David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Julie Myerson’s Nonfiction: A Novel that explores maternal love as an emotional foundation to both crave and fear, a story of damage and addiction, recovery and creativity, compassion and love. Nonfiction: A Novel is an unflinching account of a mother, daughter, wife, and author reckoning with the world around her. Called “powerful and utterly compelling” by Sarah Waters and “glitteringly painful” by Rachel Cusk, Myerson’s novel asks, “Can a writer ever be trusted with the truth of her own story?” Nonfiction: A Novel is available now from Tin House. I am unusually attracted to conversations with writers like Mathias Énard, not only because he himself has thought so deeply about his books and not only because his protagonists are often deep thinkers, curious people, people seeking encounter and pursuing meaning making in some way but also because his books have a politics or ethos that is related to questions of the other, and otherness, often related to the artificial boundary between the Occident and the Orient, and the ways they are actually, in his mind, co-constructed and interdependent, each found within the other, an ethos written against the more common and reflexive way that the Arab and Muslim world is treated as alien, foreign, and irredeemably other by Europe and also because he’s a lover of forms, and somehow his use of forms, instead of becoming constraints, somehow unleashes a literary freedom for him, even as he pays homage to non-normative literary forms in Arabic, French, or Spanish literature in the process. As an example of his roving mind, today’s conversation touches on everything from scandalous Polish anthropologists to the Buddhist Wheel of Time from Jewish undertaker guilds to what it means to be a microhistorian and what implications that has for what and how one writes. If you enjoy today’s conversation or if you’ve enjoyed others before today, perhaps one of your New Year’s resolutions will be to join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter, every supporter at every level of support gets the resource email with each episode full of the video, audio, and written work that I discovered while preparing for the conversation and that we referenced during it, which in this case includes some harder-defined things as there are not that many examples of public events with Mathias in English. Every supporter can join our ongoing collective brainstorm of who to invite in the future, something that has shaped the roster each year. In addition, there are tons of other things to choose from, whether the Tin House Early Readership Program receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to the bonus audio archive which includes supplemental readings, craft talks, and most relevant today, long form conversations with translators. Mathias’ translator for his latest book, Frank Wynne and I, have exchanged emails but we weren’t able to arrange something before this episode launched. But I still hope this will happen as this book in particular, the one we discussed today, presents at least five million translator conundrums for Frank that I’d love to explore with him. But in the meantime, there are many to listen to, the French translator conversations include one with Beverley Bie Brahic, the translator of Hélène Cixous who’s also a particularly difficult writer to translate, and Emma Ramadan, the translator of Abdellah Taïa. In addition, there are conversations with Spanish translators, Megan McDowell, Sophie Hughes, Sarah Booker, and Suzanne Jill Levine about translating Mariana Enríquez, Alejandro Zambra, Fernanda Melchor, and Cristina Rivera Garza. There’s Ellen Elias-Bursać about translating Dubravka Ugrešic, Kurt Beals about translating Jenny Erpenbeck to just name a few of them, and of course, there are also all the main conversations with all of these authors themselves. So as we start a new year in 2024, check out all of this and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers and consider joining us as part of the Between the Covers Community going forward. Now, for today’s episode with none other than Mathias Énard.
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest novelist, Mathias Énard, was born, raised, and educated in France where he studied contemporary art at École du Louvre and Persian and Arabic at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris. Énard spent many years in the Middle East, in Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria, and since then has been a long-standing resident in Barcelona where he has taught Arabic at the University of Barcelona, and where he has run a Lebanese restaurant called Karakala. His debut novel in English was the book Zone which was written almost entirely in one single 150,000 word sentence and explores the culture of the Mediterranean Basin from Spain to Algeria, Italy to Lebanon, a book called by Publishers Weekly, “Homeric in its scope and grandeur, remarkable in its detail, and a screaming take on history, war, and violence,” soon followed Street of Thieves which spans from Occupy to the Arab Spring, then Compass for which Énard was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award and the International Man Booker Prize, and which won the Prix Goncourt in France, the Leipzig Prize in Germany, and the Premio von Rezzori in Italy, a book that traces the often elided or obscured connections between Western humanities in history and Islamic, and Arabic philosophy and culture. His next book Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants was constructed from real historical fragments, yet imagines Michelangelo accepting the invitation by the Sultan of Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. We follow Michelangelo’s notebook as he explores and sketches the beauty and wonder of the Ottoman Empire and works on his greatest architectural masterwork. Julian Lucas for the New Yorker calls this book, “A richly suggestive Renaissance counter narrative. Like Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the story hangs on the electric potential of an unrealized touch.” All these books mentioned were brought into English by the translator Charlotte Mandell. Mathias Énard is here today to talk about his latest novel and his first to be translated by Frank Wynne, The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild from New Directions in the US and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK. Jeet Thayil says of Énard’s latest, “Recklessly, omnisciently, dazzlingly, Mathias Énard over the last twenty years has been inventing one of the most visionary oeuvres in French literature. In this book, by excavating a remote rural corner and inhabiting in turn every living thing there, man, woman and beast, he gives us the gift of deep verticality, where a sentence spools into other sentences, other stories, other epochs, and resolves into a history of Europe.” John Phipps for the Times adds that this is a book drowned in wine and war, and banquets and incest and pointless scholarship and bestiality and mire and grimy rural death. Finally, the Economist says, “The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild is an earthy, Rabelaisian riot of a novel, dripping with slime, bugs, gluttony, death and bawdy decay…. a dizzying concoction, which carries a surprising tenderness.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Mathias Énard.
Mathias Énard: Thank you.
DN: So this book in your own words is your first very French book. Despite yourself being French, born and raised in France, this book is set in and around your hometown of Niort which is noteworthy because when you talk about your hometown or when you have in the past, you’ve talked about how you always dreamed of an elsewhere. For instance, in an event in Sarajevo, you said one great advantage of being from a boring town is a desire to see the world and to learn languages, and elsewhere you’ve talked about how you gravitated towards books as a child and teenager that took you on a long journey to distant places far from your small middle-class French town. Likewise, when you decided you wanted to be a writer, you felt like you needed to know something first before you could write something beyond what you knew in this place where you were, and part of the appeal for you to choose Arabic and Persian as your topics of study was that the university closest to your home didn’t teach these languages. That this choice would by definition require that you move away, in your case, to Paris. But it wasn’t long before you were living in Iran and in Egypt during your years of University, and only going back to Paris for the exams, your books I think also demonstrate this looking outward. We are in Lebanon, Istanbul, Morocco, the Balkans, and even in conversations about languages, you defamiliarize them I think. You talk about how, in learning Persian, you realize that the language stretched from Sarajevo to Burma, that you re-see geography through the discovery of language’s reach and the same I think could be true about Arabic. But here we are today discussing a book set in your hometown and I think a great place to start would be to talk about how you came to make this full circle back, what it was like to discover this desire in yourself to return, and what the reencounter was like for you of coming home literally but in a literary way.
