Annie Fatet


Annie Fatet is an artist who made ceramics before tackling words as a translator. She still likes experimenting, with words and form, writing about life and making art. She has been foraging wild mushrooms for the last sixty years. An exhibition of her ceramics with words is due soon.


View as PDF: Annie Fatet - Preliminaries to Writing

Preliminaries to writing 


Coal – store – cahiers – poetry – filth – words – fire – danger – Don Quichotte

Set the scene

Coal: dig for it, mine for it. Get it up to the surface, deliver it down the coal hole, fetch it from the cellar in battered buckets that stain hands and legs, pour it down the mouth of the stove, poke around to dislodge clinker and loosen ash, close the top of the stove; ashes, cinders.

The coal hole is rimmed with accumulated black dust, caked.

The dark soot dislodged by a chimney sweep can be laid in dark lines round the edges of allotment plots to discourage gastropods.

Now, it’s all mixed up: coal, wood, country, city, craft, industry, wood in the stove; fed, fed in, fed in again. Opening the hinged top every 20 minutes or so to feed in more branches, offcuts from the workshop, shavings, greasy paper from the butchers, sweepings, a few eggs of coal to make it last, everything it will take to stop it going out, not to let the flame go out.

Wood and paper leave next to nothing, ash that shakes down to a fine powder. A nearly nothing that goes up the nostrils when you blow on it. A dead smell, a dirty sneeze.

Coal chutes, the slits at the base of the house walls, the imagined chasms of the mineshafts that circle and shape the city and the farmland round Saint-Etienne. Talk about gems, squashed between leaves of anthracite, ferns splayed flat, horsetail with all its phalanxes distinct, small creatures tightly curled. None of the coal lumps we tipped on our fires ever split open to reveal such treasures, but proper coal mining families have one on the mantelpiece, the finest examples are in the museum. So in order to get at what I imagine are the gems that lie deep and hidden, that I have been hoarding for a lifetime, I will look at what may be blocking that coal hole, the entrance to the mineshaft.

Before writing proper can begin, there is all that to clear, coal dust and clinker, the black diamond, same chemical formulation, so they say. Where is the difference then?

I descend.

A memory arises. It may not be the first but it is the most powerful. It is of Marthe’s cahiers, school exercise books, with the standard French format, ten-millimetre, marked horizontally with four faint blue lines between two darker ones, and a vertical red line to the side to indicate the margin. There was vellum paper that took well to ink writing and brouillon, that drank and blurred when you wrote with an ink pen. The ones I am thinking of were the lesser quality brouillon ones, meant to be written on with a pencil or a Bic (Bic pens had just come onto the market).

Marthe was left-handed and had a large and broad scrawl which meant that she only used every other line. Sometimes, her writing wouldn’t follow the lines, as if she didn’t see them at all and it would dance up or downwards. She said she wrote the story of her life. She said she wrote poems. She read me one or two, sometimes. I can’t remember what they were. She would flick through the pages, untidy and sometimes marked with grease from time spent on the unevenly cleared table. She would flick through, in an energetic gesture that bruised the bottom right hand corner of the page until she found something suitable for a child. I really cannot remember what they were about, not childish things, I don’t think. Perhaps nature (she could be quite lyrical when we went to pick mousserons and dandelions together and visit the farmers up the valley to get fresh goats milk) or the faraway places she dreamed of. She had once stolen into a plane at the local airfield. Already thin, she had tucked herself in the space behind the seat and gone up undetected. Her baptême de l’air she often recounted (je t’ai déjà raconté?), sometimes looping the loop, sometimes being found out, other times stealing out undetected, walking on the wing. She often talked of going much further, to the other side of the world. We would look at the jets that had started to crisscross the sky with white lines. There was then the sense of sharing a secret, of being party to an adult’s precious world of aspiration and dreams.

This was the time I had started going to school, beginning to read and learning to write in exercise books that had to be kept tidy, written on every line and whose pages had to be turned carefully in order to keep it all in good shape to the last. Writing with ink, scratching uneasily the loops and ascending slopes of the letters required a great deal of concentration. There were marks for tidiness as well as accuracy.

