On the Beauty of Defeat and the Future of Europe
Laurent Gaudé in Conversation with Aysegul Sert
On a sunny yet decidedly chilly spring morning, I meet the illustrious French writer Laurent Gaudé in the legendary Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse, long a gathering place for creative titans (think Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein et al). Gaudé arrives at the Art Deco style café amidst the intermittent clatter of cutlery and espresso cups. At 46, he has an enviable mane of silver white hair, which frames his rugged good looks. He pulls a notebook out of a black leather bag, along with several identical pens, explaining with a shy smile that inspiration may flow at any moment.
Gaudé writes his first drafts in long-hand; he enjoys putting pen to paper. After that he turns to typing and editing on the computer. “I am attached to the physical activity of writing,” he says, “but I cannot write long hours; my hand cramps, my muscles ache, and I must take a break. I like writing’s connection to the body; it’s not just a cerebral matter, it is a matter of physical energy.”
His first play, Onysos the Wild, was written in 1997 (it was first produced in France in 2000, and in the U.K. in 2005). In 2002, his second novel, The Death of King Tsongor, made him the talk of the town. Two years later he won The Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, for The House of Scorta, which has since been published in three dozen countries. As of today, he has written 17 plays, 10 novels, numerous short stories, poems, articles, and libretti.
Gaudé’s poignant 2016 novel, Hear Our Defeats, is newly available in English from Europa Editions. Telling stories of both contemporary and historical events and characters, it also manages to articulate the defeat that dwells within us all. One of the aforementioned characters is Assem Graieb—a French intelligence officer whose mission is to track down a former U.S. Special Forces soldier—and Mariam, an Iraqi archaeologist dedicated to saving ancient artifacts from the destruction wreaked by ISIS. Half-way through their life’s journey, these characters are trying to balance the desire burning in them to accomplish things, with a fatigue that threatens to overwhelm. The book also considers figures like ancient Carthage’s great military commander Hannibal and his battle against the Roman Republic in the Punic Wars; the Union’s heralded General Ulysses S. Grant and the devastating Civil War between the North and the South in the United States; and Ethiopia’s mighty regent Haile Selassie’s resistance against Mussolini, which resulted in his exile and subsequent return and elevation to emperor of Ethiopia. The 15 chapters that comprise Hear Our Defeats offer a poetic narrative on the ills of humanity that plague us to this day.
“I believe in the power of words; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing,” Gaudé states. “And I am thrilled by the release of Hear Our Defeats in English. For French authors, the U.S. is a challenging territory.” In May, he traverses North America, including Chicago (at the Alliance Française on May 3), New York City (at Albertine bookstore for PEN World Voices Festival on May 7), Washington, D.C. (at Politics and Prose bookstore on May 8), and Montreal (at Théâtre Prospero for a stage adaptation of Hear Our Defeats on May 14-18). As he prepares for his upcoming transatlantic journey and completes a new 200-page poem on Europe (to be published in France by Actes Sud around the time of the European Parliament elections in May), the peripatetic writer made a little time to sit down and talk.
Aysegul Sert: Why was it important for you to meet here in Montparnasse?
Laurent Gaudé: This is my neighborhood. I was born a few hundred meters from here. I was raised here, went to school here, and now live with my own family here. It has always been my home. So many artists have passed though Montparnasse. I am sensitive to that, to the fact that several successive layers of history are laid in one place. I am moved by the past of a place, to see a sign that announces: “Here Hemingway came to write.” We are at the same place though at a different time.
Both my parents were psychoanalysts. In retrospect, I see now that my parents’ profession allowed me to grow up in an environment where words were not to be taken lightly, because when you are in psychoanalysis, you believe in the power of words to help heal. I grew up hearing stories—of course without any mention of patients’ names or information—and I took notice that words could make or break a life; that the violence of words could destroy one’s existence, but that words could also offer consolation and ease to put pieces back together for someone’s life. So, probably, now that I’m thinking, by becoming a writer myself, it was my way of extending the belief in the power of words. My parents’ approach was clinical, mine is literary, but the common point is our strong belief that words matter.Novels are the place of plurality. That’s why novels are looked upon with distrust by all authoritarian regimes—because in novels pluralities exist.
