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Interview by Phillip John Usher

(Annetna Nepo - 2003, February)

Denis Emorine is the author of many poems, short stories, and plays. His works have been published in various countries (France, Belgium, Romania etc.), and his plays have been staged notably in France and India. Denis Emorine is a staff member at La Nouvelle Tour de Feu, and also collaborates with other literary magazines. He is an editor at the Romanian review, Francophonia.

PJU: Many thanks, Denis, for welcoming the idea of this interview. Let us read a little paragraph of one of your works as a kind of introduction for those who don’t already know your work... “My tree was always exactly on time. At precisely thirty minutes past midnight, it would knock three sharp knocks, and I would open my window. No sooner had I opened, that it would jump with great agility into my bedroom and, calm could be, took a seat on the corner of my bed. This habit had become almost a religious ritual. We would spend whole nights together talking about various topics: it was marvelous.” (Dans les impasses du monde, p.22). This almost reads like a primitive scene of writing/reading! Any comments?

DE: That is true. The way that the habit almost becomes a religious ritual, linked to the tree’s visit, legitimates such a reading. Should the tree’s arrival be classed as “fantastic” or “marvelous”? The distinction is very important: to be sure, we would have to read Tzvetan Todorov’s Introduction to fantastic literature where the author offers a remarkable analysis of this question.

PJU: Let us start, then... I would first like to talk to you about words, about language(s). “I decided to banish all the useless words from my vocabulary”, you say in Dans les impasses du monde (p.15) You then call all the words into your office, but are unable to make the necessary choices. In the end, you don’t manage to banish any words. When you right, would you say that you are in front of the infamous “white page” (synonymous, in French, with the notion of “writer’s block” and “the anguish of writing)or, rather, are you in front of a “black/blackened” page that you aim to slowly re-whiten in the process of writing?

DE: A first point is that the “I” used in the book is a narrative “I”, even if it’s nonetheless relevant to confuse this “I” with the author. I very much like the way that you place me, as a writer, inside a dialectics of black and white. The metaphorical notion of the “white page” is exactly identical to that of the “black page”, each being merely the negative image of the other. In both cases, what is happening is an explicit search for a meaning that is never a given; after a first draft, the text must be re-read, the superfluous must be eliminated, and that which deserves to be must be developed.

PJU: Might one say that it’s a process of pruning away at the language... in order to carve out your current work in progress? a process of thrashing the French language like a tree to get the word-fruits to fall down once they’re mature enough, and which already have the right color?

DE: I really like your two propositions, especially the image-heavy expression “thrashing the French language like a tree”. The fast of whitening or blackening a page leads to words being colored: alchemy/chemistry of the Verb in the service of writing. The importance of rereading can never be underestimated. I write with relative ease but, following a first draft, I spend a lot of time reworking my text, until I manage (what I hope to be) a kind of formal “perfection”, i.e. until I have produced a completed manuscript in all meanings of the word. And yet, once a book has been published, I suddenly fall pray to a kind of neurosis: rechecking the check - a completely useless pursuit given that the text is now fixed in a definitive form. I am often voraciously running to check in all the dictionaries at hand a syntactical structure, a comma, the breath of each sentence... fearing that I will find something incorrect that would bring the whole building down. This passing craziness gets hold of me each time a book is printed. A process that destroys my mental stability. I admit that it is sometimes quite difficult to get over!

PJU: I forget where I read that you are saddened by the poorness of many contemporary writers’ vocabulary. Indeed, who doesn’t find pleasure while reading upon discovering somewhat rare words? These days, though, it is difficult to use rare words without slowing the reader down, without buckling the text’s natural rhythm... How can a writer use rare words/a rich vocabulary without sounding like one of George Perec’s experimental writing works?

