A Modern Instance

The Affair of Gabrielle Russier

with a Preface by Raymond Jean, an Introduction by Mavis Gallant
Knopf, 177 pp., $5.95

Gabrielle Russier had her hair cut very short. There were private reasons enough for that: to suit her sharp little face, to look more like the boys and girls she taught at the lycée, to define her own severely independent style as a femme divorcée who was an intellectual and—in a Latin land—kept herself. But when one looks back upon her fate, the cropped hair seems like a sort of blind preadaptation. In 1944, at the Liberation, they shaved the hair of girls who had slept with Germans and thrust them into the street to face the jeering crowds.

It was not with an occupation but with a threatened revolution that Gabrielle Russier had collaborated. She was a teacher at a Marseille lycée who fell into a love affair with one of her pupils in the “annus mirabilis” of 1968. She was charged with “leading a minor astray,” imprisoned without trial, and finally given a suspended sentence. The public prosecutor appealed, demanding a higher penalty. After a long nervous breakdown, Gabrielle Russier gassed herself in September, 1969, before the retrial could take place.

Many years had to pass before those who recoiled at the hideousness of what was done to young girls in 1944 found that the French public was prepared, uneasily enough, to listen to their reproaches. Not all are prepared yet, in the view of their masters: the terrifying film Le Chagrin et la Pitié, in which Ophuls dealt critically with myths of the Resistance and showed how it was often those who had done least in the struggle who behaved most spitefully to those defenseless women, was not permitted to be shown on French television.

But with Gabrielle Russier it was different. Her martyrdom, which developed before the public for over a year, became an issue on which everyone in France seemed willing to take sides, and over which there were found thousands of men and women to take her part—vainly—and to protest against what was being done to her. Every newspaper and magazine joined the controversy, radio stations broadcast her letters from prison, rows blazed at middle-class dinner tables, letters mad and sane poured into editorial offices, and on television the President of the Republic himself, Georges Pompidou, arranged to be asked (after her suicide) for his comments. He answered with a poem of Eluard’s, an elegy for one of those shaven women of 1944 who lay on the pavement

…découronnée, défigurée
Celle qui ressemble aux morts
Qui sont morts pour être aimés.

It was a gesture which made Gabrielle’s supporters choke with misery and rage. For them she was no sinner to be forgiven and pitied, but a martyr of a new Resistance.

Gabrielle Russier came to teach at the Lycée Saint-Exupéry in Marseille in 1967. She was thirty and had successfully mounted the marble stairways of the state’s academic meritocracy to become an agrégée. She was supposed to be a mandarin, but she behaved otherwise. She gave herself to…

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