I got buyer’s remorse instantly and too quickly. I hadn’t looked properly or I wouldn’t have bought the book. I hadn’t realised it was originally written in French, by Christophe Bataille, that it was a translation, by William Hobson. Somewhat surprising for an English actress. Athough not, I suppose, if one accepts that Charlotte Rampling has made her home in France for most of her life and is mainly famous for her work for Visconti, Liliana Cavani, Woody Allen and François Ozon. It’s a slim book too. ‘Not much for 12.99,’ I thought. The disappointment continued in the first few pages, written in that slightly abstract attempt at poetic elliptical thought that is so often the curse of French writing: ‘I look in the mirror and see a woman I do not recognise. A mosaic face made up of random pieces chosen by chance. A collection of expressions chosen and rearranged to form a face.’ Sigh.
After finishing the book, something that did not take long, I realised how wrong my first impression. Who I Am is a beautiful and handsome book, physically lovely to see, touch, handle. It’s also much more personal and revelatory than a conventional biography. We get to know of Rampling’s childhood, are introduced to personal letters of her parents’ first meeting, her growing up, her relationship with her sister and particularly her father, the devastation to both first when the sister dies then when her death is revealed to be suicide. All lavishly illustrated with what amounts to a very personal family album. We get to understand the roots of the reticence, beauty, daring – that sense a whirlpool of feeling, much of it melancholic, all under the surface, that Rampling has expressed so well in over four decades of cinema. The story is fragments of memory, as told to friend and as written by a poet. It’s very moving, lingers in the mind and makes you want to reread passages to make fuller sense of an initial premise:
‘The laughter and the tears become indistinguishable. We lock them away. For the Ramplings, the heart is a safe. Kept by generations, the family secret becomes a legend. We only know how to keep silent.
People stare at you. They come closer. They back away’.
In spite of the co-authoring, the rendering and writing, the translating, this beautiful book also ends up seeming a very English book.
Who I Am, by Charlotte Rampling with Christophe Bataille, translated by William Hobson, London: Icon Books, 2017.