An Interview with Hélène Bonafous-Murat
Hélène Bonafous-Murat writes historic suspense fiction for the French publisher Les Editions du Passage. A former academic specialized in the novels of Walter Scott, she now works as an ancient print expert for auction houses and museums.
Your latest book Le jeune homme au bras fantôme (The Young Man with the Phantom Arm) is partially set in Paris in the year 1834. Can you tell us what drove you to situate the action of your novel in this period of French history?
The action starts in 1834 with a tragedy involving civilians that were brutally killed by the police – repression was very harsh in those days – then moves on to twenty years later. I drew my initial inspiration from a pile of Daumier lithographs that I was working on about two years ago – by profession I am a print expert and put together print auctions. They were printed for La Caricature, a famous 19th-century satirical newspaper. I soon became engulfed in all the ads printed on the back of each image. They painted a very lively portrait of Paris and of its new social and economic developments. I could see a recurrent figure whose name was everywhere, an entrepreneur who dabbled in all kinds of businesses. I was fascinated by this Norbert Estibal who became one of my key characters. I then decided to find a young hero who could act as one of his employees or associates. I came up with this young man, Charles Hû, by going back to one of Daumier’s most political prints, a lithograph depicting the massacre of rue Transnonain in 1834. I did some research about the real protagonists and read all the testimonies that were given at the trial that took place the following year – where incidentally the police forces were never prosecuted. All those poor people tell the same story of a brutal massacre and several of them refer to this young boy who lost both his father and his right arm that day. That was how I managed to find my two key protagonists and how I started to make them interact. I also wanted to recreate the kind of atmosphere you find in all our great 19th-century authors, from Balzac to Zola, but seen from a modern perspective, with very lively characters, like in a film.
Is the genre of historical fiction still popular in France?
I see myself more as writer of fiction than as a writer of historical fiction. My previous novel was set in 1623. The one before was set in the present times. All my novels have to do with art and the way I look at it. That is what inspires me. The prints I study and describe every day often provide specific anecdotes or the backdrops of my novels. Writing about the past is easy for me, as the images are all there in my mind and come naturally, with a seal and a feel of authenticity. The reader is literally plunged in a past century. Judging by my readers, they have a strong appetite for it. All kinds of fiction seem to coexist in bookstores: social and political fiction, autofiction, historical fiction… But several book fairs across the country specialise in historical fiction. Bookstores have special shelves for historical novels: medieval ones in the wake of Ken Follett’s or others dealing with the French Revolution for instance. You even have historical murder mysteries. Some famous, prolific authors such as the late Robert Merle set the trend and are still widely read. France has a very agitated history: not just the French Revolution, but a lot of turmoil and upheavals right until the Algerian War. Camille Pascal was awarded the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française in 2018 for his novel about the summer of 1830 where no less than four kings followed each other on the throne. After that he wrote another bulky novel about court life in 18th-century Versailles. It seems that France and its writers will never cease to come to terms with their history and as a result to explore it through fiction.
You have recourse to the characterization techniques prevalent in nineteenth-century fiction (physical and sartorial description). Does this stem from a desire to imitate the mode of fiction employed in the period or is this merely a personal penchant for visual effects (coming from the fact that you are also an art expert)?
Imitation is not the correct word. Impersonation would be more accurate. Writing has something to do with play-acting. When I write, I am each one of my characters, I literally embody them, I want their language to ring true, the scenery to be authentic. I am immersed in their lives, I move about in their time and space. It requires great awareness and caution: you have to hunt down any anachronism. This sense of living in a different era is also very pleasurable – probably akin to what some game players experience, for instance with a video game set in the Dark Ages. That being said, historical fiction is also a kind of mask or travesty of the present. By this I mean that I am a 21st-century author who can only revisit the past from her own place in time and space. There is a natural distance which cannot be avoided. I build a plot and unfold a story suffused with my own contemporary interrogations: my young hero is torn between two different kinds of aspirations – humanistic, egalitarian values, and the urge for personal economic development, material achievements and possessions. Between those two lines of thought and action, where does he stand? What kind of human being is he going to be? Those are timeless interrogations. The younger generation is experiencing it very vividly and asking questions that our generation left unanswered or was blind to.
Maybe I am just a coward who doesn’t have the guts to write about today’s world and society, and finds it easier to confront those crucial issues under the guise of historical displacement. I believe any serious fiction has an allegorical meaning – mine does, too. As for visual effects, they come to me naturally, from the lore of images stocked in my mind, the thousands and thousands of old prints I’ve seen and studied all along my career. Physical and sartorial descriptions are easy for me. I see the world I mean to describe, I have been there. Another great influence on my writing, the absolute master for me, is Zola. His descriptions of Paris, of 19th-century life are sheer delight to me, so intense, dense, fraught with details that they are a feast for the eye and the soul – particularly in his novels Paris’s Belly and Money. I re-read them before I started this new writing project. But my fiction is in no way a pastiche of his writing. If anything, it is rather a tribute to his immense skills and fascinating energy.
Some of your descriptions veer slightly towards the grotesque. Have writers like Charles Dickens, Mervyn Peake or Roald Dahl had any influence on the way you write?
Dickens most certainly, because I studied English literature at the École Normale Supérieure. I love his sense of humanity just as much as his sense of humour – although as I said I write in French and am more impregnated with 19th-century French authors. In that previous life of mine, I also did a PhD on Sir Walter’s Scott’s historical novels, mainly the Scottish ones. He has very clear-cut, rather unsubtle characters that stand more as the embodiment of values than as complex human figures. In this he is the heir of medieval literature and folklore. Maybe a little part of this went into my writing – although very unwittingly, then.
Another major influence on my writing – sorry, I have to go back to the visual arts – is definitely Daumier’s caricatures. I depicted the entrepreneur Norbert Estibal as one of the self-assured, rumbustious bourgeois types that you find in his satirical lithographs from the 1840’s and 50’s. Finally, I should state that I am very good friends with the British author Iain Pears – I think his novel An Instance of the Fingerpost is an absolute masterpiece – who helped me a lot when I was writing my first novel about the Paris art market fifteen years ago. We were discussing character-writing and he told me that it was important to combine various traits from various real-life people into one character so that nobody could say, upon reading the novel: “hey, this is me, I recognise myself”. Combining and recombining attitudes, idiosyncrasies and features derived from real-life observations – this is how you create your fictitious characters. And frankly, don’t you think that some of our fellow humans are just living caricatures?
Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
Other than currently preparing two lectures on prints and printmaking, one of which is at the request of the Besançon Museum of Fine Arts, I have several print auctions coming up this spring, involving whole print collections that require careful examination and studying. Those are exciting, demanding projects that always feed my writing and inspiration. The rest of the time, I am toying with the idea of a novel that would take place over four centuries, starting with the French Revolution. I would like to explore a new narrative device which is a bit crazy – I am afraid I don’t want to unveil it here – but that could prove very productive. This is a device that I came up with last year in writing five short stories for a special purpose – my first writing commission from a French luxury group. This new project is very challenging: the paradox is that this partly historical novel would allow me to depict the present times and some of the excesses we witness, such as our relationship to mobile phones and to social media. So you see – maybe after all I am not just a writer of historical fiction!
Interview by Erik Martiny
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