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Today’s guest is poet, novelist, playwright, feminist theorist, literary critic, and philosopher Hélène Cixous. Perhaps best known for her iconic 1976 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous thought for much of her writing life that she would never write about her birthplace and childhood in Algeria, that she would never write about her mother, that she would never write about, let alone go to, the German town of Osnabrück from which her mother and mother’s mother escaped (to Algeria) before the town’s entire Jewish population were murdered. But in the last thirty years, to her surprise, these have increasingly become the topics of her work. First writing about and returning to Algeria, and then, in the last twenty years, writing an increasing number of remarkable books about Osnabrück, her mother’s life there, her mother’s return to that city, Cixous’ “return” to it, as well as about her mother’s ultimate expulsion, the second of her life, now from Algeria. We focus today on two of these books, these novel-memoirs: Well-Kept Ruins and Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem.
This strain of Cixous’ work, her novel-memoirs, are not books of autofiction like we’ve come to know them. Yes, they blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction but they are as concerned with the borderlands between the conscious and unconscious, waking life and dreams, between history and memory, and literature, imagination and experience, where the present moment in one of these narratives is likely to be inhabited, at the same time, by the seen, the imagined, the dead, and the literature one has read. In her latest book Cixous describes writing as a form of archaeology, historical and literary and ancestral, yes, but I think we could say it is also a psychological archaeology as well, a relation of the writer to her writing and herself.
Today’s contribution to the bonus audio archive is a long-form conversation with Cixous’ longstanding translator Beverley Bie Brahic. It is an in-depth conversation about the pleasures and challenges of translating Cixous’ work that also, additionally, further illuminates Cixous as a person and writer, adding further texture and nuance to the main conversation with Hélène. To learn how to get access to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of joining the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter head over to the show’s Patreon page.
Finally here is the Bookshop for today’s episode.