Experiential Lit: Grégoire Bouillier with Yann Nicol Translated by Violaine Huisman and Lorin Stein
Paris-based writer Grégoire Bouillier was born in 1960. After writing for reviews including L’Infini and NRV, his first novel, Rapport sur moi (Allia, 2002), was awarded the Prix de Flore. His new memoir, The Mystery Guest, has just been published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Yann Nicol, a freelance journalist based in Lyon, recently spoke to Bouillier.
Nicol: You came to writing relatively late, publishing your first book when you were 40. Do you consider yourself an autodidact? And would it be fair to say that you developed an especially visceral relationship to literature?
Bouillier: I don’t feel as if I came late to literature. In fact I’ve always written and read. Even when I was painting, I wrote on the side. But it’s true that I didn’t make up my mind to publish until I was 40. This wasn’t an accident. In Rapport sur moi I explain that I’d always thought I would publish a book when I was 40 and not before, because when I was five and caught a staph infection, they put me in quarantine [quarantaine] at the hospital, and I think it must have been so traumatic for me as a little kid, being a boy in a bubble, that the word “quarantine” was etched in my brain. So deeply etched that I became convinced, unconsciously, that I’d never do anything worthwhile until I made it past 40 [quarantaine]. Who knows, maybe if they put people in “trentaine” [thirties] instead of “quarantaine” I’d have written something in my thirties (laughs). That’s the neurotic version. But there are other things I could say. In a world where being young is valued above all else, I wouldn’t have liked to be labeled a young writer, with the emphasis falling on “young” not “writer.” In my opinion the writer has to place himself or herself in a time outside societal time, and in this sense, it seems to me, writing a book when you’re 40 could even be called a vaguely—very vaguely—political act. Plus, I still think that to write something worth reading you have to have lived. You need to have been up against things and beings, love, death, etc. Living deflowers the eyes and the mind. It tests our mettle. Cioran said that no philosophy survives a bout of seasickness; he could never have written that sentence if he hadn’t spent a day being seasick
All of our received ideas crumble in the face of any lived experience. And only then, it seems to me, does literature cease to be a more or less successful recombination of consonants and vowels. As we all know, life never stops challenging us with things that seem impossible to put into words. In the end, when it comes to literature, I don’t see any higher goal than to try to put down on paper the things that take our voice away. There is a sentence of Wittgenstein’s I love: “When you’re not sure of the facts, you’re not sure of the meaning of words.” Which is a good way of saying that our experience of language is inseparable from our experience of life. At any rate, my favorite books have always been ones that ask what actually took place, books that deal with what the author experienced firsthand and with the attempt to capture this experience, in all its robustness, through writing. We’re always hearing that truth is stranger than fiction, and yet it’s amazing how many books act as if nothing happened and keep telling stories that can’t hold a candle to reality. When it’s this continual tendency of truth—to keep being stranger than fiction—that is the very essence of the novelistic. And in everything I’ve written I’ve tried to capture this novelistic effect. But to go back to your question, I have to admit that for a long time I did what everybody else does and read the way we were all taught to read, as if literature occupied its own sphere outside real life—as if it were an activity with tidy boundaries that made it inoffensive. And then I realized that something wasn’t right. That the life I read about in books had nothing to do with the life I was living or saw going on all around me. It was what Debord would call a “spectacle.” Even though books claimed to talk about life, all they were really talking about was literature. Why? Was this the way it had to be? Were books only for people who didn’t know the value of their own experience? Or was it possible to write without treating the reader like an amusement-starved idiot or part of some tiny marketing niche? These were the questions that were bothering me when I sat down to write, and if being an autodidact means refusing to take a textbook view of the world, then I hope I’m an autodidact. So my relationship with literature is necessarily visceral, since that’s the only grounds I’ve found for explaining what happens to me and what happens in general, and to try and express that and share it with other people.
Nicol: In your first book, Rapport sur moi, you deal with the period of your youth. Is this necessary for any first book? Why did you use the word “rapport” [report]?
Bouillier: Well, it’s hard to tell the story of somebody’s life without talking about his or her childhood and youth . . . But that’s not the important thing. The book originally grew out of this feeling that we all live through various things—but what are they trying to tell us? Why did things go one way, not another? Why did we fall in love with a particular person and not somebody else? We all act as though everything that happens to us happens more or less by accident, but are we sure? I mean, what makes our lives unfold the way they do, and how much of what happens to us really has to do with us? I wrote Rapport sur moi because I wanted to answer these questions. To make a “rapport” is to give an account of what you’ve seen and heard, and—by starting with my own experience—I was simply trying to render as honestly as I could what I’d seen and heard, and it occurred to me that “rapport” could become a literary genre of its own, like the novel, the essay, etc. This had nothing to do with talking about myself or my childhood or my family or people I’d loved; the point was to start with all those things and work my way toward the underlying and—why not say it?—universal laws of life: the way it unfolds influenced by language, for example, or the way all the generally agreed-upon boundaries that we invoke when we talk about the past as opposed to the present, the conscious as opposed to the unconscious, love as opposed to sex, etc., fall apart when you take a closer look. In the moment of living they all happen at once. Everything that happens to us is also something that we make happen. That’s what my book is about. My book is also trying to say that anyone can put his or her life to use and claim it. These are our lives, after all, and nobody dies in our place.
