To call Marie Chaix’s work autobiographical would be incomplete, though most of her books tell and retell the stories of her life. Her writing is porous and breathes memory, attesting to memory’s transience and the impressions it leaves on the body.
At the age of twenty-six, Chaix read the notebooks her father had kept during his ten years in prison following World War II. Unbeknownst to her family, he’d been the right-hand man of pro-German Fascist collaborator Jacques Doriot and had fought in the Wehrmacht beside him. This was a shock and became the topic of Chaix’s first book, The Laurels of Lake Constance. Like many of Chaix’s works, it hovers somewhere between memoir and fiction. In June, Dalkey Archive Press will publish The Summer of the Elder Tree, translated by Chaix’s husband, Harry Mathews. It concerns her ten-year hiatus from writing following the death of her editor and reincorporates many of the places she visited in The Laurels of Lake Constance and in her second book, Silences, or a Woman’s Life, which Dalkey published late last year.
Chaix spoke to me on the phone from her home in Key West.
As someone who writes a lot of autobiography, do you believe that a story is preexisting—that a writer’s job is to find it, retrieve it, and record it—or is there some invention in autobiography?
Well, I didn’t realize it before writing, but in general I discovered that, even if you have characters that you know very well—even if you write about yourself, about your “life,” your memories—the result is exactly the same as if it was fiction. I think that readers know that it’s autobiographical because writers care when it’s autobiographical, but they read it and think about themselves, which is what happened to me.
But I think writing doesn’t work like that, you know? Of course, you have a motive, you have yourself, you have your family. But they become completely—and even yourself—you become completely part of a larger world, a larger story.
You’ve said that you didn’t know you were a writer until after you wrote. I noticed a couple of times, in The Summer of the Elder Tree, that throughout your life, people have had to tell you to write—Write, Marie! Write, Marie! Is that because it’s frightening to write, or because you didn’t know you were a writer?
It was only when I was twenty-six that I discovered what had really happened in my family. So, I think that two things came together—I was ready to write, and in the same year, I read the notebooks that my father wrote when he was in jail. Being a collaborator, he went to trial in ’48, and he spent almost ten years there. But all this was completely in secret. As you know, these times were very, very dark. Nobody talked about anything in the families, and especially in our family. We knew, vaguely, what had happened. We knew he was in jail but we didn’t know why. It was only after his death, when I was twenty-one, that my mother gave me his pile of notebooks and said, You can read them, but please don’t tell anybody. I don’t want anybody knowing what happened. That was scary, and it took me some time to read these things he was trying to explain—not justifying himself, but trying to explain, for us.
When I read them, I thought, Well, I have my story. It was not frightening to write. On the contrary, I think it was the best thing to be able to write it. But I also discovered that I was able to write in a certain literary manner. Not only the facts, and not only telling the story of my family, but with a certain style.
The writing saved me, I think. But writing was this whole process and I didn’t know it. I just jumped into writing, as something I had to do.
Was it painful for you to find out about your father’s past? You say in The Summer of the Elder Tree that your mother destroying the notebooks is what enabled you to write.
Yes, it was painful when I read his notebooks because suddenly things were real for me. Before that, I was able to meet with friends and—you know, you talk about your parents, you talk about your life. I had been repeating things without knowing what they meant, like, My father was a collaborator, he was in jail, he did this and that. But no details. I didn’t know them.
I had this Jewish friend. She’s still my best friend. I told her about my father and she said, Are you crazy? You don’t want to know more? You have this material but you don’t know? Please, read the notebooks. I read, and all this vague past became totally real. When I had said collaborator, I had thought, Well, maybe he was involved in some things, but I had never thought he was so involved. Directly involved, with the German Wehrmacht, especially. He was actually a traitor. He gave indications about French people, about resistance.
For my part, there was resentment, but the resentment wasn’t political. It had nothing to do with politics or even with concentration camps. Of course, I thought it was absolutely terrible, but it was more personal than that. It was, You fooled us. You destroyed your family. You made us, totally, strangers in our own lives. Because we didn’t know about it, how wrong it was. I was furious at him first.
When I say, Then, I had my story, it’s because I thought it would be a challenge to write about it. Because I didn’t share his ideas, of course. I was completely scandalized by his ideas and by everything he had done. But I didn’t want to accuse him. The difficult thing was to think that you love somebody—you love your father, even if he’s a criminal, you love him—but you have to be very careful with that.
At the end of The Laurels of Lake Constance I say something like, I think I will never completely understand, but at least I know you better. And for me, that was the important thing—to be able to talk about my father, to write about him and write about the family. It was not a justification—it was more of an explanation.
