My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This 2018 English translation of Riyoko Ikeda’s 1978 shōjo manga about the brief life and tragic loves of the eponymous protagonist is being hailed, to quote Wikipedia, as “one of the earliest manga to feature a transgender protagonist.” While I’m sure this is literally true, it might be a bit misleading. The word “transgender,” while it was coined in 1965, was not to my knowledge in popular or common use in English at the time of the short graphic novel’s creation, and the then-more-common word “transsexual” is supplied in the book’s English-language dialogue (I am not aware of the nuances of corresponding Japanese terms). Further complicating matters, even “transsexual” is anachronistic for the book since Ikeda’s setting is early 20th-century France and her narrator a psychologist of the period: at this time, concepts like “inversion” might have been used by the sexual scientist to describe Claudine’s dilemma.
I emphasize all of this history at the outset because this slim, sturdy paperback edition of Claudine from Seven Seas Entertainment is a beautiful one, but it lacks much in the way of contextualization—contrast the informative introduction supplied by the translator to the recent translation of another shōjo masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas. Readers coming to Claudine for the first time and expecting a text in line with contemporary thinking on gender, a positive transgender representation, will certainly be disappointed. The book is too good, qua comics, though, to be simply hurled across the room in frustration.
This impassioned and operatic tragedy is structured by the three amorous involvements, and the three corresponding encounters with the psychologist narrator, of a young aristocratic woman named Claudine. Claudine begins at the age of eight to identify as a man, despite her mother’s objection and her society’s rejection. In adolescence, Claudine falls in love with the family’s hapless maid, Maura, a relationship doomed because of its cross-class as well as cross-gender nature. Later, Claudine becomes attached to the high- school librarian as well as to the librarian’s romantic vision of literature that is incarnated in this very book’s very emotional texture. Claudine’s final, fated love is for a dancer at university (a girl encountered twice earlier in the novel), and the severance of this relationship brings Claudine to a crisis. For despite Claudine’s insistence on an innate male identity, French society does not permit her to live as a man; consequently, her lovers tend to terminate their affairs by insisting that, to quote the librarian, “But, Claudine. You’re a girl…”
There is still more plot than I have recounted in this 100-page book, including the suggestion that Claudine has inherited “inversion” from the aristocratic family’s beloved patriarch. This hint that, like the psychologist’s concluding narration (“With her imperfect ‘body,’ Claudine nevertheless gave her everything and dared to love a woman”) and the book’s climax in self-slaughter, will not endear some contemporary readers to this supposedly pathbreaking but also sensationalistic and potentially exploitative story full of “queer tragedy” stereotypes.
On the other hand, Ikeda’s romantic narrative invites such sympathy, and her art style is moreover so beautiful—a dazzling performance full of architectural splendor and decorative verve: Ikeda stipples and she hatches; she puts patterns in the flowers and the cobbles and the sconces; flames and flora dance fatally across the pages—that Claudine has to be hailed as a fine graphic novel, a superb example of comics. It should be seen in its multiple historical contexts, and queried as to its ideological character, yes, but also appreciated as a work of art we are lucky to have in a quality translation and edition.
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