AS: Would you say that the opening page of Hear Our Defeats testifies to that belief in the power of words? “Everything that accumulates inside us, year after year, without our noticing: the faces we thought we’d forgotten, sensations, ideas we were sure we had fixed so they would endure but which then disappear, return, disappear again, a sign that beyond our consciousness something is alive in us that escapes us but transforms us, everything that moves in that place, advancing darkly, year after year, subconsciously, until one day it surfaces and we are almost seized with fright, because it becomes clear that time has passed and we don’t know if it will be possible to live with all these words, all these moments we’ve experienced and endured, and which end up freighting us, in the way we might refer to a ship. Perhaps this is what we call wisdom: this collection of everything…”
LG: I believe that we are all built of elements that are different and even contradictory. This is precisely why literature is so precious; if there is a place where the multiplicity of viewpoints is central, it’s in novels. There aren’t many places where such contradictions and multiplicities can be told. There are ten possible ways of looking at an event and that these ten viewpoints are right in their own way even if they are contradictory. Novels are the place of plurality. That’s why novels are looked upon with distrust by all authoritarian regimes—
[His face lights up] Like Mariam, I’ve been fascinated with archeology for a long time. The idea of dedicating your life to something “useless” intrigues me. I say useless but I profoundly believe it to be useful. One could say that to dig up old objects from the ground and to place them in a museum while there is a war going on next door may not be the priority, that it does not save lives, that people first and foremost need to be fed. It’s a little bit like literature. Yes, writing novels is useful. Yes, saving ancient artifacts is useful.
Where I may be similar to Assem is in the feeling that everything accumulates in us. Assem is a man of action, I am not; even when I go to places that are unstable or poor, I am just an observer. And that’s what draws me to him: what is it like to be a man of action? What is it like to face all that we have done? It’s everything that is not me that brings me close to Assem.
Let me say that there is a large gap between who I am and the characters I write about. I have a big appetite for happiness but it’s also true that my books carry conflicts and tragedy. It’s perhaps just more visible when it comes to writers. By writing we bring those parts of ourselves to the surface.
AS: You find literary beauty in defeat. Would you say that single word is the essence of your desire to write this novel?
LG: Each one of us has an appointment with defeat. It seems like a binary notion, in the sense that there is defeat or victory, success or failure, but when we look more carefully, we see that it is a malleable notion, and it is difficult to affirm for sure. Sometimes we don’t know who is the winner and who the loser after all. That’s why I wanted to use a military presence in the novel; we realize it is complicated to say who lost and who won. It all depends on what timeline you focus on. At the end of a day of battle, if one side lost 2000 men and the other lost five, the first lost and the other won, but there will be another battle tomorrow someplace else, and even if this one is won, maybe the next one will be lost, and even if it’s lost this time perhaps it is the seed for the next war to be won. If you look at a short time period, it’s easier to say who lost and who won, but if you expand the time frame it becomes dizzying because at the end we don’t know and that’s what I find captivating.
Personally, I am not capable of saying whether I am victorious or defeated; we have moments of joy and moments of misfortune. What can victory or defeat say of our lives, I don’t know. I don’t fancy words such as success or failure. We will all know defeat. It’s marked on our life path. It does not mean that it is not worth living life fully—there will be losses of those we have loved, there will be losses of our younger self… Our world will slowly disappear, and each generation witnesses the disappearance of its own world.For me the United States is an incomprehensible country.
AS: In Hear Our Defeats did your research on a particularly American historical event change your vision of the United States?
LG: At the start I didn’t know much about the historical context (of the Civil War). We don’t study it much in school, at least during my time. When I began to dig, it fascinated me. And when I came across the fact that General Grant, in addition to all that history, had a drinking problem, I was hooked. This weakness gives density to fiction: here is a man of victory on the battlefield but defeated in his personal life.