The second book, Silences, or a Woman’s Life, was like the opposite side of the story because my mother was a very secret creature. I think she didn’t know very much. Also, she was confused because it was very symbolic. She was a quarter German, she had a German education. She was fluent in German. She sang us songs in German. We heard the German language in our childhood. So, she was in complete confusion and I think that’s why she stayed silent. I realized afterward that, for many people, it had been like that.
Silence plays such an important role in your stories. It’s even more important, in some ways, than the story, itself—like negative space in a painting. In order to overcome the silence of not having completed a book for over ten years, you go back into your past and confront the silences there. Can you talk about this?
Well, in Silences, or a Woman’s Life, someone told me, there are bits and pieces—I’m not telling a linear story. There is always the aspect of this woman in the hospital who is going to die, and this woman having her memories. For me, these four or five weeks of my mother’s coma, when I was with her, was replacing the silence. My words were replacing her silence. Really, it was like I was her. But I was not her completely because there were so many things I didn’t know, couldn’t tell. She says, “My life is full of holes,” because her life was like this material that fades and disappears.
The Summer of the Elder Tree is told in a nonlinear way, too. I wonder if—because you talked about “filling the silence”—you think you’ll have to go back and fill in the holes between the events in this book.
When I write, it’s a need. I need to write. I always say that I’m not a real writer, and everybody laughs, but maybe I’m not able to talk about anything else except what happened—in that period of time, with these people. Writing is something that always has to do with the past. You cannot escape. You don’t have anything else. You only realize later that you were completely influenced by what happened in your life, that you need to go back and reexamine.
You often go back and revisit the same locations of pain in your past, things that intrigue you and also are painful to you. Is there always an element of pain in writing? Is that something that a writer needs?
I think so. Oh, I think so. I think writing, or art, it comes from an injury. Something happened in your life and it opened a wound. Several times, I tried to write about what was around me. My father being on the wrong side, for one thing. I felt like I was on the wrong side, too. I think I have this guilt that’s not gone, even if I know it’s not my fault. I was a child. I was born in 1942, in the middle of wartime. What could I know? But when I was a seventeen-year-old girl, I felt exactly the same as I felt when I was ten or twenty. I will always be the daughter of a collaborator. I can’t escape that. The pain is in there, somewhere. It’s hidden. Even if I don’t see it in my everyday life.
You begin this book with a more recent, very painful experience—the death of Alain Oulman. I think a lot of people don’t really understand what the relationship between a writer and her editor is like. He wasn’t just somebody who corrected your work—you worked very closely together. Can you explain the nature of your relationship?
I had met Alain Oulman for another book, in 1986, because he asked me to write about the singer Barbara, who was a very, very famous singer. We became friends, because I just loved this man. He had a sensibility. He had something. Maybe I was in love with him, I don’t know. Either way, he was not like a father. He was more like a brother.
I went to him because I had written a novel that was refused by my publisher, Le Seuil. I was absolutely furious because they didn’t give me any chance to rewrite. They rejected me as if it was my first book. I was the author of six very successful books at Le Seuil and they just said, We don’t want your book and that’s it. You don’t know how to write a novel. You only can write autobiography. You know, I was classified! I was in the category of Women Who Write About Their Own Lives. Period.
So, he said, Marie, that’s ridiculous. There is a lot of work on this novel—you have to work—but I’m going to publish you. I worked with Alain, and what can I say? We were close. We wrote the book. I say “we” because I was in his office very often. He gave me the enthusiasm, the impulse.
The book was published in 1990 and a month later, he died. He had a heart attack. It was very sudden; completely unexpected. He was sixty years old. That was the biggest shock.
I think he was not only a friend, but somebody … the one who could understand what I was doing, what I was writing, what kind of woman I was. He was closer than a lover. I thought he understood me completely. I know it’s difficult to understand, maybe. He was an inspiration. Suddenly, I was deprived, and I really felt the loss and the grief. I couldn’t write for ten years after that.
In the book, you say that you felt “abandoned” and that you “decided” that you couldn’t write anymore. The word decided is intriguing because it sounds, not like there was something stopping you, but like it was a choice—that you “lost your faith in words” and decided, in a sense, not to waste your time anymore. Is that accurate?
It sounds like a choice. Oh, if that’s what happens when I write … So, thank you very much, I’m not going to write anymore. I’m a very stubborn person and, also, I don’t trust myself. I never did. Even though I had such a happy life. A lucky life. My books were a success in France and I have many friends, and I have a wonderful man in my life. But you can have that, and you can also be very unsatisfied with yourself.
