In Dialogue

French Literature Today: Philippe Forest with Yann Nicol

Photo courtesy by Villa Gillet

Born in Paris in 1962, Philippe Forest is the author of numerous essays on art and literature and of three novels, all published by Gallimard: L’Enfant eternal (The Eternal Child, winner of the Prix Femina for a first novel in 1997), Toute la nuit (All Night Long; 1999), and Sarinagara (winner of the Prix Décembre in 2004). His work has been translated or is being translated into the following languages: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Romanian, and Turkish. He is currently a professor of literature at the University of Nantes, specializing in avant-gardes (from surrealism to post-structuralism).

Yann Nico (Rail): You are a very learned writer with strong intellectual and theoretical ties with literature. Must one, in the process of literary creation, get rid of any acquired knowledge? Is it possible to abstract oneself entirely from reflection in order to dip into emotion? Is your writing influenced by both?

Philippe Forest: I know very well that, given the powerful anti-intellectual trend today, a novelist must not have too many ideas about literature. Or if he has any, he had better not mention them, and hide them as a matter for shame. A novelist will more likely be read today if he is seen as a television star rather that a college professor. But as far as I am concerned, I am convinced that true literature cannot proceed from ignorance and lack of culture. This is a quite universal rule with no exceptions. As for me I cannot imagine literature without an exercise of the mind, whereby a writer raises questions about what he is doing along the way. This may be seen as an intellectualist stand, and may well reinforce preconceived ideas about French literature in the United States, with critics highlighting its brainy side and theoretical affectation. I started out as a reader – out of passion for contemporary literature I wanted to understand. I then set out to teach – one must earn a living. My first books were studies devoted to avant-garde literature : surrealism, the nouveau roman, post-structuralism and more particularly what happened in the 1960s and 1970s around the Tel quel Mouvement (Sollers, Kristeva, Barthes, Derrida, et al.). I became a novelist late in life. I was thirty-five. Or, according to Dante : the middle age in the path of life.

To be a specialist of literary theory is one thing. To be a writer is another. One must put oneself in such mental dispositions that one comes to forget what is known, in order to be able to reinvent it so that knowledge does not stifle or thwart the gestures of imagination. As far as I can judge, my novels are such that they consciously follow the path of a literary tradition which, it is true, is influenced by theory, but that they also claim a very marked pathetic dimension—whereas ‘pathos’ is a rather maligned, or even despised notion within that same tradition, and more generally – apart from some masterly exceptions, such as Victor Hugo for instance – in French literature. One may thus find in my books a tension, a contradiction perhaps, between thought and emotion. But as I see it, it is precisely this tension, this contradiction which is the true heart of literary experience.

Rail: Can you tell us how Sarinagara became something you could not escape…

Forest: Sarinagara comes after two novels (L’Enfant eternal and Toute la nuit) wherein I coped frankly with the personal event which drove me to write: the death of my daughter, then aged four from cancer. In each of my books I wanted to write to remain true to this, but in such a way that any new novel is a resumption of the former – in the manner of Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, who contrasted ‘resumption’ with ‘repetition,’ defining ‘resumption’ as ‘memory looking forward.’ With Sarinagara, I indulged in an experiment whereby I imagined an autobiographical novel which would be written in the third person – and no longer in the first person, as is always the case. I wanted my life to be told through that of three Japanese writers or artists who each experienced something like I did: a poet, Kobayashi Issa, the last of the great masters of haiku, who lived in the beginning of the 19th century, a novelist, Natsume Sôseki, one of the founders of modern Japanese literature in the beginning of the 20th century, and a photographer, Yamahata Yosuke, who took the first pictures of the nuclear bombing in Nagasaki.