DE: I don’t think that’s exactly what I said. I think I was attacking the ideology that suggests that the general public would prefer writers to write simply. A few years ago, I heard certain poets claim that the use of adjectives was superfluous, that writing should be bare, lacking artifice - or at least what they considered to be artifice. I think the term “poetry of the quotidian” was used... A few “avant-guard” poets wanted to destroy poetry -what pretension!- to put poetics in its place. However, I quite agree with what you say. I take objection with “jargonful” writing, often the product of university professors. “Rich vocabulary” for me is quite the opposite of “pompous”. The successors to Perec and his group (Oulipo) moreover seem to me to be incredibly self-important. They do more “pottering about” with things literary, than they do creating literature. When Georges Perec wrote The disappearance using the lipogram technique, the process was an innovation, for sure, but it had to remain a one-off. At once a limit and an extraordinary opening for literature.

PJU: On the subject of rare words, did you take part in France’s recent national dictation? Did you have trouble with any of the more difficult parts?

DE: No, I didn’t take part. I never have. I have never had any interest in such media-driven events. It is obvious that if you place in one text a lot of difficult spellings, to the detriment of the text’s coherence, then most people (including the “literati”) are going to make errors. This reactionary nostalgia -don’t both words mean the same thing?!- for this infamous dictation seems obsolete. It has been claimed in France that our grandparents made no faults while writing, whereas our young people in highschool... But it’s not true. I have found letters written by my grandparents and their family: their spelling is often pretty far-fetched!

PJU: Let’s talk about another type of language... A fine page from Par intermittence, a light and fresh page, introduces the reader to a poet melting into language, language which then crumbles into the universe where other people live. “A word / no, in fact / a sign or / rather a notch / like a signature // A question mark / which will slowly be wiped out / in front of other people’s / words.” (p. 22) For you, is a written sign always a kind of signature and a question mark?

DE: Always? I wouldn’t say that, but writing does being with it responsibility. In another text, Métaphore, I state that one never writes in vain, and that the least significant sign is always inscribed against the person writing. Writing is never an “innocent” activity. It follows us, forces us to always go farther: one book follows the next like a kind of uninterrupted linguistic and semantic chain. Only literature, perhaps, can show us the idea of infinity.

PJU: The American poet Anthony Hecht, paragon of formalist poetry, scrupulous right up to the smallest details of prosody, recently highlighted in an interview (New York Times, 21 Jan 2003) that contemporary poets is in a bad state. For some poets, all that’s needed, he said, is to write down any bland thought/emotion in order for poetry to be born. In L’écriture ou la justification d’être you complain, it seems to me, about the same problem: “everything’s as good as everything else: a recipe, a song, a play by Shakespeare, a satirical show on TV, and Aristophanes.” (p.117) How can such a situation be avoided while still leaving essential space for invention, for renewal? How can one find a voice in our postmodern era, avoiding outdated forms, as well as the confusion between texts/registers you mention?

DE: I think that above all we must avoid trends that are evanescent by definition, trends that can be found in literature as well as in all other artistic pursuits. Why do we still feel such a sense of marvel when we read Jacques the fatalist in the year 2003? Because Diderot was a “modern” author? This word is so overused that it has lost any meaning at all. What is a “post-modern” era? Why not speak of a “post-post-modern” era? Writing is grounded in infinite humility, and infinite hubris: how can a writer create an oeuvre after such people as Joyce, Proust, Kafka and so many others have come before, and who -it sometimes seems- “said everything there was to say”? and yet, at the same time, why not try to go a little further? What an alternative! Should we burn those who came before us before moving on? Often, literary movements hunt away their predecessors to create new foundations. A “classical” writer, for example Balzac, can describe a house in a valley in two pages, and directly offer the reader the character’s thoughts. On the other hand, a “modern” will perhaps use interior monologue: a different approach, but certainly just as interesting! For me, “literature” is often a synonym of “passion”. How is it possible to be “original”, you ask? Certainly not by untethering oneself from the world in order, as one writer suggested: “Reality is the words I use to write with”; certainly not by deliberately choosing to be “avant guard”. Ionesco stated that wanting to belong to one’s era already makes you outdated; Michel Butor that he had enough work for the next thousand years! writing is a bet on eternity: an idea I particularly like.