For me the United States is an incomprehensible country. As a French writer, it’s an unsettling place; on one hand I feel a great closeness with the U.S. through its movies, television series, and music; on these points we feel almost like a child of this culture. However, there is also a huge other part of the U.S. that we don’t know well and if we did maybe we’d feel less of an acquaintanceship. When I think of a country that displays everywhere: “In God We Trust,” that is not my world; it absolutely means nothing to me. Quite the contrary I find it scary. When I see such displays, it makes me realize how different we actually are. I am not from a culture that states, “In God We Trust.”
AS: You have a penchant for setting your fiction in time frames and places far from your own. In 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina, you wrote your novel Hurricane, although you had never set foot in New Orleans. Why was that?
LG: I am drawn to placing a natural catastrophe in my fiction—earthquake, hurricane—this notion that nature is bigger than man, that it comes to destroy life and to shake up our world order. When Hurricane Katrina happened, I remember putting aside press clippings without knowing that I would write a novel. And one day, I opened the folder. What I was interested in was something very particular. On one hand, the natural catastrophe that brings forward the metaphysical question of what is mankind on earth, but, on the other hand, an intolerable bad management of the problem that triggered social and political anger which I could explore as a fiction writer. Why did they leave the blacks in the poor neighborhoods? Why did they evacuate the prison guards’
[He pauses] Visuals are important for me. I use photography as documentation. I feel the need to see things. Photographs give me ideas about characters and emotions. Lately, I’ve been using internet search tools such as GoogleMap and StreetView. That wasn’t possible when I first began writing. In a few clicks now, I can get an overview of a place I have never been to—I can see the height of buildings, the narrowness of the streets, whether there are trees on an avenue. It gives a sense of a place. Of course it in no way replaces traveling and spending time there.
There are thousands of ways to travel. I take short trips. It’s the intensity of the brevity of the voyage that attracts me; it demands an extreme focus. I travel to catch things, to be moved, to see what resonates in me when I’m there.
AS: You argue that to know a country it’s crucial to know its literature.
LG: Literature speaks of the world and, when we want to explore this world, novels are a way to get in. To dive into the literature of a country is a way to understand certain issues and what’s at stake, to understand its history, and to better comprehend some of the themes that make an era and a place. It would be sad if literature said nothing of such things.There is a pressure on books which makes things so that one cannot be fully serene about the future of books.
We need the words of journalists, politicians; we need every word that comes to explain, analyze, and call out to our intelligence and curiosity, but that’s not enough. We need words of literature, because they don’t explain in the same manner—
AS: You are about to travel to New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. How does a French fiction writer view American culture?
LG: [He laughs] The last time I was in New York was around 1996. I have a vision that resembles all the clichés that can be said of New York: it’s a fascinating and intoxicating city with an incredible energy that seems to never stop. In a poem, Walt Whitman describes America as a “nation of nations”; I find that New York is a city of cities; it’s a city that has the cities of the entire world in it.
My father was a Bob Dylan fan. He played his albums in the house so much that Bob Dylan’s voice became like an echo that accompanied my childhood and adolescence. His lyrics are very literary; no wonder he received the Nobel Prize in Literature! What I love about Bob Dylan is how he gets to put a story into a song. There are songs that last something like 12 minutes; hence, it cannot be easily broadcast on radio, cannot be formatted to the consumer society, which is great. His songs explore different territories—
I admire Ernest Hemingway. For me he represents an America that is curious, an America that is open, an America that travels. He has been all over, he has been to wars, with the sole conviction that literature can say something about these wounds and convulsions of people. Poets of the Beat Generation hold an important place in my life. I love the poem “Kaddish” by Allen Ginsberg, and I also find his poem “Howl” sublime. I discovered them when I was in my early twenties and that’s how I got to understand that a poem can be long, that a poem can go on for several pages, and it can be enraged.
AS: Poems by Constantine Cavafy and Mahmoud Darwish are regularly mentioned in Hear Our Defeats. What is your relation to poetry?