I believe that by doing this I wanted to shift my own history somewhere else in space and time: to try and avoid having the ordeal of mourning close up upon itself, and to allow this intimate and personal ordeal to manifest its universal and even epic dimension. In the novel I try to explain why I chose Japan, a culture of otherness and strangeness in the eyes of many French authors (one must mention Barthes, to whom I owe enormously). I try to approach this in a ‘post-exotic’ perspective – to quote an adjective newly coined by Antoine Volodine, another contemporary French novelist. A decisive reading for me was Kenzaburô Oé, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner, to whom I devoted an essay. I was both honored and pleased to speak with him, and I found in his work an example of truly intellectual literature, but which also openly admitted a form of pathetic feeling and sentimentality. It also seems to me that, being as it is torn between tradition and modernity, between East and West, Japanese literature, more than any other, may be seen as an emblem of present times, with reference marks of space and time being radically transformed. This is now called ‘globalization’, but the term is pejorative because it refers to a general trend towards uniformity. I prefer the old word ‘cosmopolitism’ which refers to the 18th century, that of Enlightenment, of Liberty, of Reason. With Sarinagara, Japan has been my utopia. I have tried to write in French a Japanese novel. The times of national literatures are long gone. Although no doubt typically French, I have always believed or dreamed that writing was a way of going beyond all forms of identity as assigned to individuals.

Rail: Through the destinies of these three Japanese artists (Issa, Sôseki, Yamahata), you implicitly draw your own portrait. It is known that you mostly write in the first person, and that you never cease to question autobiography and self-fiction. Can you tell us more about where you stand on this point? In what way may your book be considered as a work of self-fiction? Is this question particularly relevant in France?

Forest: I let people say that my novels belong to the category of ‘self-fiction’ because I know that if a writer wants to be read he must agree to a compromise with the spirit of the time, and to be categorized within such or such school, such or such movement as recognized by contemporary critics. But to tell the truth I feel rather indirectly concerned by the current renewal of the French autobiographic novel. To me what was called ‘self-fiction’ in the 1980s and 1990s was mostly a fallback position, somewhat regressive, after the crisis of the avant-garde. A new generation of novelists wanted to come back to reality, to actual life experience, to psychology after a whole period dominated by a very theoretician and somewhat abstract view of writing. This paved the way for a number of authors prompted above all by a very narcissistic desire to put forward their own ego, and to return to a naturalism of the intimate. This was a deathblow to any authentic literary ambition, and satisfied all too easily the requirements of today’s consumer shows such as may be found in television, where writers are principally expected to act as extras in so-called ‘talk-shows’. In other words, under the guise of novels, this only yields documents or testimonies. While pretending to tell the truth about oneself and the world, this produces some very bad unavowed fiction.

When I speak of the naturalism of the intimate, I mean that novelistic autobiography – as mostly put into practice in ‘self-fiction’ – is always a quest for identity. Now it seems to me that, on the contrary, the modern literary experience is that of a state of dizziness. Confronted with what I called the ‘impossible’ every sense of identity disintegrates and dissolves away. The subject feels himself to be a fiction as soon as he expresses himself. Life is a novel, so people say. And that is why only a novel can tell the story of a life, express its truth, which is fragmentary, confused, evasive and contradictory. ‘I am another’ as Rimbaud said. Autobiographical works which seem interesting to me are those which cope with this fundamental otherness. There are very many in French experimental literature: from surrealism (with Breton, Aragon or Leiris) to post-structuralism (there again I think of Barthes). But this is far from being a purely French story.

Speaking of Japan again, I was fascinated by a quite special genre which is named ‘watakushi shosetsu’ (or literally: the I novel). This is a very peculiar literary form, born in the beginning of the 20th century out of a crossing between traditional modern Western autobiography (in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and a purely Japanese one, that of classical personal writings (of diaries and poetical essays). Now these two traditions are largely contradictory because they originate in two distinct visions of literary subjectivity. This is why their paradoxical combination produces highly unusual literary texts, which question our common perception of individuality. To give but one idea I would say you could find a rough equivalent in the works of Jack Kerouac – himself an avid reader of Japanese poetry – in his books such as The Dharma Bums or Satori in Paris. To me, in literature, the essential thing is ‘experience’ in the strong sense imparted to it by Georges Bataille (an ‘experience’ of the ‘real’, of the ‘impossible’) which confronts one’s conscience with the vertigo of loss, of ecstasy, of a disappearance wherein the subject both fulfills himself and is annihilated. All great novels of today – and this is why, contrary to what some people repeat, literature is far from being dead or decadent – originate in such an ‘experience’ of the I. I am thinking, in France, of some books by Philippe Sollers (Paradis [Paradise] or Femmes [Women]) and Pascal Quignard (Derniers royaumes [Last kingdoms]), also of some of Philip Roth’s novels (The Counterlife and Operation Shylock) or other works, such as those of Peter Handke (My Year in the No-Man’s Bay). I am also thinking of Kenzaburô Oé or Gao Xingjian, and still other Japanese or Chinese writers.

