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"Language is power" : Entretien avec Claire Messud

Par Claire Messud, Jillian Bruns : Lectrice - ENS de Lyon / University of Maryland
Publié par Marion Coste le 25/09/2018
À l'occasion des Assises Internationales du Roman, organisées par la Villa Gillet, la Clé des langues a pu rencontrer Claire Messud, romancière et enseignante américaine, auteure de ((The Burning Girl)), paru en 2017. Dans cet entretien, elle nous livre ses réflexions sur l'importance de la langue et du roman en tant que genre littéraire, et revient sur son enfance partagée entre la France et les États-Unis.

Le texte ci-dessous est une transcription éditée de l'entretien. Les questions sont cliquables et renvoient au moment correspondant dans l'enregistrement vidéo.


Question: I want to open my first question on the theme of adolescence, which will be the subject of the round table tonight, and discussing the literary genre of the bildungsroman. Are there any notable coming of age novels that have impacted you as a person or influenced the composition of The Burning Girl?

Answer: I’m sure there are. And now that you ask me, just off the bat, I’m not sure that I can list them very effectively. There are things one read when one was a child – does A Tree Grows in Brooklyn count as a bildungsroman? You could say The Diary of Anne Frank is a truncated bildungsroman, in a way. I feel that so much of what one reads growing up involves narratives of that transition. I haven’t read any in some time, I would say, so one of the things that I am always thinking about is the degree to which we are formed by our literarily-lived lives, as much as by our lives themselves. My father always used to say, “culture is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything”. And I have a terrible memory so I take it all in, it’s sort of macerated and it’s in there somewhere, but I don’t have a little list to hand.

Question: […] Can you talk a little bit about your francophone origins, and if the transnationality of your experience has impacted your identity?

Answer: Yes, there’s no question that it has. My father was French and my mother was Anglophone Canadian. My sister was born in France, I was born in the United States. For a long time, I was the only American in my family; I sponsored my parents for Green Cards when I turned 21. But we also grew up around and about, I was a child in Australia for a number of years, then we moved to Canada, then we moved to the States. That sort of slightly dislocated my upbringing and transnational upbringing. I feel most at home with other people who don’t entirely fit, and I also think it’s part of what made me write. It’s that sense that my training growing was to be repeatedly put in situations where I had to observe as much as possible. How do people dress? How do people talk? What music do people listen to? And then I tried to imitate them. It was good training for being a writer. My parents made us speak English, so that’s what we spoke at home, always, but my French relatives, my grandparents and my aunt did not speak English and so we had to learn. We spent large parts of our summers with them in Toulon and when I was a small child, for a while, the only thing I really could say was “Grand-mère, est-ce que je peux quitter la table s’il te plait ?”, which had the desired effect. She never said no.

Question: Do you still visit France, besides work, to visit family?

Answer: Our family was very small. My aunt never married, we had no first cousins. We have extended family but we see them only occasionally. I try to bring the children, still. We had my grandparents’ apartment until 2016 and then we had to sell it. Now I dream of having a place to come back to but it’s interesting because it has made me much more actively conscious, it’s made me aware of a need in me to maintain my French connection, my French identity. Certainly in Boston, where we live, I try to attend events and speak a little French when I can.

Question: Building back on this idea of your formative years, in your most recent novel, which I mentioned earlier, The Burning Girl, did you draw inspiration for Julia from your own life or is it maybe impacted by people you know or extraneous research?

Answer: Probably some combination. Funnily enough, I actually wrote a novel with a young narrator about twenty years ago, called The Last Life, which takes place largely in France, and even though that protagonist is fully French, it probably draws more on my own personal experience about adolescence because those summers in France involved a whole band of friends who we hung out with. I have a lot of very vivid teenage memories, actually, in this country. But, certainly, this novel is also informed by my teenage experiences, and then possibly by watching my kids who are teenagers and my nieces and nephews go through that time of life. Watching them go through it brought back memories of my own adolescence so I was having this sort of palimpsest experience, which I think prompted me to write this book now.

Question: What was it like, putting yourself in the shoes or the role of a teenage girl?

Answer: Well, I don’t know about you, maybe you don’t spend much time lying on your bed with your eyes closed conjuring your adolescent years, but I find that those memories are very vivid. I was actually very recently writing about a collection of essays by Lorrie Moore, in which she is reviewing a book about adolescence and in the very last paragraph, she says: “adolescence is a howling dog: eventually it gets buried, but it’s buried alive”. And I think that’s really true, there’s some sense in which when you open the tomb of the howling dog, the dog is still howling.

Question: You said your experiences pushed you towards writing, being in this hybrid cultural space, but are there any key moments that you remember when you took to writing? The second part of the question is: what is the importance of its practice, even if it’s not for professional endeavors?

Answer: I wanted to write very early on, to answer the first part of the question. Even before I was conscious of notions of hybridity. When I figured out that I loved being read to and when I learned to read, I loved to read, and when I found out that stories were not something that had always been there like stones or rivers, but were things that people made up, I said, “I want to do that”. That was pretty early on. But I don’t think you need to want to be a writer to appreciate the importance of language and the power of language. I’m a great believer in that power. I would say we live distressingly in a time when people think money is power, but actually, language is power and the ability to articulate your thoughts lucidly, and to communicate well with people, that opens every door. Maybe it brings you money in time, I don’t know. It really is the center of everything. It doesn’t matter what you write, it doesn’t matter what you read. It’s just about curiosity. I remember the fact that the average American newspaper is geared to the seventh grade reading level. But we have one of the biggest and most elastic languages in the world. Racine used a vocabulary of 8,000 words, and Shakespeare, his contemporary, 24,000 words. And they are only more now. Like “woke”, for example. That’s new.

