Erik Martiny

An Interview with Quentin Leclerc 


Quentin Leclerc is an up-and-coming author, one of the rising stars of Les Editions de L’Ogre, an indie French publisher that prizes linguistic creativity. I interviewed him about his latest novel and an iconoclastic manifesto he wrote with author Fabien Clouette.

With the Breton author Fabien Clouette, you penned a playful literary manifesto called SPEEDBOAT. The manifesto imagines Gallimard and Grasset, the two most prominent publishing companies in France, being turned into beach rackets. Establishment writers are also made fun of in hilarious ways (Pierre Michon is for instance repurposed as a video game). You also fantasize about drones crashing into the venue where the Goncourt prize is awarded. Can you give us a gist of the kind of literature you seek to promote?

SPEEDBOAT was written as a call for something that doesn’t exist: texts that we still don’t know about, texts that exist in a larval state in the minds of unknown writers. It was a way of reaching out, a way of saying: we need something else, even if we don’t know what exactly.

You’ve translated the Middle West American author Mike Kleine and you’ve said he has had a strong influence on your writing. What aspects of his fiction enthral you particularly?

Mike isn’t in my view a virtuoso author, but his tools are ultimately rare in the context of French literature. These rarities include: a pronounced interest in elision, a succinctness in conveying ideas, a mysterious indeterminacy in the intentions of the characters, an interleaving of all kinds of references from elite and popular culture (those that belong to his generation), as well as the constant interaction between the numinous and the prosaic.

He’s part of a contemporary stylistic trend that reaches through Bret Easton Ellis, Tao Lin, Roberto Bolano and other writers of that ilk, but although he doesn’t hide his sources, he has a very distinctive voice. It’s literature that functions on two levels: although it seems straightforward, it’s the kind of writing that can give you a sense of vertigo.

The prose in your latest novel Rivage au Rapport (Rivage Reporting) has some affinities with Hemingway’s plain style. Do you generally feel closer to Anglophone literature than you do to French literature?

Yes, in the last few years, I definitely feel closer to American literature. Just to quote a few American writers who have had a particular influence on me: Dennis Cooper, David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo (especially from Players to White Noise), Ballard (his Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights period, the Crash period leaves me a little indifferent), Ann Quin, George Saunders, Peter Sotos and Sampson Starkweather. So mostly literature from the end of the twentieth century and contemporary works.

All very different authors, but I find in their style a texture, a physicality that I have found nowhere else. Their relationship to cultural reference is worn on their sleeve and seamlessly woven into the language they use. They have fewer scruples about calling a spade a spade.

There’s also a form of malaise that fascinates me, be it social, political or personal. I have the feeling that they go down winding paths towards a mystical destination which I am myself searching for.

I’m terrible when it comes to speaking of my influences.

I was also reminded of Jean Echenoz when reading your book. Do you feel a kinship with the authors published by Les Editions de Minuit?

I started taking an interest in contemporary literature when I went to university. The books published by Les Editons de Minuit were my first great points of reference.

My relationship to some books was bulimic, especially when it came to novels by Echenoz, Pinget, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Simon, Duras, Duvert and Redonnet. I read all their works. What remained with me is a distanced relationship to the world (the characters, landscape, situations), a form of cold, omniscient, analytic irony. 

In Rivage au rapport, I tried to steer clear of this shortcoming to reach a more obvious form of empathy. Making my characters speak honestly, without irony, without any critical distance was hard for me. There’s a chapter towards the end of the novel in which Rivage and Sam Delta speak of their friendship. It was one of the most difficult chapters for me to write. The more playful chapters came to much more spontaneously.

But I don’t want my characters to be soulless. It always pains me when I read that some critic says something to that effect.

A last word on the Editions de Minuit: I have to say I find their latest books devoid of interest, both those written by the new generation and those of the 1980s and 90s (Mauvignier, Chevillard, Echenoz, Toussaint, Viel, etc.) The writers published in that imprint tend to end up writing pastiche of their own work, books in which mystery and adventure have disappeared.

Do you mean they write repetitive pastiches of their own work or the house style of Les Editions de Minuit?

