This past winter I ended up in the South of France again, in Arles, in a residency dedicated to literary translators, where I first worked on Maylis de Kerangal’s novel Naissance d’un pont(Birth of a Bridge). The residency is housed in the old hospital where van Gogh went at various points in his difficult life. Between stays, he painted the garden: a square plot enclosed in a stone courtyard, divided neatly into geometrical sections, dominated by the color yellow and converging at a central fountain where there once were fish. Each day that I grappled with Maylis’s labyrinthine phrases I walked through this garden, and each day I experienced a kind of doubling of consciousness—breathing in the present-day scents of earth and irises in bloom and simultaneously feeling like I was walking in van Gogh’s painting from 1889. This seemed to echo the doubling of mind I experience as a translator—thinking, sensing, in two languages, with the English sentences like a transparency lain over the original as I puzzle through the text. While I’m immersed in my work, the whole world can seem like a metaphor for translation.
When I was leaving Arles to come back to Canada, I passed through Paris, where Maylis invited me over for dinner. We talked about music, obsession words, endings, and beginnings (I learned that she didn’t start writing until she was thirty). We continued our conversation over Skype this fall, touching on travels, translation, and titles. The title of her most recent novel, the story of a heart transplant, is Réparer les vivants (Mend the Living), drawn from a line of dialogue in Chekhov’s play Platonov. The Russian починять, translated most often as “to mend” in English, is a word that would usually be used to speak about cars, or other broken-down things—objects you would fix or patch up, repair or restore. When asked “What shall we do, Nicolas?” the play’s character replies, “Bury the dead and mend the living.”
My translation, Mend the Living, is forthcoming in Canada and the UK (Talonbooks and MacLehose Press) in February 2016. The US version of Réparer les vivants, translated by Sam Taylor, will be published simultaneously under the title The Heart: A Novel (FSG). The novel’s narrative unfurls over a twenty-four-hour period during which the heart of Simon, the central character, “migrates” toward another body, speeds “over the orbs, along the rails, along the roads,” until it reaches the recipient. Until she can be mended.
Jessica Moore As you know, I’m currently immersed in the final revisions of my translation of Réparer les vivants. Since I’m in full contemplation of conclusions, I will start by asking you about endings. Your endings are very strong, at once resolving the whole thing marvelously, and opening up a new space of reflection. How do you know when a book is finished? What do you hope to achieve with the conclusion?
Maylis de Kerangal The ending is a very delicate moment in the writing of a novel. It is the result of a double movement. The first is focused on the story’s end, its stop, in the sense of “Last stop, everybody out!” My recent novels are journeys, trajectories, so endings are about reaching a place by the end of the book—for the bridge to reach the other side of the river in Birth of a Bridge, for Aliocha and Hélène to reach Vladivostok in Tangente vers l’est (Eastward tangent), for Simon’s heart to reach Claire’s body in Réparer les vivants. The book is finished when the action it contains is also finished.
So the novel is a race, and I can see the finish line from the first sentence: it’s an intuition that magnetizes the entire text. The closer I get to the goal, the faster I want to go. There’s even a sense of urgency, of hurrying, as though I was out of breath and had to, at all costs, finish before I ran out of strength. So I find that my endings are often too quick, not unfolded enough, not majestic enough.
But there is a whole other movement that’s more intimate, more mental. Not the tension of the final sprint, but the projection of this book that’s just been written, and has now become something like a stone in my hand that I grab to throw. Which is to say, I glance backward over my shoulder, I take stock of what has been accomplished, I condense it to the extreme, and I throw it in the world’s face.
There’s a movement of dilation with the conclusion, in order to create a wake effect, a sparkling trail. The last images of Corniche Kennedy, of Tangente vers l’est, and of Birth of a Bridge contain this double movement. I throw the books out there as a kind of offering.
JM I often think about the passages that live in us long after we’ve read a book. This is another way of approaching the question of influences. There are passages that I read as a teenager (by Ursula K. Le Guin, for example) that have taken up permanent residency in me. Books are shapers of our inner landscape. We are composed of the texts that have passed through us, leaving that sparkling trail you mention. Can you tell me what some of these are for you?
MK I love when a crucial novel leaves a trace in my memory. In this, its ending plays a significant part—creating a wake effect that is never erased.
There’s the magnificent sentence at the end of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night that both closes the novel brutally and crystallizes a very wide vision, a vast murmur, like a last deep breath before the end, before plunging into silence:
“Far in the distance the tugboat whistled; its call passed the bridge, one more arch, then another, the lock, another bridge, farther and farther … It was summoning all the barges on the river, every last one, and the whole city and the sky and the countryside, and ourselves, to carry us all away, the Seine too—and that would be the end of us.” [Tr. by Ralph Manheim, New Directions, 2006.]
