Ervé is the new sensation in French letters. His recent autobiographical account of living on the streets was published this year by Les Editions Maurice Nadeau, the publisher who published Michel Houellebecq’s first novel.
You’ve chosen a pen-name which is both elliptical and sibylline: can you tell us the reasons which presided over this choice?
“Ervé” is the name I opted for when I used to draw. Its slightly mysterious side makes people smile, especially when I tell them that the missing H at the start of the name was smoked long ago (in reference to hash.)
I also want to steer clear of my surname which refers to my unknown, absent father; using his name would just have meant paying homage to him and perpetuating his memory, something I am keen to avoid.
Why did you call your book Ecritures Carnassières (Carnivorous Writings)?
Carnivorous Writings came to me in the course of the writing in its final phase as I was proofreading the book. While taking a break, I published a tweet, a short text signed #EcrituresCarnassieres. Delphine Chaume, my editor, instantly responded, arguing it would make for a good title. The book was initially supposed to be called Au Ras Du Sol (At Ground Level), a hashtag I often use to sign my tweets with. I liked the idea. In hindsight I find it rather interesting: ‘writing’ works well with the gentler aspects of the book and ‘carnivorous’ offers a good counterblast, referring to the more mordant aspects.
One of your chapter headings is entitled “fêlures” (cracks): this is a key word Zola uses in La Bête Humaine to suggest man’s flawed, fallen nature. Did you intend that word as a nod to Zola? How close do you feel to naturalism?
I don’t think I was referencing Zola. To tell you the truth, when I studied him as a schoolboy I found Zola deeply boring. Only later when I reread Zola’s La Bête Humaine and other works by him outside school did I find him more amenable.
I could have used the word “breakage”, but the word “fêlure” (cracked) is softer on the ear. From childhood onwards, it’s a word I’ve always liked. It evokes fissures, fractures. But if the reader sees it as a reference to Émile Zola that’s pleasant to hear.
As far as Naturalism is concerned, if by that term is meant the description of what I’ve experienced in minute detail then that’s fine but I feel closer to descriptive poetry which entails describing the darkness as something delightful, something with which to pull the reader in, in a way that is light-hearted and imagistic.
But even though people keep calling me a writer these days, I still feel more like a narrator of my own story than anything else.
You say at the start of the novel that “Paris was a feast. It was my defeat.” Do you feel close to Hemingway and the Lost Generation?
If you take a close look at Paris today you realize that it’s nothing but a beautiful city that’s rotting. To evoke Hemingway is to be romantic and backward-looking. The Lost Generation aesthetic was something that occurred between the two world wars, a new literary sensibility that was a little clan-like in that it turned its back on the USA. I would have liked to tease that group of artists who profited from their fame while living for the most part very frugally.
When I arrived in Paris, in February 2000, the city was a mass of urban sprawl where anything could happen: a place where you could find employment, accommodation and a new life. As an unknown, I thought it would be easy for me to reinvent myself there, but I soon realized my mistake. I did a lot of part-time work, tough jobs that paid well and I lived in a hotel, which ruins your finances. But Paris isn’t a series of juxtaposed villages. Each arrondissement has its own story.
Historically speaking, the Lost Generation is nothing negative. On the contrary, it denotes a certain detachment. It burgeoned with constant poetry. In that sense, Paris was a real feast for all those authors and artists who spent their time refashioning the world with good wine and lovely food.
I feel much closer to another lost generation, the Punk generation. No future with a fear of the year 2000.
What do you think of contemporary French fiction as a whole?
I steer clear of the classics which I find too school-ish. My classic author is Philippe Djian, who speaks to me. I keep away from the Lévys et Russos. They write well but their stories don’t interest me. I feel closer to the new writing that appears with alternative publishers. Being close to publishers and booksellers, I take an active interest in emerging writers. I read Sabine Huynh, for instance, a very impressive writer, but I might be accused of promoting the imprint I publish with. Which isn’t entirely false, but it’s a book that really speaks to me.
But on the whole, I don’t have much time for reading as I tend to write a lot. I steer clear of reading too much so I don’t feel influenced or depressed.
Your book alludes to Charles Bukowski. Do you read a lot of literature written in English?
Hank has been with me since my teens. I must have been around eleven years old when I used to saunter through the foster school library but the books in there were boring to me. Manuel, an instructor who was a conscientious objector, came up to give me a book by Bukowski called Notes of a Dirty Old Man. I loved his transgressive approach to literature. Early on, I realized that my literary world would be primarily Anglo-Saxon. Hank, therefore, and later Kerouac, Ginsberg, Fante, Beckett, and later André Brink too. Closer to me in French, there was Borhinger, Léotard, Djian and always Rimbaud lurking in the shadows. I like the fact that these authors feel they are French, regardless of their styles and genres. There’s also Stephen King. I like the way he describes childhood.
When you write in French, you have a thousand words to define things. In English, the choice seems more restricted. Writing in English seems more blunt to me, more immediate. I’d like to read the originals but French people are a bit lazy when it comes to languages. And French publishers tend to translate a lot.
What do you think of woke culture?
As you know, I operate from the fringes of society. Although I have a set view of the world, I also tend to not give a damn about anything. Let’s just say I’m a sad and fatalistic creature. I understand the current fears as I also had them when I was younger. I’m resigned to the fact that things are not looking good for future generations. It makes me sad and angry at the same time as it is going to affect my two lungs: my daughters.
I’m not personally woke, but I would be if it changed anything…
Do you self-censor anything when you write?
Long before I signed up with Les Editions Nadeau, I used to write in my notebooks in the street, wherever I was. Guy Brienbaum, a friend who is also a publisher and a journalist advised me to keep writing and to hold onto everything I wrote, so I did. And then my publisher, Delphine Chaume, leaned over the cradle of my writing and it saw the light. Not a word was changed and I didn’t read over it.
I’m currently working on another book entitled Morsures de nuit (Night Bites) which will be more substantial. I let loose in the first book. You have to dare yourself to write, to unveil yourself. I think my Bites will be more insistent, more poetic. I like to think so.
Can you tell us why you write prose rather than poetry?
That’s for you to say, if I’m closer to prose or to poetry. I enjoy both equally. I don’t think about that kind of distinction when I’m writing. It would be lying to say that poetry is always on my mind. I’m a literary adventurer. I just write as it comes, without re-reading what I write…
Do you think all your future work will be deeply autobiographical?
It will always be about the self, about myself, but with the possibility of reaching out beyond the self. I’ve got a few short stories in the making. I have a few stories to tell.
What do you think of autofiction?
Autofiction is the safest of all forms of writing.
Can you imagine yourself writing historical fiction or sci-fi?
My life is both historical and science fictional, is it not?
Interview translated by Erik Martiny
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