From Nowhere: An Interview with Antoine Volodine
July 8, 2015 | by J. T. Mahany and Jeffrey Zuckerman
We both discovered Antoine Volodine, appropriately enough, in winter. One of us was sitting in a classroom overlooking bare trees, translating the first pages of Des anges mineurs (Minor Angels). The other one of us had just read the same novel in English and was sleepwalking through the dark, snowy streets of Rochester recalling Volodine’s declaration that the novel’s meaning was “not in the book’s pages but in the dreams people will have after reading it.”
Volodine’s books are almost as dreamlike as their author himself. He writes under four (or perhaps five) heteronyms, including Antoine Volodine, and only the most basic facts of his biography are known: he was born in 1950, came of age during the 1968 student protests in Paris, and taught Russian in France for some fifteen years before devoting himself entirely to writing. His debut, Comparative Biography of Jorian Murgrave, appeared in France in 1985. It is the story, told by way of fragmented microbiographies, of an alien hunted down on Earth whose dreams are invaded by psychobiologists intent on making him talk. “There is no way I could call Biographie comparée a novel,” one befuddled critic wrote; others were swift to express their shock and delight at such an innovative author appearing in the frequently monotonous ranks of science fiction. In a matter of years, Volodine had became famous for his (and his heteronyms’) singular brand of writing.
Names, places, and themes recur throughout his oeuvre; it has quickly coalesced into a new genre, which Volodine terms “post-exoticism.” This genre, “a foreign literature written in French,” describes prisons and Eurasian steppes, interrogations and monologues, walks through the Bardo state, failed revolutions and cataclysms, and humans struggling, in spite of everything, to survive in a world similar to our own.
Minor Angels, published in France in 1999, comprises forty-nine narracts—brief texts, prose poems, short stories—loosely connected around a group of immortal crones who indirectly revive capitalism; it won Volodine the Prix France Inter in 2000 as well as an international readership. To date, he has published some forty books—including Naming the Jungle, We Monks and Soldiers, In the Time of the Blue Ball, and Writers—under his own heteronym, as well as those of Manuela Draeger and Lutz Bassmann. Open Letter Books will publish translations of three new books over the next three years; the first of these, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, appeared in May.
We interviewed Volodine last winter, shortly after he was awarded the Prix Médicis for his novel Terminus radieux. We asked our questions in English, and he responded in wonderfully Volodinian French.
Twenty-five years ago, a reporter at Le Nouvel Observateur asked in which literary category you would place your work, and you responded that it was outside and beyond the conventional categories of existing literature. The question prompted you to invent the nearly nonsensical phrase “post-exoticism.” But eight years later, the phrase had taken on some significance, enough that you published a book around it, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Since then, has “post-exoticism” come to mean something different for you?
I’d like to start by correcting an error I made. I attributed this question to a Nouvel Observateur reporter. It actually came from a reporter for Le Point in July 1991. Our conversation was exactly this—“What genre do you prefer to be classified in?” “Anarcho-fantastic post-exoticism.” It was a somewhat irreverent wisecrack, but it was a way, at the time, to confirm that I didn’t belong either to science fiction, the genre in which my first four books had been classified, or to highbrow French avant-garde literature, which Éditions de Minuit, my publisher at the time, often published. I took the opportunity of the interview to proclaim this break, which seemed evident to me but which literary critics had had trouble taking into account. They hid for far too long behind the adjective unclassifiable, which I can still find in numerous publications today.
I knew at the time that I was writing a literature distinct from the main literary trends all around me. In particular, I didn’t feel attached in the least to contemporary French literature, with all that implied about traditions, schools, and debates. I was steeped in translated literature, mainly from South America, the Anglophone world, Russia, and Japan. I knew French literature well, but I placed it among the others and not as an inescapable and necessary literary mold. Starting with the publication of my first book, I completely abandoned France’s cultural heritage and went independently and alone down a path that, in a way, had come from nowhere and went nowhere. “From nowhere, to nowhere”—this phrase nicely defines the literary process of post-exoticism, and I’ve reused it many times in clarifying or explaining it. Even in my first books, post-exoticism existed with its idiosyncrasies, its refusal to belong to the mainstream, its marginalized characters, its revolts, and its murky narrators. And behind this narration was a narrative background, a “backfiction,” guided by exterior and manipulative voices.
This is why, once the label “post-exoticism” was created, it almost immediately became loaded with meaning through the six novels that had preceded it. But the critics never entirely capitalized on the term, and I still haven’t theorized what I’ve lived, from a literary point of view. I’ve felt my way along blindly, even though, well before my first publications, I’d imagined writing a literature that reflected an imaginary culture, a literature that would tell the story of a large collective, the story of a parallel universe, of its wars, of its nightmares. It was only when Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven came into existence that everything changed. “Post-exoticism” became far more clearly defined, as did my role within this enterprise. The book’s pages presented a public and powerful confirmation of this literature from elsewhere and its provocative assertions. It’s a polyphonic and falsely theoretical text, an account of this literary endeavor. We are several authors, we are writing from an elsewhere that is in a prison, we are composing a foreign structure entirely out of texts, we all share the same egalitarian and revolutionary ideology, we are reclaiming a poetry rooted in equal measure within shamanism, bolshevism, magical realism, and oneiricism.