ME: Thank you very much. I think when I first began to think about The Banquet, the book, it was probably 2009 right after I wrote Zone. I was leaving in Barcelona by daylight, I was about to move to Berlin but I was back home here in Barcelona and I thought, “What would it be like to write about France? What would I write about exactly if I were to decide to write a novel about my hometown? What would I probably write about?” But it was like only an idea in the air, so I took a few notes and was quite discouraged. I said, “It’s still this really uninteresting, boring neighborhood where I grew up.” I didn’t find anything really worth writing in my own childhood, in my own memories by then, so I just discarded the idea and said, “Well, we’ll see about that later on.” Then a few years afterwards when I had written Compass, I thought that it would probably be interesting to look at my own region, this western part of France, very flat without any mountains, hills, or any way in a more Orientalistic kind of way, like someone from outside would see it and to find, let’s say a very strange angle to this vision of that place and I said, “Well, now after 20 years of growth, then I maybe probably be able to write something interesting about this part.” My wife is a Buddhist and I was reading a lot about reincarnation at that time, and I imagined that oh, it would be great to see and it would be more literary-wise interesting to see it through a Buddhist perspective, so the first quotes, the quote that opens the book, it’s a quote from the Buddha, quoted by a very, very important Buddhist scholar called Thích Nhất Hạnh. That was the first thing really, the first thing of the book was this idea that all of us in the past or in the future, we are to be and have been anything. It means animals, plants, or even storms and clouds. I said, “Oh, that means that everything is really,” let’s say that this part of France was suddenly very interesting to me. I said, “I could probably try to write the history of France, or through France, the history of Europe through this very little space and very little place, and that’s how it all began. But to do this, I needed a character for us to enter, point of view, who would be just like me coming back from abroad and that was David Mazon. That was when I imagined David’s character because I needed someone to introduce us, someone from abroad like an Orientalist.
DN: Well, I want to ask you about David but one more question about returning to Niort first. In an interview you gave in Granta, you talked about how, when you returned to Niort, you actually found it profoundly exotic and strange in some ways, and it made me think about when you were 18 and you were writing poems and stories but you didn’t yet know if you wanted to be a creative writer, an academic writer, or a journalist and you took an opportunity to go to Lebanon toward the end of the Civil War, and you accompanied an embedded war photographer, it was there that you realized how war changes everything from interpersonal relations to geography, even experiences of time and distance, so short distances during a war can be really far away and how, when you returned to Lebanon five years later, it was only then that you realized how much of your first time there was at night in the dark, your second time totally different obviously in the daylight. Now, without checkpoints, without detours, things that had seemed impossibly far away, you suddenly discover were actually right next to each other. But overall, you were struck by the sensation of seeing a country that you thought you knew well as a writer, then seeing it again and realizing you were seeing something entirely different. But with your return to Niort, I wonder if it is less that Niort has changed, certainly, it hasn’t changed as much as Lebanon had changed in those five years, but rather that you had changed. I wondered if there was something about how your eyes had changed. Does that seem right to you? If so, could you talk about recognizing that desire to, “How can I tell what I do everywhere else but tell it through France?” How that might have indicated something about you that possibly had changed in looking back at your own life.
ME: Yes, you’re totally right. I think my eyes had changed but not only my eyes but the place itself had changed. After 20 years, it was really different. The village where I grew up at that time was a very, very small town, only a church and two shops, and nothing else. Now it’s only like a very suburban full of new houses of people living in town. That has changed a lot but it’s true, you’re right, I think probably you need this moment of otherness that you realize that you’re not part of it anymore or the object you first saw is so different that you can, let’s say describe the moment between when you saw it for the first time and what happened then afterward. That’s what happened to me in Lebanon exactly. You described it well. It was incredible to discover that those places I thought that were so far away from one other way, like on the 200 meters close, and that we needed a detour of one week just to go there. Something like that happened to me exactly in Niort, in the neighborhoods when I bought a whole house there, not recently but 10 years ago, and I felt like I was coming back. I had this sensation because I lived 18 years of my life there, so it’s probably someplace I should know very well, then I discovered that I was not so familiar with it after all and that I still have friends and family there whose experiences and visions of life are totally different than mine. Even the language, when I left France 30 years ago now, the language itself has changed, not the literary one, of course, on the possibilities of literature but let’s say slang expressions are totally different. Even the dialect has disappeared more or less in those 30 years, 25 years time. It was a place I knew but it was something that I didn’t know in the end, so I had to rediscover it again as I think a foreigner would. This space between the young teenager I was when I left and the writer who has already written a few books, when I come back, this space is where the literature can take place and where I can write a novel.
DN: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about David Mazon, an anthropology student who’s finishing his doctoral thesis by coming to your hometown from Paris to “study the natives.” Your protagonists are often in your books, either academics or people who quest for knowledge in some way. The musicologist Franz in your book Compass, you’ve described his pursuit of knowledge as erotic, a lust to know, and Mirković in Zone, a Croat who works for French intelligence, he’s in a way on a journey of self-knowledge around revisiting the violence that he was complicit in during the Balkan Wars, and Lakhdar, the Moroccan in Street of Thieves, he’s a voracious reader. All of these characters I think give you a lot of latitude as an author around what you can explore from their own minds because of their roving restless intelligences as they each are searching for encounters with the other and otherness. But David Mazon, despite being an academic, doesn’t feel like these characters in so far as he arrives from a place of condescension, from a place of thinking he knows more, more than from wanting to know. He’s scared of the insects, he’s terrified of the local cuisine, snails, eel, water rat, pâté, and Sanguette which is fried blood and he feels as far away from civilization as if he’d been stationed in the middle of the South Pacific, even though he’s only a three-hour train ride from Paris. All of this adds a comic effect and element to the whole book which I loved. I know that when you were at Barnard College for a visit with the translation center there, you said that your first attraction to Persian and Arabic as a teenager was because they seemed exotic, which you acknowledged looking back as a problematic position and perhaps part of you is poking fun at this impulse to be seduced by one’s projection onto the other, and onto the foreign. But it also feels like something more here, perhaps a commentary on a certain colonial way of thinking that is the opposite of an aeros of knowledge, perhaps even the opposite of knowledge. I was hoping maybe you could talk about David a little more as we discover him at the beginning and why he becomes the consciousness that we first experience the book through.
