Erik Martiny

An Interview with Isabelle Dangy 


Isabelle Dangy is an academic and novelist. Her main area of research is the nouveau roman and Georges Perec. In 2019, she was a finalist for the Goncourt Prize for debut novels. Her first two novels were published by les Editions du Passage, a long-established Parisian publisher partly specialized in art history.

Your latest novel, Les nus d’Hersanghem (The Nudes of Hersanghem), is particularly mysterious. Was the creation of mystery foremost in your mind when you started writing?

When I started writing The Nudes, I had no pre-established plan, just the desire to build an imaginary town one building block at a time, circling the belfry and making sure that certain characters came back and interacted. My intention was not to artificially create a sense of mystery, the way a writer of detective fiction might set up an enigma for the reader to solve. What imposed itself gradually as the text began to accrue was the yearning to set the ground for a gradual unveiling of the town. The ends of chapters, which all evoke a sudden noise the nature of which is never specified were conceived, among other things, to awaken the reader’s curiosity. The motif is repeated and it serves to connect the different storylines. But the reader doesn’t know what’s happening, other than the fact that the noise distracts the inhabitants of the town in their daily routine. The meaning of the noisy explosion is only revealed at the very end. But generally speaking, I think, the mystery lies in the creation of the characters for me, as for many writers, as you never really know what lies at the bottom of one’s characters. They retain a certain opacity, even for me.

The novel is constructed like a musical composition with Italian musical terms heading each section. Can you tell us why you chose to foreground musicality in this book?

The musical notations at the start of each chapter were present from the very first drafts I wrote. The first ones I put down were the classical ones like adagio, scherzando, furioso… After that, I decided to have some fun inventing a few less conventional ones. Some were downright zany: for instance, in the chapter in which the characters have a cold, I imagined “soffiandosi il naso”, the Italian for “blowing one’s nose”. In another chapter that has a lot of flowing water in it, I invented “gloglottando” based on onomatopoeia. The presence of these musical notations stems from my personal interest in music. It also serves to underline the sonic dimension I wanted to give the novel, most notably with the noise at the end of each chapter but also the Hot Geese concert and the misadventures of the organist, for instance. The construction of Nus might be compared to the sequence of dance movements you find in baroque music.

Why did you want to foreground nudity?

It’s hard to answer that briefly. I first got the idea listening to news reels on the radio about nude political activism, but I have a keen interest in anything relating to the body, in its insistent presence even when you would like to erase it. To show and evoke the naked body in each chapter the way I did is a way of reaffirming the authority of the body which social life conceals. So there’s a dialogue between nudity and clothing in a town in which the textile industry and its huge summer clothes sales made for the display of abundant fabric.  

But beyond that opposition you would have to mention that nakedness is implicitly linked to crucial moments in life: birth and death, sexuality, art, medical consultation which often has an oracular value, ablutions that represent the hygienic side to the yearning for purification… And then on an almost aesthetic level, showing the naked body (even aged and plain ugly) allows one to restore its unity: you finally see it whole, whereas daily life generally only offers fragments of nudity, the face, the hands, the legs: quite a dislocated vision of oneself and others. The cover of the book brings this out in one single image: Magritte’s painting, which shows a young woman in clothes holding her unclothed double by the hand, establishes the fraternal bond with the nude twin that each of us hides under his clothing.

What do you think of the Femen movement?

I admire their courage and up to a certain point their spirit of provocation. On the other hand, I don’t always agree with what they fight for, or the brand of feminism they defend. It’s a bit too radical for me. I’m more in favour of more nuanced feminism which should in my view include both men and women. The demonstration I mention in Les Nus foregrounds both genders. I have to add that I only know about the Femen thanks to my favourite medium, radio (I don’t watch television): so their actions have no visual impact on me. But the imaginary representation of a nude procession possesses a carnivalesque quality that inspired me.

How important has surrealist painting and art in general been to your writing?

I was passionate about surrealist painting when I was much younger. I was particularly fond of works by Max Ernst, for their imaginative power. With age, I’ve become a bit more detached from most of the movements that in their day were avant-garde. But I’m still faithful to the Belgian surrealists, painters like Magritte and Delvaux. The cover illustration of my book was suggested to me by a friend. It instantly seemed to correspond to the spirit of the novel.