It took years for this project to materialize within the French publishing universe. Names other than Volodine’s, other post-exotic writers, began to publish in 1999. Their existence remained discreet for years. I had to wait until 2010, when three post-exotic novels appeared at the same time, by three authors wholly distinct in their realms and their styles—Lutz Bassmann and The Eagles Reek, Manuela Draeger and Eleven Sooty Dreams, and Antoine Volodine and Writers. In this sense, the term “post-exoticism” has expanded, blossomed, become incarnate. But, ultimately, nothing has changed since the nineties, when it first appeared.
Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven lists eight authors—Lutz Bassmann, Ellen Dawkes, Iakoub Khadjbakiro, Elli Kronauer, Erdogan Mayayo, Yasar Tarchalski, Ingrid Vogel, and Antoine Volodine—and has a cover blurb by a ninth, Maria Clementi. How do these authors know one another, and how can they all be authors of the book?
Lutz Bassmann is the one speaking and structuring the narration. He explains how post-exotic works function—the voices of several imprisoned men and women, exchanging texts and fragments of texts, shouting, crying, and babbling deliriously from cell to cell, allowing a fictional and poetic text to appear, which an author who will then play the role of spokesperson takes on. In this way, the signatory of a post-exotic work publicly defends a work that interweaves original voices with the voices of overnarrators and its own author’s voice. Consequently, a book signed Lutz Bassmann is never completely a book by Lutz Bassmann, and a book signed Manuela Draeger is never exactly a book by Manuela Draeger. Every finished work is the result of collective creation. Post-exoticism strives toward interpenetration, anonymous intertextuality, and the disappearance of any one author’s authority. The practice of homage is added on—disappeared men’s and women’s existences are sustained by our taking up their voices, assuming their personalities, and denying, with wholehearted empathy, their disappearance. So every spokesperson speaks with linguistic hybridity.
And yet these authors publish on their own. Their authorial voices are original and strong enough to be independent of Volodine’s signature. Elli Kronauer, Lutz Bassmann, and Manuela Draeger are not literary inventions—they are authors who exist in the world of official literature, with oeuvres distinct from those of their comrades, no matter how close they may be.
There’s no need for extensive textual analysis, but it’s clear, for example, that Elli Kronauer’s works and themes center chiefly on adapting songs and legends from Russia’s wealth of sagas. Elli Kronauer turns these Russian oral epics from the Middle Ages into something post-exotic. Likewise, Manuela Draeger’s whimsical inventions, related both to surrealist imagery and to British nonsense literature, resemble nothing else in post-exoticism literature. Her feminist political concerns, her nostalgia for children’s tales, and her sometimes troubling nostalgia for the Soviet Union all place her apart from the rest of the post-exotic writers. As for Lutz Bassmann, he is, I think, the only post-exotic author to have written about the Soviet camps in a series of haiku, and his black humor, the harshness of his language and imagery, and the fantastical affectations with which he is obsessed are all evident in We Monks and Soldiers, as he repeatedly describes the same episode twice while changing the words but not the structure. None of these authors has the same literary language as the one who signs books as Antoine Volodine and who, within publishing houses, is used in their place as a physical representation.
You’ve mentioned your use of “une suite de chants et danses chamaniques”—“a series of shamanic songs and dances”—around your latest book, Terminus radieux. How do shamanism and shamanic rituals figure into your writing?
I used this phrase to describe the horrifying activity that accompanies a book’s publication, what is called its “promotion”—being present at panels, readings, bookstores, and libraries for signings and discussions with readers. The principle isn’t a bad one, but I would say it’s rather distant from the act of writing. I take it on anyway, for the sake of the book, but I tend to only see the absurd and ridiculous, not to mention pathetic, sides of it—the need to seduce whoever is momentarily in front of me. As there’s plenty of shaking, I compare that to a dance. A shamanic dance, eh ... more like a duck’s waddle, not terribly elegant.
But most of our narrators have a shamanic way of telling stories. They speak to evoke history, but they also create characters to go with them, or instead of them, down the difficult path of fiction, their painful path toward memories, toward the present, or toward black space. Narrators assume this somewhat priestly function, and in this way, they don’t just tell stories, they also live them. Entering a post-exotic anecdote or image is often accompanied by a trance. The reader doesn’t simply watch a story—passively, objectively—he or she is invited to plunge into the image, into a cinematic succession of images, to psychically and maybe physically accompany the shamans who speak, repeat, and sing the story.
You also talk about the Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, being the only non-post-exotic text shared among the various prison cells in which the writers are detained. That book’s realm, the Bardo, in which many of your writers and characters exist, isn’t necessarily the space of dreams, but the space between life and death, right?
