Katie Shireen Assef translating Claire Legendre

The Muse

How I met Deborah Creutz, I don’t remember. I know one night I said to her, like Chabrol to Emmanuelle Béart, that she had the face of an angel and the body of a whore. It was true, it was horrible what she did to me. I bought her a drink, I asked her to pose for me. She was not enthusiastic. She ended up following me anyway, she let me touch her hand. Her fingertips were soft and cool. When I tried to caress her neck, she turned her head sharply and her cheek brushed my palm. Stubborn and intractable, she despised me, she seduced me. She was beautiful and outspoken and proud and affected.
       While we walked, she kept saying to me you know I’m not an object, I won’t be your object, I don’t need you. Men who use women like playthings, for their looks and their softness, I find them ridiculous, repulsive. The outraged air she put on – her pout, her eyes and her whole face too open, too eager – said exactly the opposite, said take me, love me, make me sublime. But her goddamn fin-de-siècle feminism kept her from giving in to her own desires, from submitting to them.
       Once naked, she blamed me for having forced her into it. A rape you consent to, my dear, is not a rape, I said, and that only hurt her, appalled her even more. She whispered, and it was like a scream, she stared me down like a hunter.
       Even naked, even motionless she kept on fighting me. I was losing my mind standing there with my brushes, thinking now that this woman – the most beautiful woman – is here, in my studio, naked and furious, I’m going to have to paint her, I’m going to have to make something of her, to sublimate her – god, I hate that word – to make her see herself, to make her see that I was right to want her, to demand this of her. Sooner or later, if I wanted to win her trust, I'd have to make her see my talent.
       I knew that Deborah Creutz needed money. I knew she didn’t have a choice, that she would come anyway, no matter what. And I knew she hated me for leaving her no choice. To assuage her a little, to take the edge off her disgust, I’d promised that she would be proud of the painting. That it would be magnificent because I had this love for her, this strange and somewhat fanatic love that would guide my brush. Each day, I made rough sketches that she asked to see and that I hid from her because I wasn’t satisfied. She could sense it. I invented rituals, superstitions to justify my secretiveness. She made herself believe me. She wanted my work to be good, for me to be a genius. It would be more impressive, it would put her in a more flattering light to say “I posed for a great artist” than “I prostituted myself for a talentless creep.”
       A few weeks passed and she still hadn’t seen anything, but her desire to trust me soon became its own kind of trust. She would tell me about her troubles, her moods, and I’d walk her home. Sometimes she would invite me out for a drink. She teased me: so when are you going to show me? Or, laughing: if you don’t want to show me, you must not like it, you must think it’s ugly, you’re afraid I’ll scream in horror. I could see it in her eyes, she wanted nothing less than to be enraptured.
       Meanwhile, I was incapable of producing anything at all. I froze at the sight of my model, too beautiful, too perfect, too miraculously accessible. The sight of her body, her face, put me in a state of near helplessness. Could I ever paint anything more sublime than this woman? I found myself incapable of simply conveying her beauty with the tools at hand. This is the first thing we learn in art school: drawing the nude, anatomy, proportion. I forgot all that as soon as she undressed. I sketched her with a hideous scowl on her face, I could draw only monsters, poor little whores with scrawny asses I’d erase and draw over with grotesquely exaggerated curves. I was mortified behind my oversized sketchbook, like a kid who’s dreamed of Sharon Stone for ten years and suddenly finds her naked and languid on his bed, and who shits himself right there, who won’t touch her for fear of not being equal to the task.
       Deborah Creutz had lovers – whose every performance she’d made a habit of describing to me – and given the nature of our relationship, it went without saying that she expected more from me than from any of them. These men were all handsome and empty, she told me. I don’t think she meant to make any demands on me at the time. She simply needed to believe in me and spoke to me in the manner she judged appropriate.
       One day, in a moment of unbearable doubt, I sat down and pored over my CV, reviewing all the “successful” works I’d made, the list of paintings sold and their prices. I found myself reminiscing about those charmed days when plain-looking girls would come and sit for me, flattered that I’d asked them; they'd have done it for free if I hadn’t insisted on paying. I remembered my joy at learning that the City of Paris was granting me a studio-residence, one of the first signs of recognition for my work. I played the film of my career trajectory over in my head, looking back on how I’d made it here, selling my work for more and more money, painting more and more beautiful women. And now? I had reached the final threshold, I had convinced Deborah Creutz, the most beautiful and desirable of them all – and the most untouchable – to undress right here, in front of me, and I couldn’t fucking handle it.
       She was becoming more and more affectionate toward me, and I was nothing but a sham. Her desire to see the work that was supposed to seal our union was becoming more urgent by the day. She begged me, she thought I was making her wait the better to astonish her, that I was holding back like the best of lovers. She prompted me again and again to show her the work, attributing all my refusals to a skillful and feigned modesty.
       Finally, one night, I had no other choice than to give her a date. Her eyes shone so brightly, her smile looked so promising that, a little drunk, probably, I told her the “painting” would be finished the following Friday. We had already been working on it for four months; I had never devoted so much time to one painting, and she knew it. I'd made the mistake of telling her, at the start of our collaboration.
       All week long the rope tightened around my neck, threatening to strangle me. I tried one last time to salvage my sketches, adding red, blue and yellow to the lines, hoping that by some miracle I could bring them to life, give them even a touch of majesty and grace, make them into something I wouldn’t be ashamed of. I prayed for the first time in my life, with a real, intense devotion. Nothing came of it but a few more desperate scribbles. My whole being was possessed by Deborah Creutz, I knew every millimeter of her body, could dissect and reconstruct it in my mind; she was the sole landscape I had inhabited these last four months.
       I considered killing myself on Thursday night, but knew I couldn’t go through with it.
       When she rang the doorbell on Friday at the appointed hour, I crouched down and hid in a corner of the apartment, sweating and crying like a baby. I could hear her perky little voice saying come on, dear, I know you’re there, what a way to set the scene, aren’t you being a little silly, now? And I shuddered with the heavy metal object in my hands, for the life of me not even remembering what it was for, and when I finally opened the door I shoved it right in her face, she collapsed against the doorframe, and I felt a great relief come over me. 

Le Crépuscule de Barbe-Bleue by Claire Legendre © 2001, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle. 

Katie Shireen Assef

Katie Shireen Assef is a writer and translator of French living in Los Angeles. She is currently translating the novels of French writer and multimedia artist Valérie Mréjen

Claire Legendre

Claire Legendre was born in 1979 in Nice. Her first novel, Making-of, appeared when she was eighteen. She has since published nine works of fiction and non-fiction, most recently Le Nénuphar et l'araignée, an investigative memoir about hypochondria. She teaches writing and comparative literature at the University of Montreal. 

Photo credit: Lou Scamble