Pierre Demarty is a French publisher, writer and translator. His first book was longlisted for the prestigious Médicis and Flore prizes. Erik Martiny speaks to him about his latest provocative novel Death to Giraffes.
Your latest novel, Mort aux girafes (Death to Giraffes), is composed of one two-hundred-page sentence. What motivated you to embark on such a risk-laden undertaking?
Answer #1 (pompous and quite possibly untrue): Life in general, and literature in particular, being utterly boring 97,6% of the time (according to a poll daily taken with myself), I thought it would be a fun thing to do to spice things up a bit.
Answer #2 (more plausible): I didn’t embark on any such thing to start with – more like, I eventually landed on it (or crashed, depending on your perspective). My initial purpose was to write a “regular” novel (whatever that means, and provided a work of fiction could be qualified with the same adjective routinely applied to a coffee-cup size), except it was all made up of completely different bits and pieces of stories that basically had no relation whatsoever to each other, and after a while I just got stuck with a big messy lump of unrelated fictional stuff that just didn’t go anywhere (which, granted, wasn’t such a big problem, as it should be apparent to even the most amateurish bookshop patron that 97,6% of writers nowadays couldn’t care less that their work isn’t making any sense or going anywhere, but I happen to be a bit anal when it comes to doing your best to stick to the 2,4% fringe). So: sigh. Then I had a kind of eureka while reading Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, who also wrote a one-sentence novel (except it’s a thousand pages long, so really I have nothing to brag about…). It gave me the idea to try and rewrite my own novel by stitching it all together into one sentence, and weirdly enough, or quite unexpectedly in any case, it did work, because grammar and syntax are fantastic tools with illimited powers that allow you to do pretty much whatever you want with any given sentence. Which means I could have gone on for another 2,378 pages like that, so I guess I should actually be commended for my extreme restraint and frugality.
Answer #3: I needed the money. (Still do. Thus my next novel will be made of 50,000 one-word sentences.)
Do you see the book as a Oulipean experiment?
I take this question as the highest possible compliment, being a great admirer of the OuLiPo. Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud, in particular, are long-time heroes of my own personal literary pantheon. Then again, I never consciously wanted to do something Oulipean per se (although I must confess I am indeed a bit peeved that Anne Garreta hasn’t contacted me yet to offer me a membership card). Also, there was no real “constraint” to speak of, no mathematical game or anything like that; quite the contrary – this “experiment”, which wasn’t even one to start with, only appears as such to the reader because it is indeed unusual for a novel to be comprised of a single sentence (though not that unusual, actually – google it and see for yourself, there have been illustrious precedents). What I think makes my book Oulipean, if anything, is first and foremost its (attempt at) humour – something that is quintessential to the OuLiPo and that is appallingly lacking in today’s literature (and in life in general, if you ask me, for reasons I can’t fathom (maybe because the world is slowly but surely coming to an end and people don’t think there’s cause for laughter? (Ah! humanity, like my good ole pal Herm used to say…))).
Who are the Anglophone writers you love the most?
I wish I could give you a more original, less consensual answer, but the first name that pops to my mind is Philip Roth. His 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater especially. Among less dead writers, I am a huge fan of George Saunders.
Although it is obviously playful, the title of Death to Giraffes looks as if it’s thumbing its nose at the environmental movement. What do you think of green activism in general?
I’m afraid I don’t think anything at all about green activism. It’s wrong, I know, but “green” and “activism” are two words that just fail to inspire any interesting thoughts in me. I guess I’m more a blue and passivism kind of guy.
About that title, though: it could indeed be construed as a kind of provocation, but once you’ve read the whole thing you realize the giraffes in question are not real, environmental giraffes… I have nothing against real giraffes, despite the fact that they are almost as ridiculous animals as we are, only much taller and purple-tongued.
Do green themes mix well with the novel in your experience?
“Green” does not mix well with anything in my experience as a human being. We are, deep down, decidedly red creatures. More to the point, I feel rather inclined to disregard any novel that intends to tackle a theme, be it green or yellow or rainbowy or caca-d’oie or what have you. I don’t think a novel should even have a theme, or, you know, “something to say.” Art, in general, should be something, not be about something.
