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A modern retelling of a mysterious death

A photograph from around 1890 showing the stretch of the Seine where the body of the unidentified woman was recovered from the water - Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on an unidentified woman whose death has captivated for more than a century, and a new book which tries to tell her story.

The chances are you’ve already seen her face. Nobody knows her name, she’s been dead for well over a century, but the chances are you’ve seen her face. L’Inconnue de la Seine they call her, the unknown woman of the Seine, pulled drowned from the river sometime during the late 1880s. That is, if there’s any truth to the mythology.

Corpses are rarely beautiful. Peaceful, maybe, as if asleep, but without the blush of life in the cheek and a sparkle of the soul in the eye they can rarely be described as beautiful. Hence the Paris morgue has never exactly been a refuge of the beautiful and at the end of the 19th century its daily arrivals were usually the waxy, bloated corpses of the drowned, victims of murder or luckless mendicant itinerants seen off by disease or the cold. Unidentified bodies would be placed on display in the hope somebody might recognise them, drawing daily crowds of the concerned as well as the curious and the just plain ghoulish.

When L’Inconnue arrived at the morgue there was something about her that struck even the staff, who worked with the smell of death every day and had seen it in all its forms. The lack of wounds or signs of illness on her body led to the conclusion she was a suicide. She was almost unbearably young, maybe as young as 16, lifted from the water close to the Louvre so soon after her death that when she was laid out and washed it was conceivably little more than an hour after she had entered the water. This was a young woman whose vitality, the staff noted, was still tangible amid the tragedy. She looked serene, they thought, there was even a suggestion of a smile on her lips.

So struck were they by this rare exception to the parade of the blood-drained, pockmarked, discoloured and disfigured, not to mention the corpse’s apparent youthful beauty, that somebody sent for a mouler, a crafter of plaster moulding, who hurried to the morgue and made a cast of the woman’s face, preserving her just as she was at the moment she died.

By hook or by crook copies were made from the original mould and distributed way beyond the walls of the morgue. Reproductions of L’Inconnue’s death mask grew popular among Parisian bohemians, becoming a fixture on the walls of studios, salons and writers’ garrets as a reminder of mortality and the transience of earthly beauty.

Her face soon travelled beyond Paris to captivate and inspire visual artists such as Pablo Picasso and Man Ray, writers like Rainer Maria Rilke and Vladimir Nabokov and even filmmaker François Truffaut. For Albert Camus, L’Inconnue’s face was that of a “drowned Mona Lisa”. As early as 1899 she was the subject of a novella, The Worshipper of the Image by Richard Le Gallienne, in which the death mask is a dark force that obsesses and ultimately destroys a young poet, and she’s been immortalised in a range of works ever since.

The fact L’Inconnue was a complete unknown – nobody claimed her body, nobody reported her missing, she took everything she was into the Seine and only her body came out –added to the romance attached to her death mask. A countenance of pure white, eyes closed, expression enigmatically ambiguous, she was a blank screen on which to project stories and fantasies, someone for whom writers and artists could invent their own version of her tale just as plausible as any other.

In the years since, many have disputed L’Inconnue’s origin story. Her features were too perfect to have been a victim of drowning, they said. Drowning is a traumatic death, the body fights for breath, it jerks, thrashes, convulses, and in a river as busy with traffic as the Seine in the late 19th century it’s almost inconceivable a suicide would emerge from the foul water unblemished.

In addition, the firmness of facial features diminishes quickly after death and L’Inconnue’s cheeks are too healthily plump, her expression too defined, they claimed. Some even doubt whether the cast was taken from a dead subject at all, let alone a mysterious suicide.

But then if you are going to attach a story to the death mask of a young, unknown woman from the 19th century then suicide by drowning is probably the option you’d choose. From Hamlet’s Ophelia to The Lady of Shallot, young women drowning has always held a grim fascination for writers and artists.

Death, however it comes, is never pretty, yet drowning at least has the potential to create an illusion of a serene end, the body outwardly unscathed and drifting gently, hair fanning in the water, a dignified grace in the slow movement of limbs in the current. As for the reasons for her suicide, take your pick: a broken heart, some kind of disgrace, an endless cycle of poverty, loneliness, depression, it’s possible to project any motive for taking her own life onto L’Inconnue.

There is also a coda to all the stories that swirl around her silent features, a tangible immortality, and it’s the reason why there’s a good chance you’ve seen the face of a nameless woman pulled from the grimy depths of the Seine more than a century ago. It’s  also at the core of Sarah Leipciger’s new novel Coming Up For Air, the latest work of fiction to project a backstory onto L’Inconnue.

The drowned woman is one of three protagonists whose stories span a century. There’s Pieter, a Norwegian toymaker we first encounter in the 1920s and rejoin in the 1950s, and Anouk, a Canadian with cystic fibrosis who we see grow from child to woman during the modern era. At first it seems baffling that three people so widely scattered in geography and chronology can be part of the same narrative, but as the chapters alternate between each our understanding begins to drop anchors throughout a novel constructed with exceptional skill.

Breath, the lungs and water bind the story’s apparently freewheeling narrative threads. The book opens with L’Inconnue’s suicide. “This is how I drowned,” she begins before detailing her death in meticulous detail, from arriving at the riverside to being hauled out of the water by a bargeman.

“For a few seconds I was calm as music, but then my body pedalled and thrashed: it didn’t want to drown. This wasn’t a new-found desire, after all, to live. This was about air. Oxygen. And my lack of it. My lungs, each of my muscles, hung suspended, seized in pain.”