ME: You’re totally right. For me, David, with this ironic counterpart to Franz is the opposite of Franz, the narrator of Compass. He’s also an Orientalist, let’s say that but an anthropologist who deals with his fellow citizens theoretically but sees them with contempt and distance with all the distance that allows for him, let’s say the weight of knowledge but he will change, we will see that. People change through the book. For me, it was very funny to mention this character that would be our first eyes when we enter this village and this place. We see everything through David Mazon’s eyes. We read his diary and that’s why we discovered the place. Of course, through David’s eyes, it’s a terrible experience. [laughter] You get the feeling that you’re entering someplace very tight, very dangerous, and very remote. The problem with David is that let’s say first of all, his goodwill, they want to learn and he wants to be a brilliant anthropologist and he wants to write a wonderful PhD, then he wants to have a very, very successful academic career but then he realized himself, we do realize that he’s not that good, that he doesn’t say the important things, that he doesn’t know nothing, and that he has misread all, let’s say the great writers of anthropology that he worships. [laughs] He is this kind of very sympathetical failure in the end who will change through the book and become someone else. For me, the writing of the book really begins, I mentioned before the Buddhist, let’s say surroundings of the novel but for me, the real important character at the beginning was David. He helped me come back myself to this place and see it as a foreigner. Probably the foreigner I had turned myself into after all these years, of course, with irony and let’s say a scientific distance that I don’t have but nonetheless, it was through, let’s say David’s eyes that I came back to these surroundings too and that I could describe them, and more than feel, describe them myself. It was a way to actually make the reader enter those places and see David as a friend. Every reader is a friend, so we need a guide and David is this guide, then we will see everything that he doesn’t see but first, we rely on him. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. I love how we start in his eyes but then can see around what he sees in the end. I love that about the book. One indicator that Mazon is different than your other protagonist is that he only brings two books with him, a mere two books, one by Victor Hugo and another by the Polish Anthropologist Malinowski called Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which is, as I investigated, a classic of ethnology and it’s part of a trilogy which includes The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia and Coral Gardens and Their Magic. When I was looking into him, I discovered that Malinowski was a pioneer of what’s called participant observation, that unlike his predecessors who were more armchair anthropologists, Malinowski believed in immersion in the culture and in participating in it while you’re there studying it, and that’s something that David is clearly doing as well. He’s moving into the village. He’s becoming a villager as part of the process of creating his data set. But the other thing I discovered is that Malinowski’s diaries were published after his death under the title A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term and that they were scandalous, and they created a huge debate about how much or how little it tarnished his research. They’ve been called racist, they’ve been called abusive toward the natives and they’re lecherous in detailing his own sexual desires. I bring this up because as you mentioned, the beginning of the book is in diary format. Much like Malinowski, we’re getting Mazon’s thoughts far from civilized life in Mazon’s notion. We’re learning all of it through diary format, these funny battles that David is having with the worms that have infested his bathroom or the debates about the cats who have joined him but also some very unfulfilling masturbation on the webcam with his partner back in Paris where he even wonders what Walter Benjamin would have thought of cybersex, which I thought was so great. All of this makes me think that this diary of David’s is perhaps an homage to this other real scandalous diary and that in some ways, maybe the first part of the book is happening under Malinowski’s aura in some way and I wondered if that was true, if perhaps there’s a way in which David is carrying the methodology, attitude, personality and also problems of this other anthropologist into Western France.
ME: Yes, you’re totally right. You discovered that. Yes, it’s true. Let’s say that Malinowski’s diaries were really a very important source for me to imagine David’s thoughts and David’s problems that I collected to re-actualize Malinowski’s behavior in the West Pacific 100 years ago, and David Mazon in France, in his own country in a small village. I discovered that when I read the diaries after reading the notes, and probably all of us would have felt the same way that Malinowski did. When we go to Niort when you’re not in Niort or when you go to Paris when you’re not in Paris, you get all these feelings, the contradictory moments, like you’re not happy, you’re happy, you’re not happy, you’re happy, you’re hungry, you’re not hungry. [laughter] That’s everybody was but when you’re supposed to be carrying on scientific research, very important, the contrast is crazy because you see from one hand, these very brilliant and very important remarks about how the way the people lived, he invented this kind of participative investigation but on the one hand, it was just a normal human with his very petty desires, sexual problems, and also abuse of the natives. We still cannot read the entire diaries, there’s still some bit of censorship from [inaudible].
DN: Oh, really?
ME: Everything is not public yet or the addition I have is only partial.
DN: No, that’s interesting.
ME: Yes, it’s very interesting, so I thought, “Well, David would be like everybody else.” He has to be sincere with himself in his diary let’s say because, for him, his diary is a part of his research as he was told as a student that you should have a field diary when you’re abroad and everything, so you can rely on it later on to write your dissertation, so that’s what he’s doing. His sincerity for us is very funny.
DN: It is.
ME: That’s something you wouldn’t admit. He says things that are very strange. You said that it’s brilliant to ask yourself what Walter Benjamin thinks about cybersex but it’s not really relevant. [laughter] David Mazon is something like that. The irony and the laugh come from, let’s say his huge scope and his very, very little, tiny realization at the end.
DN: Yeah. Well, before we leave anthropology, I should mention that Mazon names his rented cabin The Savage Mind which is a term coined by the Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is the name of one of his touchstone books when originally translated into English. But the word savage in English has a more decidedly negative narrow connotation than sauvage in French, which I think is more capacious and evokes more of a variety of tones. That title, when it came out in English, was controversial, and future translations of that same book have titles like Wild Thinking rather than savage mind. But it seems to me that your translator Frank Wynne was right to translate it into English as Savage Mind as it captures the narrowness of David as we first meet him. I wanted to ask you about having a savage mind or of wild thinking because you also dedicate the book to the savage thinkers or to the wild thinkers. Talk to us about wild thinking and about the dedication, who and what are the savage or wild thinkers and what does it mean to write this book under a dedication to them?
ME: It’s very important to see the difference between the savage mind and the wild thinking. In France, the word sauvage for me is much more wild than it is savage. But it’s true that let’s say David Mazon’s den could be called a savage mind because he would den himself into a savage or let’s say to inherit, David Mazon would inherit all those words of anthropology. But for me what is very important is the wild because the book is about the wild too, the wild in nature, what is raw, what is not transformed but what we call civilization and it has something to do with what we don’t see in what surrounds us, so we are blind to the wild. The wild is what we cannot see or understand, so the wild thinkers, it’s also a kind of homage to Bolaño.
DN: Oh, interesting.
ME: Yes, Roberto Bolaño and his savage, I don’t know how they’re called in English.
DN: The Savage Detectives, yeah.
ME: They’re also wild, they’re probably more wild detectives than they are savage because they’re unpredictable. The great thing about wild thinking is it’s unpredictable. You cannot foresee or imagine what it will be or what it will lead to. That’s why for me, the real meaning of wild thinking and wild thinkers is this, that you don’t see where you’re thinking into.