In contrast, there’s the ending of La grande Beune (The Origin of the World) by Pierre Michon that tells us that the book will go on, that everything goes on, that language goes on and the life of literature is without end: “And at last we all were sleeping, while the Beune flowed on.” [Tr. by Wyatt Mason, Yale University Press, 2013.]
But the ending I love best is of Mrs. Dalloway: “For there she was.” It’s so powerful. She brings the storytelling to a halt and at the same time she opens onto an immensity. It’s a metaphysical, bold ending. Woolf manages to create the effect of a presence of stunning magnitude.
JM I’m so glad to see Virginia Woolf at the end of this list. I don’t think I ever told you, but while I was doing my first draft of Réparer, I had the instinct to keep certain books close to me, in particular To the Lighthouse, for inspiration. I was reading it at the same time so I would be able to pluck out a few antiquated words that aren’t used as much now in English, that might approximate the effect of the older words in your book. The language in your books is completely unique, striking—it mixes slang with antiquated terms, and contains turns of phrase that readers don’t find anywhere else. You’ve spoken about a “language holdup.” Can you say more?
MK I wrote that phrase precisely about influences. I write from all these books, and also through them. This is not at all something that overshadows a voice of my own. On the contrary, it’s through all these books that I love that I’ve been able to find something that is my own. I try to formalize this approach a little by gathering a collection around me as I begin a novel.
I don’t know if many authors do this, but one of the great movements of the beginning of a book for me is to summon these influences, to go in search of them. I put myself under their influence. And putting together the disparate collection of texts that will accompany me is already an act of writing. All kinds of books and printed matter: Mrs. Dalloway for instance, or poetry, scientific texts, articles from newspapers, novels. They aren’t on the same subject—the heart, for example, in Réparer—but they are texts with which I establish echoes, resonances. I compare this to getting together with a group of friends for a big bank robbery, a language hold-up. I already have my collection for the next book.
JM Now I’m so curious. What are you working on next?
MK In January I’ll be starting a book centered around the copies, the concrete facsimiles of prehistoric caves discovered in France. There are two really important facsimiles, one in Lascaux and one in Chauvet; they use these extraordinary techniques for reconstructing spaces, and the copies become collective projects—works of art. I want to focus on a young woman, a painter, who comes to take part in this facsimile, recreating cave paintings. When the original fades, what do you do? You have to create a copy in order to know the world. This is a little like the image of literature for me too.
MK You see? Literature as an entryway, via the ticket of an artifact, of a forgery, in this case. What I find beautiful in this is that it gives back to literature its function of knowledge. People used to know the world through books. Books like Madame Bovary, for example, or those of Zola or Walter Scott—these give us certain visions of love, we learn different places—knowledge is woven into the books, discretely, but it counts for a lot.
Without these facsimiles, we wouldn’t be able to know anything about these caves. In this new book, I don’t want to return to making a huge collective fresco. I want to change from the last two books—the ones you’ve translated—which are a little like cousins in that there’s a single sweeping movement and then a culmination. This time I want to work with fewer characters, and closer to each one. The book will be a kind of descent into the ground, a probing in time, in memory, mixing epochs.
JM You say there’s a metaphor for writing in these facsimiles. Often in your books there’s a layer underneath that’s a deep metaphor for writing. Does that come to you while you’re writing or is it there from the start?
MK It comes during the act of writing. While I was writing Birth of a Bridge, somewhere near the middle of the book, I thought, What I’m doing is like a work site, like the bridge, it requires a lot of strength and energy. I’d already pushed the appropriation of languages not generally employed in literature pretty far in the book—technical language, engineering terminology—which could be considered the cheap cuts of language. And in putting these vocabularies into action, I came to the idea of the epic—it’s in the work of conquering my own language that parallels the way these characters try to conquer space.
In Réparer, which is about a heart transplant, I realized that I needed to graft pieces that came from elsewhere—medical jargon, mainly—onto phrases that were quite poetic, lyrical. So the operation, the transplant, is an echo for making languages migrate from one site to another. What I was doing with the writing coincided completely with the central theme of the book.
JM Nice. We spoke about music the first time we met in Arles, I think, and for sure when I was at your place in Paris, because you had recently appeared on stage with French contemporary singer Cascadeur, reading from your novel Dans les rapides (In the rapids) with his musical accompaniment.
JM Do you listen to music while you write?
