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The Fabric of a Life: An Interview with Yasmina Reza

February 20, 2015 | by

Yasmina Reza. Photo © Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

Last week, Yasmina Reza, who lives in Paris, came to New York to promote the American publication of her latest novel, Happy Are the Happy. I met her in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel. As she pointed out, it looks a lot like a hallway, with doors on every side.

Happy Are the Happy isn’t entirely unlike that hallway: the book is a gallery of portraits, with each chapter opening a door on a new scene. Characters pass through each other’s lives—some connected closely, as, say, mothers and daughters, and others linked only casually, as two strangers in a doctor’s office.

Quietly glamorous in light makeup, her dark wavy hair undone, Reza looked slender in a plaid miniskirt and green mohair sweater. In conversation, she seems effortlessly poised and speaks as she writes, with elegant precision. We talked about the frivolous and the profound, what it means to be French, theater today, and Michel Houellebecq. 

We were speaking in French; the following is my translation.

Your American publisher, Judith Gurewich, warned me that you don’t like interviews.

It’s not that I don’t like interviews, I don’t like promoting myself. I don’t like the feeling of having to step outside the work in order to sell it. And sometimes professional journalists can be nightmares—they’re only waiting for you to make a faux pas. They have nothing personal invested, they’re not really there. It’s all business.

Like Charlie Rose?

Yes, I refused to go on the Charlie Rose show because he’s a perfect example of that kind of professional journalist, who just asks a series of smart prewritten questions and doesn’t bother listening to the answers. It feels like being faced with a brilliant question machine. It’s a horrible experience that I’d rather not put myself through.

In your play The Unexpected Man—a series of internal monologues between two characters on a train—an aging novelist describes his early works as so far removed that they might as well be someone else’s. At the time you were just starting out as a writer, so you had to be guessing. Now that twenty years have passed, does it feel true?

Writing is so prophetic—at twenty, you already know everything there is to know, you don’t need to have experienced life to be able to write about it. There’s an intuitive phenomenon at work that’s almost clairvoyant. I’m not only speaking for myself. Many other writers have shared this impression.

In The Unexpected Man I remember the character adds that the work “has been calcified. It remains active for others.” That’s absolutely true. There’s something calcified in past works, in the sense that you can’t alter them anymore. One day I tried to edit some of my earlier plays. I was switching publishers, and I wanted to change a few things I didn’t like, but I realized I couldn’t do it because I would have had to rewrite them entirely! It felt like an object that was no longer permeable. If I were to write The Unexpected Man today, I would do it very differently, but at the same time I do recognize in my past works a very strong continuity. It’s the same spirit, the same being, the same vision of the world. So it’s ambiguous. The work is calcified, but the thought that conceived it endures.

And writing for the stage allows the work to remain more obviously active, too. How do you feel about seeing your work produced?

It all depends. My reaction can vary as widely as stagings differ. A good play, or one that is good enough to survive its author, its time, its native culture, is necessarily, essentially, destined to be reinterpreted. The more interpretations it can take, the better it is. That’s the case with Chekhov, Shakespeare, all the great playwrights. From my contemporary purview, I’m thrilled to see unexpected stagings with completely different decisions, as long as they’re sound. If they’re bad, then everything falls apart, and can even become shameful. I’ve been ashamed of seeing my work on stage. Now I’m much more selective, but in the beginning, I was so happy to see my plays produced, I would go to everything. And I’ve sat in the audience, mortified by what I had written, because all of a sudden the language fell apart. Because the actors were bad, the rhythm was off, there was no intimate understanding of the lines, no vision …

9781590516928Reading Happy Are the Happy, I was stunned at how your characters take shape seemingly instantaneously. As soon as they appear on the page, you’ve answered who, when, where. Odile, in bed, picking up her thriller. Paola, going to her lover’s for the first time …

I wrote a play called Life x 3—it was performed here in New York with John Turturro in the lead role—and it opened with a woman in bed and a man walked in and said: “He wants cake!” And the woman replied: “You know he can’t have cake after he brushed his teeth,” and the man went on, “Yes, but he wants cake anyway.” And the man walked out again. That was the start of the play, and then the kid raised hell for the rest of the night. In France there was a very famous director, Roger Planchon—he has since passed away—who had come to see the play, and after the performance he said, How do you do it? In one sentence you clear the decks, you tell us exactly what we need to know, where we are, who we’re with … I think my impatience is to blame. Nothing bores me more, in writing, than long introductions, explanations of childhood, that heavy backpack of contextualization. I’m not at all interested in that. In fact, I find that you can get to the point right away through recognizable symptoms, which everyone shares. I don’t necessarily look for efficiency, but I try to stay true to myself, to what I care about, and I suppose there might be a small narrative talent there, too.

