Erik Martiny

‘Why I’m pleased humour isn’t taken seriously as an art form’ — an interview with author Fabrice Caro 

Author Fabrice Caro (aka Fabcaro) is a renowned French novelist and comic strip writer, known in particular for signature books like Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï. His latest novels Le Discours (The Speech) and Broadway have garnered praise across the Channel, with the former recently adapted for the screen. I speak to the author about the relationship between his prose works and visual art, comedy as a serious literary genre, and his thoughts on Oulipian techniques and writing to artificial constraints. 

Your novels are published in a pioneering collection directed by Thierry Laroche at Gallimard: the collection, called Sygnes, focuses on authors with diverse backgrounds in film, the visual arts, music, poetry, children’s literature. Your own background is in comic strips: do you feel influenced by the aesthetics of that art form when you write your novels?

Not that much. Novel writing and comic strips are two different worlds, hence the difference in signature between Fabcaro and Fabrice Caro, though of course you find a bit of my style in both. I have two distinct approaches to writing. I’d even say that one is the opposite of the other: my comic strips are elliptical, focused on immediate effects and humour in particular. I’m down to the bone, so to speak. My desire to write novels came from a certain frustration with regard to words. I wanted to write things that I couldn’t really fit into comic strips. My novels allow me to explore personal feelings. Humour isn’t my number one priority any longer, even though I hope my novels are still funny. I actually feel closer to film when I’m writing novelistic prose.

What films do you have in mind?

Oh, no films in particular, just cinema in general. There are totems I often return to. Often these aren’t even comedies. I’m much taken with films by Fellini, Lynch, Godard, Carax, Bunuel, all those filmmakers who inspire artistic freedom and a desire to experiment and toy with narrative form. And of course a good deal of Woody Allen who I always forget to cite. He’s accompanied me my whole life.

Your novels don’t seem particularly cinematic. Like your comic strips, the background is often left empty. Action is reduced to a bare minimum. Visuals don’t seem to play a large role in your novels. Your narrations are very interiorised, a characteristic that sets the novel forma part from cinema. That being said, directors have asked to film your stories. An adaptation of your novel Le Discours (The Speech) is coming out in movie theatres in coming weeks (coronavirus permitting).

Yes, that’s true, I’m not a very graphic author. I tend to favour narration above graphics and my drawing is usually there to serve the story. That being said, a narrative technique I often use is the cinematic fixed shot. In my drawings I use the sequence shot I love so much more than the toing and froing of reverse angle shots. And it’s true that background settings don’t really interest me that much, as I generally focus on human intimacy in my stories. I prefer to focus more on the characters than on settings, which I find tend to perturb the reader’s concentration. But strangely, yes, my work seems to interest filmmakers. Every time I’ve been approached for adaptations, I had the same reaction of surprise: ‘Really? Are you sure? I can’t see how you could adapt it, you know.’ I’m not the best promoter of my work…  

Has Anglo-Saxon humour had an impact on the way you write comedy?

Oh, yes. I’m a great fan of nonsense. I’ve often said that there really isn’t a culture of absurdism in France, but I’m beginning to reconsider that opinion with the number of French readers who have given me positive feedback on my work. I often cite Monty Python, of course, my masters in nonsense, and Woody Allen, but I think the real revelation when it comes to absurd humour was my discovery of the filmmakers Zucker-Abraham-Zucker. I was a teen the first time I saw Airplane! It wasn’t just that I was weeping with laughter; something within me kept raising the question ‘Are you allowed to do that?!’ It was a real epiphany for me, that you could go that far into absurdity and play with the very rules of the medium.

Do you feel that the French cultural scene rejects comedy as a serious literary genre?

Definitely, and not just in literature, comedy is thought less of in all the arts. Humour has always been the poor relative of the art world. In the collective unconscious, humour is perceived as a form that lacks seriousness. I personally feel that humour is one of the most serious things around. I always come back to a quote by Fred, the author of the very poetic comic strip Philémon, which I read as a teenager. It has stayed with me ever since: quipping on Georges Clemenceau’s famous phrase, he wrote ‘Humour is something too serious to be given to funny guys. That being said, it sounds like I’m deploring the fact that humour is deemed unworthy of serious consideration as an art form, when, in all honesty, I think I’m actually quite pleased that that’s the case. As long as it’s not taken seriously, you can say whatever you want. When you have nothing to lose, you can do whatever you like. It’s the freedom of outsiders. If you want to live well, remain unheeded.

You say that you can do anything you like in the field of humour. Don’t you find that the current cultural climate imposes strict limitations on the purview of comedy? Frédéric Beigbeder suggests in L’homme qui pleure de rire (Man Crying with Laughter) that nowadays you can only afford to laugh about yourself, which you do so jubilantly in your novels.