PJU: You have been translated into a number of languages (English, Japanese, Bengali etc.) In your opinion, a reader who reads you in Bengali, for example, will s/he retain from your work the same thing(s) as a Francophone reader? Do you think a writer is able to control in some way the way s/he is read in different cultural and linguistic contexts? Is it important?

DE: For sure, the Bengali reader will not have the same impression of my work as a Francophone reader. And I say: all the better! One of my plays, La Visite, has just been translated and staged in Bengali. The subject is as “European” as they get: an old couple, Catherine and Jean, are waiting for their son to visit them who had run off ten years ago following some dispute or another. Catherine’s husband died as a deportee during the second world war. Her husband and her son never accepted the neurotic worship she had for this love of her youth... How might such a subject be understood by a Bengali theater-goer/reader in a different cultural, historic and linguistic context? Will s/he not understand the play, reject it, or rather grip onto the powerful feelings, the mixture of love and hatred? I don’t know. It would make for an interesting debate between the author, the producer, the translator (my friend Pradip Choudhuri), and the audience. I have been delighted by the fact that one of works has been translated into a vernacular language of India. Sometimes I dream about “linguistic travel”: the same work translated also into Hindi and other Indian languages so that the work would travel around the whole of India! It would truly be work for a giant since India has several hundred languages and dialects!
A writer is quite unable to control the way s/he will be read and, indeed, all the better! A text, whatever it is, always has many meanings: it belongs to the translator (if there is one), to the reader who discovers and appreciates the text - or it does not belong to them. This “buying up” of the text by different people is a fascinating phenomenon even if it sometimes leads to fanaticism such as happened in the case of Salman Rushdie, sentences to death by a fatwa.

PJU: Do you think contemporary poetry travels well in other countries? Are all poets today poets of the world? (Especially because of Internet, for example.)

DE: It is very difficult to answer the first part of your question. In a country like Romania where I often spend time I would say “yes” if we mean Romania is associated with Francophone countries; the contrary is clearly more apparent. Can language get around the snags that await it in translation? Of course! As a translator, you know this problem well: how is it possible to render a given idiomatic expression or a neologism in a foreign language? The ideal would be to always publish bilingual editions of works so that links would form between the original language and the “host” language (I prefer this term to “foreign” language). Translating poetry, isn’t that a kind of betrayal? On the other hand, there are countries where poetry is the primary literary form. This is often in eastern countries; in the west, this is not the case: the reader privileges prose. Now, what publishing house would dare accept to publish a group of poets speaking different languages (not necessarily from different countries) ? What utopia! Imagine, if you will: I walk into a bookstore and buy one collection of poetry in French, Spanish, English, Chinese, Greek, Arabic, Russian... It seems to me that e-books should make such adventures more possible.
Yes, poets necessarily belong to the world. Internet allows travel in stasis, very enriching in a human way. Jacques Cœur stated with fine optimism: “To want means to be able”. The technique could, used to serve human emotions and struggles, allow an immense conversation to grow between cultures and civilizations. But we are all tempted, alas, to privilege our own ego!

PJU: You speak English and Spanish. Do you regularly read in foreign languages? Who are you favorite non-Francophone authors?

