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.
Muriel 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 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.
Again 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.”
When 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
The Life of Elves
by Muriel Barbery
One Man Show
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9782070428861 (French edition)
I Was Behind You
by Nicolas Fargues
A Short History of Decay
by Emil Cioran
Fits and Starts
by Andrew Johnston