The Festival of New French Writing, held from last Thursday through Saturday at NYU’s Vanderbilt Hall, and presented by the French-American Cultural Exchange, was a remarkable series of programs that we wish we could have covered more thoroughly. Thursday night involved conversations between Olivier Rolin and E.L. Doctorow and Marie N’diaye and Francine Duplessix Gray, and Friday afternoon included talks with Marie Darrieusseq and Adam Gopnick, Abdourahman Waberi and Philip Gourevitch, Bernard-Henri Lévy with Mark Danner, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint with Siri Hustvedt. Saturday afternoon was packed with four more conversations, and between the discussions’ fast pace and the need for attentiveness towards the interpreter (who was broadcast to radios that were distributed to attendants along with earpieces) I only had the stamina for the first two. Here’s the first installment of coverage; check back tomorrow for the second.
Tom Bishop, Director of the Center for French Civilization and Culture at New York University and major Beckett person, was the festival’s general host, and he explained that due to time constraints he would refrain from introducing the participants with their bios. He turned it over quickly to Caroline Weber, New York Times contributor and scholar of 18th-Century French literature. She was there to moderate the discussion between Emmanuel Carrère and Francine Prose, and was genuinely giddy to be seated between ítwo of her favorite authors.ë She then proceeded to read from her own írough translationë of Carrère’s L’Adversaire (The Adversary, translated by Linda Coverdale, 2002), a nonfiction narrative of a man who impersonated a doctor and then killed his family and his dog. Afterward, Francine Prose commented that the book poses a question common to fiction, the mystery of identity and character, a la Raskolnikov and Madame Bovary, and at first Carrère resisted the comparison, explaining that the story of his book does involve a typical fictional liar, but it wouldn’t be plausible as a novel. íFiction demands more,ë he said, and I was impressed by the interpreter’s ability to keep the pace as Carrère ranted and raved about the amazing fact that the murderer took so long to be caught. íI don’t know what my books are,ë he continued, íthey’re not the product of my imagination.ë But as the two authors went on, discussing many of each other’s works and covering a variety of topics, they gradually came to an understanding about the function of character and mystery in nonfiction work.
íThere’s the expression that many fiction writers have: èYou can’t make that stuff up,’ë Prose said, dryly referring to the Madoff incident in the sphere of real-life horrors. This brought Weber to Prose’s 1986 novel Bigfoot Dreams, about a tabloid reporter who makes up a story that turns out to be true. íI don’t write that stuff anymore,ë Prose replied, referring to the fantastical, íbecause the horror of reality exceeds the capacity of my imagination.ë íWe’re both beyond the fantastic now,ë Carrère replied, íMaybe we started out being struck by The Twilight Zone.ë
Prose admitted that she still has a lot more fun writing fiction, where she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing or what will happen. Weber mentioned Prose’s 2003 YA novel, After, about a post-Columbine, Ashcroft-era high school where the kids have lost all of their freedoms, and Prose said it was a treat to write something in which she could get away with ending a chapter with a phrase like, íand that was nothing compared to what would happen next.ë Now she’s working on a cultural history of The Diary of Anne Frank, and spent months studying the original diary’s revisions, working between the original draft, Anne Frank’s revisions, and her father’s final revision, in order to track the process of what she feels is the best book ever about a thirteen-year-old girl.
Bringing the conversation back to Carrère, Prose asked him how he is able to get into another character so unlike himself. íI don’t anymore,ë he said, íYou can’t really enter someone else’s skin, only approach them and show yourself,ë he said, and mentioned a new book that’s coming out next week, titled D’autres vies que la mienne (Other Lives than Mine), reviewed in Le Magazine Littéraire. It’s an extension of his last autobiographical work, Un roman russe (A Russian Novel), which received mixed reviews, primarily on the question of whether it was too …masturbatory. But what he said about his obligation to the stories of other people, and the way he allows the characters to paint themselves, is reflected in the success of his biographies, first on Werner Herzog and most recently Philip K. Dick.
Prose pushed him to elucidate how he is able to discover other characters in nonfiction, mentioning briefly her process of creating characters disparate from herself by projecting her own experience and emotions. Carrère said that ínonfiction lacks the same wondrous discovery.ë Thankfully (because there wasn’t going to be time for audience participation), Weber objected, and Prose shifted gears by asking him how he felt about the practice of the detective novel. They found common ground through Hitchcock, as Carrère cited the director’s distinction between surprise and suspense (from his conversations with Truffaut), and admitted that he employs suspense and dramatic irony in L’Adversaire, in which he unfolded the mystery of the real-life murderer.
Tomorrow: Synopsis of conversation with David Foenkinos and Stefan Merrill Block, moderated by Violane Huisman