But the memory that still burns in my mind is the moment, fixed as in a film still of Mémé, her heavy glasses askew, falling from her eyes, feeding one of Marthe’s cahiers into the woodstove in the kitchen. Flames were leaping, the book was open, stabbed and torn by Mémé’s action with the iron stoker. The words that had run on the page in Marthe’s bold scrawl were blackening and melting, the paper starting to disintegrate. Once she had been sure the fire had taken, Mémé had stuffed the rest of the book, forcing it through the square aperture and quickly snapping the lid on. She had gone on cursing Marthe and signing herself at the same time “cochonneries, des cochonneries, elle devrait être honteuse, la dévergondée etc” . I don’t know whether I was meant to see and hear. I was sent to do my homework, in my own neat books.

Later, I looked in the cupboard where all sorts of things were kept - missals, a Pleiade copy of Don Quichotte, nails, rolls of smooth extruded lead wire for fuses, needles and cotton, odd buttons - and where Marthe tucked away cahiers and letters in a sheaf behind the rest. Nothing was there. Had Mémé burnt them all or had Marthe taken what was left and hidden them?

Of course the little girl didn’t realise it then. But from that day, I think I knew that some words were dangerous, poems were dangerous. The subversion of words was. Neat words blistered the thin paper of missals, where goodness lay in wait. But there were those, naked, marked in Bic on yellowed pulp, that could scare and burn. Words could become incandescent. People cried, people had red eyes and angry outbursts over them. Words on paper were not quiet, they could hurt and derange.

Go deeper. Do not exercise restraint: this experience has branded and influenced my life to this day.

The loops and marks of writing, the scratch and splutter of the arrowhead shaped sergent-major nib loaded with ink were perhaps the first things that went to my gut, the frisson created by the excitement of making a mark that would be recognised and the fear that it would be spoilt by my lack of control of the implement, the way the nib took on a life of its own, the springiness of it. If one of the ends of the split nib caught on the paper, through applying too much pressure on an upward slant, the splutter would create an indelible evidence of my clumsiness. This was no pencil you could erase, but the no return, the point at which the notion of original sin took meaning. You were entering the age of reason when nothing could be forgotten or forbidden any more.

Fail, tumble, danger.

Hardly surprising that writing the difficult is either a blurt of unmentionables, or a restrained view that only gives a glimpse, as through a smoky window - I am not really here. You cannot get too close.

Marthe, she wasn’t educated. Of course, she had been to school, a catholic pension where she was a day pupil, and where education was filtered through religion, where literature wasn’t read or studied unless it was allowed through the imprimatur, where texts were studied truncated and abridged in the Petit Larousse collection.

But she had spirit, she breathed the sun and the moon and the sky, she wanted to be somewhere else, she burst with angst and nostalgia. And she said she wrote poems. Not that she was a poet but that what she wrote aspired to be poetry. She looked intense when she was saying that, one of the only times I remember her without the mocking smile at the corner of the mouth or in the eye.

In this family, the aspiration was to be good at the craft, the craft of turning material into objects that would serve a purpose: first, cars that would work and carry speedily the local notaries in safety and comfort, then toys that would roll smoothly and not break or injure a child, that the shops would put on re-order in January if possible to ensure work from one year’s end to the other.

The reading matter was mostly the local paper and its serial or the stories in the Petit Echo de la Mode that I read avidly, the romantic interleaved with knitting patterns and dressmaking instructions, the simple happy ever after and complex industry. She must have read them too as she was the one who subscribed to the magazine. The dining room cupboard contained dark red and gold prize books from the twenties, a lurid ‘transcript’ of Joan of Arc’s trial, lives of the saints describing thrilling ecstasies, an illustrated Swiss Family Robinson. But as far as I remember there was no ‘literature’, no poetry. Yet Marthe was writing poetry, she was sure and adamant about it and deadly serious. I was learning the world, we had had a few poems at school, written by pious country vicars, or fables from La Fontaine that we learned by heart, the ones with suitably bucolic and animalistic themes: the wolf and the lamb, the fox and the raven, the fox and the grapes, the farmer and his children. I was discovering and absorbed easily all the mysteriously wild wolves, foxes, lions, interacting with what I knew, lambs, grapes, ravens.

Words and their shapes, looped and shiny from the intense ink. The most vivid memory was of the words following the slant of my aunt’s loose untidy script, dripping from the burning page into the fire, the white of the page and faint blue lines turning black as the flames took, the black gaining, then the paper ash, still formed into a page, falling into shreds that flew round for a bit before dropping to the floor and breaking up into flakes. The words that were consumed, disappeared so as not to pollute a child’s innocence, to spare me (from what?). This could have been the moment when I understood their power, and their danger. Maybe. The danger of writing the unmentionable, the power to trespass and for that trespass to incur annihilation. But at that moment also came the attraction, the curiosity about what wasn’t yet known. Could it have been as early as that, I was maybe six or seven, only just getting fluent at forming the letters into tidy script that aimed to be elegant; mastery and the satisfaction if brought with it.