Next we’re deposited into 2017, a dock on the Ottawa River for Anouk’s 40th birthday, one she wasn’t supposed to reach thanks to the condition that keeps her lungs filling with mucus expelled through violent coughing fits as she waits for the lung transplant that will either end or save her life.

“She reaches over the edge of the dock and dips her fingers, caresses the cold water. She wants to swim but can’t. She wants to immerse herself. Maybe she could just float, holding on to the edge of the dock, but she can’t risk getting sick.”

When we first meet Pieter it’s 1921 on the island of Karmøy off the south-western coast of Norway and he’s spending the summer with his grandparents and swimming in the chilly waters of the North Sea.

“Each time I swam, when I first leapt into the sea, the cold reached into my chest with two hands and squeezed my lungs and I was forced to bellow as if I were a musical instrument.”

The dark, polluted waters of the Seine, the wide-open expanses of the Ottawa River and Lake Ontario and the waters off the Norwegian coast are there throughout, their currents pulling us through a book whose prose flows like a river itself, taking life but giving life too.

“Sundays there was the river,” says L’Inconnue of her early days in Paris, where she has arrived from the south to work as a companion for a widow. “Of course it was always there, pumping through the city, involuntary and vital as a heartbeat.”

Leipciger conjures up three very different worlds and very different people with the help of some exquisite descriptions and tiny moments of intimacy. When Anouk’s father Red takes her berrying, “the bucket was so full that tiny raspberries tumbled over the sides like passengers abandoning a sinking ship”. When a young Anouk and her mother Nora go the beach to watch a young girl begin an attempt to swim across Lake Ontario, “Anouk perched on the blanket like a meerkat. From under her white t-shirt Nora could see the blue straps of her bathing suit and this, these stupid little straps, broke her heart”.

The two women protagonists are the most vividly drawn; we’re drawn into Pieter’s confidence and the anguish of his personal tragedy but it’s the characters of L’Inconnue and Anouk that live and shine the most. The country girl from a heartbreaking background making her way in the big city, slowly finding her place in the world and even finding love, yet all the while we know she is doomed. Anouk’s fate is more ambiguous as we watch her battle with cystic fibrosis from childhood to beyond her predicted life expectancy, forging her own place, leaving her own mark, determined not to be defined by her condition.

The strands weave in and out of each other, never meeting until the book nears its conclusion and the connection between these three different people in different circumstances emerges. It’s skilfully done, with parts based on a true story that reveals why there’s a good chance you’ve seen the face of L’Inconnue and why her visage is sometimes described as the most kissed in history.

Fact and fiction flow together like two rivers conjoining and making together for the sea. Water is ever present, its dangers, its joys, its challenges and its timelessness. The Seine flows on today indifferent to the story and identity of L’Inconnue, its tides regimented by the moon, keeping its stories to itself. The seas around Norway remain alternately gentle and malevolent, and Lake Ontario still stretches to the infinity of horizon yet it’s still possible for a swimmer to cross.

Leipciger, a Canadian living in London, has written a beautiful novel of compassion, humanity and deeply evocative history. L’Inconnue herself has a renewed dignity thanks to Leipciger’s imagined chronicle of her life and the linking of people across time and continents illustrates the infinite ways in which we are connected as we navigate the river of time. Like Wordsworth before her in a sonnet where he looks at the flowing, babbling River Duddon and “as I cast my eyes, I see what was, and is, and will abide”, Leipciger sees the water as a timeless conduit of life, death and the stories in between.

“Where you are, I think, is like a river, and you’re the flow” says Pieter, addressing the source of his tragedy. “And every so often, out of the flow, you, me – all of us – we crawl up to the bank and we do life. That life may be rich and long or it may be tedious. It may be a disaster – it’s a gamble. But the only certainty is that it will end, and when it does, you find yourself in the river again.”

Coming Up For Air, by Sarah Leipciger, is published by Black Swan, price £8.99

FIVE GREAT BOOKS OF THE RIVER

DART

Alice Oswald (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Alice Oswald spent three years talking to people who lived and worked by or on the River Dart in southwest England to produce this wonderful poetic interpretation that follows the waterway from source to sea. From swimmers to poachers, canoeists to sewage workers, Oswald blends the voices of people and the river in a poetic journey of words as liquid as their subject.

TO THE RIVER: A JOURNEY BENEATH THE SURFACE

Olivia Laing (Canongate, £9.99)

An account of Laing’s journey along the Ouse that was a landmark work in the early days of the nature writing boom. Part memoir, part travelogue and part exploration of the life of Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in the Ouse in 1941, this is an enduring examination of the role of rivers in life and literature.

OFFSHORE

Penelope Fitzgerald (HarperCollins, £8.99)

A Booker Prize winner when it was published in 1979, Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical novel inserts itself into a community of eccentrics and misfits living on a group of houseboats at Battersea Reach on the Thames in the early 1960s. Dry comedy mixes with explorations of loneliness and thwarted ambition to make a wonderful book by an underrated writer.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Kenneth Grahame (Penguin Classics, £5.99)

“It’s brother and sister to me,” says Ratty to the awestruck Mole on the latter’s first sight of the river, “and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other”. A joyous and much-adapted children’s classic with the river always at its heart.

SWEET THAMES RUN SOFTLY

Robert Giddings (Little Toller, £12)

On the eve of the Second World War Gibbings launched his home-made punt on the River Thames and began a slow journey downstream, armed with a sketchpad and a microscope. From the river’s source at the edge of the Cotswold Hills to the bustle of London’s docks, this is a beautifully crafted account of the many faces of London’s waterway.