Question: There are new words in the dictionary every year. That brings me to the general educative role of the novel and what kind of educating or teaching task do you think the writer assumes or doesn’t assume?

Answer: I have thought latterly a good bit about this because, in part, of the political and social crises we’re going through. People are tending to see the function of the novel as somehow utilitarian, as though it’s something either pedagogical or moral, or political: the novel should tell us something specific that we don’t know about or teaches us about a history or a particular experience that’s otherwise inaccessible to us. It’s not that I don’t think those things are not important; but I do thing that the great thing about a work of art is its immaterial superfluidity. It’s that it’s actually an experience, it’s something that you pass through almost like a time in life, a moment in life; as Eudora Welty said, you can’t really summarize a work of fiction because if you could it wouldn’t need to exist. You have to experience the work of fiction because it has already been reduced to its most reducible self. What’s important also about art and about literature is that it always reminds us of wonder, really. Of something bigger than what can be summarized or reduced or somewhat directly expressed.

Question: That brings me to my next question, this idea of the novel having a utilitarian functionality: what place does literary criticism occupy both within your work and your experience as a writer. I ask this question because your husband, James Wood, is the author of How Fiction Works, and I know as a writer you’re very conscious of what people say about your work and that a review can perhaps make or break a new novel.

Answer: I also write reviews, a certain amount, probably less than I once did. But I always find that for me, that experience of writing critically is useful in terms of almost discovering or further understanding my own aesthetics. What do I think is effective? Why do I think it is effective? How does something work? [It’s about] trying to figure out what moves me. Also, trying to accord as a reviewer the respect that I would wish to be accorded – and one isn’t always – of asking the question “what is the author trying to do?” Not “what do I wish the author were doing?” but “what is the author trying to do?”. And then, insofar as I can figure it out, is that actually coming across to the reader or not? I do think that that dialogue, whether it happens in a classroom or whether it happens in criticism, is an important one because writing is about communicating. So I think it matters, but I also have a little frustration sometimes with the idea of reviewing that it’s people sat on the outside, “this is the book I wish you had written, you didn’t write the book I wanted, so I’m pissed off.” I don’t really get the point of that.

Question: That brings me to my next question about our current moment and the reception of literature with what you could call multimedia entertainment. What do you think the place of the novel will be in a hundred years?

Answer: Lord knows. [...] The novel itself is a relatively new form. The rise of the novel is from the eighteenth century onwards – I mean, there’s The Tale of Genji, but that’s an outlier, it’s kind of on its own. It’s in the eighteenth century that the novel became a common form. It’s possible that forms will change. Poetry and drama are much more ancient forms, but I would point out that you might say: “people don’t declaim poetry all the time, is poetry dead?” But poetry isn’t dead. Perhaps it has a less universal sweep than it once did but it still absolutely has a place because it does things that nothing else could do. I believe that the novel too does things that nothing else can do – to watch a film is not the same as to read a novel. I think the novels will continue, and people will write them, and people will read them.

Question: So to switch gears, we’ve talked a lot about you as a writer, but you as a reader, do you still have time to read other people’s books?

Answer: I do. I teach full time, so in term time, I’m reading mostly either my students’ work or published works that we are discussing in class. But of course, when I can, I love to read. I have the opportunity sometimes to host writers at the Institution where I teach, so then I get to read their work in preparation, which I enjoy.

Question: Is it mostly an Anglophone corpus? Some Francophone [work] as well?

Answer: It’s all in English. It may be in translation, because we read Russian, and German, and French [literature] – we haven’t read in Spanish the past year or two. But we’ve read Latino writers writing in English, but not actually translated from Spanish. We try to cover a lot of bases.

Question: This is a more mechanical question about your aesthetics, but I noticed that your narrative structure has perhaps evolved. In 2006, The Emperor’s Children had multiple narrators, and now, with The Woman Upstairs and The Burning Girl, we have a first-person narrator. Was this an intention of yours and what are the advantages or disadvantages of both?

Answer: I would say that I have earlier work that’s also in first-person, so in a way it’s a question of finding the form for the particular project and finding a voice for the particular project. And as you say, there are particular advantages and disadvantages to different points of view. The first-person can give you great immediacy but you’re also then struggling with the transmission of information that might be beyond the narrator’s knowledge or trying to make sure that the reader understands things about the narrator that they don’t understand about themselves. So it sets a certain number of challenges. The third person gives a sort of fluidity and flexibility but sometimes you lack that immediacy. So it’s always about a balance and figuring out what it is that’s most important to convey.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Claire Messud, Jillian Bruns, ""Language is power" : Entretien avec Claire Messud", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2018. Consulté le 16/10/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/entretien-claire-messud

Assises Internationales du Roman 2018

La Villa Gillet organise chaque année les Assises Internationales du Roman à Lyon. Retrouvez le programme de l'édition 2018 sur leur site.