It’s very difficult to evaluate one’s own work, and there’s something pretentious and annoying about it, but the one thing I can say is that I really identify with painting in my craft. I feel much closer to a painter than a writer. A painter doesn’t waste any time. With a dot of color, he can make a flower. Contemporary art, roughly since the rise of the Impressionists, has favored ellipsis. It sacrificed all the unnecessary context in order to focus on one precise detail. I think of it as a more modern approach.

Happy Are the Happy is a novel, yet each character is engaged in an interior monologue that could easily pass for theater.

My writing is profoundly inspired by the immediacy of theater. In my books, everything is always in the present tense. There’s clearly theatrical DNA in whatever I write.

After reading your novel, I couldn’t tell whether I was imitating you, or whether I heard myself differently because of you. How can you imitate people’s inner voices so precisely?

To my mind, to understand a character is to understand his inner voice. There are writers who understand their characters through their destinies—as in an epic—in the series of landmarks that define their lives. This makes novels that work on a broad time scale necessarily very different from mine, which all take place in the present tense, in the moment. But the present tense requires interior monologue. You can’t just write, She picks up her teacup. You have to add to it, to give it depth. She might pick up her teacup thinking … The present tense is the temporality of thought.

You don’t do epic. That’s true of the content of your books, too. You always write about trivial matters, everyday stuff, but it’s in the prosaic, the frivolous that you reach the profound.

Yes, that’s very true. I find frivolousness to be very deep. The frivolous is the foam that floats over the depths. Human drama doesn’t consist of big tragic incidents. Naturally, they happen in the course of a life—but for the most part, it’s full of small details, minor scrapes, wrinkles, micro-events, that together make up the struggle of being. Infinitely more than losing one’s mother at eight. That’s what I’m interested in most, what I track down is how the fabric of a life wears out, how it hurts, how it’s irrational, through tiny details that might seem trifles. I choose to pick at what seems most irrelevant, most superficial, most unfit to dig into, and I dig into it—that’s how I write.

Fashion seems a strong example of this. In Happy Are the Happy, one of the characters says that you can’t just “cover yourself with fabric.” Could fashion be metaphysical?

Absolutely. One makes a deeply serious decision in appearing before the world. With it comes courage, the desire to be seductive, the fear of not being seductive, self-doubt … There’s always room for error. One seldom ever feels perfect, so perfect that one should run out into the world to show it off. It’s only ever an attempt. In that sense, getting dressed is deeply metaphysical, because it’s an attempt one has to face day after day, with very little chance of success. It’s the physical side of what one undergoes morally, and it’s no less important in my mind.

In Desolation, I have a character, a seventy-year-old woman, who travels all the way across the city to find a specific makeup pencil, knowing full well that it won’t change a thing, but she has to find it nonetheless. It’s of the utmost importance. To me, nothing could be more metaphysical. Nothing could be more irrationally glorious, because it represents the battle against the insignificance of life.

To quote another of your characters, “After a while, even life has an idiotic value.” In the scope of things, there’s no more value to life than to fashion?

As a subject matter for writing, I would never rate anything as having more value than anything else. Clothes are just as worthy a subject as death or loneliness. Perhaps that’s what makes my writing so immediate, for those who like it, and so uninteresting for those who don’t—everything is equal.

The sentence made me think of Thomas Bernhard. You seem to have a similar outlook on life, yet you express it in radically different ways.

Thomas Bernhard is probably the writer I feel closest to in terms of vision of the world. I find him very funny, too, in his fanatical sort of way. The one major difference between us is that there are hardly any women in his works. By contrast, my world is extremely feminine. It’s a radical distinction because the feminine introduces duality, and women also bring in frivolousness, like a big gust of wind. And with women come children, of which there are none in Bernhard. Women bring in the trivial elements of daily life, which are also absent in his plays. I find those grandiose. But otherwise the comparison is very apt.

You’re one of the only contemporary playwrights who has had a chance to see her work adapted on European and American stages. Are there obvious differences?

When I started out, thirty years ago, there were dozens of great directors in France, but the theater landscape has been completely decimated. We had huge personalities like Antoine Vitez, Roger Planchon, Patrice Chéreau, Claude Régy … Today, when I write a play in French, I can’t think of a single stage director I’d like to work with in my own language. My next play will be adapted in German by Thomas Ostermeier at the Schaubühne, because there’s no one in France to do it.

But when I think of English and American theater, I feel it’s too neat, too well done, too structured, there’s too much of a desire to entertain. There’s always a sort of wink at the audience, which I find distracting and annoying. Of course, it’s a silly generalization, and there are plenty of counterexamples. There’s Bob Wilson, to name one. I’m thinking of the mainstream theater productions in the English-speaking world.