DN: Well, there’s another way you can translate La Pensée Sauvage and that is as wild pansies, and this connection between pansies and thought even exists in English from when Ophelia says in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, pray, love, remember. And there’s pansies, that’s for thoughts,” and it’s said that Lévi-Strauss had even suggested for the English title of the book not savage mind or wild thinking but Pansies for Thought which was a nod to Shakespeare and also to this double meaning within French. But I wanted to suggest that wild pansies could be one way to understand your book because pansies are the most ordinary and commonplace of flowers, so to place the words wild and pansy together, and also pansy and thought together feels similar to how you see the wild within the town you are from, which has always felt so ordinary before. That perhaps this entire book is an act of Pensée Sauvage of pansies for thought. For me, there are at least three or four different ways that it is, and they all happen after we depart from David’s diary, which is less than the first 100 pages of the book. One thing we quickly learn, which you’ve already nodded to, and it’s something that David and everyone else are unaware of but that the book, and by extension, us as the readers were very aware of this, is that once we leave his diary, we discover that everyone is caught within the Buddhist Wheel of Time and the book is aware of the reincarnations of each and everything in this town, so there’s this bore that is often rooting around the town in the background, sometimes rustling in the bushes while we are with the humans who’s often looking for a mate in his own background narrative who was once the beloved [Abby Priest] of the village, and before that, he was a frog, a crow, and a boatman despite his own belief when he was a human in a Christian cosmology and the worms in David’s drain that he keeps killing were actually themselves serial killers. Some characters were victims of the dragonnades of Louis the 14th, the persecution of the Protestants to force their conversion to Catholicism. Throughout the book, there are these really wonderful set pieces where the main character of a section isn’t human at all. For example, we will follow the horse that bore Clovis, the first king of the Franks in the fifth century in the same region that we’re in the contemporary times, or we follow the bed bug who drinks the blood from Napoleon’s ankle during his visit to the region before being crushed by Napoleon, a bed bug who has also been a hedgehog that was crushed and a farmer, and who is now the current day bar owner Tubby Thomas. We learn also that there’s no linear time when it comes to reincarnation, no chronology. You can actually be reincarnated in the past, centuries earlier. I have some theories of why this imported element exists within the book beyond the fact that your wife is Buddhist and what it is doing for it. But first, I would just love to hear more about how The Wheel of Time operates in the narrative, what effect you’re aiming for more. You’ve already talked a little bit about that but also why you would want us to learn the history of this region through the eyes of a king’s horse or an emperor’s bed bug.
ME: Well, if you admit that reincarnation exists, then it changes totally your point of view on history, for example, because we read history, a chronological order or something that we go from fathers to son, from mothers to daughters, from writer to reader, reader to writer and so forth but if you see it in the Buddhist way, all that is an illusion. When you reincarnate, there’s no time, time is totally illusionary, so you can reincarnate into the future that we all think about because we think that when we die, we go forward but also in the past, you can reincarnate 2,000 years ago or even eons before time or before even the Earth was really the Earth. Everything is possible. If I wanted, that was my first project as I told you, let’s say to describe this region and also history, let’s say to try to write this history of France through a very, very small place, I said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, the history of reincarnation,” because it allows me to make other lines through animals, through people who don’t get light in history. We don’t think that Clovis was mounted on a horse, we don’t think about the horse or the bugs and everything but they were there probably. The story about Napoleon is true. I think I’m sure there was some kind of bug that bit them. [laughter]
DN: I loved being with the bugs. [laughter]
ME: If I assumed this possibility, then it was a way of rewriting the history, and for a writer, it was a very original way of seeing it because for us, France is very far away from any Buddhist thinking and this western remote marches, probably, I’ve never seen something like a Buddhist temple until now, so there’s a distance there. There’s a kind of energy that came from this distance that was very, very interesting to explore. It was a way also to escape the Catholic or Protestant point of view somehow, that in this place, history is very important and is still very present in every village and every town. It was like taking, let’s say, another way to see those conflicts and not taking part in it in a way. We all know about the omniscient narrator that knows everything, so it’s an omniscient narrator but who’s a Buddhist, so he knows everything more than us. [laughter]
DN: Yeah, he does a lot more than us. Well, as part of exploring The Wheel of Time in your book, we have a question for you from another person, a book critic and bookseller, and fellow podcaster Lori Feathers. Lori has been a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She’s the co-founder of the bookstore Interabang Books in Dallas and she co-hosts the podcast Across The Pond which explores the most anticipated books on both sides of the Atlantic. Lori and I were reading many of your books side by side and her thoughts on them were really invaluable for today. Because she did a deep dive herself into your work, this question is particularly deep, so here’s a question for you from Lori.
Lori Feathers: Hello, David. Hello, Mathias. Thank you for taking my question today. Mathias, The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild continues a tradition in your novels, of exploring death and its measuring stick, time. In this most recent novel, the wheel ceaselessly moves the living from death to birth and from rebirth to death. The wheel brings to my mind the saṃsāra, the continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth that is the philosophy of your characters Sarah in the novel Compass, and Lakhdar in your novel Street of Thieves where Lakhdar takes the job of typing by the kilometer; that is transcribing the death records of each of the 1.3 million French citizens who were killed in World War I. In Compass, Sarah is living with a tribe in Borneo and writing a paper about the corpse wine drinkers who prepare the bodies of their dead so that they can drink them, literally metabolizing the dead within themselves. Sarah and Lakhdar also share a belief that the Occidental and Oriental worlds have absorbed each other’s influences over centuries, creating a common construction between them. Do you see the notion of rebirth as an exception to the sharing? In other words, is the continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth an Eastern philosophy that has been resisted in the West? If so, why do you think this is the case? Thank you.
ME: Thank you, Lori, for your question. It’s a very brilliant insight into my work. I haven’t noticed all this myself. No, it’s true, it’s very interesting points but I don’t agree with you because I think that also in the West, there has always been this, let’s say sympathy towards reincarnation and we see this, well, it depends on what you call the West but in the Arab world for example, Arab thinking, there are many small groups of Muslim creeds that believe in reincarnation, say for the Alawites for example, or the Druze and they are also very strange but of course, the minorities in the West, that thought about reincarnation and thought it was a possibility for the dead soul to reincarnate, to be reborn in Christianity too. I think we fear death but maybe not as much as we fear life probably, so the perspective of being reborn in a society where everybody is poor or everybody is suffering was not appealing. We needed paradise. Because our life on this earth was so miserable, we wanted somewhere where we could experience happiness and that was in the Middle Ages, for example, I think that was very important, the possibility of happiness in the other life because what the Buddhist say is that no, the suffering is forever, that what is eternal is to suffer, so it’s not very good marketing for an idea. [laughter]
ME: But on the other hand, paradise is. That’s how, for example, the predication of Muhammad begins with paradise and hell, and says that if you don’t believe, you go to hell. If you believe, then you will have paradise. It’s easy to understand, then it promises you a happy future, happy end for your soul, not an eternal rebirth of sufferings for eternity but what I cannot explain is how this idea is so successful in the East. That would be another question. But it’s true that in my novel, in literature, I’m very, very fascinated by this possibility, not only because it’s interesting as a writing technique but also because I think it’s a changing point from our point of view toward nature for example. If you were part of it, if you yourself have been an animal for generations or many animals or maybe all the animals, then you don’t have this human contempt towards nature or you’re not the master of it. You’re just humble parts of it. I’m lucky enough to be a human this life but you don’t know what you will be in the next. [laughter]
ME: I think that really could change our relationship towards nature, environment, everything that surrounds us. For me, it’s very interesting in many, many ways.
