Buzzed Books #61 by Amy Watkins
Clara Beaudoux’s The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life
When Clara Beaudoux moved into a new apartment in Paris, she inherited the overflowing basement storage unit of the deceased previous tenant, an elderly woman named Madeleine. Madeleine had no living relatives, and her next of kin, a godson, told Beaudoux to do whatever she wanted with the things in the storage unit. As she unpacked old magazines, personal items, documents, photos, and travel itineraries, Beaudoux began to imagine the life and character of a person she would never know.
The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life (New Vessel, 2017) began as a Twitter account in which Beaudoux posted photos of the items unearthed in Madeleine’s storage unit and, eventually, her questions and musings about Madeleine’s life and the ways in which Paris changed during the decades Madeleine lived there. Beaudoux and her readers are immediately caught up in the small mysteries suggested by the physical objects leftover from Madeleine’s life. What is the function of this antique gadget? Who is the young man who appears in many pre-WWII photos? Beaudoux naturally begins to fill in the blanks, creating a mental picture of Madeleine as the heroine of her seemingly ordinary life story. Beaudoux soon begins writing tweets in the second person, addressing, not her readers, but Madeleine herself.
The book is divided into two “seasons” with a brief essay explaining the project in between. Season 1 is full of questions, and, in Season 2, Beaudoux goes looking for answers, intermingling objects from the storage unit with the memories of a few of Madeleine’s neighbors and her godson. She doesn’t analyze her findings or her reasons for pursuing the project, beyond a brief interest in preserving memories against the fleeting nature of contemporary life. It is obviously, though, that she feels compelled, and readers are likely to be caught up in the small, ordinary mysteries and the joy of solving them right along with her.
Beaudoux also doesn’t include much about herself, other than a few passing observations of similarities she and Madeleine share. Beaudoux is delighted, for example, to find that they place their beds in the same spot in the apartment, according to Madeleine’s neighbor who draws a little map of the layout as it was when Madeleine lived there. Most online projects like this rely on a certain cult of personality, but, in this case, the personality is Madeleine’s, as imagined by Beaudoux and her readers.
The book, translated by Alison Anderson, presents the original Twitter feed chronologically, minus replies, retweets, and clutter. This preserves the immediacy of the original social media project, which is a strong point of the book; however, it also leaves in things that don’t work in print. Tweets of audio and video files are included as static images. Tweets that include more than one photo show only the truncated photo collage; we can’t click on the individual images to view them in their entirety. The limitations of print are noticeable, and in such a fascinating project, these constraints are a minor frustration for the reader. Even so, the allure of the project itself is undeniable.
When we moved out of our old apartment, my daughter Alice wrote a letter to the next person who would live in her bedroom. I didn’t read it, but I did help her hide it under the closet shelf, where we hoped the maintenance crew would overlook it, and the next occupant might discover it, like a message in a bottle. If Beaudoux finds a message in Madeleine’s belongings, she seems reluctant to reveal it. In this way, the book is truly poetic. It asks more questions than it answers about what, if anything, is permanent.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.