Michel Bernard is a novelist and senior French governmental official. His novels deal for the most part with historical subjects. He has published two acclaimed novels on Joan of Arc and a number of other novels focusing on art history and music. His latest work was inspired by Rodin’s creation of the sculpture Les Bourgeois de Calais. His books have appeared with La Table Ronde, the renowned publisher who first published Jean Anouilh’s Antigone.
Could you tell us why you are more interested in approaching history through fiction than through academic channels?
I have a passion for history, but I would have been a poor historian. The extraordinary events, the colourful characters history offers are a potent stimulant for my imagination, my intuition; history gives me the desire to tell a story. Understanding it comes second. Generally speaking, there are usually univocal documented facts and then there is the interpretation of them which is multiple. The novel, I think, stops you from reducing, freezing, using history for your own ends, which is the temptation of ideology, something not all historians stay clear of. Novels allow you to present the very human uncertainty surrounding events and facts and this is life itself. If you don’t manage to bring history to life it means your literary talents are insufficient to the task. It seems to me that novels are not on the side of truth, certainty, good and evil, but on the side of life: ambiguity, movement, that which quivers. What moves me the most about the past is that which leaves little trace, that which needs to be guessed, the emotion that historical figures might have felt. I try to bring them to life in all their complexity, their contradictions, to bring out their feelings. If the reader is touched, it means you’ve succeeded in bringing the dead back to life, after having wiped them clean of prejudice and stereotypes.
What drew you to Joan of Arc in particular?
I grew up around the Meuse, the river on whose banks Joan of Arc was born. It’s a region of traditional agriculture, forests, rivers, a place of unknown, simple beauty which I feel close to. She’s without a doubt one of the most extraordinary figures in history, one of the most significant cases whose words and belief in the supernatural turned the course of history. Thanks to her 1431 trial in Rouen, there is a record of Joan’s actual words. She’s very much alive in these words. They have the ring of truth. They convey a distant but very clear human voice with her intelligence, her determination, her courage, her sensibility and often her poetic ability with words. There is in this young, nineteen-year-old girl’s voice with her unknown face, a girl who didn’t know how to read or write, the very substance, in its highest form, of literature. It’s the reason why, since Christine de Pizan’s Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc published in 1429, she has never ceased to fascinate novelists and poets alike. It’s an interesting coincidence that she died at the stake the very year François Villon, one of France’s greatest poets, was born.
Your latest book focuses on the lead up to Auguste Rodin’s monumental sculpture The Bourgeois of Calais. What made you choose Rodin rather than the other great sculptors of the period, artists such as Camille Claudel or Antoine Bourdelle? Why of all of Rodin’s works, did you choose to dwell on this particular sculpture?
Les Bourgeois de Calais is an overwhelming work whose power hasn’t faded for me over time. I knew that there was something raw and deep at the same time lying in wait for me in the enigma of this work. I asked myself how the vision for Les Bourgeois formed itself in Rodin’s mind, leading him to produce a sculpture that was both modern and accessible, how his reading of Froissart’s account of this episode from the beginning of the Hundred Year War, the capitulation of Calais to the King of England in 1347 and the sacrifice of six of his burghers so that their citizens would be spared had engendered this vision of six scantily-clothed men in bare feet, with a rope around their neck and their surprising postures, their troubling, heart-rending harmony. It’s the mystery of creation, which is particularly stunning in Rodin’s work. The word “genius” should be used with parsimony. Although Rodin was rather common in many other respects, he’s as close as it’s possible to be to a genius. The novel form allows one to reduce the distance between him and us, it makes him more amenable, I think. Camille Claudel and Bourdelle are also powerful and original, but Rodin was something of a precursor, a pioneer who first set foot on virgin soil. One of the difficulties in writing my novel was to feature Camille Claudel, his student and collaborator in the Les Bourgeois. Their destructive passion coincides with the gestation period of that particular work. It’s quite possible that their passion lent the work the intensity it has. At least, it’s possible to interpret it that way.
What aspect of Rodin’s art or his personality do you find the most intriguing?
