July 26, 2010 | by David Wallace-Wells
03 marks the beguiling English-language debut of the youngish French writer Jean-Christophe Valtat. The slim book was written in French, and has been published here in a sharp translation by Mitzi Angel, but Valtat writes also in English—or "some idiom that resembles English," as he puts it—including in his upcoming Aurorarama, to be published in August. “I like both languages, and how they blend at times, but what I write in French is different from what I write in English,” he tells me. “In French, I tend to ratiocinate. English is where my imagination takes me.”
The whole of 03 is a single, propulsive monologue—uninterrupted, even, by paragraph breaks. How important was it for you to make this a story that should be read in a single sitting?
It's less a story, maybe, than about getting frustrated by the impossibility of any story to happen. I always wanted the book to be short and filled up to the brim with frustration and anger, as if about to spill. I sometimes describe it as holding as much as can be held in a closed fist—it is supposed to reflect the intensity and urgency of teenage angst, and the way it feeds on itself relentlessly, in the hope of filling the surrounding emptiness. It should sound like when you talk too much in order to impress a girl, or, since in the book the girl is out of reach, like a mad-eyed, clenched-jawed hamster running in a wheel.
That girl is not just “out of reach,” of course, she’s retarded, and her disability is presented in an unusual, undomesticated way—it makes her an object of real desire. Is this just a trip to the terminal point in the literature of forbidden love and foreclosed lust—or something more?
There is some of that, of course. She works first as a mirror image of the narrator's own disability regarding love and lust. But on another level, she is an allegory of the general failure that he seems to observe in himself and in others, school kids or adults—and of the way prettiness and youth is doomed to be ignored or destroyed. And then, she is also the blank page or the screen that he uses to construct and project a way to understand others. As this is done through endless hypotheses, it is also the beginning of fiction. Most of what happens in one's head is fiction, after all.
In the book you offer, alongside that allegory, this one: “A young retarded boy asks his teacher if she wants to know the time, and without waiting for her reply he unzips his fly to reveal a watch he has strapped around his penis.” How would you characterize the relationship of these stunted characters to time?
The narrator is keenly aware that people are never fully their own contemporaries, mostly because of the annoying persistence of childhood, or because they're lagging behind a dream-image of themselves. In this respect, everybody seems to be stunted in some way or other.
But that seems less a regrettable state, in 03, than simply a mysterious one—almost sacred, and inviting examination. “The more I wanted to identify with her, the more I identified with myself; and the more I tried to understand her, the less, necessarily, I succeeded: the failure of an intelligent mind to grasp feeblemindedness was deep and dark, no less than the failure of a feeble mind to grasp intelligence, because intelligence got its shape by not understanding the thing it could never be.” The portrait of the girl emerges over the courses of the book only through “endless hypotheses,” as you put it—does that make it a failure?
I guess there wouldn't be a book if there wasn't in it a sense that fiction can work, a little. So, at some points, and though he will never know it, the narrator may get close to the understanding is looking for. I have no particular fascination for failure. In some respects the book is about avoiding it. It ends on a “farewell,” which I think is some sort of success—or profane salvation.