DN: Well, to extend Lori’s question, much of your work uncovers the ways the so-called East is already in the West, what we consider the West is actually deeply shaped by and indebted to by the East, and your writing is continually working against the tendency to look at the Arab and Muslim world as alien, foreign, barbaric, or irreducibly other. In Compass, we get Beethoven’s Compass which has been altered so that it points to the East. You talk in places about Proust’s debt to A Thousand and One Nights, about Cervantes writing under the pseudonym of an imagined Moroccan writer, your own imagining of Michelangelo going to the Ottoman Empire and coming back, and having his art changed, all of it asserting that the division between the Occident and the Orient is artificial where, for instance, in one interview, you called Great Britain and France great Muslim countries. Sarah in Compass I think asserts this philosophy, the notion of history, as Lori mentioned, as a common construction, a sharing and absorption that is permeable and overlapping, not a friction of opposing forces which is what Franz proposes in the same book. Given how much your books foreground hidden or erased histories, I did wonder if this were an exception in the sense that you weren’t uncovering a hidden history of Buddhism in rural Western France, as you say you don’t walk around the marshes and see Buddhist temples though I will add that Thích Nhất Hạnh did live in Southwestern France, he didn’t live where you were from but he did live a couple hours away from you. But that you were importing, maybe as an exception, a cosmology into a place that wasn’t a deep part of the culture. That made me wonder in a variety of ways why Buddhism in specific was what was imported in this book. You mentioned your wife is a practicing Buddhist and when I was reading interviews with Charlotte Mandell, your long-standing translator before now, I discovered that she was a Tibetan Buddhist and she mentioned that your wife is a Buddhist, and that you’ve had many conversations with them about Buddhism, which of course, that could be a sufficient explanation in and of itself that it’s simply part of your life. But I suspect it’s more and I want to propose another reason why Buddhism might be in the book, and I wondered if it had to do with your own philosophy of the self or of identity. When you visited Barnard College’s Translation Studies Department, you talked about how you don’t believe in closed identities, that you are French but you write your French language novels on a Spanish keyboard and that our alphabet comes from Syria, and on top of that, your daily life is not in French but in Spanish and Catalan, yet you also live your daily life in an Arab neighborhood in Barcelona. In that same conversation, you talk about the instability of knowledge, that the gathering of knowledge does not make one more grounded or defined but actually makes you less so. That as you know more, you know more of what you don’t know. I think we see this in your character’s philosophies as well, the notion of Sarah, the Buddhist in Compass, of the other in the self, that all Europe is in the Orient, that everything is interdependent, and Lakhdar in Street of Thieves who says, “I am what I have read, I am what I have seen, I have within me as much Arabic as Spanish and French, I have multiplied myself in these mirrors to the point of losing myself or constructing myself, a fragile image, an image in movement,” and Charlotte Mandell in one interview, she says that she’s memorized a quote from the ancient Greek Cynic Antisthenes that goes, “To the wise nothing is foreign,” which makes me think of the opening epigraph that you mentioned in the book, the Thích Nhất Hạnh quoting the Buddha, maybe he’s even quoting the Buddha from Southwest France, from Plum Village, “In our former lives, we have all been earth, stone, dew, wind, fire, moss, tree, insect, fish, turtle, bird and mammal.” That perhaps the Buddhist Wheel of Time, while not a historical cultural truth in Western France, is nevertheless echoing a real existential truth about your own personal philosophy of identity, one that can’t be contained by a descriptor or which can accumulate over time, like when Lakhdar says again, “I am not a Moroccan, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, I’m more than that . . . I am not a Muslim, I am more than that.” Does that feel connected at all, that sentiment of what a self is and how a self forms or how a self moves? Because this feels like another way, you take it to another level obviously with The Wheel of Time but maybe that wheel of time is happening within a lifetime also, maybe our lives are wheels of time.
ME: Yes, I totally agree with that. It’s true. We are this kind of permanent formation. We tend to see our lives at the beginning and one end, like a straight line between one starting point and one end but I don’t see it that way. There were so many lines that made us at the end, so many things also that we could have been that we’re not yet anymore. All those moments of choice and accidents, encounters, readings, and travels are not, I don’t know, the most simple encounter with a wild bore in a field or with a bear in the forest changes your life forever because we are really affected by it or can be that. Just the way to see that there are also other possibilities of being alive changes you. What I think is that every second, we are a different self. Of course, we’re united by our body, our brain is one, so that’s the brain that leads us from birth to death. Meanwhile, we are so many forms of ourselves and we change constantly, or I hope so, that we are not defined by the moment that we are born but by every second of our lives. I think that the very, very actual science and brain sciences are saying that this is true, this is the real model that we are always reshaping our brain, it’s always on the move until it stops forever but that’s another question. For me, I don’t know if it’s my personal philosophy or the way I like to think that my characters think. But probably, my way of representing my image of human beings is like that. It’s to be always on the move. It’s very complicated to think about, for example, the history of Europe, the history of the United States if I don’t know the history that well. In Europe, we have this sentiment that oh, European civilization is this. It begins with the Romans and now we have the European Union, and there’s a very direct straight line that goes from the Roman Empire to the European Union, but it’s not like that. [laughter] Every second, there are movements, changes, exchanges too between languages and realities, different and small things. I think that’s also one of my ideas when I began to write The Banquet, was to write about history as seen from a place where nothing happens. What does it mean? I mean that even if it’s very small, there are movements, so there’s history, there’s change, there are mixtures of very different identities. That was what made it really interesting to research and to write.
DN: Well, we haven’t yet discussed the other supernatural aspect of the book which is the gravediggers guild and their annual banquet. They have an annual two-day banquet where in their pact with death, death agrees each year for that span of two days for there to be no deaths so that the gravediggers can congregate and they can gorge on innumerable meets, and give speeches and have debates, all told in the spirit of Rabelais. But before we talk about the banquet, which I love and I think is marvelous, I thought we should first talk about Rabelais himself. He’s from the same region you were from, from the same setting of the book, and unlike your childhood impression of the region, and David Mazon’s impression of the area as being provincial, this region did produce a very outward-facing, cosmopolitan, remarkable man, a novice of the Franciscan order, yet also an anti-clerical humanist, a doctor, one of the first doctors to dissect a human body, yet also a bon vivant. He was a Greek scholar, a botanist, and much more. Though he spoke many languages, we know him most not only for his books but for what he does to and with the French language within them. David Mazon says that the local dialect of the village reminds him of Rabelais but he also says that he finds Rabelais unintelligible, which I think is great. Yet no spirit I think more animates your book than Rabelais, particularly the 140-page banquet scene. In a way, he’s another example of the wild pansy I think, of the extraordinary found in the ordinary of your childhood home. But I would love to hear you talk to us about what Rabelais means for you or for the book and also about Rabelais’ French, and how it may or may not affect your own French when you write in this book specifically.