LG: In the West, the literary form that has imposed itself is the novel. We are in that period. It wasn’t always so. There was a period when it was theater, and another when it was poetry. It’s refreshing to arrive in a country and to realize that the literary custom is different. That’s what happened when I visited Haiti, for instance, where it’s poetry and not novels that has the upper hand. There, the great writers are poets first.
There is a pressure on books which makes things so that one cannot be fully serene about the future of books. Things are shifting. We don’t know what form books will take or what will a reader practice in say, 30 years. I think this will have an impact on the way stories are told, and maybe even on the length of stories. Above all, there are words that have no immediate usefulness and that may seem like they are of no use, but they are actually extremely important and extremely precious. Literature is not useful, but in reality it is! To read a book, one must accept taking a time-out, to “lose”
AS: Have we not already? Take the rise of populism, Brexit, the issue of immigration, and the current unrest in France…
LG: [He stares into space for a good two minutes, stroking his beard] Why is it that in Europe today, the moment you say the word Europe it seems to bother everybody? Why is it that this European story—that is epic, passionate—has become noise and furor? Why is it that we do not succeed to turn it into a story of solidarity, of strength, of richness? I am extremely saddened by the rise of populism in Europe, so fast and so soon. When you look at our history, one would have imagined that we would be protected from those ills for some time, yet it’s already here, again.
I am pro-European, and I’ve come to notice that more and more people are almost whispering it, as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Yet we hear loud and clear the anti-Europeans. There are many things I criticize about Europe but I deeply believe that it is the most beautiful political adventure of the century—all these countries as allies in the name of democracy and peace.
I do not understand why this European Union of 500 million inhabitants does not feel strong enough to welcome a little more than it has done? I think this incapacity tells a great deal of our non-European identity, meaning that we do not feel like we are a part of the 500 million, because if we did, we’d feel as big as a bloc. I am well aware that there are entire areas in Palermo, for instance, that are incredibly poor, Greece has suffered a great deal, so has Portugal. I can understand the fear of those who say: “We are not doing well as it is, how can we welcome more people?” But that’s not true. We can! And what about European values? If Europe does not assume its responsibility that it can do better, that it can be better, that it would do it good to be a zone of hospitality, I think it’d lose something fundamental.
AS: You recently wrote the forward to the French edition of John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants, which he wrote in 1958 while he was a senator from Massachusetts. It is still relevant today given the tense debate on immigration. Did the book change your way of looking at the U.S.?
LG: [His face lights up again] It was mind-blowing to see a text that dates back to a little before the ’60s, in which the vocabulary used to speak about immigration is almost systematically positive. When you look at today, particularly in Europe, we are in a period where immigration is almost systematically deprecated, in a vocabulary that suggests it takes something away from us. The United States is probably the most inspiring proof that immigrants who were welcomed hold it in their hearts to be integrated, to show their very best, to work hard to show their appreciation. Yet in the times we live in today, this falls on deaf ears. You are told you are naive to think so; you are accused of being a utopian. Kennedy was neither naive nor utopian. He writes that it is complicated, but that in the end it will be truly rewarding for the country.
I don’t understand why countries in the European Union today cannot bring themselves to see that it will be beneficial to have immigrants come in—
AS: You are a writer whose prose embodies a musicality and rhythm. Are you worried that could be lost in translation?
LG: I cannot have a point of view on the subject of translation. I only fluently speak French. I am not fully at ease in any other language than my native one. Even if I can speak and understand English and Italian, I do not have access to those languages as a native speaker would. I don’t know all the other possibilities for each word. I can see if there is a misinterpretation, I can feel the flow of the text, but other than that I trust translators and their work. I am always ready to answer questions they may have during the translation process, but I cannot judge it. Translation leaves me extremely perplexed. My novel Hurricane is not translated in English, for instance. Why one novel and not the other? I guess we are dependent on the curiosity of the readers, and sometimes a book does not find its way to a country. Maybe someday it will.
And with these words, our conversation with Laurent Gaudé comes to an end. We rise from our table. Lunch service is about to begin.
This interview has been translated, edited, and condensed.