When I was first produced on Broadway and the West End, I was beyond thrilled. I thought, Here we have great, famous actors, but I must say I don’t completely relate to that style of theater. And English actors are just so extravagant—they really overdo it. I kept thinking as I watched them perform, Hold it, rein it in a little! That’s just a cultural difference that I haven’t been able to get used to. I find its aesthetic not as elegant.

In Europe we have a tradition of minimalism that I love—that or the other extreme, something hysterical, fanatical, but it’s very different from the Anglo-American tradition. It doesn’t cater to the audience in the same way.

Do you ever give your opinion on a production? Do you ever try to have them change anything?

If I do contribute, I’ll do so in advance, early on in the process. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m not involved at all. My plays get performed all over the world. Sometimes for important new productions in significant theaters, I’ll look into it—I’ll check the translation, who’s directing, who the actors are. If it’s in London or Berlin or Paris, certainly I’ll pay attention. Occasionally a director might invite me to watch a rehearsal. That’s rare. More often it’s a reading, and I say what I have to say, and then it’s a surprise. It’s not a good idea to intervene—you have to let it be.

You’re one of the only French writers who’s known in the United States. One might say you represent a certain idea of France. Having lived in New York for a long time myself, I hear it a lot, too—that I’m very French. Do you have any idea what it might mean?

I think it probably has a lot to do with fashion. I remember when I was first published in the English-speaking world, when Art came out in England, I gave an interview, and in the middle of it, I fixed my lipstick. And the journalist—a woman—stared at me, completely mesmerized, and said with utter befuddlement, You’re putting on lipstick? And I said, Yes, why not? And I saw her write it down, and look at me and say, That’s so French! Then I realized that a woman writer had to be a little fat, dressed in a shapeless rag, with graying hair, and that to reapply lipstick in the middle of an interview—especially since I was quite young at the time—didn’t conform at all to the image of a serious author. And this hasn’t always been good to me—I’ve had to wrestle with that image quite a bit.

A dear friend of mine—French, also—told me she put on lipstick every time she had to make an important phone call.

I understand that very well. It makes perfect sense. So logical!

That might be the feminine definition of French, then. What about men? For Americans, Michel Houellebecq seems to be the representative French male writer.

Ah, yes, Michel Houellebecq represents exactly the French state of mind! Nothing could be more French than Michel Houellebecq.

Really! How do you mean?

It’s very hard to explain. First and foremost, one feels in Michel Houellebecq a total lack of cosmopolitanism.

(Here, Judith Gurewich, who has joined us in the middle of the interview, interjects: “Not Jewish!”)

Not Jewish at all! Notwithstanding his wit and humor! I admire him tremendously, but his mind is very Cartesian, very neatly organized—à la française. Although it’s not his thinking that is necessarily French, it’s him, who he is. He’s so French. He’s truly a product of French soil.

Michel Houellebecq—product of the terroir, not Jewish. There’s a Jewish character in his latest novel who doesn’t feel very Jewish, either.

She’s so not Jewish! Mercifully, he has her leave for Israel early enough in the book—but he clearly doesn’t get it.

As representatives of contemporary French literature, do you find that you and Houellebecq have anything in common?

Yes, I believe we were the first writers in France to introduce brand names in our works. There were Kinder, and Cruesli, and Apéricubes, images one saw on billboards—all sorts of brands. And this didn’t exist in French literature. French literature tried to describe the world in more generic terms. Houellebecq started writing—and I did the same—about gross, trivial stuff, the opposite of sexy, not in order to make any kind of statement, not even to point it out, but as a matter of fact, as part of life. He’s also interested in crummy stuff that nobody else would notice. I think we have that in common.

It’s something very contemporary.    

Yes, something extremely contemporary. When I read Whatever, it came to me as a shock. I was awestruck. I thought, Voilà, here is a masterpiece, here is a book that is ultracontemporary, here is exactly how one needs to write today. It startled me, because it was extremely close to what I was trying to do. Not the topic—which was fantastic, I could never have written it as well as he did. But the apprehension of the world was so true, so direct. It didn’t feel written, or staged, it felt totally raw, there seemed to be no filter between him and sordid reality. I was very impressed. Now he’s a rock star in France.

And, speaking of lipstick, I remember an anecdote about Houellebecq. We were invited to be on a panel together, in Marseille. And we were standing next to each other before getting on stage, and I put some lipstick on. He looked at me and said, Oh, you’re so lucky to be able to put on lipstick! I really envy you. I have nothing to wear.

He was already a rock star then. He was so funny—he made everyone laugh.

Violaine Huisman is director of humanities at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.