So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston

I had heard of Nicolas Fargues, though I’d only read one of his books. Well, one and a half. You see his latest book, I Was Behind You, has finally been translated into English. Fingers crossed they’ll follow suit with the other 9. In particular One Man Show. I’ve heard so much about it, I even read a third of it with a friend when I was in Paris about a decade ago. The problem was he read so slowly it drove me batty! I wanted to sit and have him read it to me all at once; he wanted to do other things. Like leave the house. How rude. Alas Fargues’ writing is far above my rudimentary schoolgirl French.

elegance_of_the_hedgehogMuriel Barbery also writes beyond my level of comprehension, but at least she’s frequently translated. Her novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been translated into many languages, it’s a New York Times best seller and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Her latest novel, The Life of Elves has also been translated and just as Hedgehog made a delightful film, I believe Elves will, too.

Apart from the fact they’re both French, it would be hard to find two more different writers. Barbery writes in a delicate, pleasantly bubbling style of warm interactions and discoveries of human nature. Of secrets uncovered to unite and build. Fargues on the other hand, writes with a pen dripping in scorn and insolence. His characters are mean; taunting karma and enraging the fates. They’re opposing factions – darkness and light. Perhaps that’s why they were a good match for this session.

Chair Andrew Johnson started the sold-out discussion by asking about French stereotypes. What is with that bored, disaffected, malaise that the French seem to have perfected?
Barbery went first. “It’s because we believe we could all be kings. We are the best. We are never satisfied. We have an eternal desire to make others look and feel ridiculous.”

Fargues agreed meanness was at the centre of the French way. “It’s bitterness really. We are bitter. As a French man you cannot merely admire. We can admire, but there MUST be a but… Being completely full of joy is impossible.” Speaking of his time traveling, and of the number of young French people who would rather work in places like New Zealand, Australia or Canada making coffee than go home to France and the troubled culture there, he summed it up succinctly. “We are a rich country but we’re not happy.”

muriel_barberyMuriel Barbery also spoke of France in terms of its abundance of assets. “We have everything we need but we still want more. We are spoiled. We are like spoiled children. The rest of the world knows this more than we do I think.”

Barbery also spoke about Romanian writer Emil Cioran, who was as successful writing in French as he was in his native language. Citing the way he mastered the language and wrote with a fluid beauty that only non-native speakers can find, his subject matter was often of the nature of France and her people, their spiritual and cultural unrest and dissatisfaction. Harsh realities wrapped in exquisite words.

nicolas farguesAgain Fargues took a more direct approach.”I love my country but I don’t want to live there anymore. It’s like loving a member of your family who isn’t taking care of themselves anymore. It’s too hard. You are better to love them from afar.

“You (in New Zealand) believe in your commonwealth. All of the countries in the French Republic, all the overseas collectivités and territories believe in the republic. Except one. France! We mock how they speak French. We laugh at how they claim to be French. It is wrong. We are wrong.

“We are ready for a change.”

chanel allure homme adsWhen it comes to change, we all know that the polished creatures we meet at Writers Festivals didn’t start out that way. Not all, but most, had other professions when they began their writing careers.

Muriel Barbery taught philosophy at a university, then at a teachers college before dedicating herself to writing full time. Nicolas Fargues has worked as a journalist and ran Alliance Française in Madagascar for a period of time. He also – and this is the first time I’ve ever found an author with this on their resume – modelled for Chanel as the face of their Allure: pour homme fragrance back in 2002. (left)

Currently the writer in residence at Randell Cottage, in Thorndon, Wellington; Fargues is here until the end of June. From there he’s unsure where he will go, though Quebec sounds like a distinct possibility.  The one place he’s sure it won’t be is Paris.

“Paris Syndrome is a real thing.” says Muriel Barbery. “People arrive and they’re disappointed. It’s not like the books. Or the movies.”

Right on cue, as if an author had written it, a lady in the front row spoke up “You’re right. It’s just not as French anymore.”

And with a wry smile and a cocked eyebrow from the guests of honour, SO FRENCH came to an end, and so did my Writers Week for 2016. Bring on 2018!


So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston
2pm, Sunday 13 March, The Bats, Dome Theatre

The Elegance of the Hedgehog 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781933372600

The Life of Elves 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781609453152

One Man Show
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9782070428861 (French edition)

I Was Behind You 
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9781906548056

A Short History of Decay
by Emil Cioran
ISBN: 9781559704649

Fits and Starts
by Andrew Johnston
ISBN: 9781776560615

Novel Ways of Thinking: Muriel Barbery, Paula Morris, Patrick Gale, Joe Bennett

Paula Morris launched us straight into the middle of conversation, which is always an excellent way to begin a panel event.

muriel_barberyThis grouping of writers was quite random-seeming, but actually it turned out to be genius, with a great tension leading to conversation. Muriel Barbery has published three novels, all of which are translated from French to English. Patrick Gale has published 14 novels, diverse but with a family focus in common. Joe Bennett is on his first, from a background as a journalist and non-fiction writer. They were quite different personalities, and sometimes I wasn’t sure whether Bennett helped or hindered the conversation, but their perspectives were unique, and the session satisfied the packed-in audience.

