Yan Nicol (Nicol): La vie Commune, Everyday Life, now translated in English and available in the USA, was first published in France fifteen years ago and is one of your first novels. Looking back, what do you think of the book?
Lydie Salvayre (Salvayre): I never read over my books. I look at them as dead and buried love stories. But I do keep some memories of them. And the memory I have of La vie Commune seems linked to the question of paranoia.
I feel passionately interested in paranoia, probably for biographical reasons, since I grew up alongside a paranoid father who slept with a gun under his bed. But that’s not the only reason.
A paranoid person is on a desperate quest for meaning, which makes him an author of sorts, since he keeps introducing a fiction between him and the world in order to make sense of it.
A paranoid person goes to extremes for this quest—which is general in itself—in order to find a clear and legible meaning of life and of the world. The more the world appears to be an incoherent, chaotic, wild, and dangerous place, the stronger, more demanding and acute his quest becomes.
I sometimes think that a form of paranoia is at the foundation of my writing: the urge to make sense of things, the urge to quarrel, to rebel against murderous foolishness, to denounce the causes of Evil. But at the same time, I feel an equal urge to express non-sense, confusion of signs, the incomprehensible “which never ceases to live and learn” as Pascal put it, accidental beauty and chance, the pure pleasure of writing with no intent whatsoever.
To get back to my memory of La Vie Commune, I believe that Suzanne, the central character, is a woman who makes sense of her misfortune by finding an enemy. This is a typical paranoid stratagem; it’s very common, even commonplace. Is the enemy real or imaginary? It doesn’t matter. What matters, I believe, is that (as is often the case with paranoids), the mania of this woman brings on a terrific power of elucidation since it reveals a truth that I consider crucial: it uncovers a definitive shift in the working world, where profit has now superseded ethics.
By shrouding herself with ethics—as she does—by persisting in remaining virtuous when she should be efficient and engrossed in stock options, Suzanne shows she is totally unsuitable for office life and for the world as it is shaping out to be. Her nostalgic quest to find a place to blossom and be uplifted through her work shows that she is attached to a lapsed ideology, since work is now separated from life, since it contributes nothing to shape the identity of men, and even less to reveal them as efficient subjects, since the time they assign to work is idle when not painful.
Indeed we could wonder, with Suzanne, if life (real life? absent life?) hasn’t completely found refuge in the time removed from work. With her, we can wonder if contemplation, meditation, slowness, and unproductive time—which literature feeds on and is made of—this time of laziness which Flaubert called la marinade and which is nowadays totally discredited, aren’t answers of sorts to the exasperating logics of growth.
I seem to remember that in this novel, there is also mention of a difficult mother-daughter relationship, which is my way to attack family romances, the “naturally abominable” ties, and family relationships solely based on power plays. It’s a theme I’ve tackled in my subsequent novels perhaps more brutally and more relentlessly. The family as a never-ending source of oppressive experiences, which we play over, later in life, with other people… Family as a vocational training course for submissiveness… Family as a war zone…
Nicol: The title of the novel sounds like a manifesto. Do you think that literature is primarily meant to evoke “everyday life”, ‘la vie commune’?
Salvayre: I don’t know how the title has been translated in American. In French, the title is deliberately ambivalent since it describes at the same time “ordinary life, common life” and life in common, with the possibility that they may sometimes cross over.
I don’t know if the polysemy of the word common translates well, but the hesitation between two possible meanings, the deliberate ambiguity of “common” does not sit well with the notion of manifesto. For me, manifesto evokes a single voice, a single understanding and a single claim.
Do I think that literature is meant to convey the ordinariness of social life? Frankly, I don’t know what literature is meant to achieve. I do know that I have no taste for sociology, while on the other hand I have a pronounced taste for nettles, the nettles Arno Schmidt talks about when he urges writers to “grasp by the handful the nettles of reality” (in Scenes in the Life of a Fawn).
Arno Schmidt does not say that a writer must grasp reality—a job best left to sociologists or politicians—he says that he must grasp the nettles of reality.
What do nettles represent? Rejection, pain, irritation, inflammation, and the impossibility to cultivate—it’s the favourite plant of writers, who leave roses, lilies and other greenhouse plants to the political activists and poets from another century.
