‘De Beauvoir, my heroine’
Wednesday’s Writer, 12 April 23
The Le Claireur site lets living writers chat about the books that mean something to them. Glenn Johnston, our man about Joycetown on Twitter, brought a recent sitdown with French novelist Éliette Abécassis to the Riffs’ news desk and so here we are. Abécassis’s latest is Un couple, published by Grasset this year. Since so many Riffs articles bang on about historical, personal or political subjects, this short interview seemed a good way to focus on contemporary writers talking about what they like, and will maybe give readers a few books to search for. (Translation by Riffs Service Presse, edited ever so slightly for speed.)
The first book that made a deep impression on you ?
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, where she writes about the strict childhood which formed her, her intellectual evolution and the reason she choose to be a philosopher and later, a professor and writer. I completely identified with Beauvoir, my heroine.
What’s your favorite book about love ?
Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. A poignant book. “For years after the war, after his marriages, his children, divorces and books, he came to Paris with his wife.” I love that sentence. It’s a book that talks about love in a very intimate fashion.
What book makes you blush ?
Choderlos De Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons. No one else will ever write anything as provocative. Even today, and especially in today’s so very decent and moralistic climate. Liaisons is the most scathing piece of work ever.
What book disturbs you ?
Not tonight (Pas ce soir) by Amélie Cordonnier, whose subject is abstinence, a relationship tabou. Like all her books, it’s upsetting because it goes to the heart of what isn’t said, all those obvious things we can’t see or even be aware of.
What book obsesses you ?
The Bible. I read parts of it almost every day. It’s part of my culture, my childhood, something transmitted generation to generation, a book we never stop reading and interpreting. It has unbelievable power, a profusion of characters based around the insane project of creating and then spreading ten commandments whose purpose is to better humanity. What a pitch !
What book makes you laugh ?
Umberto Eco’s Pastiches and Postiches, which pokes fun of the readers at the publishing house that turns down Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (‘This man must have problems’), the Bible (‘Too dense’) and has funny parodies like Nonita, after Lolita, except that it’s the story of a man who’s crazy about elderly women.
What book makes you cry ?
Victor Hugo’s The Legend of the Centuries. His poems about poverty are so touching I can’t read them without collapsing in tears, which happens when I read Les Miserables, too.
Which book don’t you understand ?
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I didn’t get this incredible literary adventure at all, even if it revolutionized the novel, mixing all the genres. I appreciated the way it unfolds in a strange, disconcerting manner which is nevertheless brilliant. Through a mysterious writer’s research, we’re led into a swarm of histories, all of them mad, funny, atrocious.
What book consoles you ?
Ecclesiastes. A profound meditation on death, passing time, human relations, and evil, all at once. Not exactly a religious text but a subversive one, with no false hopes. Nothing can be expected from men and nothing awaits after death. But at the bottom of this despair, there exists the brief sparkle of happiness despite our concience of the vanity of existence.
What’s the book that you’ve wanted to read for years without ever getting to it ?
Joyce’s Ulysses. I dream about reading it. Maybe I heard too much talk about it, cited it too often in my student dissertations, so I’ll be angry with myself for not reading it sooner.
Interview : Lisa Muratore for Le Claireur 8 April 2023
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Éliette Abécassis’s previous books include Nos rendez-vous (2020), Quram (1996), Un heureux événement (2005), and Le Maître du Talmud (2018). She is productive, even by the standards of French writers. If Only is available in English from Simon & Shuster. Her site is here.
Putting my two cents in, I’ll add that I’m posting this short interview not as an Abécassis aficionado – apart from this interview I haven’t read a word she’s written – but because her list intrigued me, ranging from modern classics like Duras and de Beauvoir (one imagines every young French lit-minded female devouring both of them) to the Bible and Bolaño, and Joyce, who’s she’s yet to read. (Why start with Ulysses, in heaven’s name ? The letters are a pretty sexy read…) As far as Moses and his commandments go, forty years in the desert is a stretch. I suspect the interesting chapters were deleted from that trek, even if the infallible leader’s despair finally provoked God into a rare appearance. ‘Keep ‘em busy with these stones,’ said He, ‘And knock off the Golden Calf business while you’re at it.’ David’s the far more compelling story, a crafty ruler and a poet, a gift to singers and novelists alike. In passing, Hugo’s Legend is a fat book of poems about a great deal more than the suffering of the poor. But she’s right about Liaisons : it’s a stand-alone in French literature, and nothing – not Julian Morel’s outrage in The Red and the Black or any pages you like from Celine – comes close to its sulferous cunning. Hugo wrote his book in exile; Choderlos De Laclos planned his in jail.
In any case, Le Claireur isn’t a literary site. Its job is to sell books.