On recommence; les mots, la poésie, les poèmes, Marthe, l’intrépide, le risque, le danger. Voilà, on y arrive. On boucle la boucle. Les mots, les mots sur la page c’est Marthe. C’est la première qui a vu mes cahiers d’école, qui a commenté. J’en ai un vague souvenir, peut-être réinventé, peu importe. Mais c’était elle qui était là, pour aller me chercher à l’école, me voir former les lettres ; et moi la voir avec ses cahiers comme les miens, mais pas soignés, dont elle était libre. Les mots qui filent et se déroulent, c’est elle (…)

The text I was writing has moved to French, jumped the divide without me realising immediately. The rhythm is different, some things I don’t need to explain anymore, it flows as from a source. What do I do with this new text which replicates and may not add much to parts of the original one in English but has a different feel, an ease with the language and the events alluded to, no need to explain. Yet the translation of it (cursory and plain) doesn’t convey the fluidity of the French. There are paragraphs and paragraphs I don’t yet know what to do with.

Lies – truth – autre maman – mémé – before – a lorry - danger

Can’t do plot. Can’t do suspense. Can’t do nothing sometimes.

So I decide to go see down there what is happening.

Below the surface, what is holding it up? Holding it up in the sense of keeping it shored up and holding it up in the sense of stopping it from happening. The writing, any writing I might have a desire to put to paper. So I started and there they were, the aunt who wrote, and the grandmother who was scared and did not want her daughter to write. What was so dangerous, what was Marthe writing that Mémé found so dangerous? Was she just frightened of knowledge, of culture; had she listened to too many sermons from Monsieur le Curé? She was old, very old, seemed immensely old and alien to a little girl, the little girl as I said before, who was learning to write.

I hate to repeat myself but I want to get to the bottom of it, I need to get to the bottom of it if this enterprise is to have any sense.

What if. What if Mémé wanted to burn, did burn Marthe’s writing not because it was filthy (des cochonneries) but because it was lies, she wanted it to be lies? What if Marthe had been writing the story of her life, as she said she was, and her own version uncovered things that had not been said, that had been covered until then? What if Marthe was simply telling the truth, no dirty words or deeds involved?

The truth about what? Why was Marthe’s truth so impossible for Mémé to consider, to entertain, to let be, so essential to destroy?

What if? What if? What? Quoi?

Mémé - she was old, she rarely smiled, she cried or rather tears escaped from her eyes and would gather where the heavy rim of her spectacles bit into the soft swollen flesh, like a dam. Sometimes she would let them fall, other times she would dab the liquid with the clean corner of a crumpled handkerchief or, when she had searched her pocket unsuccessfully, a flap of her dark widow’s apron. To the child, she had always been like that, that was what made her Mémé.

What if Mémé had a secret sorrow, a secret? The legs that barely worked, the body that she complained about constantly, pains, aches, innards giving her trouble, knees and hips seizing up (although the upper limbs could still stir and peel and her hand could swiftly fly to slap a child’s bottom), what if all that had been to keep her from running?

When I later heard about Mr. Freud, I thought then that his methods could have been of use to Marthe. It never occurred to me that they could have been equally apt to my grandmother.

And the whole family, while he was at it. That would be putting a lot of faith in Mr. Freud that maybe he doesn’t warrant. Would he have helped them get to the truth? Would he have helped them untie the knots of the stories, unravel the lies, the white ones and the plain ones, the evasions and concealments?

Then I didn’t know any of that: there was an aunt I liked very much who could be funny and got up to a lot of bêtises and sometimes cried and sometimes looked dreamy and talked of faraway places and, and, and…

There was my grandmother who sighed. She also shouted and grumbled and cried silently. The deep vertical lines to the sides of her mouth pulled the corners down. The rare times she caught herself smiling, she checked herself fast, back to dour. Her voice only softened for her youngest son who she worried about, and fed the morning broth his errant wife wouldn’t prepare for him. Mon Dieu Mon Dieu Mon Dieu.

