The second panel I heard at the festival, held this past weekend at NYU, featured David Foenkinos and Stefan Merrill Block and was moderated by translator and former Seven Stories editor Violaine Huisman. The conversation happened to further Emmanuel Carrère and Francine Prose’s discussion—without referring to it directly—of character, invention, and autobiography.
íI don’t engage in autoficition,ë Foenkinos said at one point, in response to Huisman’s attempt to place him in a generational context. His recent book, Qui se souvient de David Foenkinos? (Who remembers David Foenkinos), from which Huisman read her own partial translation, was ía story of my own forgetting,ë according to Foenkinos, of an initially successful writer’s self-doubt and fear of failure. At first glance the book sounded autobiographical, but Foenkinos is not a failed or obscure writer—he’s young, prolific and successful. As Huisman noted in the beginning, Foenkinos himself is afraid of the black page, not the blank page; he fears being perceived as an overly compulsive writer.
But he’s also called himself a ícomedian suffering from depression.ë Perhaps with Qui se souvient de David Foenkinos? he was making fiction out of his own passing feelings, and in the end, he makes light of them. He lacks cynicism, as Huisman noted, who also suggested that Foenkinos is possessed by a írebellious buoyancyë against the predominantly negative outlook in contemporary fiction. She went further, calling him the íbubbling water pushing up from under Baudelaire’s lid.ë
Asked how he is able to remain prolific, Foenkinos said íI am able to write a book a year if I come up with a character, which happens through a name and a detail—even if it’s only the ear of a woman. With that one ear, I have a character.ë He admits to putting his own fears, desires and tastes into the identity of his characters, for example he likes women who speak German, so he made a character have the same affinity.
íOddly, I’m in agreement with you on that,ë replied Stefan Merrill Block—a 26-year-old Texas native who lives in Brooklyn—in English, once the interpreter caught up with Foenkinos. Both authors wore ear pieces to pick up the interpreter from the wireless radios disseminated to the audience.
The main character of Block’s debut novel, The Story of Forgetting, which took several years to write, came to him as a voice, after he’d failed for several weeks and thousands of words to properly begin the book. Once he was able to embody the character with his own emotions, he was ready to begin. íIn fiction,ë he said, íthe further I go into other characters, the more I come back to myself.ë His book is composed of two intersecting narratives, one fantastical and the other deeply autobiographical, exploring the Alzheimer’s on his mother’s side of the family. No passage was read from it, but Foenkinos spoke of it enthusiastically, remembering the essence well, even if he forgot a few details—íDogs? I have an obsession with dogs?ë Block interrupted at one point. íDid something just get lost in translation?ë
Block read from Foenkinos’ earlier novel, Le Potentiel erotique de ma femme (The Erotic Potential of My Wife, translated by Yasmine Gaspard), which follows a man who fetishizes his wife’s window washing. Block periodically laughed aloud as he read, and cracked jokes with Foenkinos, who remarked that while he’s been surprised to see the humor of his books translate to other countries, certain aspects connect more in certain countries than others. He wasn’t specific as to how, and Huisman segued to ask him about the two Polish men who appear in each of his novels, about their origin and whether the books are popular in Poland. íOui!ë he said loudly. They’re loved there. íThe Polish men are an obsession of mine,ë he went on, íand the key to my success. I failed to find a publisher until I began to use them.ë