Erik Martiny

Éric Chevillard on Experimental Writing

Éric Chevillard is one of the few great French experimental writers still writing today. His books are issued by two high-profile publishers: L’Arbre Vengeur, a maverick press with a catalogue of distinctive, original French writing, as well as by Les Editions de Minuit, the legendary publishing company created clandestinely during the Second World War. He is the direct descendant of Samuel Beckett and other innovative writers like Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, also published by Minuit.

When I asked the Goncourt prize winner Atiq Rahimi if experimental writing was still alive in France today, he cited Éric Chevillard and Pascal Quignard. Do you see yourself as an endangered species?

Your question comes to me at a critical moment: I’ve just been told that Irène Lindon, the chief editor after her father of les Editions de Minuit, my main publisher, was withdrawing from the company and selling it to Gallimard. As well as this, Bruno Roy, the founder of les Editions Fata Morgana who also publishes some of my books, died a few days ago. It’s usually said that a species in in danger of becoming extinct when its habitat is threatened or destroyed… So, of course, these two publishers will continue to exist and I hope they will still welcome my books, but that’s what I first thought of when I read your question. It isn’t enough to be persevering for writers like me. If you’re scoffed at by the editorial system, you just won’t survive. I’m far from being the only author threatened by the new order of things, even if I’m not entirely sure that my books fall into the category you call experimental writing. I’m not a diehard formalist. Much of what I write is produced by my nerves and my most basic instincts… It’s true, though, that things are changing in France and that publishing companies are now in the hands of a few powerful corporations. How long books like mine that make no one wealthy will still be published I don’t know… I have the feeling I’m not answering your question directly, and yet writers also depend on the conditions in which literature is produced. If the jungle is gone, there can’t be any tigers.

I’m sure your fame will ensure that you’re still published. You belong to a handful of highly distinctive writers whose style is instantly recognisable. While most French authors tend towards uniformity, what French critics call inconspicuous ‘blank writing’, your fiction is in a category of its own. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re a model, that you stand as a beacon of hope for young writers?

A model, a beacon of hope, my goodness! I think every writer develops according to his own laws and that even the authors we admire the most influence us less than they hinder us from walking in their footsteps and repeating their moves. The works that we find essential stake out the field of what’s left to cover. They also light up the emptiness that surrounds them, and so in that paradoxical way they can become sources of inspiration. But what you say about stale, inconspicuous, derivative writing preoccupied only with narrative drive is absolutely true. Style as excess, as poetic violence, as a struggle with the complacency of all forms of power or the banal nature of human experience no longer has many supporters, there’s no doubt about that.

Les Editions de Minuit made a reputation for itself publishing experimental writers like Marguerite Duras, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Robert Pinget and others: have they been a source of inspiration to you? Robert Pinget’s writing for instance is quite playful. Your writing also reminds me a little of a more daring Francis Ponge.

Beckett was certainly a determining influence on me. But you should have asked me that question thirty-five years ago when I wrote my first book… Writing quickly became a frame of mind for me and I have to say the whole question of influence, reference and reverence has ceased to concern me. There’s a lot of pride and sad vanity in the act of writing, it’s a form of lust for power in action. You don’t want to acknowledge any other gods or masters. Inevitably, the reader finds resemblances between writers that matter to him, but I’ve often noticed that these links, however appropriate they may be or not to me, often say more about the person making them than they do about the writers they mention. By forging these connections, the reader describes his or her own inner world. The ties the reader weaves between books and authors are secreted by the reader who is really talking about himself. And that’s the way it should be.

Even if they didn’t often get together, the first authors published by les Editions de Minuit often corresponded through letters. Is that kind of complicity still present these days between the writers published by Minuit?

There are many ways in which writers frequent each other. It’s a custom at les Editions de Minuit (and I know this isn’t common) to dedicate and send our books to all the other house authors. It means I’ve faithfully read most of the books published by Minuit over the last thirty years. I’ve met several of them. I’m friends with Antoine Volodine (who changed to another publisher a few years ago) and Yves Ravey. I’m on good terms with a few other authors but I don’t see them often. You couldn’t say that the authors published by Minuit are a group, sharing exactly the same literary point of view, something that was said, however erroneously, of the Nouveau Roman novelists. The differences between us are greater than the similarities, I think. The age of literary schools is gone.

Your novels seem to be conceived as ‘anti-novels’, with no strictly defined plots, without any real attempts at creating suspense, with sketchy characters (apart from the narrator), apparently irrelevant digressions. The title of your novel The Explosion of the Turtle, for instance, seems designed to make fun of the pretensions, the general gravitas of traditional fiction. Martin Amis, an author who is far less experimental than you are, says he sees novel writing as ‘a war against cliché’: would you say that your approach is similar?

