprising admission from someone who divorced her husband, started sleeping with women, abandoned her career as a criminal barrister—and then wrote three books about it all. But the works are fiction, Debré insists. “Don’t insult me with ‘memoirist’!” she jibes when I ask how she categorises herself. She says it with a grin, though she is undoubtedly being totally serious. Her life’s work is “nothing else but novels”.

For Debré, literature “is not about the story. It’s about how characters go through things, whatever the events are”. She is speaking over Zoom from a friend’s apartment in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, where she is spending a couple of months before returning—if only temporarily—to her home city of Paris, which is poised (at the time of writing) for both an election and this summer’s Olympic Games. She wears a black silk shirt, unbuttoned low, and regularly runs her hands over her closely shaved head. A tattoo, reading “plutôt crêver” (“I’d rather die”), is visible on her neck.

The unnamed protagonist in her bestselling trilogy of autobiographical novels has a shaved head and tattoos too. “But it’s not me, of course,” Debré says. “The main character is made out of me, but it’s not me at all. And the events are events from my life, but I’m just building characters, other characters. No question.”

The now 52-year-old author’s first book, Playboy, shocked readers when it was published in France in 2018. It follows the narrator’s transformation in her forties from professional, upper-class mother and wife (to a husband) to a lesbian who rejects a permanent home and gets rid of almost all her possessions, devoting herself to writing and love affairs. The novel, which has been published in English for the first time this year in a translation by Holly James, is explicit both in its descriptions of sex and desire and in its insistence on presenting a protagonist who is categorically uninterested in adhering to social norms.

France is “a very conventional country, bourgeois, middle-class,” says Debré. This explains the surprise with which many French readers received Playboy. But the focus on her shock factor above all else bores the author. “Are you kidding? Because I shaved my head and have two tattoos and I’m a lesbian?” she says, as though confronting her prudish readers. “I just can’t. Come on! I’ve been working on each sentence. It’s hard work, it’s not about my hair. ‘Shocking’, ‘exciting’, ‘thrilling’. Pah!” she says, condemning not just the critics, but her book’s marketers too.

The focus on her shock factor above all else bores the author

In France, the reception to her work goes one step further because of the public’s familiarity with her family name: Debré’s grandfather was Michel Debré, Charles de Gaulle’s prime minister, who wrote the country’s modern constitution. Her great-grandfather, Robert Debré, is considered the founder of modern paediatrics and has a Paris hospital named in his honour. Debré couldn’t care less. “My grandfather was the prime minister and… so? Shut up. It’s not about my fucking grandfather or my hairstyle.” 

Of course, it is really about the work. Across each of her slim volumes, Debré’s writing is taut, terse and direct. She writes in the first person and is fond of declarative sentences, such as “I prefer the truth of war over the hypocrisy of peace” and “The essence of couple life is being bored shitless”.

Debré’s style is “economic” and “even distanced”, says the TS Eliot Prize-winning poet Joelle Taylor, but “she balances it with a rich sensuousness that reminds us what it means to be a woman in lust with another woman in a heteronormative world. Her work is radical because she focuses on that eroticism, far from the male gaze, a private thing between women. It is this brute beauty that inspires me to create landscapes within my own work in which women like us can live: freely, problematically, beautifully.”

Debré’s plain yet intense style appears too in Love Me Tender (2020) which is Playboy’s sequel (but which was published in the UK in 2023). This novel follows the same unnamed protagonist as she experiences a tense legal battle against her ex-husband, Laurent, who seizes custody of their son, Paul, after she comes out as a lesbian. The trilogy concludes with Nom (2022), which explores the significance of escaping legacy and is due to be published in an English translation by Lauren Elkin in 2025. 

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Debré does not intend for her writing to shock. But if “there’s no risk, there’s no thrill,” she says, playfully. “There’s a risk in everything that matters. If I don’t find risk in my writing, it bores me.”