DE: I have an affective relationship to English. My mother was an English teacher. When I was small, she taught me the odd word, would get me to repeat a few sentences. I’ve always loved English’s musicality. Still young, I would try to say, making great efforts, “My car is blue”, “I enjoy that film”, “It’s raining”, and so on... It’s not my “mother tongue” (I am not bilingual), but English is my “mother’s tongue”. I remember that time with emotion. That’s so difficult to say in French.
I discovered Spanish later on after having tried to learn German - in vain. Spanish seduced me for it is uniquely sensuous and wild at the same time. Me gustan las naranjas... Such a simple sentence is perfectly magnificent! Te quiero is an admirably sensuous phrase for it contains all the desire one might feel for the other “I”: the loved one.
I don’t regularly read in foreign languages (books, newspapers) except letters from English, American, Japanese, or Bengali correspondents such as Pradip Choudhuri. I write to them in English and I get a certain pleasure from it even if my English isn’t perfect. I like the effort needed to approach the Other even though I am sad that I am not able to do this in Japanese and Bengali. I admire polyglots and writers who write in a language other than their own. Francophone Romanian writers quite literally breath in French!
There are many non-Francophone writers I particularly admire. I cannot cite them all... Amongst my favorites, the Russian “classics”; Kafka, Buzzati, Paul Celan, Garcia Lorca...

PJU: What influence have these other languages had on your writing in French?

DE: Non at all, I think. Except in the form of allusions. In one short story, the protagonist is stood in front of a hotel called “El Destino”. A poem, dedicated to a Romanian friend, Valeriu Stancu, is titled “Im umbra oglinzii”. In a short story, a science-fiction writer writes a text titles “Requiem para un desdichado” (an allusion to Nerval, of course). In Crépitements du masque (in: L’écriture ou la justification d’être), I venture a few words in Italian but I don’t feel any real influence on my writing. On the other hand, I am absolutely incapable of writing a literary text in any language other than French, my mother tongue.

PJU: Annetna Nepo is constantly causing me to question the notion of national literature. It is an old habit that it’s difficult to rid oneself of. Are you a French writer, Mr. Emorine? What does that mean? Does the question even make sense?

DE: Let me first of all get rid of my baguette, my beret and my bottle of red wine (already half empty)... There we go. I feel much lighter! You were saying, then, “French writer”? This question is linked to the inquiry around identity that is at the heart of my writing. How can I put it? For a long time I have dreamt of heading to Russia, especially to Saint. Petersburg. One of my friends, Dimitri Zadkine, a French professor and translator who lives there, says that my tales, short stories, and various prose texts, show a Slavic influence which must be in my blood. It’s quite disconcerting. This Russian side of me often comes up in my books. Frequently in direct allusions. In Au chevet des mots, where the voice -speaking in refined French with a Slavic accent- tries to make the narrator write something different; in Irina where a young woman has a Russian name; in Dans les impasses du monde where the narrator suffers from hearing a call or cry that he locates in eastern Europe, in some unknown town; in Pèlerinage where a mysterious man verbally assaults the narrator in a train between Paris and Venice, declaims poetry in Russian before jumping out of the train window... A writer belongs to the language -or to the languages- s/he speaks. I am thus French in appearance but I am not sure such a statement entirely satisfies me. I am not in for cultivating cosmopolitanism out of esthetic affectation. I strong feel this affiliations with a place far off.

PJU: You say “Being French thus probably implies more dismissal than adhesion except in ‘great historic moments’ as everyone knows!” (L’écriture ou la justification d’être, p.126).

DE: This statement probably refers to a form of thought which may be typically French. That of making a decision, dogmatically, “for” or “against” something. In France, being neutral is a cause for suspicion, in all areas of life. During the existentialist period, if you were for Sartre, then you had to be against Camus, and vice-versa. The fact I said “probably” is meant to soften the over-assertive nature of the sentence. Some people call this kind of thought “Cartesian”. This has always seemed incorrect. If I correctly remember the context of this sentence, then the sentence is supposed to be somewhat ironic for I am referring to the way people make a final choice between Burgundy and Bordeaux wines, between cats and dogs!

PJU: I forget where I read that you live have been living in Alsace for about ten years. How has that changed you as a writer?

DE: I have been living in Alsace for fifteen years. I don’t think I’ve changed as a writer. When a Romanian journal asked me a similar question, I replied that, for me, whether I write in Paris or in the provinces (oh, I know, I should say “in the regions”, but I can’t get used to it), it doesn’t make any difference to me.