Both. Those who began writing in the 1980s and 90 s have started writing pastiche of their own work. And the new generation writes in the Minuit style, which means that in the end they all write the same way.

Would you consider your latest novel a parody of a detective/crime novel or a distanced dismantling of that genre?

I think Rivage au rapport is less a parody of a crime novel than a straightforward detective novel. It borrows a lot of the characteristics of detective fiction from authors like Manchette, Siniac, Hammet, Simenon, Chandler.

For instance the use of rapid story-telling (I reread pages of Red Harvest a few months ago, a book that is very fast-paced), the avoidance of psychology, the presence of murder, shootouts, a clueless detective inspector, plentiful allusions (in Manchette there are always very precise descriptions of gun types and cars), humour, plot twists, a seedy atmosphere with plotting and manipulation, etc.

And I didn’t steer away from any of these features. Or rather, I didn’t pretend to write a detective novel. My aim was to include all the usual effects found in a traditional crime novel. But it’s a detective novel written with the tools at my disposal as a young writer, so the stakes, the characters and the surroundings diverge from 1930s noir.

I would say that the distinctiveness of my idea lies in the way the investigation moves forward towards its final resolution. But that’s already something that you find in Twin Peaks: Laura Palmer’s death isn’t just her death, and identifying the murderer isn’t the whole point of the story. There’s something that deeper lying behind it.

In Rivage au rapport, Rivage and Copperfield think that the problem, the stakes of their investigation, stops at the murderer, whereas the investigators of the Minecraft forum (Peter Fire, m444rc, diegoSSIMO, etc.) intuit instantly that there’s something else lurking behind it all. And that’s what they are after. The murderer is of no consequence to them.

They’re attracted, obsessed by what comes next.

I think it’s a way for me to say that an understanding of reality is of necessity something subterranean, a form of destructive chaos. 

But you do kill off your two lead detectives which is breaking one of the main rules of the genre. Did you do that with William Faulkner’s premise in mind (that a writer should kill off all his darlings)?

Copperfield dies, but Rivage doesn’t: he leaves on a rocket for Pluto. The scene is to be understood literally, it isn’t a metaphor. What happens to them beyond that I don’t know. All I know is that Rivage doesn’t die.

I don’t know Faulkner well, and I didn’t know that principle. I think that in Sorokine’s Novel, the hero ends up killing everyone with an axe. In 300 000 000 by Blake Butler there’s also a willingness to slaughter all the characters.

Copperfield’s death scene was very painful to write, so I’m not in favour of killing off characters as a rule. I was so happy to find another way out for Rivage. In general, I’m pleased when my characters make it out alive, which is actually what happens in the cartoon Peter Fire, when the dead come back to life.

Rivage, the leading officer in charge of the investigation, has a slightly teenage mentality (he ineffectually plays a video game as Copperfield, his partner, is driving to the crime scene). The book often reads like a parody to me. Were you just being comic, rather than parodic?

I would say mostly that Rivage’s vocation isn’t really inspecting. He used to sell chips in Portobello and I think he was very happy with that life too.

He looks away from his problems. It’s one of his character traits, not to want to look truth in the eye (when it comes to the investigation, his friendships, the murderers, etc.) He always finds a way of doing something else: playing, walking the dog, make inconsequential statements out of the blue.

He’s a foil for Copperfield who has an intense longing to know the truth.

Their final trajectories underline this: Rivage flees into space because he hasn’t got the courage to view the world as it is, and Copperfield dies on the cusp of the final revelation.

As for being parodic, I would say that detective novels are constructed around a certain number of inescapable elements: the discovery of the body, interrogation scenes, car chases, confrontations, meals in a restaurant, etc. There are lots of key scenes.

I’ve seen so many of these clichés that it’s hard to by-pass such scenes; but these clichés allow the characters to experience things sincerely, as honest characters in ordinary situations.

One of the major uncertainties in the novel comes from that: the characters are frank, but the world isn’t at all.

Can you tell us a little about your latest projects?

I’m working on the sequel, Casca et la couronne (Casca and the Crown), which I hope to finish in coming months.

Interview by Erik Martiny

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