MK I’m not a musician, but I’ve always sung, taking vocal or jazz courses. I couldn’t not have music in my life; that would be really painful. I wrote Dans les rapides, about these kids who are fifteen and listen to punk rock albums, and their relationship to life just explodes. I love this about music. The relationship I have to it is one of listening, but it’s a body relationship, really. I associate music with movement, with the desire to dance; there’s something quite exuberant, quite wild, unbridled.
I have a kind of playlist while I write, and then music appears in the texts as well. I write the titles, let them be very visible, so their ambience is there, so the song can take us somewhere else for a moment. In Réparer, there’s Benjamin Britten, Rihanna, Macy Gray—
JM There’s Alain Bashung…
MK Right, and other songs that appear too. In Birth of a Bridge songs show up—
JM Fleetwood Mac…
MK Yes, the sound of the West Coast, in the ’70s. I also listened to a lot of James Taylor and American country songs that went with this idea of the Western that I was in the process of writing. So the music acts in concert with the text, sometimes creating contrasts; it’s rarely about the lyrics, aside from the piece by Bashung in Réparer.
JM Which acts as an echo, an accompaniment to Marianne’s shock and grief.
MK Yes. I also often listen to music to launch myself into writing. It’s like an injection. Like warming up a car engine. I need to listen to songs that, because I’ve chosen them, make me think of this text I’m writing. It would be hard for me to write without having this playlist, I think. It’s like little waves that push me toward the book.
JM I’ve been talking about this with a friend of mine who’s also a writer—the idea that there could be certain songs that launch us into writing—we’re trying it with Beethoven’s piano sonatas right now. Do you have other rituals that put you into a writing mind frame?
MK As you know, I don’t work at home. So the first ritual is getting to the studio. There’s this text by Pierre Michon called “Le roi vient quand il veut” (The king comes when he wants to). It’s the idea that the king—writing, language—comes when it wants to. For me, it helps to be in the right space to welcome it. The studio is four bus stops away from my home. There’s my family life, with my children and Paul, and then there’s life in the studio, which is another space/time. So there’s already a first ritual that consists of leaving, of tearing myself away from home. And when I’m there, it’s also really hard to leave, to tear myself away and come back—every evening I’m late to pick up Pierre, my son, from school.
The studio is a room on the sixth floor. You get up there via a little staircase. The access isn’t that nice, nor that easy. It’s a bit dark. It’s not a physical challenge, but neither is it like rolling out of bed and sitting at your desk. Once there, I nearly always do the same movements: I close the door, take off my coat, throw it on the bed, being careful of where I throw my keys, and then I turn on the computer, then the lamp, and then the coffeemaker. All these little movements. And then there’s this little excitement that has to rise up in me—that’s what I’m looking for. Already just by coming to the room I begin to have it.
But it’s funny, even though I feel the desire to get to the computer, to go write this book, it always takes me some time to get myself into it. There’s about an hour and a half of responding to emails, smoking a cigarette, listening to music, and things like that. So my ritual is this air lock of time, house to room, then turning in circles inside the room until I welcome the king.
JM You describe your movements almost exactly like Revol’s, the surgeon in Réparer, each time he enters his office, no?
MK Exactly! They’re the same kind of automatic movements. As you said, a ritualization that leads to an action.
JM Do you see the book in translation as having a completely different music? Is it like hearing a familiar piece played on a different instrument?
MK I like that; that’s it. Like a piece you know on another instrument, or at a different speed. No, a different instrument is better.
JM I have a question about names, which we both know are extremely important in your books. Birth of a Bridge is full of characters whose last names correspond to famous literary and cultural figures, and with Réparer we’ve talked about the translation of names that have strong echoes in French. Simon, the organ donor of the heart that is at the center of the novel’s narrative, has the last name Limbres—one letter away from the French word for limbo (limbes). Thus Simon becomes something beyond himself, beyond even life and death—almost in the sense of a Greek tragedy. Were you influenced by Greek tragedies, and do you want to say more about names in your novels?
MK Yes, I was influenced by them. As for names, the book begins at the moment when I come up with the first one. Names function in relation to each other. Until I have a system of names, I don’t write anything. I have a very Cratylian vision—the name incarnates the thing. It’s not very original. My temperament is quite close to Proust’s in this sense. He has, for example, Oriane de Guermantes—a world spreads out from this name, an ensemble of material that the name solidifies, the color of a stone, the shape of a roof tile, the echo of a cobblestone.
