No Touching by Ketty Rouf

Translated by Tina Kover

Review by Annabel

Italian-born novelist Ketty Rouf won France’s Prix du Premier Roman 2020 (First Novel award) for her debut No Touching, written in French and published in France as On Ne Touche Pas,. It’s a provocative novel, short too at 172 pages–once begun, I didn’t want to put it down.

The protagonist of No Touching is Joséphine, in her mid-thirties, a teacher of philosophy at a high school in a non-posh part of the Paris suburbs. I can hear you thinking that perhaps this book could be the French equivalent of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, but you’d be wrong, it’s not about that kind of no touching!

Joséphine reads erotica on her commute, “Two hours of eroticism, paper-and-ink style: pages and pages of filthy language that I flip through the way you reel off a rosary, my prayer at each station before the Calvary of the high school.” It’s the start of a new term and the principal is doing the annual speech to the staff – she escapes to the loo.

In a few hours I’ll be back home with my new scented candles, corset laid out on the bed, stockings tucked away in a dresser drawer, high heels on the bedside table. It makes me feel better to think of the moment when, dressed in black lace and stilettos, I’ll swallow a Xanax, or two.

Joséphine rebels against the stultifying task of being a teacher to lower income class students who are being dumbed down by the system, and then most can’t learn. After she faints at school and is put on a week’s sick leave, she goes to a club where she watches a nude dancer. Inspired, and wanting to be able to wear her expensive Rouge Dior No 999 lipstick, she signs up for a trial striptease lesson – it was interesting – so she goes back for more. This is the start of a new nightlife for Joséphine. When she’s ready she gets a job as a lap dancer at a club and her alter ego Rose Lee, after Gypsy, is born.

The side plot follows her day job trying to teach philosophy to the uninterested teenagers, all bar one–Hadrien–who writes her letters slipped in with his essays, to which she replies with advice from the great philosophers, especially the Stoics.

Joséphine finds dancing liberating, and soon she is making good money at it, and is good friends with the other girls. She barely sleeps, yet must carry on at school; her nighttime occupation has to remain totally secret. Teachers as civil servants in the French system are prohibited from having multiple jobs, and then there is the risk that someone might recognise her at the club – will her worst nightmare happen?

There is a lot to unpack in this novel, and it would make for a super book group discussion. I can remember when our group read Belle du Jour’s Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, which has many similarities, except that Belle doesn’t have the ‘No Touching’ rule. Our discussion was lengthy and robust!

Is it wish fulfillment for Joséphine? Yes. Does it help her come to terms with her own body? Yes. Does she like the desire that she can arouse in men? Yes. She may find that empowering, but she is also conforming to the norm the men she dances for expect, isn’t she? Virginie Despentes in her book of essays/memoir King Kong Theory (reviewed here) has a good take in her unique style on this last point.

Surely it can’t last. Events will force her to make decisions.

It’s obvious that Rouf must have visited clubs extensively to see the girls perform, and gone backstage to make friends with them, of course. On the other side, she has a masters in philosophy and has worked in the Parisian department of education. Her portrayal of the school staff room and the principal are stereotypical – but in reality are all too familiar! Rouf uses the segments set at school to give us a breather from the heady extremes of Joséphine’s alternate life and her fascination with it which, let’s face it, is the more compelling thread of the book. That’s not to dismiss the philosophical discussions, especially those with Hadrien; Joséphine gives him life coaching through the words of the great philosophers but doesn’t apply the ‘consolations of philosophy’, (to quote Boethius), so easily to her own situation.

This is a thought-provoking short novel indeed, but one I enjoyed. It may start off with erotica and sexiness, but in reality, it is more philosophical than that and about finding a way, as Shakespeare’s Polonious said, ‘To thine own self be true,’ as Joséphine finally does.

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Annabel is co-founder and an editor of Shiny New Books.

Ketty Rouf, No Touching (Europa Editions, 2021). 978-1787703162, 172pp., paperback original.

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