It’s an interesting definition. A cliché freezes our representations of the world. But it isn’t distinct from its proverbial formulation. A cliché initially exists as a sequence of words held together with a kind of glue. Which means that literature is the first transmitter of clichés. Is the realist novel more than the cementing of banal and serially-repeated identical destinies? If you don’t want to suffocate under this repertoire of reiterated stereotypes, you have to dissolve these clichés in the acid of humour, to dismantle the proverb and free the thought held captive by these ready-made sentences. The linearity of the classical novel and many contemporary novels with their train of consequences bore me these days. Accounts of life that obey such rudimentary structures as the wolf trap and the waffle iron repeat themselves derivatively. I tend to share Arno Schmidt’s view: “life is not a continuum”. Hence, the explosion, fragmentation, digression, writing principles I tend to favour.

Folktales play a fairly large role in your work (I’m thinking of Briar-Rose and The Valiant Little Tailor). Why are you more drawn to fairy tales than to myths?

Once upon a time, there was a child that needed fairy tales to be read to him so he would go to sleep in the evenings. As these were peopled with ogres, wolves and witches, the poor little boy ended up not sleeping a wink all night, haunted as he was by such terrifying stories. And so he discovered the supreme power of literature: its ability to keep the mind wide awake… Tales spring from the imagination, but also from collective memory. In that sense, they are both a breeding ground of commonly held primeval scenarios, but also of clichés, of death-dealing stereotypes which I feel inclined to toy with. Myths could equally well do the job, no doubt. But let’s not forget that folktales originally served to edify children. Hyper-realistic children’s literature these days has the same aims. Given a choice, I’d choose the refined allegories of folktales over empathetic little novels with titles like My Dad has Cancer or There’s a Fellow Following me in the Street. The didactic and educational designs of folktales excite my devious turn of mind. I once wrote a parody that ended like this: « they got married and had many beautiful children whom they abandoned deep in the forest, for life is tough.” I rework the tricks and forms of folktales in an ironic light, I set the well-oiled mechanisms in motion to push them off the rails a little of course, but not without taking pleasure in the kind of jaunty narrative in which incongruities are acceptable.

With the Editions de l’Arbre Vengeur, you also publish collections of brief stories full of wisdom and naughtiness combined. Did the online genre of micro-fiction inspire you at the start of that enterprise, or do you feel closer to Oriental wisdom and haiku?

Yes, that’s my journal, L’Autofictif, originally published online. Every year in January, L’Arbre vengeur faithfully publishes the volume of my online writing of the previous year. It’s a journal because I’ve written in it every day, relentlessly for the last fifteen years, but it isn’t a blow-by-blow account of my life. Certain events from my daily life are mentioned, but it’s not a detailed autobiographical account of my existence at any given moment. It’s more like a writer’s logbook, with one single constraint: I force myself to write three little notes a day. It records my moods, like an electrocardiogram or an electroencephalogram, the electrical discharges of my nerves, the thrusting and parrying of the mind. An idiot’s thoughts affecting the epigrammatic forms I relish, or else ideas that I cast off like jokes. Nothing is off limits in that logbook, from elaborate forms to sketches, to micro-fiction—all kinds of risky endeavours, speculations, paradoxes. Haikus interest me as formal variations of aphorisms or poetic charades, which they evidently aren’t for the Japanese.

Is L’Autofictif also a parody of auto-fiction in its French manifestation over the last forty years? 

Yes, the title I gave the journal was originally somewhat ironic. But it depends how you define auto-fiction, a term that’s quite vague and tends to be associated with complacent self-exhibition of a kind that I find repulsive. And yet, taken literally, I have to admit today that the term quite accurately describes what I do: I use myself as a springboard, and draw on my real, tangible, sometimes devastating experience and remodel it into phantasmagoria through various kinds of distortion. I become the character of that never-ending book. That diarist is similar to me, he is my fictional double. Anything can happen to him in that limitless, utterly free space.

Who are the authors you appreciate the most?

Enumerating them would take too much time. It would betray those I forget to mention and display my shortcomings… I can no longer answer such open questions. I’m a voracious reader. As well as this, I wrote a literary chronicle in Le Monde for six years. I’ve held so many original and exciting contemporary books in my hands that I simply couldn’t begin to establish a ranking. But so your readers can get an idea of my tastes, I should cite Sterne and Nabokov, as far as literature in English is concerned.

Can you tell us a few words about your current projects?

I’m trying to finish a short book on fear of heights, triggered by an epistolary exchange between Flaubert and Maupassant concerning Bouvard and Pécuchet, the former asking the second to find the right Norman cliff to push his characters off so they have a new misadventure. I went to Etretat to test my own fear of heights. Literature is like nature, it abhors a vacuum. I work the way I usually do with my longer forms, cultivating in most of my books an uncertainty principle that forces my writing to be constantly inventive.

Interview by Erik Martiny.

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