Nicol: You begin the book with the words “I had a happy childhood,” even though the family situations that you describe are awfully dark and every moment of hope is followed by disappointment . . .
Bouillier: I don’t think I have a monopoly on moments of hope that end in disappointment. Isn’t that more or less the rule? In any case, when it comes to the family situation that I write about, there seems to have been some misunderstanding. Readers seemed to think I had leveled some horrible charge against my parents, but every situation I wrote about is there to serve a precise function, in the sense that it has repercussions years later. I wanted to show that every event is both the consequence of some earlier event and the cause of some event to come. To go back to the example of my staph infection, when I tell this story because I want to shed light from a new angle on the unhealthy love I had twenty-five years later for a woman named Laurence: if my parents hadn’t told me that you catch a staph infection from drinking stagnant water, would I have fallen in love with a girl whose name always made me think of “stale water” [l’eau rance] and whom I loved to suck? And everyone’s had some kind of childhood illness . . . Now, it’s true that my family situation may seem slightly peculiar. But there too, it’s just an illustration. Just look at Fritz Zorn’s memoir, Mars. The family described in this book—which you should go and read if you haven’t already—is the exact opposite of the one I grew up in: perfectly harmonious, happy in the way that only the grands bourgeois can afford, a sort of French national dream of the good life . . . But, you see, Zorn very clearly shows that this family idyll gave him cancer, the same cancer that ended up killing him on the very day that his manuscript was accepted for publication. All of which is to say, there’s no such thing as an ideal family, and it seems to me mine could be worse. In any case, there’s no solution to be found within the family, since every family takes its lead from the most neurotic family member. If we get that, we can start trying to take our lead from something else, right? The things that we go through are very rarely matters of chance. Which doesn’t mean that knowing where things come from exhausts their mystery. On the contrary. It lets you figure out just where their mystery lies.
Nicol: In your work you evoke the consequences (the collateral damage?) suffered by those like you who were children during the May ’68 uprisings. Do you think this is something you have in common with other writers, like Michel Houellebecq, who also deal with these things? Do you think this is a generational phenomenon?
Bouillier: La Bruyere has a sentence about writers, to the effect that art consists of them taking their personal faults and elevating these to general principles. I am a great fan of La Bruyere, and it seems to me that this line from his Characters applies to Houellebecq more than most. I find him kind of silly as a writer. What I mean is, he only uses his talent to express his resentment, which means he never goes very deep—in any case, it never goes deeper than his bitterness. Maybe that’s what makes his work so popular. Because it’s the kind of talent that suits the moment we’re living in, especially in France today. I don’t know. In any case, I’m not a writer of resentment: for me, the circus of life is much bigger than whatever feelings, good or bad, it might stir up in me. In that sense, I don’t feel at all in sync with “my” generation, and don’t much care. I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t consider myself a child of ’68. Because I’m both a child of that moment and my parents’ son and a product of the French middle class and an heir to Homer and the result of my own experience—and, at the same time, none of these things at all. That said, the way I talk about the ’60s in my book may have led to a certain amount of confusion. Because I described the way my parents got caught up in the mood of the ’60s, some readers got the idea that I was trying to issue some kind of wholesale denouncement of the excesses of the sexual liberation movement, the irresponsibility of the parents of ’68 and everything else . . . The only side I meant to take, here or anywhere else, was the side of the facts, the way Francis Ponge took “the side of things.” If I talked about the ’60s and ’70s, it was because those were the years when I was born and grew up. It’s merely an observation, and readers who took it as a denunciation must have done so for reasons of their own. I would have written the exact same thing if I’d been born in 1933.
What I mean to say is, a person’s reality does not belong to his or her historical period. And to wish destruction on the generation of ’68 strikes me as ridiculous. Most of all, it seems childish. Don’t tell me it was a picnic to be a child of the Vichy years. And the first thing Alfred de Musset says at the beginning of his Confession of a child of the century is that to be a son of Waterloo and a grandson of the French Revolution was no picnic, either, and that’s why he considers the adventures of his hero Octave part of the general “despair” that afflicts his historical moment. We could say the same today, no? In the end, all we can do is grapple with the times in which we were born, and just as there’s no such thing as an ideal family, there’s no golden age. What counts is one’s historical sense. What we call May ’68, however special that period was, strikes me as no better and no worse than any other. I can’t help thinking it might even have been less bad than some, if we judge by the standards of today, what with AIDS and global warming and pollution, etc., all of it wrapped up with the rise of the society of the spectacle and political correctness. Over the last thirty years these things have managed to overshadow the idea the very idea of freedom—a lovely word that nowadays sounds incredibly anachronistic and is enough to start a fight in the midst our current security mania [délire sécuritaire], our obsession with equality [hystérie égalitaire], our panic over cultural identity [phobie identitaire]—all pathologies ending in “shut up” [taire]. Celine said that to punish is the last pleasure that will be left to our societies. It will be interesting to read the books written by the “children of 2000.”