It’s true, nowadays you tell yourself that the slightest off-colour joke is going to send associations up in arms. I’ve had to deal with offended complaints in the past. I tend to think ‘So what, they’re not going to stop me. Humour allows you to enjoy absolute freedom. If you let go of that freedom, you’re gone. It’s really a personal issue. I tend not to like mocking humour, the kind of humour that pitches people against each other. I don’t laugh at people, but with them. Humour has to be a kind of bond, not a form of aggression. Which doesn’t mean you can’t go the whole hog. You can be pretty mordant as long as you’re reaching out a hand. There’s a way of doing it, at least that’s what I need to believe. Especially as you say, I am my own first target, and I do tend to hit the bull’s eye there. You can laugh about anything as long as you laugh about yourself also. As long as you’re able to hear people laughing about you. Otherwise, it would be like a boxing match in which one of the boxers says, ‘I’m allowed to hit you, but you can’t hit me, OK?’ It wouldn’t exactly be very fair. No one will ever put me down as much as I do myself, which is why no other criticism affects me. They’re usually much softer than the kind of criticism I level at myself.

The French writer Céline is one of the few recent comic writers who is accepted as a canonical author in France. You refer to him in your latest novel Broadway. Have you read a lot of Céline?

Haha, comic? Really? I was lucky enough to discover his books by chance, around the age of 18, long before I knew about the man behind the work who isn’t exactly recommendable. This allowed me to read him with a virginal eye, without the bitter aftertaste. Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) was a real slap in the face for the eighteen-year-old kid I was then. I went on to read Mort à crédit (Death on Credit) which I also adored. I later took an interest in the man himself and I must say that kind of ruined the party for me. No matter how much you try to maintain a distance from the facts, you can’t really read Céline the same way after knowing he was a ferocious anti-Semite.

Can you tell us which authors had the most influence on your novelistic work?

Oh, that really depends on the period. My desire to write my first novel, to dive in there and do nothing came when I was in my early twenties, at a time when I was enthralled by authors that talked about their own lives and their condition as writers in a more or less autobiographical manner. I’m thinking of Bukowski, Miller, Calaferte, Djian, Brautigan, Fante… All that romantic iconography of the hard-up writer with the worn-out corduroy pants, hammering away at his old typewriter, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer sent me off in a daydream. I wanted to be like them – what a fantasy. I had even bought an old typewriter in a garage sale, at a time when everyone had started to use word-processors. That’s the kind of culture that forged me. After that, I read a lot of things in pretty much every style, and I loved those too of course. Among contemporary French writers, I often cite François Weyergans, Grégoire Bouillier, Philippe Jaenada, Eric Reinhardt…

What are the comic strip authors who mean the most to you?

Again, that depends on the different periods of my life. My first major influences as a child were Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke. As a teenager, I discovered Gotlib, my master. That was another real slap in the face in terms of graphics and narrative. The Fluide Glacial school, Edika, Goossens, Blutch. Later still, at the end of the nineties and the start of the next century, independent publishers like L’association, with authors like Trondheim or Menu, made me want to return to comic strips with their more intimate stories. I discovered you didn’t have to be a virtuoso draughtsman in the classical style, that you could explore more personal material.

You tease the Oulipo group in your latest novel Broadway. Would you like to belong to a literary club of that kind or do you situate yourself at the opposite end of the spectrum to literature that uses artificial constraints? You seem to like freedom so much.

Oh, I wasn’t really teasing them. It was more of a nod in their direction. I like Oulipo at lot and I know Hervé Le Tellier a little and like his work too. Generally speaking, though, I don’t like the idea of belonging to any kind of group. I’m too much of a bear for that. But yes, of course, Oulipo’s work is fascinating and I love literary constraints, because they’re playful and my priority, when it comes to writing, is having fun. There’s no point in writing otherwise. I find that paradoxically the more the stricter and tighter the constraint, the more freedom you have because you go and look for unusual angles and resources you wouldn’t otherwise have looked for. It’s the same when it comes to writing in school. There’s nothing worse than an open topic, when the teacher says ‘Write about anything you like, a pleasant memory…’ That’s like falling into an abyss. It’s stifling not to have any constraints to work with – at least in art. In real life, it’s the opposite…

If you had to choose a constraint for a Oulipo project, what would it be?

It wouldn’t be a literary constraint, based on language, like Georges Perec’s La disparition (The Disappearance, a novel written entirely without the letter ‘e’). I’d be more interested in a narrative constraint, a very restricted location or a short time frame. A novel about a ride in an elevator with two people who don’t know each other for instance. I’d love to do that.

Could you give us an idea of your next novelistic adventures?

No, I have no idea what they’ll be. At the moment, I’m working on a comic strip album that I’ll have finished in a few months, if everything goes well. After that, I’ll start thinking about a new topic for a novel. I love those periods of reflection, when you’re looking for a subject, an angle, a frame of mind is going to dwell in you and carry you for a few months of writing. It’s always a very exciting period, though also a little anxiety-inducing. You always say to yourself ‘What if I don’t find an exciting subject?’ Because that’s what keeps you going. Excitement is the driving force behind it all. You need to find an idea that you want to amuse yourself with for five or six months without getting bored.

Interview by Erik Martiny.

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