Diderot’s scabrous little tale tells the story of Sister Suzanne, a young woman despatched to the convent by her family, against her wishes. She’s a weird mix of naif and modern. Diderot was clearly taking the piss, to a certain extent, as Suzanne recounts with an other-worldly innocence the advances of the mother superior who develops a fierce crush on her. Her innocence is also abused in her previous nunnery, with the other nuns going full shlock horror psycho on her, sprinkling broken glass on the floor where she walks barefoot and mixing ashes into her food. There’s something very Piano Teacher about all this, with Suzanne remaining a voice of sanity, insistent on her desire to terminate her vows and lead a life beyond the convent walls. Reading Diderot, it feels as though the psychological make-up of modernity, a modernity in deep conflict with itself over ideas of duty, adherence to social structures, sexuality, power, was already in place two hundred and fifty years ago. Not that much has altered or evolved, in spite of Freud, in spite of the liberal revolution of the twentieth century (which is itself experiencing blowback in the twenty first). Suzanne’s desperate struggle against the corrupt mechanisms of power is as valid today as it ever was. Currently reading Annie Ernaux, I discover that Rivette’s screen adaptation of the novel, made in 1966, was itself banned, something that triggered similar societal divisions between the liberal and authoritarian sectors of French society. It’s as though a matrix was constructed with the arrival of the Enlightenment and we’ve been imprisoned, like the nun, in this matrix forever more. (With acknowledgement to the intellectual parent of this idea). To read The Nun is to read your own story: to what extent are you trapped within a capitalist bubble that you can never escape? The use of the word ‘capitalist’ is not pejorative: it might be that you/we are better off and safer within this bubble, than we might be outside it. Which doesn’t stop us gazing at the convent walls and longing for the chance to escape from a world which has never quite succeeded in convincing us that God exists, or that there are not other, more fertile worlds on the other side.
Point of note: This is a book that has sat on various shelves unread for over thirty years, having been purchased in May 1987. Presumably whilst still in university, being ushered on to the next stage of my supposed path, one whose smooth flow I have sought to disrupt. This book will have accompanied me through the Wars of the Roses, marriage and divorce, the London Dayz, before finally finding a moment to be read on a continent I knew nothing about when the book was purchased. The immortality of books as a repository for everything the world could ever contain. Had this book been bought in a digital format, what are the chances I would finally have caught up with it 30 years later?