We love the Bardo Thödol, which describes the floating world that follows death. Although we don’t appropriate its religious folklore or mystique, we see in it an immense poetic space. Our characters are quite often dead from the first page of the books in which they appear, which is why they cross the fiction like the dead cross the undefined space-time that follows their mortal passing. In theory, after death one enters the Bardo, where there is no longer calm or agitation, up or down, hot or cold, reality or dream, memory or invention. Opposites cancel each other out. It’s extremely exciting to build a fiction on this, particularly when there is also no longer I or you, male or female, narrator or character, or even reader or author. And since we are very open to the notion of compassion, this allows us to enter into the closest possible intimacy with our characters and share their thoughts, ramblings, and pain.
According to the Book of the Dead, the deceased’s walk through the Bardo lasts seven weeks and forty-nine days and ends either with enlightenment or rebirth. In post-exotic fiction, time is no longer measured, and characters often walk much longer through the fiction’s Bardic space. In Terminus radieux, this journey lasts hundreds of years, during which everyone mentally diminishes, loses language and intelligence little by little. They walk not toward rebirth but extinction. And they attain neither. The post-exotic Bardo seems to stray enormously from the Bardo described by Tibetan monks. In any case, for us, it’s a magnificent and inexhaustible reference.
A fair number of your characters have childhoods that could easily be horror stories. And in contrast to the sometimes difficult fiction published under your name, eleven children’s books have been published under Manuela Draeger’s name and five collections of Russian bylina under Elli Kronauer’s name. What makes childhood so compelling—and so deeply unromanticized—for the post-exotic writers?
Mao Zedong said that the revolution “is not a dinner party.” Post-exoticism stages stories and projects images that have nothing to do with elegant descriptions of “dinner parties.” The stories often take place in the ruins of war, after the disasters of ethnic cleansings, after failed revolutions, atrocious counterrevolutions, in societies where violence, social injustice, and capricious masters hold sway. Our characters escape that by taking refuge within insanity or within dreams or within death or within a mixture of all three. And, of course, as they speak and dream these post-exotic texts, they mentally re-create the world from their memories. Their childhood memories were painful, marked by fear and incomprehension of the cruelty in the world around them. These children who were lost, frightened, hurt, and filled with horrible visions appear in everything that our great post-exotic saga develops in a realistic or neo-realistic manner.
But Manuela Draeger, in her books, attempts to describe with great tenderness and gentleness the relationship between childhood and wonder. Her characters are neither children nor adults, and they cross strange worlds while accepting the most absurd and fantastic elements, but especially while taking refuge in a loving, childish friendship. Transposed in the nonsense world of In the Time of the Blue Ball, it’s a love that’s both radiant and deeply romantic. Draeger focuses again on this constancy of brotherly, loving faithfulness in her novel Eleven Sooty Dreams. She gives post-exoticism an element of tenderness that is far less visible in the other authors’ works.
Terminus radieux opens with three characters heading toward the hot center of a nuclear disaster zone, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. And in Writers, Maria Three-Thirteen mentions three of Tarkovsky’s films as well as films by Ingmar Bergman, Béla Tarr, and David Lynch. Your books have been adapted into theater and music, but have you ever imagined cinematic adaptations?
Our novels center on images and imagistic sequences far more than stories, so it would be natural to think of making films out of them. But, oddly enough, cinema begins with an anecdote and not with images. Even if there are unexpected twists, we can simplify films to basic stories. This isn’t always the case, and certainly among the filmmakers you mentioned, Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr have created films of images.
I’d be delighted if directors looked at our novels and made films out of them. But I can already imagine all the difficulties inherent in transforming text to image. There are many silences, many ruminations, many imprecisions permitted by literary language, many Bardic darknesses, many fantasies. How could those be translated into film? I have no idea. And, clearly, since I am so afraid of being disappointed, I would end up interfering in the work of adaptation, even though it’s far beyond my abilities.
The eleventh lesson of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven describes Lutz Bassmann as the last member of the first generation of post-exotic novelists. We hear about how, for his final book, “it was necessary to construct a new fiction to … finally balance and close everything: Return to the Tar.” Will we readers in the real world ever have the chance to read Lutz Bassmann’s Return to the Tar?
Return to the Tar will indeed be the last work in our collective edifice, the text with which the post-exotic goal will have been achieved—a work of art in prose, consisting of forty-nine volumes. Forty-nine, that magical number, so often used in our fictive structures, our poems, our declarations or lessons. I make no mystery of the last book’s last sentence—“Je me tais.” It was more than twenty years ago when I first announced this final sentence, and, collectively, with Lutz Bassmann and the others, we have advanced in our literary Bardo, we are moving toward this last phrase, hoping we have enough life left, hoping we have escaped extinction, in order to trace these fateful words and finally nous taire—become silent.
We are quite close to the end, but there are still eight or nine works left to sign and give to publishers before our task is completed. And I do not know who will write these last few works. Fortunately, there are a number of us.
Wait, which one of you are we talking to right now?
J. T. Mahany has translated Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, and he is at work on Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature. He is currently translating Volodine’s Terminus radieux. His writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, The White Review, and Vice.