Rail: In the United States books are only classified as Fiction or Non-fiction. What are we to do with all these novels wherein the self is in fact reinvented?

Forest: This is a matter for booksellers and publishers, not for writers – whose ambition must always be to invent an appropriate form for their undertaking, without letting anyone lock them up in such or such category as defined by the book market. Anyway, one of the main characteristics of modernity has always been to produce works which undermine the traditional distinction between genres or at least which reach far beyond. In his Histoire(s) du cinéma [History(ies) of the cinema], a veritable masterpiece, Jean-Luc Godard found a happy turn of phrase: ‘When I like a film, I am told: – OK, that’s fine, but that’s not cinema’. And when I like a book I am told : – OK, wonderful, but that’s not a novel… There is a word in French as in English – although with a slightly different meaning. It is the word ‘essay’ which, in our country, sometimes means an attempt, and sometimes a statement of ideas. I think of myself essentially as an essayist, that is to say somebody who tries, and who tries his hand, and whose essays sometimes take the shape of stories of the imagination, and sometimes of works expounding statements of thoughts. But to me there is an unbroken logical sequence between theoretical demonstration and novelistic creation.

Rail: Let us come to the question of translation. Is France one of the countries which publishes the greatest number of foreign books of fiction? Why is it very important that the United States increase the amount and diversity of translated books?

Forest: I am not the most qualified person to answer that because I am in no position of responsibility in publishing, and I have no global vision of what is published on either side of the Atlantic. As far as I am concerned my books (either novels or essays) are translated or being translated in Asia (China and Japan) and to some extent in Europe (principally in Italy), but not at all, or almost not at all, in the United States or in Great Britain – even though English is to me, after French, is the most familiar language, considering I spent seven years of my life in Scotland and in England. It seems to me that the general feeling in France is the following : people believe the country is more open than America to world literature (and there is some truth in this if for instance you judge from the way other European and Asian literatures are received in France) and they think that Americans do not take enough interest in what is written elsewhere (which is not entirely false, even though this fails to mention the formidable production of published works and commentaries in some American universities). As was remarkably shown from the point of view of literary sociology by Pascale Casanova, in an essay published a few years ago (La République mondiale des letters, Editions du Seuil – The World Republic of Letters) the world literary trade is undergoing a spectacular metamorphosis implying a geographical and linguistic shifting of its activities.

Paris continues to be a place of recognition and legitimation, of production and dissemination. But considering the universal character of the English language now, and the legitimate appeal of American culture everywhere, New York from now on plays that part to a much greater degree. It seems to me that we are witnessing two contradictory trends. On the one side market logic favors an unprecedented standardization of creation: I am dumbfounded to receive thick novels from Argentina, India, Australia, or Africa, all of them being made on the same repetitive model. But on the other side, and as a reaction to this first trend, everywhere in the world, at the heart of the system or in the margins, some people continue to write a literature which sets out to resist this movement, and which persists in exploring its own singularity. To me it is no longer relevant to think of world literature as a collection of national literatures, whether allied or rivals, competing with one another. One should rather consider it as a unified reality, subjected as a whole to a commercial and aesthetic logic which aims to format it along the needs of cultural industries, but within which may be found to exist, and to develop, exceptionally, some dissident forms of writing through which the literary experience survives. It seems to me that it is essential to insist on this point at a time in History when the temptation of a nationalist regression is apparent: in the United States as well as in France, as testifie last year’s catastrophic ‘no’ in the European referendum. Translation is a major issue because this is what makes it possible to circulate works and to communicate experiences as expressed by them. This happens in New York, in Paris, in Berlin, in Tokyo, in Shanghai and even in each of the most remote places where a writer has not totally relinquished this sublime and fragile fiction which is called literature.

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Yann Nicol

Yann Nicol is a journalist, a proofreader and a presenter of literary symposia.