More generally, I’m very interested in painting and sculpture, as well as in photography and film, and I suppose that must have an impact on the way I write, even if I don’t consciously and deliberately establish bridges between the various arts. My previous novel, L’Atelier du désordre (The Studio of Disorder), evoked the fate of a fictional painter of the nineteenth century who was fascinated by piled up objects, worn out batteries, but that type of subject is more of an exception within the usual kinds of stories I write. What I’m really interested in is the creative impulse in all its forms. I try to play an instrument and more modestly I try to paint, and though I have no particular gift for these arts, engaging with them in this way allows me to see what they are like from the inside.

In another interview you mentioned your interest in the supernatural in literature. Do you plan to experiment with the fantastic or write in the magic realist mode or is that genre virtually off-limits in France?

It’s true that magic realism (as far as I know) is rarely referred to in France, which doesn’t mean that it’s non-existent. I must confess it never occurred to me to place myself in that category, maybe just out of ignorance. I don’t feel the urge to write in a purely fantastic register and in Les Nus, the supernatural only intervenes in very small doses, as when for example the viscountess flies away on her horse or when little rococo monkeys come off the ornamented sides of the Hôtel Tiberghien to comment on the spectacle of the town. But the legendary or mythical foundations that appear occasionally comes into play with these supernatural suggestions. The world I tried to build is very entrenched in the quotidian, but I think I feel the need from time to time to allow the irrational to erupt, with its poetic power and the humour it allows, with its link to the unconscious which is a sort of hidden nudity in itself. But it has to be brief, as when a fish jumps out of the water. Perhaps that’s exactly what magic realism is all about?

Your prose sometimes reminded me of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s object-focused writing, though perhaps you were more inspired by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (who is a great Robbe-Grillet fan). Do you feel close to the writers of les Editions de Minuit in general?

Yes, I feel very close to the authors who write for Les Editions de Minuit, even if my writing is actually more classical than theirs (I think). I’ve done a lot of university research over the years in that area. I’ve often analysed texts by authors like Echenoz, Toussaint, Gailly, but also Yves Ravey and Julia Deck. If you go back a little further into the past, I also feel an affinity for books by Claude Simon as well as for those by the lesser known Robert Pinget, most notably because of his knack for creating towns—a whole universe— from scratch, which is also what I wanted to do with my novel Les Nus.

I feel less close to Robbe-Grillet, aside from his first novels, La Jalousie for example… In the first decade of this century, some of those writers tended to be called impassive. Currently, that term has been set aside by critics: in any case, I share with these writers a wariness with regard to the expression of emotion, because I feel it often slides into excessive pathos. I feel the need to restrain emotion, though not to exclude it. It has to be implicit in some way. This attitude often leads to a descriptive kind of writing that clings to the surface of objects, or else withdraws into derisiveness.

You’ve written essays about Georges Perec. What is it that fascinates you about this writer?

There are a lot of things, because his work is so polymorphous! Just to add to what I was saying a moment ago, the desire to describe objects, “things”, to make their presence and their weight felt, this often comes to me from Perec. Apart from that, I’m mostly a fan of Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (Life, a User’s Manual), and the composition of Nus is a modest homage to that novel. Whereas Perec wrote a simultaneist novel situated in a building conceived of as a group of pigeonholes, I tried to write the same kind of novel about the different parts of a town. And like Perec with Bartlebooth’s death, I tried to make sure that you discover these different quarters and their various inhabitants as well as the unique moment charged with intensity as you go along. As if a helicopter is passing and very different kinds of people stop their activities to all look up at the same time! I also tried at times to imitate Perec’s amused and disillusioned tone, or rather I think I interiorized his tone, and some of my characters bear some resemblance to those that people his world. Take the example of the obsessive aged writer who writes in his bathtub—they remind me of the ancient melancholy writers in Life, A User’s Manual. Though, come to think of it, the bathtub is probably more of an involuntary allusion to Jean-Philippe Toussaint…

Interview by Erik Martiny 

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