Names catalyze characters, speeds, colors, masses, the way we cut through space when we walk, and also gesture to something much more symbolic. Sylvestre in Corniche Kennedy is a name that evokes interiority. It comes of course from sylvestre, the forest, and could also mean something dark, from the nighttime. Opposite this guy who’s quite nocturnal, there are these kids who are dazzling, who throw themselves into the water. The same thing in Réparer, there are all these names of birds that work together, or names that refer to a part of the bird, or names that speak of night birds, or names that speak of flight. There’s a whole anagrammatic play on names: Revol is voler (to fly) and also revolution, and Remige is émigrer (migration) [and remiges is also flight feathers].
Proper names interest me because they’re the spark for the book, the name sets off the writing. Names hold an imaginary realm, a culture, in layers, like a mille-feuille of meaning, of images, of situations. Names contain all kinds of fictions already. I love how Proust says that in names there are scenes, situations. And yet names are the most arbitrary things in life—no one chooses their name, unless they rename themselves or take on a pseudonym.
My relationship to proper names is quite like a poet’s approach. When you place them in a sentence, they light up what’s around them. Whether it’s a brand name or a hero’s name or the name of a kind of car … the amazing thing about names is that they have a chemistry of sorts. Their meaning never changes, no matter where they’re placed in the sentence. They remain unalterable, like little stones. You can place “Jessica Moore” wherever you want and it remains unaffected. What will be moved, on the other hand, is the sentence around it. I find that quite wonderful—everything names contain, but also all they project around them. This is extremely important to me.
JM That’s a lovely analogy, of the names as little stones. They become tricky in translation: Do I try to match the effect in English, or do I leave intact what you’ve thought through in French?
In your opinion, would most French readers get the play on names? Even if we’re just talking about Limbres, do you think most of them would get it?
MK I think so. When I’ve done readings in bookstores in France, readers understand right away that there’s something going on, and they ask me a lot about the names. Limbres, for instance, contains both limbes (limbo) and l’ombre (shadow), and they see that.
JM I’ll keep thinking about it.
You are part of a collective of writers, Les Incultes, that has come together around Inculte, a journal and publishing house. Can you tell us what the collective means for you?
MK When I met them in 2004 they were emerging authors who were launching a journal. One day they asked me to write something for an issue they were putting together about the World Cup, in 2006. I wrote a text about the language of soccer commentators, which is an inflationist language, doped up with adjectives, expressions, emotions. It has to follow the action, but also in some way captivate the spectators, keep them in front of the TV. They liked it so much they used it as the introduction to the issue, and in 2007, they asked me to join their collective.
Now it’s mainly Mathias Énard, Mathieu Larnaudie, Claro, and Hélène Gaudy who all publish with Actes Sud, and Arno Bertina and me, with Verticales, and Oliver Rohe with Gallimard.
They first impressed me with their theoretical reflections on literature. There’s a relationship to theory that interests me, and they have particularly strong ideas about the novel. For example, the question of the status of languages in a book, in the sense that everything can be the subject of a novel. They debunk the idea that there are certain “grand subjects,” set subjects, for novels—war, love, etcetera—and others that are not appropriate. This has really marked me. And the idea that from a concrete subject, the author draws out the language. This is a way of envisioning the novel in terms of language, first of all.
MK Then there’s the question of the individual within the collective. It reconfigures the idea of the author as a figure of authority, the “great writer.” The author’s words can be made up of a dozen voices and writers. We wrote a book that was signed “Collectif Inculte” containing chapters written by each of us. All our names were listed at the beginning, and then you had to guess who wrote what.
JM Did you get together to write the chapters?
MK No, we worked separately. We wanted to write a book about the life of Anna Nicole Smith, the playmate, so we isolated thirty sequences—her childhood, her first kiss, her leaving to strip in Denver, and so on. I wrote several of them and other members wrote others.
JM When you say that the philosophy of the Incultes is that there’s no “grand subject,” do you think that inspired you with Réparer?
MK No, I was already quite deep in my own work with Réparer. Where they may have influenced me is with Birth of a Bridge, both in the relationship to the real and the relationship to technical language. Being included in their debates and exchanges made me exist, in a way. This reassurance and the feeling of one’s own place in a literary milieu is what allowed me to write Birth of a Bridge. This was decisive.
JM I love both novels but I want to ask you more about Réparer. It’s easier for me to put myself into, because there’s such a strong central thread of emotion: the pain of those close to Simon. And perhaps because my own poetry book is also about grief. Pain can be something almost sublime in its way of uniting us and reducing us to something essential. What was the seed for this book?
