- Fiction has seen a preponderance of nameless narrators lately—in stories of the apocalypse, stories of exile, and/or stories of just about anything else. “The first few months of 2015 alone have brought us the following books with nameless protagonists: Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country, Greg Baxter’s Munich Airport, Daniel Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard, Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents. Surely others have escaped my notice. It’s an epidemic of namelessness.”
- In 1880, Rimbaud arrived in Ethiopia—it was called Abyssinia then—“sick and completely helpless.” He was twenty-six and had taken on a job “consisting in receiving shipments of bales of coffee”; he lived in a house of clay walls with a thatched roof. But really he was seeking something more metaphysical: “I sought voyages, to disperse enchantments that had colonized my mind … My life would always be too ungovernable to be devoted to strength and beauty.” He had a great time until his leg had to be amputated.
- Yasmina Reza on the title of her new book, Happy Are the Happy, which comes from Borges and came to her on an airplane: “The condition of being happy, in other words, can only be obtained by those who are happy. This is so paradoxical, so enigmatic, so Borges. You can turn that idea over and over in your mind.” (Read her interview with the Daily here.)
- On copyediting and class: a copy editor’s job can be “a soul-crushing enterprise … Magazines are rigidly hierarchical places … the work of the copy editor is largely disdained. And because their work is so undervalued, copy editors (and fact checkers) routinely work significantly longer hours for much less money (sixteen-hour days without overtime pay aren’t uncommon) … they’re often dismissed as fussy or obsessive … In the Calvinistic world of magazines, maladjusted grammar weirdos simply fall to their natural station.”
- “Here is a good example of how inconsistently the term transgressive is applied to some and not to others—that V.C. Andrews in Flowers in the Attic wrote about brother-sister incest (and a semiforced initial coupling at that) and that book sold over forty million copies. More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or ‘outside traditional writing,’ is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors. I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for.” An interview with Matthew Stokoe.
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. Read More
Now it’s midnight: We’re at the Montana drinking vodka with some kind of blue mint thing in it—“we” being a small gang rounded up by Frédéric Beigbeder after dinner. No way is the novelist and former talk-show host (one of our more energetic littérateurs) going to let his friend Michel crawl into bed with his Goncourt. “Between Michel getting the Goncourt and Virginie Despentes winning le Renaudot,”
Beigbeder exclaims, “a whole generation—our generation—has finally won!” There’s a brief silence, and we must all think the same thing without saying it: If we’ve won and there’s nothing to fight for, it’s probably downhill from here.
Of course, we can always wait for Houellebecq to get the Nobel. “After France, the world!” jokes Beigbeder, and everybody’s quick to raise a glass. A colleague from Les Inrocks joins us and immediately falls into a passionate discussion with Michel. When I ask Sylvain Bourmeau (an editor at France’s most important news site, Mediapart) what’s got them so worked up, he tells me “charcuterie.” And in fact, when we were all crammed into a car on the way to the Montana, Michel held forth with great precision on the subject of his car (sorry, don’t ask me the make); it occurred to me that this is what makes him so deeply charming and also, perhaps, part of what makes him such a powerful novelist: his capacity to be completely present, without any irony, whether the subject is literature, feelings, or cars. Later, a blond angel of Russian origin absconds with him, once he’s already half-asleep. This would be Maria, the young woman who served as a model for the character of Olga in La Carte et le térritoire. “All my characters are here,” Houellebecq joked during the dinner thrown in his honor at La Mediterranée. He then asked them to rise: Beigbeder, Maria, and his editor, Teresa Crimisi, who shares with Houellebecq a very sportsmanlike air of victory—all calm joy, no bragadoccio.