Yesterday marked the 6-year anniversary of the savage terrorist attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. That morning, two gunmen killed 12 members of Charlie Hebdo’s staff and left 11 injured. I wrote about one of the courageous survivors, Coco, back in 2017. The word courageous, however, doesn’t do justice to the actions of the members of Charlie’s talented team who were spared that day. Many of these cartoonists and editorialists remained steadfast in their support of the publication’s mission to provoke controversy by lampooning politicians, religion, and pop culture. I recently finished reading two bandes dessinées by Catherine Meurisse, another survivor of the horrific assault. Once again, I’m blown away by the resiliency, depth, and productive output of someone who, by all rights, you’d expect to be devastated to the point of paralysis.
Camus’ Absurdity Times Ten
When people mention Catherine Meurisse’s luck at having escaped a violent death, she quickly corrects them. She attributes her fate to random chance rather than luck. On January 7, 2021, she overslept, then missed her bus to work. As random chance would have it, Catherine (her cartooning pen name) arrived at Charlie Hebdo, a few minutes after the two attackers had seized her colleague Coco at the magazine’s entrance. Witnesses had watched as the terrorists dragged Coco inside, then coerced her into letting them into the secured editorial offices of the popular weekly. So, when Catherine approached the office, friends on the street called out and told her to remain outside.
Wanting to avoid danger, yet unwilling to abandon their captured colleagues, Catherine and two of her co-workers took shelter in the offices of a neighboring business. Crouched in fear, they waited as the ear-splitting sound of automatic weapon-fire penetrated the walls. Hoping the shots were being fired into the air, they were later horrified to learn that many of their cherished colleagues had been killed or seriously injured. The next day, Catherine assumed she would never be able to draw again until her fellow cartoonist, Rénald Luzier, texted her a proposed cover image for Charlie’s next issue.
Wanting to contribute to the publication, yet feeling completely gutted of all inspiration, Catherine put pen to paper. After immeasurable angst and hours of worthless scribbling, she produced the cartoon below. Drawn in Charlie’s classically irreverent style, the comic embodies the publication’s commitment to mockery and its devotion to exposing irony in all of its forms. The caption reads “Meanwhile in Bangladesh”. The drawing shows emaciated, shoeless, and toothless workers, happily toiling away behind sewing machines. Their product? “Je suis Charlie” t-shirts, destined to be worn briefly, then discarded, by middle and upper class westerners. The chap in the foreground is cheering “we’re with you all the way”.
After working on that first issue that went to print a week after the attack, Catherine’s cartooning abilities along with her memory cataclysmically vanished into thin air. She had worked at Charlie Hebdo for 10 years. The arts had always been a necessary and therapeutic part of her life. But now, in addition to loosing her dearest friends and mentors, she was losing her ability to create and could no longer recall moments of inspiration or pleasure from her past.
Catherine recounts her devastating collapse and hard-fought recovery in the book La Légèreté, (the English translation Lightness is available on Kindle). The path she travels to reclaim a functioning life evokes the trials and triumphs of some of France’s greatest literary masters: Baudelaire, Proust, and Stendahl. In addition to plumbing these authors’ lives for answers, Catherine attempts to immerse herself in beauty, finding solace in nature and inescapable violence in the tableaux and sculptures of history.
Her grief-laden journey is by turns alarming, touching, inspiring, and lastly humorous. Despite Catherine’s portrayal of potentially heart-wrenching subject-matter, her work caused me to laugh out loud on several occasions. Whether or not you’re a fan of graphic novels, Catherine’s story and her art are well worth lingering over.
Les Grands Espaces
In La Légèreté, Catherine Meurisse writes about loss and the connections to nature and art that returned her to a stable existence. In her next autobiographical album, Les Grands Espaces (the English translation The Great Outdoors is available on Kindle), she writes about her idyllic childhood. When she was 6 years old, her parents purchased a large but run-down estate in the countryside. There they moved with their two daughters to begin a bucolic life together. Her parents had both grown up in rural settings and had myriad talents for cultivating plants, repairing equipment, and restoring their dilapidated farmhouse.
I’m not happy about the English translation of the title. The French title has a dual meaning. Catherine is referring to both the wide-open spaces in which she and her sister played and to the wide-open spaces where her imagination and independence were allowed to soar. The ambiance of this book reflects its subject matter, playful, humorous, and unburdened. However, much like La Légèreté, Catherine manages to intertwine references to some of France’s greatest creative figures: Le Nôtre, Montaigne, Rabelais, Fragonard, and Courbet among others.
Overall, I found Les Grands Espaces to be a delightful escape from the stressful goings-on taking place across the United States. I highly recommend it to other nature-loving francophiles.
The French Academy of Fine Arts, Delacroix and Dumas
If you’re still uncertain about the extent of Catherine Meurisse’s brilliance, it might be helpful to know that last January, she was the first cartoonist to be elected to France’s Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Centre Pompidou, home to France’s National Modern Art Gallery, has been running an exposition of Catherine’s work since September. The exhibit features plates taken from her more than 30 albums. Not bad for someone who was born in 1980.
In her most recent album, Delacroix, Catherine joins co-author Alexander Dumas in recounting the famed romantic painter’s life. The book’s scenario is lifted from a causerie that Dumas delivered shortly after the death of his lifelong friend, Eugène Delacroix. On many of the pages, Catherine deviates from her clean and minimalistic, Sempé-esque style to capture the flamboyant nature of Delacroix’s tableaux. I’ll definitely be adding this to my 2021 reading list. For now, I leave you with a short video of Catherine explaining her own techniques for bringing the book’s central character to life.
- Le Temps, Catherine Meurisse, la dessinatrice qui donne envie de lire Proust
- France Inter, Catherine Meurisse : “La liberté, je l’ai apprise à Charlie, mais je dois la défendre encore plus maintenant”
- Youtube, Comment la dessinatrice Catherine Meurisse a retrouvé La Légèreté
- LECTHOT, Entretien avec Catherine Meurisse
- Centre Pompidou, Catherine Meurisse, La Vie en Dessin