MK In 2007, Bernard Wallet, founder of Verticales, asked his authors to write a text that could answer the question: Who is alive? The responses would be published in a collective book. Mine was a short text about a heart transplant, “Coeur de nageur pour corps de femme compatible” (Swimmer’s heart for compatible woman’s body). It was well received. I put it aside, and then years passed—
JM Had you already done all the research on the technical side of things, at that point?
MK No. The text wasn’t super detailed. There was a little bit about the operation, but that was it. Then in February 2012 something happened in my own life that was quite terrible. I was at the launch of Tangente vers l’est at a bookstore in Le Havre. Quite a few people were there, including my parents. While I was with the bookstore owner, they went out to dinner. My father had a massive heart attack that night.
JM Oh …
MK I am at my book launch and later that night my father collapses and dies in a brutally sudden way. I loved my father, for all the obvious reasons, but also for the man he was. It was very painful.
It was almost a year and a half since I’d published Birth of a Bridge, and it was time to get back to work. I was ready to get into this book about the caves. I’d gone to Germany because Birth had won a prize, and I had the chance to spend a week in a castle there. Something happened to me there, a kind of panic attack.
Back in France, I was on a trip to Marseille in June, I remember it very well, I was walking down La Canebière toward the old port, there was so much light, and I said to myself, It’s not the book about the caves that I’m going to write, it’s a book about a heart transplant. I started writing it a month later and I wrote for a year.
Also, in January before my father’s death, I’d learned that one of our closest friends had pancreatic cancer. He died when I finished writing the book. His illness, the presence of death in my life, was very pronounced at that moment. I often think that Réparer is the shape that the experience of death takes in language. I lived it, and it metabolized and became the novel.
JM Death transforms us, that’s for sure.
MK And writing does too. If it doesn’t change us, it’s really not worth doing.
With intimate things, for me, there’s always a kind of metabolization that happens through language, through writing them they become something else.
JM Yes. I’m very conscious of this with you; it’s never autobiography but I feel that it’s carried forward by something very real.
MK While I was writing Birth of a Bridge, I was hailed as the author who didn’t write autofiction. Critics thought that was so great, since they weren’t interested in that. But I don’t have a moral stance that says that autofiction is lesser; I’m just not interested in writing it. I’m very intimate with my texts, but this intimacy is transformed through the act of writing. I also think I write fiction in order to give a shape to these personal experiences. It’s a journey that passes via fiction.
JM I want to ask you about love! I love the way it is spoken of in your novels: Claire and the man of the foxgloves, who have been “everything a woman and man can be to each other,” or the explosiveness and tenderness of brand new love beneath a red raincoat when Simon and Juliette kiss for the first time. Love often feels like a foundational strength throughout a book. I’m not even sure what my question is, I just like so much how you write about it that I want to ask: How do you think about it?
MK Wow. (laughter) I think that the strongest moments of writing are linked to the love that can be created between different characters. What’s at the heart of Réparer is the kiss—it’s physically nearly right at the center of the book. Simon’s heart, the black box of this nineteen-year-old body, is traveling through space. And in the middle of the book that describes this journey, there is what is contained within this human heart. That first kiss. How we approach people, how we manifest our desire, and how we welcome that desire and how we actualize it, live it—I’m fascinated by this. I’m going to tell you something: I’d like for this question to become more central in the next book. I would love to risk myself more toward that. That’s important for me. Love is never a long psychological introspection, it takes the shape of a movement, which is a way of offering oneself up. Loving is always an action. There. That’s a good way to think of it.
JM Nicely said. Can we come back for a second to the scene under the red raincoat? I’ve been thinking a lot about space—how spaciousness is more obvious and easy to create in poetry, but is important and present differently in fiction. Your writing often alternates between expansion and contraction, it seems, as when Simon and Juliette are under the raincoat.
MK Well, that makes me think of your question about endings again, how they both conclude and project the whole story forward.
JM I imagine that you do it consciously.
MK There’s something very powerful in this movement that is both concentration and projection. It’s a movement that’s in the sentence. It’s also the idea that in this space under the red raincoat, Simon and Juliette create a world, a microcosm. Love always creates microcosms. This coat isn’t something that will suffocate them, because it’s also photovoltaic, like a solar panel, a bed canopy; it’s a dome—like the dome of a cathedral, it looks toward something immense. So it’s exactly what you say. This little, concentrated space where they’re together is also a space that becomes almost universal. It’s cosmic, the space of love.
JM I just listened to a program on France Culture about Bachelard. He speaks about how children find these very small spaces to enclose themselves in, and I think he might even say that the smaller the space, the greater the imaginary life of the child.
MK That’s exactly it.
JM Is there fear associated with letting go of your words, to be conveyed by others into other languages?
MK Not at all. I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.