PJU: You write: “Political Europe is going to reduce all [types of] differences, to make of all these countries a vast empty land, with no memory of History. I worry.” (L’écriture ou la justification d’être, p.101). Are you pessimistic about Europe’s future? Why/why not? Is this worry in part linguistic?

DE: I wrote than in 1989. At that point I was probably particularly pessimistic. I worried was not in part linguistic for the fact that English predominates (the concern you are referring to without specifically mentioning it) is a global phenomenon. It’s a huge question! When speaking of Europe’s future, I suppose that “European community” is what is meant. I prefer to say “Europe” for most countries don’t belong to it yet. I strongly believe in a cultural Europe that should abolish all types of borders, whatever they are. Of course, History teaches us that to be prudent for most conflicts were born, and are still born, of the arbitrary ways Europe (and the world) have been divided by western powers. I was recently talking with a Polish friend, and I referred to “those people who didn’t want to die for Dantzig” during the second world war. She laughed, telling me the town was now called Gdansk in Poland, and that it has been the foundation for important political change with Solidarnosc. That I knew, of course! How ironic is history! Our references, although different, complemented each other. You see, this kind of conversation is enriching for me, and forces me to not look hope in Europe. Maybe I am an idealist but, for me, each citizen must also build his/her Europe and not wait for it to be done for him/her. That is why I believe Europe should be opened to Turkey who will naturally and culturally find its place there.

PJU: Throughout your work there are a certain number of myths that are created, it seems. A certain number of myths or models, maybe that’s the same thing. Before talking about the first one, a question: “For about a week, I’ve had this feeling that my chat is somehow different...” starts page 18 of Dans les impasses du monde. Is this an echo of Sartre’s Nausea?

DE: The idea of “myths” in relation to my books interests me a lot, and I would like to develop this idea. As for Sartre’s Nausea, I discovered it as an adolescent and have never re-read it since. I don’t think the sentence, quite harmless it would seem, is an echo of Sartre’s novel, not even through chances in memory.

PJU: In any case, you and the cat start speaking the same language. You end up by not asking the cat (who speaks French so well) for any more advice; silence settles in and you end up looking at each other like earthenware dogs. It’s the series of metamorphoses that held my attention. First of all, you become a kind of cat (given that you speak the same language). Secondly, both of you become dogs. In this final transformation (that occurs thanks to a common French expression - but surely the use of this is motivated?) the cat becomes a dog, and so do you. Now, might one say that from this page emerges a model for communication in general? I.e. that the individual chooses to undergo a transformation (into a cat, for example) in order to facilitate communication but that, after this transformation, a second transformation occurs which hasn’t been specifically chosen, and that puts a fence up around communication? Would you agree with such a reading of this page? If you do agree, then do you think such a model for communication is representative of yourself, the writer Denis Emorine?

DE: Once again we must remember the “I” is a narrative “I”. Your theory about communication is quite relevant. First of all, obviously, the French expression about earthenware dogs looking at each other was not chosen by chance given that it describes the new relationship between a cat and a human. Perhaps I should explain some personal allusions: I love cats, but hate dogs. This is not a pure chance when we allude to this tale, and which weakens the theory of a narrative “I” that is supposed to be distinctly separate from the author! This double metamorphosis of the human being into a cat and then into a dog most likely symbolizes the impossibility of communicating even when two living beings transform themselves into canines.
Is this representative of the writer Denis Emorine? Yes, for what I write -especially theater- shows the pathological state of incomprehension that inhabits living beings, the impossibility of understanding oneself / of making oneself understood. This makes me think in particular of L’heure de la fermeture where the man and woman’s words are wedged apart as if never to meet. It is a constant fact throughout my work: words betray us, isolate us to the other side of the world and -this is the worst!- stop us from really communicating.

