Interviewed by Edward Gauvin
Regarding “A Guide to Famous Stabbings,” did you know how the story would end when you began?
As usual, no. One has the impression short stories are sufficiently short that writers know their endings before starting out—that in fact they must know—but in reality this isn’t always the case. An idea for an ending often comes along in the process of composition—that, or an idea other than the one you had in mind comes along and proves superior. Ah, the mysteries of writing…
Are there other entries on other stabbings that were, so to speak, cut?
No: as far as I can remember, I used all the material I had at hand. If some names weren’t used, it was because I didn’t have enough information on the circumstances of the crime to make an entry from it, and didn’t want to make an effort to learn more.
What was Vila-Matas’s reaction to this story? Did you wind up meeting, thanks to it?
Enrique Vila-Matas and I never specifically discussed this story, but I know he learned of its existence and read the collection. (He mentions it in his book Dietario voluble.) I was merely forwarded an email he’d written to someone I knew, written in his broken French (though his broken French is still better than my Spanish), in which he asserts that, contrary to what I suggest, Robert Derain isn’t imaginary at all. As for the rest, we’ve never met in person. In fact, he and I have a sort of knack for visiting the same place in turn without ever managing to meet: we’ll have signings in the same bookstore two days apart, we’ll be at a book fair without running into each other, etc. I suppose we’ll wind up next to each other by accident in a subway car, or at the zinc bar in a café; then we’ll each laugh silently at the coincidence, pretending all the while not to recognize each other.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Ingenious solutions to seemingly insoluble premises are frequent in your tales, for example, in the “Guide”—as well as in the collection’s title story, “Fear of the First Line”, which also features the ubiquitous Mr. Gould. Where do you get your gift for paradox, which leads so rigorously to fearsome endgames?
Paradoxes, games of logic, reversals, shifts and sidesteps—that’s what it’s all about. I imagine my stories are convoluted mathematical equations I have to push on toward solving by tugging gently on a string. My plots often come to me via mental operations. For example, in my second collection, Contes carnivores [Flesh-eating Fictions], I invented the story of an Argentine bishop who had two bodies, the extra one of which was of no use to him and a great burden besides, since his soul could only inhabit one body at a time. The idea for this story came to me while reading Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, a reversal of its plot: instead of two souls in a single body, two bodies for a single soul. In short, a logical inversion. I love paradoxes, M. C. Escher drawings, metaphysical dizzy spells like those Borges imagines, etc.
Pierre Gould seems a metamorphic, Protean character—most frequently a writer, of course, but also a neighbor, a curator, an editor, and a graduate student. What are your plans for him?
Gould started out as little more than a mindless joke: I found it amusing to include a multiform character whose name never changed, without saying if it was the same person, or a different one. I was thinking of the Tex Avery cartoon where the wolf, no matter where he goes, inevitably runs into Droopy…. Later, Gould, by dint of being used, took shape a bit more in my mind: he turned into a sort of Anglomaniac, book-loving dandy, with a tweed suit and the habits of a confirmed bachelor, and all sorts of more or less supernatural loopiness in store. I carried him over into my second collection, where an entire short story is devoted to his adventures (“The Extraordinary Pierre Gould”), and will soon devote an entire collection to him, which will consist of a trip to an imaginary bookstore.
Your stories run the gamut of the fantastique, from traditional supernatural tales (“The Watering Can,” “The Intruder,” “The Stowaway of the Mataroa”) to Borgesian paradoxes and more experimental structures (“Trades,” “Quick Studies”), stopping to enthrone Marcel Aymé in the Pantheon along the way (“In My Wall”). What would you say is the current state of the fantastique? As a literary journalist who frequently reviews new books, what place does the fantastique have in current French letters?
