There are two particular sets of hands in this story in addition to the hands referred to in the epigraph:
Only in our doing can we grasp you.
Only with our hands can we illumine you.
The mind is but a visitor:
It thinks us out of our world. Rainer Maria Rilke
The sets of hands belong to Camille Claudel, a French sculptor and to a nurse, Solange Poitier who, as the story begins, is travelling to Montdevergues Asylum near Avignon on a September day in 1943. Solange will become the chief caregiver for Camille who was committed to the asylum by her brother with her mother’s consent in 1913. “Hands” could also refer to or represent the many letters written by Camille from the asylum in an attempt to reestablish some form of contact with the outside world and/or to get someone to rescue her. She wrote many letters to her younger self as well: the only person she believed would listen to her or hear her or, perhaps, could share what she had been through.
Camille’s hands would also represent the work she had done in her earlier years: she was known to be good at hands and feet and it was believed she may have sculpted the hands and feet of the men represented in one of Rodin’s most famous works, The Burghers of Calais completed in 1889. It is said that the hands she has sculpted seem to be reaching out at times and trying to grasp something and that they appear to be reaching for a connection. Her hands it would seem have brought a living quality to the bodies she sculpts and gives a sense of an emotional life to the subjects according to some who have studied her work.
Claudel was born in 1864 in France: her father was a civil servant and her mother a housewife. She had a brother Paul and a sister Louise. Her relationship with her mother was tumultuous it would seem since she was headstrong and rebellious. She writes in her later years about how her mother “remained steadfast…in refusing to let me sculpt her.” When she did do a portrait in pastels of her mother, the latter found fault with it saying she looked too stern and her eyes were too far apart. :”For a time Maman’s portrait hung above the vanity in her bedroom. “So this is how I look to you, my girl?” she said one night as she was brushing her hair, its darkness barely threaded with grey. “And I thought a daughter loved her mother.” Always, it seems, there was tension between them and Maman did not approve of a woman doing what Camille wanted to do and insisted upon doing regardless. She recalls how when she was very young she had “delved with both hands into muck and murk, shaping faces out of mud, to Maman’s great disgust. All I had thought of was the chance, ooh-la-la, to study with a great artist, even persuading Papa to move our family – Maman, our brother, sister, and me – to Paris.”
When, at eighteen, she and her friend first go to the atelier where Monsieur sculpts they experienced “a tenacious joy”: “Everywhere, stacked and scattered over worktables and shelves, were body parts shaped from clay or plaster-cast. Torsos, heads, arms, legs. A limbo of fragments, as if plucked from a battlefield. My friend was agog. In this purgatory of white lay paradise.”
And so Camille’s work began in earnest. She writes in one of her letters about Rodin’s hands: “His hands were those of an angel. I let myself think, that strong and graceful. Our strength and grace – call it what you want – burned into whatever we touched.”
Camille became Rodin’s mistress. Needless to say, her mother was violently opposed. Her brother cautioned her. The objections meant nothing to her: she was driven forward by her passion for her work and for Rodin himself inspite of her awareness that he had a “wife” with whom he lived and whom he had no intention of leaving. When that “wife” (Rose) visited Camille and warned her, Camille could not hear Rose for the anger that overwhelmed her.
It was a recipe for disaster and Camille is committed. Carol Bruneau’s novel about Camille’s years in the asylum is told alternately by Solange Poitier and through letters from Camille. There are excellent sources of information on Claudel and her work on the internet, there have been movies produced but the best are only in French or will not play in North America or are very expensive it seems but there is this site where Carol Bruneau discusses the process and the book.
Whether Camille Claudel and her work is new to you or whether you are aware of it, you will enjoy meeting her in this book.
The last words go to Solange Poitier:
“There’s nothing to fear, nothing that’s too painful to bear when you’re in good hands, so the midwife-sister had assured me. Yet fear had muscled in, of course, in the greyness of my lying strapped to a gurney. Never forget the pain, though;remembering it might keep you out of trouble, might even help you. It did, too,making it easier, maybe, to imagine myself being inside the skins of some patients.”