PJU: A second model, also linked to writing: “I waited for a few moments in front of the hotel El Destino. A man passed in front of me. Without a second thought, I started to follow him. // Since then, following him has become a habit. He quickly got used to my presence which was not hostile in any way”. (Dans les impasses du monde, p.25). Can we see a model of the writer who is looking for himself, and who ends up going around in circles? by spying on himself until he becomes literally crazy?

DE: This is most likely for two of my sources of inspiration are the quest for identity, and the theme of the doppelgänger. There is also something mimetic happening: the protagonist feels the need to put on the same gray coat as the unknown person who follows him at the start of the tale. The name of the hotel, El Destino, is not un-motivated either. Is the writer’s destiny that of finding himself/herself in front of his/her shadow, of “catching up with himself” at the doors of folly in order to penetrate, at his/her own risk, the mirror that designates him/her? The question has been asked.

PJU: An apparently insignificant detail on the last page of Dans les impasses du monde... You completed the manuscript on the 6th September 2000, just before pupils returned to school! It’s as if writing cannot penetrate that other area that is “normal” life. How do you managed to make these various elements of life (work, writing etc.) all fit together?

DE: This is an essential question for me for there is a kind of splitting between work and writing. Writing is another form of work, non-remunerated. I try -but do I always manage it?- to maintain a barrier between my professional life and my writing. Family life is sometimes superimposed on the will to write. For a long time, suffering from insomnia (all great writers suffer from insomnia, said Proust: good Lord, yes! for he himself suffered from it!) I would get up in the middle of the night and scribble a few pages... La Visite was written one afternoon, three hours straight, while I was looking after my eldest daughter (four years old). What a miracle! Nothing could interrupt my work, I was saved! Yes, writing cannot, must not, enter into “normal” life other than as a kind of burglary. In 1986, I chosen to work in the boarding school so that, once the pupils had gone to sleep, I could completely give myself over to writing. One night, I wrote Songes dans Venise évanouie and La Méprise ou les ressources de l’amour (a play inspired by Casanova’s Memoirs). I was dissociated from the human race, and yet very close to it, too. It’s one of my favorite memories. The world was sleepy. I felt like I was the only person to be staying up so late. I was cramped up in my little room using just a bedside light to work by, a veritable lighthouse for the drowned person I was at that point.

PJU: Last Thursday I was walking around the famous “La Hune” bookstore in Paris. On the large white table just inside the door the most recently published books were piled up. The names of most of the authors didn’t mean much to me (alas, it was so), but pretty much all of the books carried the name of one of the large publishing houses. Following the great tradition of spectacle-wearing intellectuals, I started to flip through a few books at random... What homogeneity! And yet, I know -even if I only judged by writers or poets whom I know personally- there are numerous new poetics currently being formed. It seems to be that it is often small publishing houses, and small reviews that dare to publish “rebel” texts. It doesn’t seem you’re much more hopeful on that front! In one book, you say the following: “Almost everyone in 1996 makes out they write poetry. Everyone, from review to review, congratulates the other editors on their work going against the trade’s most elemental code of conduct: respect for the reader” (L’écriture ou la justification d’être, p.127). This makes me want to ask a couple of questions... How can the reader and the writer be guaranteed an authentic place of exchange? How can this place be guaranteed the independence and the means that it needs to survive?

DE: I wrote that provocative sentence, which is still valid, in reaction to those reviews which are involved in unbridled palliness, a widespread phenomenon... Rarely have I come across reviews that offer honest book reviews, well argued and... certainly willing to criticize! But, at the same time, I have to pay homage to all the “small” publishing houses that allow many writers to have their books published. I am included amongst such writers. The publishers who have helped me probably haven’t made a fortune off of my books, but they had and continue to have faith in me. These people are crazy about literature and publish, sometimes even print, their editions with real faith. There are many such publishing structures in France which manage to survive, for the most part with no form of external financial support in the form of grants, thanks to the 1901 law on associations. They deserve our consideration given that the “big” presses never -or very rarely- pay them any attention. They know, of course, that if one day their author meet with success, they will be welcomed with open arms by the “important publishing houses in Paris” (as the saying goes). A authentic place for exchange already exists even though it is always a risk to denounce the underhand practices of the “Republic of Letters”!