Nettles suppose some sort of a rash, a grating style, able to strip the skin off common things, and common lives.
You have to take a banal character, in this case, Suzanne. She’s a secretary, her life is uneventful, mediocre and humdrum, she has no story to tell. She could be my mother, or myself for that matter. Now the idea is to pick a character like her and to cook her with nettles. In any case, I daresay that such was my intention in La Vie Commune, but I also intended to underlie the book with a praise for the banal. You discover abruptness and steepness under flatness. Uncouthness under politeness. Madness under banality. And politics under the meaningless.
Nicol: You’ve always preferred telling other people’s stories rather than yours. Even if your fictitious constructions reveal a certain side of you and of your view of the world, why haven’t you tried your hand at an autobiographical novel?
Salvayre: I believe some things are better kept inside, otherwise you may well fall into the trap of lyrical pathos, self pity or narcissistic brewing, which can lead to a confessional display, very in vogue in France, and which—in most cases—only lead to an extra falsehood.
I’m particularly unwilling to open “my little bag of secrets”, because the literature I love seems mostly composed of shadows in which to bury, hide and disguise such secrets.
On the other hand, I don’t believe that we should eliminate the intimacy that moves us; we have to use its emotional weight and interior motion as an impulse to prove our necessity to write.
No reader can be fooled by this necessity.
Without this necessity: no novel is possible.
Without this necessity: we’re only chattering.
Of that much I am certain.
When I wrote La Vie Commune, I think that my necessity was to secretly understand my father’s paranoia, which had led him, to my despair, to be locked up in a psychiatric hospital in Toulouse.
Nicol: Your parents were political refugees from Spain, who arrived in France in 1939. Could you tell us about this double culture, particularly your relationship with French, the language you write in?
Salvayre: I’ve always spoken two languages. At home, I spoke Spanish, my parents’ language and I spoke French outside.
Broadly speaking, this is how things panned out: Spanish became the language of intimacy, of interior riposte, the language that handled everything left out by the beautiful exterior tongue: bad taste, crude jokes, what didn’t legally exist, excesses and overflows. So I used Spanish for what was improper, risible, ugly, or even monstrous.
At the same time, I was learning French: the refined language of school, the very language of books, of politeness, the hyper controlled, hyper ordered, perfect language with a perfect grammar. French meant beauty of expression and decorum.
Those two languages were at war from the start. And the war worsened because at the same time that I discovered the excesses of baroque Spanish literature, I fell passionately in love with French classics, especially Racine and Pascal. To me, they incarnated, they were, the French language. A clear, simple, readable, measured language, well filtered, rid of its baroque dross, cleansed of the dirty marks of popular culture, of insults, blasphemies, trivialities, grossness…
The two languages are constantly at war within me. But I love this war, it’s a loving war and I never tire of it, because I think it ends up breeding this other language: the language of my books.
Nicol: There’s also a certain duality in your professional life, since you are at the same time a writer and a psychiatrist. How do these two activities relate to each other?
Salvayre: Definitely not as a war, this time. I could almost say that these two activities, as I practice them anyway, are linked by a certain friendship and although they’re completely different, they do share a few features.
It seems to me that they are both somehow “unquantifiable”. During a treatment, the impact of a word cannot be measured, just like the power of a book cannot be measured. In a world where everything is quantified, this element never ceases to please me.
Both activities imply a certain ability to remain silent and to listen to other people’s words, while expecting one’s own words to finally come out as both strange and familiar.
Finally, and it’s the most obvious point, they’re both practices of language, with all the fragility, the uncertainty and the quivers it implies. That’s the reason why Freud said of psychoanalysis that it was an impossible practice. I believe the same goes for literature.
Everyday life, by Lydie Salvayre is translated from the French by Jane Kuntz and published by Dalkey Archive Press (November 2006)
Other books by Lydie Salvayre also available in English: The Company of Ghosts, The Award and The Lecture.
This interview was made possible by the Villa Gillet in Lyon, France. For more details, go to www.villagillet.net
Yann Nicol is a journalist, a proofreader and a presenter of literary symposia.Lydie Salvayre
Salvayree is the author of over 10 works, translated into 14 languages.