The first topic she set these three, authors was this: where do stories begin, and how do they develop. All four of them, including Morris seem to loosely agree that the concept that a novelist suddenly gets struck like a lightning bolt by inspiration is not true. “Inspiration is where you end up at after all the hard work.”

elegance_of_the_hedgehogThere was a rumour begun by a British newspaper article about Barbery, that she lost the desire to write after The Elegance of the Hedgehog was such a big hit. She says, “This was a misunderstanding of what I said. It illuminates my life to write. I never lost that desire, but I lost the sparkle.” The conversation turned to when you know your book ought to be abandoned, or not. Barbery said “It doesn’t need to be abandoned if you get lost, if you don’t know where you are going. It is a very good sign when you have a feeling that you don’t control what is happening.”

Joe Bennett calls the novel “the highest form of prose.” He has always wanted to write one before he dies, and claims he feels close to death every morning. “If you are unaware of the impending axe, then you’re not really alive.” The others didn’t agree with that, and Barbery finished the train of thought by saying “I am French, so I am immortal.”

joe-bennettBennett heard the beginning of his story in the pub, from a mate, who claimed there was somebody living in the Grand Chancellor Hotel still, a month after the earthquake. He immediately had this image of this hobo in three complimentary dressing gowns working his way through the mini bars, from bottom to top. He wrote a column about it, but somebody at an event spurred him on “Why don’t you write a novel?” and told him that the man who became King Rich was a great character.

Patrick Gale, as I noted during his solo event, has no scruples about stealing stories from his own family. “If they hadn’t wanted me to write about them, they shouldn’t have told me stuff.” He usually doesn’t change names either, unless he is making them an antagonist. On inspiration he says, “I think of the stories as flies that you try to get away from. It’s the ones that stick that get written.”

toffee brownIt was at this point in the session we carried on to a passionate conversation between Patrick Gale and Muriel Barbery about stationary. Both of them, as it happens, write their first drafts long-hand, with a fountain pen, on white, lined paper. Patrick Gale has a specific fetish for “Pelican Toffee Brown”, because it has been proven that it is the colour that lasts longest. Barbery likes black ink on white paper, inspired by her time in Japan, and their beautiful calligraphy. While Barbery writes a full draft before typing it up, with part of the process being making up the words he can’t read, Barbery writes a chapter then types it up.

Gale says, “I write on paper because then you can see what you have crossed out. Sometimes your first though turns out to be better than the second.” Barbery says, “There is something rhythmic in the mind about writing and reading from the page that helps me figure out if I am doing it right.”

The inspiration by deadline is something Bennett, as a columnist, often has to work with. He needs the deadline, he says. “I wait until it’s impossible to write the book by that date, then I consider starting, and finish with 30 seconds to go.” Publishers are often perplexed to receive the draft on time, and he has learned since that novels don’t work the same way.

Barbery can’t work under pressure, but she has a publisher who understands. She says, “Strangely, I don’t write first to be read – I write because I need to.” She has to write completely freely – first, second, third, fourth drafts are all for her.

Paula Morris asked about how The Land of Elves, her latest book, was triggered – she was living in Japan, The Netherlands at the time. “There is always more than one trigger” says Barbery, “The gardens of Kyoto – through this artificial creation, you reach a feeling of nature that you have never had before.” Her husband commented that though entirely constructed, it was as though elves had created them – and The Land of Elves was born. She first wrote it as a script, before later, years later, being visited by the characters of the two girls that ultimately the story became about.

p_patrick_galeOn obsession, Gale remarked, “My editor dreads any of his writers going into therapy, as it might cure them of the need to write.” Looking at his backlist, he has discovered an obsession with brothers and sisters that he had been unaware of. He is close to his sister. Though he bases his novels on family stories frequently, he wouldn’t consider writing a memoir because “my novels allow me to be much more emotionally honest.”

The writers had varying thoughts about research. Gale always does it, Bennett didn’t for his novel (though must have for his non-fiction!), Barbery has only recently discovered the joy of research in the form of Taoist Chinese poetry.

This was a fascinating session. Where writers meet and diverge in intent and technique is endlessly interesting to me, and this is in part why I am an avid attendee of writer’s festivals. You will have the chance to see Muriel Barbery in action at ‘So French‘ tomorrow, while Paula Morris will be a panelist in ‘Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?‘, which is sure to be fascinating. Both at BATS.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Novel Ways of Thinking: Muriel Barbery, Patrick Gale, Joe Bennett with Paula Morris
BATS Theatre, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week, Wellington