ME: I remember when I was a child, when I went to school, we studied Rabelais. We had two, three pages in the textbook about Gargantua and Pantagruel, giants. Gargantua is the main character of his books, giants and his son was called Pantagruel. Rabelais first wrote about the son, Pantagruel, then wrote about the father, Gargantua. But Gargantua was an existing character, a mythological figure of the west of France, a giant with many histories in the early Middle Ages. But I remember when I was a child at school that we studied him but it was not very complicated because we always studied the same very boring passages about what Gargantua knew, how he learned Greek, and all the very humanistic scholarship at that time. [laughter] It was very, very difficult to understand for children or even teenagers because it had to do with the knowledge of that time and the way to learning all the sciences or the way also to free yourself from the church, and the Latin knowledge of the time. I really rediscovered Rabelais later on, maybe 20 years later and it was through a visit of this abbey in the book where the banquet took place called [inaudible] where François Rabelais was a novice for a few years, and where the idea of L’Abbaye de Thélème, this famous place in his novels, then I realized that I knew nothing about this François Rabelais, that I was very ignorant in that field, I was maybe 20 years ago and I began really seriously reading him, and it’s really amazing. First of all, because it’s much easier than I thought it was. His French, of course, the way it’s written, the autograph is very totally different. You don’t write that way now but if you say it aloud, for example, you understand everything. Just reading it aloud, then it’s something else because you discover that the way the words are written is very different. But his French is like a very old version of our language. But what is amazing is his freedom when he makes use of the language because he’s the first to write novels in French. He’s the first one. He can do anything, whatever he wants. [laughter] He uses all mythological characters, puts them into the France of his time, writes stories, mocks historical figures, criticizes the thinkers of his time, all this through a novel and that’s totally new. This freedom is incredible, so I realized that it was so important. It’s quite difficult to describe this in English but his French is unique. No one writes French like him.
DN: Leading up to today, I was wondering why Rabelais wasn’t more read in the anglophone world. I do know in English that the phrase Rabelaisian, I think it fundamentally misunderstands the author because Rabelaisian in English at least means vulgar, raunchy, or earthy, which his writing very much is. It’s often reveling in the scatological and also the comedy of being in bodies but that phrase entirely misses the other half of him, the linguistic wordplay, including writing under anagrams of his own name, the illusions to philosophy and science including Islamic thinkers, his nods to languages from Arabic to Hebrew, his thinly disguised caricatures of his real-life peers, his skewering of the morality of his time. It isn’t that the two coexist in Rabelais I don’t think. It’s actually I think that he’s arguing that they’re inseparable, that perhaps in some ways, he’s the most anti-Cartesian author, that the mind and the body for Rabelais are forever together. It makes me think when I studied anatomy, a teacher that I had in school, the anatomy teacher said, “We are nothing more than a glorified tube,” and Rabelais is very focused on the tube from the mouth to the anus but also the glory of everything we are that is wrapped around the tube. So when I think of your epic banquet scene, you have the pairing of the most impossible gluttony, the obscene amount of food and drink that is consumed while at the same time, the delivering of these speeches on Ancient philosophy, and it seems to capture this union of the high and the low. Yet when one person gives a speech on Rabelais himself during this banquet, he’s pelted with food, and seemingly people are unfamiliar with who Rabelais was, which made me wonder if it wasn’t just in the anglophone world where he’s neglected. But my theory was that it was perhaps this very intense engagement with French and also with caricatures within French culture that might make it harder to translate to an English audience. But by extension, it made me also wonder if there was anything about your book that was similarly hard to imagine an English audience understanding fully, anything that you’d want to Orient us to in the English language, in the English language world, something that you think maybe we would miss that a French audience would be less likely to miss. Is there anything about the gravediggers’ banquet that you would imagine Frank would have a particularly hard time conveying that someone else in France wouldn’t have a hard time understanding?
ME: Well, there were so many things that were difficult I think for Frank Wynne. But if you’re talking about the banquet, I think the main problem was all the food they eat and things I quote are quite familiar to French people, even the wines, the cheese, or [something]. You don’t eat them every day but you more or less know what they look like or have a remote idea of what they are but this is totally different to an English reader. It’s totally exotic, something you don’t know what it’s like, even what it smells like, and even the name of the wines that for us are very well known because it’s the name of regions of places in France. Every French man can tell you where the Rhône is or [inaudible], and what good [inaudible] looks like or tastes like. But I think that for an English audience, it’s very, very difficult, so it was quite impossible for Frank Wynne to translate this. He had to, let’s say, use the words like they were, and without any explanation, he tried to add some explanation into English but it was quite impossible to rewrite, let’s say, this kind of passage. It’s also the problem with Rabelais actually, that his French is so precise, let’s say so related to his time, and that it’s very difficult to translate into English. It’s full of jokes, puns with words and that makes it very difficult to translate. I think that’s why it probably is not so well-read in the US or in the UK. But also there’s this distance with time that makes it probably more time as best. But I think like the English would read [inaudible], for example, it’s very difficult to read, seems very far away as a reality, so I don’t think that you read it as cool. You read parts of it but it really takes time and a bit of will to really get into it. That’s the same with Rabelais. But it’s true, let’s say for the book, for the banquet in itself, it was very useful to have this very strong, powerful figure of French literature nearby and there’s Franciscan novice in this abbey, so I was very happy to put him into the book and to use him as an asset for the literary heritage of the region, something like that. [laughs]
DN: Well, I want to spend another moment with the banquet itself. When I was looking into who Malinowski was, I discovered his thoughts about the rituals of the dead and he said regarding the dead, and the bodies of the dead that, “The emotions are extremely complex and even contradictory; the dominant elements, love of the dead and loathing of the corpse, passionate attachment to the personality still lingering about the body and a shattering fear of the gruesome thing that has been left over, these two elements seem to mingle and play into each other. The two-fold contradictory tendency, on the one hand to preserve the body, to keep its form intact, or to retain parts of it. On the other hand the desire to be done with it, to put it off the way, to annihilate it completely.” I feel like you, like Rabelais, as an opposite or as a counternarrative to Malinowski, try to bring these two elements together, the love of the person and the fear of the body. I think of the article that Lori Feathers sent me about the corpse wine drinkers in Borneo inspired by your character Sarah. Lori sent me a scientific article or an anthropological article and how the process of making rice wine where balls of rice were put in a glass jar that was then sealed for it to ferment, and the process of preparing the corpse in the same villages with the body put into a glass jar in the fetal position, then sealed, that both are inversions of each other, that in the case of rice wine, the rice balls are removed and in the case of the corpses, the liquid that they produce is removed. But the ceremonies of the dead involved some form of either literal or symbolic encounter with the taboo of the body and its substances as if an inverted form of the everyday rice wine. In the village of your book, there are only three trades that are prominent, carpentry, engineering, and the disposal of the dead. Two of these are acts of composition and one is an act of decomposition, and the mayor himself is the undertaker, so he’s an emblem of both, he symbolizes the bringing together of the community, the construction of culture, and also the breaking down of the body. But the centerpiece of this book is the annual banquet where all the gravediggers, whether they’re Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Marxists, Catholic, or otherwise, they gather for these two days when no one dies but we also learn they’re vegetarian year round except for these two days where during those two days, they gorge on obscene amounts of meat, so on the only two days that they’re not burying the dead, they are actually consuming the dead. Talk to us more about how this all works for you and maybe even more interesting too, is there an origin story to this invention of yours? Is there some narrative to how you stumbled across this imagined festival that becomes so central to the book?