It sounds like, when you go back and you write about these things, it can expunge the pain, or the shame of the past. In The Summer of the Elder Tree, you go back and revisit all of those things over again that you had already visited in your previous books. What is different each time you revisit them?
It gets worse and worse!
I don’t know, it must be an obsession. Writers are very strange people and they need to suffer, I think. It sounds very selfish. I could write about different things, but I think what’s fascinating is that all these events are very simple, right? I don’t know if it’s true about my father, but—separations, love, and no more love. It’s so ordinary, and so all stories have it. And I think being a woman is very interesting. I like being a woman. I read, especially, women, because I love the way they have to talk about, write about, intimate things.
It’s funny you say that, because I was going to ask you—the function of silence in your writing reminds me of another French autobiographical writer, Marguerite Duras. Is she one of your influences? Who are some of your other influences?
I do like her very much. I didn’t like the woman—she was impossible. But she was an extraordinary writer, and especially because she wrote things that no other woman would have dared to write before that, apparently very freely and with simplicity. She really did what she wanted to do without any regard for anybody. She was not worried about writing well or bad or wrong—she just wrote. She wrote.
I can’t say she was an influence to me because I read her very late. And actually, I met her before reading her. I met her when she was not so famous. It was a long time before The Lover, in the sixties. My best friend, the Jewish friend I was talking about, was the secretary of Dionys Mascolo, who was Margeurite Duras’s last husband. I met him through my friend, and I met Margeurite. And she was impossible! Now I think it’s very funny because being unfamous, she already behaved like a star. She would say, Did you read my last book? When she asked me, I said, No, madame, I haven’t read anything. She made a gesture meaning, Oh, you. You can go away. You don’t interest me at all.
But of course, I’m a fan because she expressed feminine matters without being a feminist. She never pretended to be a feminist, but I think she did more for women than an educated feminist would have done, just with her writing. All the writers who are now in their forties, fifties, they all are, even if they don’t want to admit it, influenced by her. It’s like Colette. Colette is another writer that every woman would love to imitate. Colette was my favorite, favorite writer because she wrote about nature, about herself, about women. She has a wonderful style.
While writing this book, you visited the island where your father and brother were stationed during the war. When you wrote about it the first time, in The Laurels of Lake Constance, it was imagined. The book is called a memoir, but so much of it is novelized, because you were so young when these events took place. Do you think that, now that you’ve seen that island, you could write about it again? Or has it changed somehow for you?
Well, the experience of going there was very, very strange, but very useful. I was able to finish The Summer of the Elder Tree, at least. But it was very different from what I had imagined. Of course, because after sixty years, it can’t be the same. It became a paradise! A beautiful garden, with all these tourists. It was quite amazing.
You know, once you have written something, it becomes a memory, even if it was just invention. And vice versa—the memory becomes, is, an invention. It all mixed up in my brain, I think, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. Sometimes, it’s very useful to go back to places. But I don’t want to go back anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere again.
But in Lake Constance, no. I didn’t feel anything. I remember being able to lean against these old trees and think, Well, these trees were there when my brother and father were there. That was reassuring, in a way. It was just a sense of … I can’t say eternity but just a sense of, Ah! What is life? A strange feeling.
I went back to see the house my parents lived in when I was born. It’s strange, because of all the places I’ve lived in and gone back to, it’s the only place that’s completely the same. I think you capture some things of the places where you live. Something stays, not only in your memory, I think, but in your body.
I think, in order to write, you need to be impressed. You need to be sensitive. Writing comes from an injury in the past. I hope you can translate that in better words.
I was actually just thinking that it’s perfect, because in the book you describe the elder tree outside your window and how it’s cut off at the trunk, but then the branches grow out of it. It’s a very good metaphor for writing—growth from injury. So, I’m actually glad you used that word.
There’s a conversation in The Summer of the Elder Tree, between Emilie and Richard, wherein Emilie says, “Don’t cry! The past was beautiful.” And Richard responds, “No, the past isn’t beautiful anymore. It’s just a little more past, that’s all. Ruins.” Which do you think is true?
I think we carry our past. I don’t think the past is beautiful, but it’s just the way it is. It’s your past, it’s your own thing. And you’re still able, even now, to make it more beautiful. Maybe. Or to make it acceptable. Or to make books with it. I think the best thing I did was make books with the past. I think both, actually, you see? I think I agree with both of them. It depends on how you feel when you get up in the morning. Some days, you think, Ah, it’s wonderful! and some days it’s, Oh, I feel creepy, I feel … ugh. So I think it’s not a real thing. It’s not a real way of saying things. I think both. Both can be true.