The facts of Debré’s life are fascinating, no matter how closely she wishes to align them with her fiction. She was born in 1972 to François Debré, an award-winning war reporter, and Maylis Ybarnégaray, a former model from an aristocratic family. “My mother was spectacular… My childhood memories are of me looking at her,” she writes, tantalisingly, in Playboy

But her childhood was fraught. Both of her parents suffered from substance addiction. In Love Me Tender the protagonist recalls her “first life”—the facts of which match Debré’s reality—“the one that came to an end when my mother died one morning in September, the year before I finished high school, because of drugs.” After Maylis’s early death, François continually tried and failed to get sober. He features in her first two novels as an elderly alcoholic, and died in 2020. 

Debré studied at Panthéon-Assas University, typically acknowledged as the best law school in France. She eventually abandoned the profession in 2015, but she recognises that it is the law that has been most influential on her style. “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than the French law of the beginning of the 19th century. It’s absolutely perfect, in terms of style. It’s lean and clear.” It was by using the law to craft her own speeches as a barrister that she learnt to use language with its full force. “I had to be very efficient. I loved that. The way I used language to defend [my clients], it was very serious, to get them out of jail or help them get the fairest sentence. I had to be very clear”—she slows down, enunciating for the benefit of doubt—“and precise to say very profound things. It was exciting. I wanted to use this experience in my books. That’s why it’s very direct. I grab the reader, as I was grabbing the judge or the jury.”

This scalpel-like stylistic approach makes the rebellious content of Debré’s novels resonate all the more. Her liberal approach to loving and living feels pertinent for the contemporary world. “But I get the sense that Debré isn’t concerned with categories,” says the poet and novelist Daisy Lafarge. “What’s so compelling about her novels is that they begin where others end. Debré’s protagonist begins in the aftermath of blowing up her life. Her question is less what if and more now what—how to proceed with dismantled structures, strained responsibilities and free-floating desire? I think readers are hungry for these kinds of unsentimental, queer narratives.”

‘I don’t care about the world being better. It’s not my job’

But Debré is not interested in being any kind of spokesperson for queer communities. Are we entering a new age of sexual liberation? “I don’t care. I don’t see the world in that way.” Would society function better if we all spoke more openly about the realities of sex? “I don’t care about the world being better. It’s not my job. I’m not a queer nation ambassador.”

She is unwilling even to get fired up about the court case at the centre of Love Me Tender, which concerns Paul, the protagonist’s then eight-year-old son. (Needless to say, this was a reality of Debré’s life too. Today he is a “great boy”, she assures me, who lives in Paris and is the sole reason she hasn’t left the city altogether.) 

In Love Me Tender, Laurent applies for sole custody of Paul with termination of the protagonist’s parental rights, accusing her of “incest and paedophilia”—clearly because of her newly realised sexuality. I suggest to Debré that, after working as a barrister, it must have been strange to find herself on the other side of the stand. It might even have reconfigured her notion of justice. 

But the story “is not about justice”, she says, ever matter-of-fact. “It’s life—it’s about that. It’s nothing new. In the old Greek authors, there are two lovers, separated, and then one of them keeps the children. It’s been like that forever: it’s nothing to be surprised about. That’s life. Life is not fair. It’s full of violence. We are violent to each other. This is a character who goes through different events, like trials in The Odyssey.”

Classical references appear often throughout our conversation, as do Debré’s other literary loves, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Blaise Pascal. Debré’s style and themes may appear very contemporary, “but what’s in my head is more the classics, because they really embrace the questions of the human condition,” she says. “Dostoevsky or whatever—it’s not about Russia two centuries ago. It’s about now, it’s about us. I like that. It is about what being alive means: going through trials, and seeing how well or not well you go through them.”

It would have been all too easy to make her protagonist “a victim of the patriarchy,” she says, laughing. “Uh, so boring! The thing was to propose something much more interesting and complex.” In doing so, Constance Debré knows she is claiming interest and complexity for her real life too.