PJU: Writing is generally a solitary activity... However, you managed to leave the world’s blind alleys [les impasses du monde] in order to walk along the adjacent riverbanks [les rivages contigus] in the company of Isabelle Poncet-Rimaud. You published a book of poetry with her where your two voices respond to each other. Here is a short extract...
As I read this book, I made it a game to guess who was the author of each poem without looking at the initials at the bottom of each page. Do you yourself need to look at these initials as you re-read your work?

DE: In theory, no. Isabelle’s and my themes are quite far apart, even “conflicting”. That’s the reason I thought it would be interesting for this confrontation, wherein each of us would respond to a poem written by the other. During a public reading, however, something quite disconcerting happened. In March 2001, during the “Poets’ Spring”, the Mulhouse library invited us for a two-voice reading. We both read extracts of our own work, of course, but also extracts from the work be wrote together, Rivages contigus, which at that point had yet to be published. At one point, I realized I was reading one of her poems -at least a large part of it- as if I had written it! We later laughed about this confusion. It was the evening’s only such incident. If I pick the book up to re-read parts, the same confusion doesn’t happen. Perhaps it was the emotion of reading this work-in-progress in a public setting! Or a desire to share friendship to the point of associating oneself with a the Other’s writing?

PJU: If I may enter into the privacy of the act of writing, I would like to ask you the following question: how did you both work together on this book, from a practical point of view? Did you write side by side in a café? Exchange letters by mail?

DE: It’s very simple: by mail at first, and then by email. Isabelle lived in Brussels, and I in Mulhouse, and so email quickly became the best solution. We always deeply respected the other’s writing, and there was always great honesty in our correspondence: we both had the right to refuse a poem offered by the other person, in complete freedom, and with no need to provide a justification. This experience lasted almost two years.

PJU: As you re-read the book, does it seem like there are two voices? or do you feel that a “third voice” is born, neither yours not Isabelle Poncet-Rimbaud’s?

DE: It might indeed be possible to speak in terms of a creative trinity: to the two voices that had to remain distinct is perhaps added a third voice, that of poetry itself. On the other hand, there was a moment when we had the curious impression that our voices were merging together, that our poems were becoming similar: mimicry, some form of doubling? Perhaps we were near the point of each loosing our identity? We quickly decided at that point to stop the experiment. However, and I have to underline this point, Isabelle and myself are very attached to this book. For me, completing this work was the best writing experience that I have ever lived.

PJU: In January, Clemente Padin reminded us that the artist lives in the contemporary world, that s/he must (and that s/he owes it to him/herself) fight against the tyranny of a world governed by often irresponsible leaders... It’s a big question but, well, I’d like to ask it to you anyway!! How do you see literature and politics linking up? When you write, do you have the impression that you write differently because you are alive at this specific moment in History? How can the writer avoid self-absorption and take into account this complex world of ours while avoiding didacticism?