Saying this suggests you have a very Beckettian approach to the art of fiction. Does that not make it difficult to find writers you appreciate in your work as a publisher?
It does indeed! But I think it makes it all the more challenging, interesting, and valuable. I like the idea that finding a book you truly love or admire (and are hence able to defend in all honesty) should be a rare occurrence. You can’t love too many writers, just as you can’t fall in love with too many people in one’s given lifetime. However, I’m more liberal and open-minded as a publisher than I am as a reader – at least I hope so. Still, when it comes to taste, to me it’s all about selecting, and I think one should stick to the highest possible personal standards. Publish what you want – not what people supposedly want (whatever “people” means and provided anyone, themselves included, would even be able to tell you what they want).
There’s a touch of Waiting for Godot black humour in your book. Do you feel close to Beckett or is he just someone you read in your youth?
I did read Beckett (and see his plays on stage, too, which is another experience altogether), but not in my youth, thank goodness! Beckett is like whisky – something that is best appreciated when you’ve gone through your own maturing process. I do feel very close to his peculiar brand of humour, and his somewhat pessimistic vision of human existence does resonate with me… However, his literary strategy in face of life’s bleakness is almost the opposite of mine: Beckett aims at emptiness and silence; I’m more interested in filling the void with an excess of language (so, maybe more Joyce than Beckett, after all). In the end, anyway, the result is the same, I guess: whether you don’t say much or talk too much, nothing ultimately remains but our laughable meaninglessness. In that particular department, one has to admit it’s difficult to beat Beckett. Kafka, too, was pretty good at being hilariously depressing. Houellebecq can also be quite inspired at this little game, occasionally, when he’s not too lazy to be bothered.
One does get the strong impression that you’re a maximalist alright. Your narrative seems to skitter almost dizzyingly in every direction. One area that doesn’t get much coverage though is sex. There’s a tendency among maximalist “baroque” writers to wax lyrical when it comes to the body. Does sexuality not inspire you in a literary way? Or is it that you observe what the critic Al Alvarez called “the gentility principle”?
Sex is getting so much coverage everywhere, I’m not sure fiction is the ideal place to deal with this topic. I’m personally quite reluctant when it comes to writing about it, not because I don’t think it is interesting, nor because of that “gentility principle” you’re mentioning (which I was not aware of, and I do not think a writer should ever be “gentle”), but because I feel you’re almost always doomed to fail: lest you’re Rabelais, or Philip Roth, or James Joyce, you end up being just vulgar most of the time – or mundane, which is possibly even worse. However, I do feel there is a kind of eroticism in language itself, so I’m more interested in exploring that “sextuality”, so to speak.
It strikes me that you write in a manner that critics identify as postmodernist. Does this descriptive label mean anything to you and do you feel close to the so-called American postmodernist writers of the 1960s (those who like John Barth revel in a kind of cheerful pessimism)?
“Postmodernism” strikes me as an already outdated concept, and I don’t think labels of that kind are very helpful or enlightening, at least for writers. When you write, you don’t think about the category critics or readers will assign you to. I have a hard time adhering to the idea of “experimental” writing – because any literary endeavour, by definition, already is or should be an experiment. Yet I wouldn’t be offended to be labelled as “postmodernist”: it is something I was interested in at some point in my studies and I do feel close to it, but mainly in the sense that I have a natural defiance when it comes to naturalism or realism. In that respect, I guess I’m more familiar with the specifically French variant of the postmodernist virus, such as it was exemplified in the past by what was called the “Nouveau Roman”.
Could you tell us a little about your latest literary projects? What do we have to look forward to?
Here’s the problem: I wake up every day with a brilliant idea for a novel that will no doubt create a major revolution in the art of fiction. Between two minutes and six hours later, alas, I realize it was an utterly stupid idea (and/or someone else has already written it, and/or I don’t believe in revolution). So I’m sorry but nothing to look forward to right now. I’m not even sure I’ll ever write something again. I’m in a what’s-the-point phase when it comes to writing. But who knows? Le Roi vient quand il veut…
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