In the end, what annoys me most about the people who make a target of the ’60s is that they’re aligning themselves with the reactionary devolution of our society. For me it’s much more interesting to read Philip Roth’s analysis of that period in The Dying Animal, since he makes sure each character is caught in a trap all his own: David Kepesh, the ultimate “professor of desire,” falls in love and gets jealous. His son, who incarnates the current shift back to the moral order and family values and who rails against his soixante-huitard father’s promiscuity, falls prey to adultery, etc. This complexity is what makes the book exciting and moving. What makes it real.
Nicol: Let’s talk about The Mystery Guest. The book begins with an odd request—that you come as a mystery guest to somebody’s birthday . . .
Bouillier: The setup of the book is very simple. A woman who has left a man without saying why calls him years later and asks him to be the “mystery guest” at a birthday party thrown by the artist Sophie Calle. And by the end of this fashionable—and utterly humiliating—party, the narrator figures out the secret of their breakup. I originally meant to include this story in my first book since it involves one of the female characters whom we meet in Rapport sur moi. It was just that, if I wanted to give the backstory of this episode in my life, I had to go into lots of detail. And that was impossible given the framework of Rapport sur moi, where I cover 40 years of my life in 200 pages; here it was taking me a hundred pages just to get through fifteen days, so I preferred to make it a book of its own. The fun part of writing this story was telling it the way I experienced it then, from a bipolar point of view. Because the book is all about one guy’s investigation into the reasons behind a breakup, and the whole thing revolves around this quasi-detective story. Only instead of there being car-chases and gunfights, all the shooting takes place in the narrator’s head and nerves.
Nicol: This invitation is also the beginning of your relationship with the artist Sophie Calle. One of the things you seem to have in common is the way you use your lives as the material for your art.
Bouillier: I like Sophie Calle very much, as a woman and an artist. At the same time, we have very different approaches to the world. Sophie creates situations which she then turns to her own personal and artistic ends; she’s the one who stages more or less manipulated real-life scenarios. Like this thing with her birthday party, where she wanted a “mystery guest” to symbolize the next year of her life, and had everyone bring her presents which she wouldn’t open because she was going to use them as part of some later installation. In the end, she enjoys controlling and toying with people. I’m the opposite. I let situations come to me as they are, and only later, after I’ve experienced them and let them go on their way (even when this isn’t always the smartest thing to do . . . ) do I look and see what they were trying to tell me. Sophie believes in the genius of the artist while I pay attention to the genius of life. In a story she wants to speak first, whereas I always want to have the last word, and it’s precisely because we occupy opposite ends of this spectrum that we get along so well.
Nicol: The real mystery guest at this birthday party might also be Mrs. Dalloway . . .
Bouillier: There’s a sentence in the book that reads, “Just when you think you’ve thought of everything, you forget the book sitting right there on your bedside table.” And really, if there is a mystery, it’s that people write books and other people read them. What for? I don’t think a book is just some kind of “cultural good,” the way we’re made to think of it nowadays, even if everything is set up to bring literature down to that level. In Rapport sur moi I already showed what a huge effect it can have on someone’s life to read Homer’s Odyssey. In The Mystery Guest, the book is Virginia Woolf’s novel, which mysteriously invites itself into the psyche of the female character—so that by the end of the book we owe our explanation of why she left the narrator to Mrs. Dalloway. What I’m trying to say is that literature has a use. Books don’t just have a market value. They’re not just a good way to kill an hour. Certain books can find their way into our lives and literally bring them to fruition. Because we exist in language, books can speak us, and we can also act and speak through our reading, even if we too forget the book on our bedside table. Books—at least certain books—aren’t inert things, and this is exactly why they’re dangerous: they don’t just shed their light in the groves of literature, they have repercussions in our lives. I’ve tried to write about one of those repercussions. What’s certain is that “Bovarysme” [living one’s life as though it were a novel] isn’t some invention of Flaubert’s. The phenomenon has been around for as long as there have been books.
This interview was made possible by the Villa Gillet in Lyon, France. For more details, goto www.villagillet.net
Grégoire Bouillier was born in 1960. He wrote for reviews like L’Infini and NRV. _His first novel, _Rapport sur moi (Allia, 2002), was awarded the Prix de Flore. His second book, The Mystery Guest : An Account, has just been published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This interview was made possible by the Villa Gillet in Lyon, France.
Yann Nicol is a journalist, a proofreader and a presenter of literary symposia.