She didn’t tell stories. There was a rosary, always about, that she worked through her hands when she sat by the stove and her lips moved to prayers. Incantations. She never told stories. Never told me any. Just avant-guerre, sometimes la grande guerre, or entre les deux guerres, pendant la guerre, comparing quality of goods and foodstuffs, scarcity and abundance, hardship and survival, often to no one in particular. Somewhere around la grand-guerre and beyond there was l’autre maman. She may still have been there, there was always a look as if she was somewhere in another room, about to turn the creaky doorknob and enter. She never did turn up. I never wondered whether other families had one, an autre maman. She was there somewhere, so was God, watching and grumbling occasionally, a God you only got to meet, really, when you were not there anymore. Another mother, when would she appear? I don’t think I ever asked. It went without saying.

All I know…

All I know?

I knew nothing then, only the appearance of what a family was: a grandmother, an aunt, uncles in the basement workshop who came and went and made noise and created disorder, but that was work. Parents who were somewhere else, earning a crust. An autre maman (other mummy) who I never saw but was spoken of more often than my own maman. My maman who came and went, brothers, sisters that I became responsible for when they came into the world, being the eldest. A car that didn’t belong to us but that my father drove and went away in, always went away in. It smelt of sadness. A lorry, matt khaki with grey patches, a bumpy snub nose, a flatbed and a tarpaulin that hooked to the sides through eyelets like a monstrous piece of corsetry. The uncles drove and parked it up the steep path by the house. It needed a big triangular block of wood wedged under the back wheel to keep it from slipping back, which it did once or twice when one or the other uncle forgot. It had worried Mémé greatly. She sighed and she prayed. Nothing must happen that would get us in the papers. I joined my hands and prayed for everyone including the dead every night, Mémé made sure of that.

The aunt who went about on a bicycle, the saddlebags bulging with empty bottles to take back to the shop to get the deposit back. Rattle and noise that Mémé complained about - would the neighbours think we drank too much? The saddlebags were less full but sagged silently with the weight of liquid when Marthe returned late, long after the shop had closed, eyes glazed, and went for a rest.

Bottles, empty bottles. Everywhere. Cologne, surgical spirit, ether, gnole, good wine were kept locked in bedroom cupboards, keys rattled in the pocket of Mémé’s dark underskirt.

Bottles in ditches, in the pond, in the nettles and brambles that filled unkempt corners of the garden, in the gaps between the woodpiles. Brown and all shades of green and clear, they could set the dry grass on fire on a hot summer day if the sun happened to… Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu.


Here she is. Stupid. All this time she thought that Mémé’s wrath was because Marthe had written something rude, something to do with sex or longing. And all this time it was about Marthe, the great liar, disclosing the great unsaid in the family.

No, unsaid is not the right word. It was said: l’autre maman. How clear was that? Crystal to all of them, they all knew her or of her. Except… the child, the little one.

She knew about absent fathers, and notre père qui êtes aux cieux, our father in heaven, a man with a beard who sat on his haunches, on a cloud, and who rained hail and shone sun. And the mother of god, always looking upwards, pure.

But other mothers, no images, she did not have an image then, she had letters, initials, J.S., touched in uncertain brush strokes at the corner of a faded watercolour or embroidered on linen, on hankies and on stiff chemises in the wardrobe that she sometimes secretly unfolded and felt. Harsh and grey of unworn new linen.

They were stupid, stupefyingly stupid. She curses their idiocy, their naïve assumption that if you didn’t talk about it, didn’t explain, it would naturalise, it would become the normal mode for the family. She curses them, their ignorance and their shame, and her embarrassment at coming from such a ridiculously unsophisticated family. What she feels most of all is the shame and the resentment at the fuzziness of who was what. Yet, beneath all, she is touched by the very silliness of them that makes her squirm and moved by their poor attempt at making the world coherent again, at not forgetting, at composting and integrating, at making the second mother fit somehow, replace the other one. The clever one, the one who embroidered and played the piano and knitted and painted watercolours. The one who had been chosen by the grandfather to have his children.

Now she wonders. When did the second set of children learn that their older siblings were not quite that, a hybrid between cousins and siblings, a bit more than half of the one, a bit less than all of the other. A confused family.

And Marthe, the glaringly dysfunctional one. Sowing seeds (she liked gardening and was bountiful with the seed packets, scattering lettuce and radish to the four winds), making marks, leaving clues. Filling her body with drink and food and disgorging. Signifying the embodiment of malheur. A hysterical jester to comment and mock, touch to tears and pirouette away, on the wing.