DE: I can understand that you might want to ask me such a question about a writer’s engagement. It is a fundamental question within our world where it has become impossible to not know about / to look beyond the ills that affect it. My books don’t seem to reflect the world’s injustices, the world’s horrors. Padin is maybe suggesting that the artist has to be a citizen involved in life and not exclusively in his work.
Vacillements d’un soleil, a tale dedicated to Ion Radescu, a poet and translator of writers who suffered from censorship under the soviet regime, is it a political work? I don’t know. What about when I give a poem dedicated to the people of Afghanistan to the Open Asia association? Again, I don’t know. Is it possible to take refuge behind one’s necessity to create, far from the world’s turbulence? Obviously, that is not possible.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are the products of History, of culture, of socio-economic realities from which it would be difficult for me to disregard. I was born in 1956. Men and women of my generation could not escape hearing about the two world wars. My grandfather, who was seriously injured in WWI, would tell me about the trenches, where soldiers slept in water, with the rats, the lice, and the shit; my parents, born in 1921 and 1924, lived through the German occupation with much sorrow in their hearts and in their bodies. Such suffering is passed on, whether we like it or not. I belong to one of the rare generations who has not lived through way, but how can you not be sincerely moved when watching Emmanuel Finkiel’s Voyages, a movie with much modesty that recounts this period’s painful events linked to the deportation of Jews. How can we live after that? All these topics haunt me... There is so much to say!
As solitary as he may be, the writer cannot but know solidarity, just like Jonah in Albert Camus’ short story. How can and why should we take account of our contemporaries? This is an essential question, and we one we cannot think about too much. How can we sit back and watch Putin who wants to wipe Tchetchnia off the map? How, as citizens, can we stand up and make our opposition felt whilst the United States and Europe sit back and allow him to do this because he’s our ally in the fight against international terrorism? Avoiding literary self-absorption is basically just a case of avoiding any kind of self-absorption, isn’t it? Who still listens to intellectuals in this world of ours? All these questions are questions I don’t have answers to but, if I am to believe Albert Camus, then: “An individual is defined more by the questions s/he asks, than by the answers s/he finds to them”. I am quite aware that I cannot answer your question satisfactorily.

PJU: You are, I think it is safe to say, crazy about Venice. You are far from being the only French writer to have had such a passion for Italy - I think of Stendhal, Proust, etc. Moreover, Bernard Pivot recently dedicated one of his “Double Je” issues to the French literary community of Venice, and underlined the relationship between Venice and France. How did your love for Venice come to be born?

DE: Yes, you could put it like that. It’s not a specific to French writers, though: I can think of John Ruskin, Baron Corvo... I am tempted to say that the love for Venice has always existed, a town that straddles East and West. It was Casanova -or rather, my reading of his Memoirs- that made me want to visit Venice. I went there in 1986, a short while after writing La Méprise. Moreover, in one of my short stories, I talk about a writer, Daniel Mory (!), who meets Casanova (in the 20th century!) one night, in Venice... I started to devour all books that spoke of Venezia: historical essays, novels, poetry, graphic narratives including Hugo Pratt’s remarkable Fable de Venise which stresses Venice’s esoteric side. I was literally ravenous for any books that spoke about it! I’ve been to Venice several times, each time with the woman I love.

PJU: Is it difficult to write about a town that so much has already been written about? Are there certain traps that must be avoided? Must the need for invention become more important than the shared “feeling” that Venice inspires in so many travelers?

DE: It is a real wager to write about Venice, but you must not try to be original. That, indeed, would be the best way to founder into conformism. What are the traps to be avoided, then? All must be, notably the clichés about Venice as the eternal city of love and death. Only Luchino Visconti has been able to do that in Death in Venice which I’ve seen dozens of times at the cinema. Must the need to be original become more important than the “feeling” Venice creates? It is difficult for me to say insofar as my memories of travel are never -or rarely- composed of detailed descriptions. They are composed more so of sensations that can be restored by small brush strokes. Turner revealed and magnified Venice in a way that particularly affects me: I would have liked to write prose poems on/about his paintings.
In one of my short stories, the main character is fascinated -as I am, too- by Venice’s cemetery in which he visits the tombs of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky, as well as by the red carnations sold on the banks of the Fondamenta Nuove. Venice abolishes the imagination and reality; or, at least, that it what I try to purvey in my writing, and to exalt our interior madness. Nevertheless, I know people who hate Venice as they fell trapped by this wrinkled old female courtesan! Chateaubriand spoke of a town that went against nature, I think. At the start of the 21st century, I would like to add “that goes against culture”. It is really a “poetics incarnate” to use a term of Frédérick Tristan. Venice is, in all meanings of the words, a lure or a decoy.

So? How about seeing Venice, and then dying just like Von Aschenbach?

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