ME: Yes, of course, there’s a story there. It has to do with Kafka. I was in Prague and I was visiting Prague, Kafka tour, like so many readers and writers do actually when they go to Prague, and accidentally, I noticed that in front of one of the Jewish cemeteries in the old town, there was this small synagogue and a side of the small synagogue was actually a museum. There was a very tiny house, almost like a doll house, very Prague, very like 14th, 15th century architecture and that was actually where the undertakers guild used to be. I discovered that the Jewish undertakers guild existed in many towns, many cities in the Middle Ages until flip to modern times and in this particular small house where the undertakers used to live, not live but work at least, there were small exhibits of paintings dating from the 18th century showing banquets. Actually, it was in the field near the city outside and they were under trees with the huge tables, people eating together and there was a sign that said, “To consolate themselves from their very sad work.” The gravediggers give themselves every year a huge banquet and I said, “Oh, that’s beautiful. That’s incredible.”
DN: It is.
ME: Yeah, because it’s so real. It’s very sad you are burying the dead every day, so it’s a very huge burden because you know it, you will bury not only the people you don’t know but also your brothers, your mothers. Everybody in the community will die and will eventually come to your hands, so it’s a very, very sad job and I thought that they really deserved those banquets. But I want to go a step further and imagine that they have this really old agreement with death herself. No one would die during the annual gravediggers banquet, so they can really rest and enjoy without having to bury anyone. I said, “Well, that’s a good idea.” If the book was about the wheel of time and reincarnation, it also had to deal with the Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish side of it, which is very, very important. It’s even more important in small towns or villages but everybody knows the story that the undertaker of the village was indeed the mayor. It’s true. It’s happened.
DN: Oh, really?
ME: Yes, really, really, really true.
DN: It’s really true. I love that.
ME: It’s a place near my house. [laughter]
DN: That’s so great.
ME: They represent [inaudible], they are like the eternity because we all always die, so since the beginning of humanity, there’s always someone taking care of the corpses and that’s what defines us also as humans is not where we first begin to have special rituals towards the dead body. They are like, for me, of course, this link through time between the living and the dead, so that’s why they’re so important. The idea of a banquet is very interesting, literary-wise too because we have this tradition of philosophical banquets in the West, then to the Greek tradition, so it was very, very interesting. Well, Platos, Socrates’ banquet is about love and what does it mean to love, be loved. Mine is more about what it means to die and the way that we care about the dead. It was very fun to research by the way. For example, I had the opportunity to go to Paris and visit the annual fair of the undertaker’s business.
DN: Oh, wow. [laughter] That’s great.
ME: That was fascinating. I use it a bit in the book when I talk about the eco burials and eco graveyards with no pesticides, nothing like that but there were also very, very strange things like the wired coffin with the internet.
DN: Oh, no way.
ME: Yes. You have a coffin with the internet. [laughs] For the people who fear to be buried alive, if you wake up, you can call somebody. That’s very frightful because here I’m home, then suddenly I get a buzz, then that’s Mom ringing from a grave. [laughter] It’s totally crazy. It also allows you to show pictures and music in the coffin at the funeral, and stuff like that. Modernity is transforming everything. You even have a wired coffin with the internet which is totally absurd.
DN: Yeah, it’s wonderfully absurd. Well, we’ve touched on Rabelais, we’ve touched on Kafka, and we’ve touched on Buddhism as influences and I wondered if there was a formal influence because a lot of your books have very distinctive forms. You said you use the structure of triangles for your book Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants which has three main characters, three religions, and three voices. Zone is one long sentence. Compass is this blend of diary, travel writing, and memoirs which made me wonder if it is related to the form of older Arabic works as you’ve said that within classical Arabic literature, there are works from the 8th and 9th century that are mixes of anecdotes, tales, verses, poetry, prose, philosophy and stories. You also mentioned a more contemporary Arabic work Leg over Leg, which you’ve described as a mix of epic novel, travelog, political encyclopedia, autobiography, and Arabic dictionary. One thing that I noticed is that Zone and Compass, they are two books that on the surface seem very outward facing and very exterior with all of their travel, that they’re both actually books structured around long interior monologues and your latest book which at first glance seems like it would be quieter as it’s rooted in one single out of the way place, your latest book is actually very exterior and very mobile, and rarely if ever for long is in one person’s mind or dreams. It isn’t structured around one long monologue. This new book has poems, songs, sermons, a diagram of card games, speeches, theater scripts, diary entries, excerpts of Seneca’s letters, just to name a couple of things among many. I guess it made me wonder if there was a form for this book, a shadow book that is in conversation with the actual book or tradition of forms that informs this book or not.
ME: Now, when I imagine a book, when I begin let’s say the proper writing, not the idea that I have first in my mind, then when I begin to write, I need an image. I need a form. I’m no one without form, so when I really started the writing of The Annual Banquet, I mentioned a book that was like a retablo in the Catholic Church. There are images that unfold themselves but you have many stories told at the altar in parts, so you have the first and the last one that fold into together, like David Mazon parts that open and close the book, then the middle part is all the stories of let’s say The Wheel of Time, then in the middle, you have the banquet and it’s the most sacred image of all, then you have the hinges, if you have something that unfolds like doors, you need hinges in the middle. Those are the songs that are, let’s say, adaptations of French popular songs made into short stories. That was the image in my mind and that’s how I said, “Well, it had to unfold at the end giving off the whole picture with this banquet in the center.” That was my image of the book. Of course, the form is very important. I don’t know, I guess I lack probably imagination in a way, that I need something to rise with and form, it’s a pattern you can use to know where you’re going. You mentioned Zone, Zone is about kilometers of train ride between Milan and Rome, and what helped me to be able to write all these stories together because I knew that I was at the page 150, I was 150 kilometers from Milan to Rome, I mean I was halfway to Bologna, so I always knew where I was, I think that I really need this pattern to be able to write a novel.
DN: Some people have suggested that your method or form in this book is bricolage, a term of Lévi-Strauss, a method that’s used in art and writing but it’s also used in an anthropological context, the idea of the adoption of diverse materials from whatever happens to be available. For instance, a tribe might have an otherwise cohesive and self-contained system but they may nevertheless incorporate something from a neighboring tribe that doesn’t automatically seem like it’s part of that system but it becomes part of that system. It’s like a flexible process and not wedded to any form of purity, and that seemed like one way you could explain the bringing in of The Wheel of Time, the neighboring tribe being your wife and your translator, and their Buddhist philosophies. But do you consider yourself a bricoleur? Do you think bricolage is one way we could look at how this book came together?