He’s the prototype, it seems to me. His coming to maturity was slow, laborious, but once he hit his stride, past forty, he proved his originality, and it was radical. He was a convinced admirer of Ancient Greece, Michelangelo, Rude, Carpeaux, and yet it’s difficult to find predecessors who sculpted like him. He’s a pretty rare case, all the more remarkable when you consider that his personality was rather rough and rustic. The cultural varnish was very thin on him. With Rodin, you’re very close to the mystery of beauty, to man’s capacity to invent, to breathe life into inanimate matter. I’ve also published a novel about Claude Monet. He was a genius of a painter, but he was surrounded by a whole group of artists, the prodigious impressionist generation: Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro… Rodin was surrounded by admirers, assistants, disciples, but as an artist he was alone with his creation.
What was the greatest difficulty you encountered while writing Les Bourgeois de Calais?
Building up a story, a human adventure, whose work would not be a pretext or a decor, but the engine driving it all. The correspondence between Rodin and his patron, the Lord Mayor of Calais, Omer Dewavrin, and his wife, Léontine, gave me the elements I needed. Thanks to those letters, I was able to combine the elaboration of a masterpiece with the emergence of an improbable friendship between a couple of provincial bourgeois and an out-of-the-ordinary Parisian. As I said, the Bourgeois corresponds to the period in which he was passionately involved with Camille Claudel. I tried to give that relationship a place in the novel to show the young woman working on the clay modelling of the Bourgeois, but also the slowing down of the process because of conflict in the couple. But the Mayor of Calais, who notices and deplores the deleterious effects of the liaison, remains at the heart of the novel. He is the paradoxical hero and his wife gets the last say in the story.
What are the greatest pitfalls when writing a historical novel?
I will only speak of my own practice, the way I do things, without extrapolating. What counts most of course is the author’s world and his or her capacity to impart it to the reader, regardless of the genre. I’m careful not to introduce citations attributed to various historical figures because that doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit in with the tone I give my stories. There’s no dialogue in my novels. You have to be a particularly great novelist to pull that off; dialogue is generally artificial, too studied, it breaks the charm of the prose that may have managed to enchant the reader. Tolstoy is able to make Napoleon speak on the battlefield at Austerlitz, and it’s credible, but that’s Tolstoy. War and Peace seems to me to be the gold standard when it comes to history novels, which is to say that it’s a major genre. Tolstoy has absolute respect for historical truth, documented facts, which tends to give the novel great momentum instead of hampering it. Its force is immense. The fate of the characters is inscribed in the world’s forward march. It’s fascinating to follow them, to see how they managed to resolve their problems.
Do you think you will write novels about the present or the future at some point in your career?
I’m currently writing a novel that’s set in the 1960s, which for me is the contemporary period as I was a child in those days and I clearly remember that time. I remember the clothes, the way the streets looked, the songs you could hear on the radio, the faces you could see on television. But for the younger generations, that’s already history. Current affairs don’t awaken any longings in me to write. I like the past. It’s harmless since the harm is already done. But it leaves powerful figures in its wake, inspirational figures that transcend their time. I like being their contemporary for the duration of the text and I also love breathing life into them, to make them our contemporaries. In general, I don’t write in the present tense. The range of past tenses cast the story into sharp relief, they give the characters depth. They give you so many incomparable ways of nuancing things, ways to vary the lighting, to accelerate the tempo, slow it down, go back in time. The present tense is a bit like staying in the same gear for a professional cyclist. It gives you a great sense of instantaneousness and speed, but that’s it. The past tenses allow you to switch gears when you feel like it. They allow you to freewheel down from one valley into another whilst showing the background scenery. You go more slowly, but you really get to savour the landscapes.
Finally, can you tell us a little about your process? Do you write sitting or standing? Are you a night owl or an early bird? Do you use a computer or a pen?
I write sitting down in front of my laptop at every time of the day, depending on my free time or my need. Never after 8pm because of fatigue which brings down the quality of what you write. I prefer the light of day, the morning ideally, but I sometimes give in to fear of the blank page and resort to reading, DIY or gardening, so I often end up writing in the afternoon. When I get a spot of writer’s block, I go for a cycle around the countryside. There’s nothing that a little vigorous uphill peddling can’t fix, followed by a little freewheeling down a quiet country lane.
By Erik Martiny
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