Surviving A Massacre—Catherine Meurisse And Art’s Curative Power

Scene from La Légèreté
Scene from La Légèreté, by Catherine Meurisse

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

Catherine Meurisse
Catherine Meurisse, Graphic Novelist

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”.

Bangladeshi Sweat Shop, Catherine
Bangladeshi Sweat Shop, by Catherine Meurisse

La Légèreté

La Légèreté, cover art
La Légèreté, by Catherine Meurisse

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.

Page from La Légèreté
Page from La Légèreté

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

Les Grands espaces, cover art
Les Grands espaces, by Catherine Meurisse

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.

Page from Les Grands espaces
Page from Les Grands espaces

The French Academy of Fine Arts, Delacroix and Dumas

Delacroix, cover art
Delacroix, by Catherine Meurisse

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.

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

7 Comments

  1. Truly I hope for the best for her. As a blogger, I’m keenly aware of the vital importance of free expression and of defending it against all threats. Those who fought and suffered for Charlie Hebdo’s work fought and suffered for us all.

    My dictionary translates légèreté as fickleness or frivolity, which is a bit different from “lightness”. Perhaps she had something like “transience” or “superficiality” in mind? Translation always loses something.

    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.

    I imagine different people find very different paths to coping and recovery from such horrific trauma. For a person with a great specific talent, perhaps that talent helps save them.

    I did watch the video. To me that ability to make what look like casual scratches with a pen, and somehow have them form a perfect drawing that looks like what she wanted to produce, always seems like some weird kind of magic. I can’t draw worth anything, certainly not like that. I’m sure she studied, but there must be some innate ability that not everybody has.

    • I’m glad you mention the word Légèreté. I agree that Lightness isn’t a very good translation. I was thinking of the title as meaning ‘living free of burdens’, ‘keeping away from heavy subjects, situations, and responsibilities’, ‘feeling the sensation of a weight having been lifted off your shoulders’. Not easy to put into words. After reading your comment, and knowing that Catherine had chosen a title with a double meaning for Les Grands Espaces, I’m now thinking about a second possibility, ‘not taking things seriously’ maybe even “blowing things off”.

      I’m hoping a native speaker will see this and weigh in with their interpretation.

      I too am a hopeless artist and agree that the artistic expression that seems to come easily to some people is partially due to innate talent.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Mary Beth Seifert

    Enjoyed it, Carol.

  3. Carol, I just entered a lengthy comment that disappeared, and I have to enter all my info and attest to my human status every time. Would you check your spam filter?

    The post was super—all of it.

    • Oh no Annie. I’m so sorry. Would have loved reading your comment. Thanks for letting me know about the hassles and not giving up in frustration. I thought I’d eliminated the name, email, and captcha problem after another reader mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. But I just found another level of security that I just turned off and hope that this time, I’ve fixed the problem for good.

      I also checked spam but unfortunately, your comment was not in there. Again, my apologies. I appreciate the feedback.

    • Hi Annie, Infidel753 just tried to reply to your comment with some advice but was unable to leave his message so he emailed it to me. Here is his reply.

      “Annie: Recently I’ve had some problems with comments disappearing like that at some WordPress blogs (though not here at Cas d’intérêt) and I’ve found an easy way to mitigate the problem. Before clicking “post comment”, I highlight the entire text of the comment and do control-C to copy it. That way the whole text of the comment (HTML and all) is copied, and if it disappears, I can paste it to a document in WordPad or whatever, and try to post it again later or e-mail it to the blogger. Better than having a whole lot of writing just vanish. You might want to try making that a habit. The internet can be glitchy sometimes.”

      I’ve just cleared all my server’s caches in the hopes that there was some sort of latent incompatibility that’s to blame.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.