ME: Yes, it has to do with the hinges, like I said. [laughs] It’s a kind of bricolage. You use anything that’s available and you put it together into a new construction of something new. Of course, it’s difficult to see that in the English translation but the banquet is also a history of the French language in French literature, so I use a lot of registers, let’s say from medieval old French poetry until nowadays, languages passing through Rabelais, Victor Hugo, and a lot of figures, a form or a way to speak and write French of their time. The book is also a kind of bricolage, of languages together and we see all these states of the French language, let’s say, from Latin, the Romans until today, so it’s also a kind of French manual. It can be used like this.
DN: Even though I think the spirit of the book is openhearted and promiscuous, David isn’t the only one in the book who’s closed and defended when the book opens. The mayor is relieved that the increased population of the region hasn’t led to more foreigners other than the British in the village and at one point he says, “We stopped the Arabs around these parts a long time ago,” and he supports forced integration of immigrants so that they abide by the established French customs. But overall, the more free-spiritedness of the book, of the land, and its histories, it works on David, it changes David. As you mentioned at the very beginning, he changes. When we return to that panel, the first and last panel touch, when we return to the diary after many hundreds of pages away, he’s becoming more and more a part of this place. Living in his cabin called The Savage Mind is changing his mind. He even says at one point, “My erudition was like a haze of insecticide sprayed from a can: erratic, toxic and quick to disperse.” Just prior to returning to David’s diary, we are in the past lives of a villager named Gary who was once a landlady, a leather worker, a bombardier, and a gray she-wolf, and this wolf gets rabies from a red fox and is then ultimately decapitated by a man. It’s in this vignette right before we return to the diary where we learn about wolf extinction and the bounties for wolves in the 19th century. As we return to David after this, the book extends an ecological concern. David’s girlfriend Lucy is an activist in what are called the pond wars in the region. David starts not only thinking of becoming a farmer of medicinal herbs and a juicer of tree fruits but also begins writing poems. It made me wonder if these pond wars were based on real threats in the world of this region outside of the book but also more about how you see David’s move from anthropology, which is a certain way of looking obviously that we’ve discussed to farming in poetry from studying and elsewhere to now tending to a sort of hereness.
ME: Yes, I think there’s a moment where you have to take part, let’s say of what surrounds you, and that what’s happened with David is that he discovered that at the end, what he was interested in was being a part of that place and that’s why he wanted to research so much this PhD about the anthropology, about what does it mean to live in the countryside nowadays. It’s because somehow he wanted to be a part of it. Actually, in the third part, the important issues are real, let’s say, nowadays issues there about water use, eco-farming, and everything. It’s very important there. David at the same time has done this transformation of someone from the outside that is transformed by its surroundings and turned into a savage himself. He’s beginning at the end more, I don’t know, more local than no one could ever be because he’s so conscious about what it means to be there. Also, it’s very interesting to see that he was interested in literature, like writing. In the end, writing a diary has led him into writing something else, not only, let’s say, poems or bits of poetry but also writing what we are reading now. He is the narrator of the book. The real narrator of the book is David at the end and we don’t know if the middle part is not written by David himself. It could be. Who knows? But I think it’s part of his transformation.
DN: Well, you’re also a poet. I don’t think we have any of your poetry in English yet but you have a collection with a great title Final message to the Proust Society of Barcelona. But you’ve written David’s poems but since we don’t have a way to know how you write poetry when you’re not writing poetry as David, how are David’s poems in comparison to Mathias Énard’s poems?
ME: David’s poems are fun. Yes, I have a small book of poetry published a few years ago. It’s more about travel and places, travel stories into poems, so it’s quite different from David Mazon’s poetry. But I love poetry, but it’s true it’s not translated into English yet.
DN: I hope one day. Well, David’s shift also made me wonder if David Mazon has the last name Mazon because of the French historian Albin Mazon, the micro historian because you’ve mentioned even his philosophy already in this conversation because he believed, as you’ve also stated for yourself, you couldn’t sufficiently learn about the past only from the stories of the powerful. That we needed the stories of the small communities and that as you’ve proved with this book, the bigger stories of history can be told from this out-of-the-way place, or perhaps the bigger stories of history can be told from nearly any place as you can pick a place but you can also pick the point of view of the smallest insect and engage with Napoleon. You have beautiful pastoral writing in this book, for instance, “Lynn liked working in the countryside, she liked the narrow roads, the villages; she loved to see a deer on the edge of a forest or a rabbit hopping through a meadow, to surprise a snuffling hedgehog at night, to catch a glimpse of a carp at daybreak in the river Sèvre. Wherever she walk she reveled in nature’s perpetual movement, felt part of the riotous illusion of the world: she loved this place for its fragility born of uncertainty, this rustle of indecision between the beautiful and the commonplace.” But in other places in the book, with you remembering more eventful times of the same place, you say things like, “A far off time when the planes between tour and Niort teamed with miracles and wandering saints.” I think what’s amazing is you’ve conjured this other time of dynamic history unfolding within the here and now, especially even now imagining maybe David wrote these other pieces, maybe David wrote the pastoral, maybe David also wrote this imagining of the same region with the wandering saints and miracles. I know we didn’t talk about David’s only other book Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo, which is set during the counterrevolutionary uprisings during the French Revolution, some of which were taking place in Western France but you’ve made this region endlessly interesting, ecologically, historically, cosmologically and otherwise, which feels in many ways like an act of love. I know you’ve had other books in French since writing this one but perhaps as a way to end, we could hear about how writing this book and finishing this book, how it affected what you wanted to write next, what returning to Niort as a microhistorian, if you consider yourself a microhistorian in this book, a microhistorian with a savage mind, what did that do with regards to next topics or literary desires on how you wanted or where you wanted to go next in your imagination?
ME: First of all, it changed me, myself as a human being in my relationship to nature for example. After the writing of the book, after spending so many time there researching and wandering around into the wild, let’s say, I felt my relationship toward this place was very different in the end. I knew more and I felt more parts of this ecosystem, let’s say. But also it’s true that my desires in literature changed afterwards. I wanted to go away. [laughter] I wanted to switch places. The next novel is about East Germany Berlin, mathematics, and war in the 20th and 21st century, so it’s totally different. It’s more like, let’s say Zone or my first books and away from West France. Now, I’m writing again, I’m going back into the Arab world. I’m trying to write novel sets in the Arab world, saga I guess, and family stories. I think that’s one thing I’ve learned, that you don’t know really where your next book will take you, not until it’s finished. But you know that it will be some transformation also for yourself and that is what happened to me with the writing of The Banquet. That’s all.
DN: Well, thank you. It was a pleasure to talk with you today.
ME: Thank you, David. It was great, great, wonderful conversation.
DN: We’re talking today to Mathias Énard about his latest book in English, The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
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