A difficult question. Personally, I opt for a narrow definition covering only the classical fantastique of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which an average, ordinary individual is confronted with some incredible phenomenon. In this sense, Dr. Jekyll (mentioned earlier) is a tale of the fantastique; many of Borges’s stories are not. The trouble with my definition is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that the fantastique has evolved a great deal in the 20th century, and hung around with other genres I’m equally fond of: the absurdist humor of Alphonse Allais, surrealism, para-Borgesian metaphysical meditations, the “tale” in its popular form (Marcel Aymé, my revered master), Kafka’s existential anguish, etc. Let us say the label fantastique has grown elusive, and come to pervade all literature. (I think Sartre wrote some things about this around 1960, but I haven’t read them.) Some of my stories fall under the rubric of the fantastique in a strict, traditional sense, since I was aiming to return to a genre completely ignored in contemporary French literature. (Some have even claimed it’s anachronistic, since for our forebears of the late 19th century it was a way of expressing their fears and speaking of taboos by invoking the supernatural, and psychoanalysis now allows us to express these fears and taboos—that’s what Todorov says, at least. It may be true, but not enough to keep me from reading and trying to write tales of the fantastique. Besides, a globalized, rationalized, standardized 21st century produces as many if not more fears as the positivist, materialist 19th century the romantics and early writers of the fantastique faced. Same causes, same effects: I concluded that the fantastique was not anachronistic, and even necessary today.) Other stories of mine are less easily classified, and perhaps best fit in such boxes as “bizarre,” “eccentric,” “strange,” etc. Boxes which—to respond to the second half of your question—are quite empty today: I don’t get the impression that the fantastique is much valued in contemporary French literature. Autobiography, intimism, psychology, and trifling love stories set among the rich of Saint-Germain are preferred instead. Novels are also preferred to stories. As a result, I feel quite alone—and I like it that way.
What’s your take on the fantastical tradition known as the “Belgian School of the Bizarre” (L’École belge de l’etrange)? Are you part of it?
My relations with Belgian writers of the fantastique are somewhat…bizarre. When I started writing fantastical tales, I knew nothing, or almost nothing about them. Then, when I published my first collection, I was told: “This one’s like X, that one’s like Y,” X and Y being Belgian like me. Lo and behold, it was so. Same with my second collection. “This is like W, that’s like Z.” Lo and behold again, it was so. In hindsight, I discovered an unwitting and patriotic cousinhood with Michel de Ghelderode (Sortilèges), Marcel Mariën (Le fantôme du château de cartes), Jacques Sternberg (Contes glacés), Marcel Thiry (Nouvelles du grand possible—I even received the prize that bears his name, given by the town of Liège!), etc. Apart from a genetic predisposition, I have no other explanation for the fact that I’m so like these authors who couldn’t have influenced me, since I only read them after I wrote my stories. Or—with analogy to the idea of “plagiarism by anticipation” recently advanced by critic Pierre Bayard—I was the victim of a kind of “retrospective influence”: that is to say, I was influenced by these authors before reading them. It’s quite possible.
You live in France, where Belgian writers traditionally expatriate themselves in a bid for cultural legitimacy. Do you consider yourself more a Belgian writer or a French writer? Or doesn’t this distinction matter as much as it once did in the French-speaking world? Is it no longer an issue for your generation?
To be honest, I’ve never asked myself this question, and don’t give it much importance. (The fact that I live in France is pure chance, and wasn’t my doing.) But even so, since I am asked, I’d say I’m Belgian, for several reasons: 1) because it’s nice being Belgian among the French (in the same way it’d be nice to be French among Belgians, I suppose), 2) because there’s a kind of grandeur in declaring yourself a citizen of a country that claims to be endangered, and 3) to highlight my distant cousinhood with great Belgian literature of the fantastic and the paintings of Magritte.
Tell us a bit about the mysterious heresines (in the story of the same name), which recall Legos but also serve as a metaphor for our encounters with art: a short story, for example, never reads the same way twice, or produces exactly the same experience. So it is with the heresines. Where did you get the idea for these inimitable objects?
Imagine that: until quite recently, I’d never realized that my heresines were in fact a perfect metaphor for our experience of art, or the (re)reading of a book: it’s always the same book, but we always see something new in it. (As Barthes said of Proust: it’s marvelous—every time you read it you skip over different parts.) In writing “The Heresines,” I stuck to a much more basic stage, that of the fascination impossible objects exert on us, like those in Escher’s prints. The heresines are meant to look like wooden Legos, or the Kapla planks I played with for years. But every structure you make with them is unique, and can’t be reproduced—an absurd phenomenon, of course. I don’t remember how I came up with the idea anymore.
Keaton or Chaplin?
Like everyone, I’ve a soft spot in my heart for Chaplin, but definitive and unconditional admiration for Keaton, so: Keaton, my general!
Bernard Quiriny’s story “A Guide to Famous Stabbings,” translated from the French by Edward Gauvin, appears in Subtropics 9.