On a sunny yet decidedly chilly spring morning, I meet the illustrious French writer Laurent Gaudé in the legendary Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse, long a gathering place for creative titans (think Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein et al). Gaudé arrives at the Art Deco style café amidst the intermittent clatter of cutlery and espresso cups. At 46, he has an enviable mane of silver white hair, which frames his rugged good looks. He pulls a notebook out of a black leather bag, along with several identical pens, explaining with a shy smile that inspiration may flow at any moment.
Gaudé writes his first drafts in long-hand; he enjoys putting pen to paper. After that he turns to typing and editing on the computer. “I am attached to the physical activity of writing,” he says, “but I cannot write long hours; my hand cramps, my muscles ache, and I must take a break. I like writing’s connection to the body; it’s not just a cerebral matter, it is a matter of physical energy.”
His first play, Onysos the Wild, was written in 1997 (it was first produced in France in 2000, and in the U.K. in 2005). In 2002, his second novel, The Death of King Tsongor, made him the talk of the town. Two years later he won The Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, for The House of Scorta, which has since been published in three dozen countries. As of today, he has written 17 plays, 10 novels, numerous short stories, poems, articles, and libretti.
Gaudé’s poignant 2016 novel, Hear Our Defeats, is newly available in English from Europa Editions. Telling stories of both contemporary and historical events and characters, it also manages to articulate the defeat that dwells within us all. One of the aforementioned characters is Assem Graieb—a French intelligence officer whose mission is to track down a former U.S. Special Forces soldier—and Mariam, an Iraqi archaeologist dedicated to saving ancient artifacts from the destruction wreaked by ISIS. Half-way through their life’s journey, these characters are trying to balance the desire burning in them to accomplish things, with a fatigue that threatens to overwhelm. The book also considers figures like ancient Carthage’s great military commander Hannibal and his battle against the Roman Republic in the Punic Wars; the Union’s heralded General Ulysses S. Grant and the devastating Civil War between the North and the South in the United States; and Ethiopia’s mighty regent Haile Selassie’s resistance against Mussolini, which resulted in his exile and subsequent return and elevation to emperor of Ethiopia. The 15 chapters that comprise Hear Our Defeats offer a poetic narrative on the ills of humanity that plague us to this day.
“I believe in the power of words; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing,” Gaudé states. “And I am thrilled by the release of Hear Our Defeats in English. For French authors, the U.S. is a challenging territory.” In May, he traverses North America, including Chicago (at the Alliance Française on May 3), New York City (at Albertine bookstore for PEN World Voices Festival on May 7), Washington, D.C. (at Politics and Prose bookstore on May 8), and Montreal (at Théâtre Prospero for a stage adaptation of Hear Our Defeats on May 14-18). As he prepares for his upcoming transatlantic journey and completes a new 200-page poem on Europe (to be published in France by Actes Sud around the time of the European Parliament elections in May), the peripatetic writer made a little time to sit down and talk.
Aysegul Sert: Why was it important for you to meet here in Montparnasse?
Laurent Gaudé: This is my neighborhood. I was born a few hundred meters from here. I was raised here, went to school here, and now live with my own family here. It has always been my home. So many artists have passed though Montparnasse. I am sensitive to that, to the fact that several successive layers of history are laid in one place. I am moved by the past of a place, to see a sign that announces: “Here Hemingway came to write.” We are at the same place though at a different time.
Both my parents were psychoanalysts. In retrospect, I see now that my parents’ profession allowed me to grow up in an environment where words were not to be taken lightly, because when you are in psychoanalysis, you believe in the power of words to help heal. I grew up hearing stories—of course without any mention of patients’ names or information—and I took notice that words could make or break a life; that the violence of words could destroy one’s existence, but that words could also offer consolation and ease to put pieces back together for someone’s life. So, probably, now that I’m thinking, by becoming a writer myself, it was my way of extending the belief in the power of words. My parents’ approach was clinical, mine is literary, but the common point is our strong belief that words matter.
AS: Would you say that the opening page of Hear Our Defeats testifies to that belief in the power of words? “Everything that accumulates inside us, year after year, without our noticing: the faces we thought we’d forgotten, sensations, ideas we were sure we had fixed so they would endure but which then disappear, return, disappear again, a sign that beyond our consciousness something is alive in us that escapes us but transforms us, everything that moves in that place, advancing darkly, year after year, subconsciously, until one day it surfaces and we are almost seized with fright, because it becomes clear that time has passed and we don’t know if it will be possible to live with all these words, all these moments we’ve experienced and endured, and which end up freighting us, in the way we might refer to a ship. Perhaps this is what we call wisdom: this collection of everything…”
LG: I believe that we are all built of elements that are different and even contradictory. This is precisely why literature is so precious; if there is a place where the multiplicity of viewpoints is central, it’s in novels. There aren’t many places where such contradictions and multiplicities can be told. There are ten possible ways of looking at an event and that these ten viewpoints are right in their own way even if they are contradictory. Novels are the place of plurality. That’s why novels are looked upon with distrust by all authoritarian regimes—because in novels pluralities exist.
[His face lights up] Like Mariam, I’ve been fascinated with archeology for a long time. The idea of dedicating your life to something “useless” intrigues me. I say useless but I profoundly believe it to be useful. One could say that to dig up old objects from the ground and to place them in a museum while there is a war going on next door may not be the priority, that it does not save lives, that people first and foremost need to be fed. It’s a little bit like literature. Yes, writing novels is useful. Yes, saving ancient artifacts is useful.
Where I may be similar to Assem is in the feeling that everything accumulates in us. Assem is a man of action, I am not; even when I go to places that are unstable or poor, I am just an observer. And that’s what draws me to him: what is it like to be a man of action? What is it like to face all that we have done? It’s everything that is not me that brings me close to Assem.
Let me say that there is a large gap between who I am and the characters I write about. I have a big appetite for happiness but it’s also true that my books carry conflicts and tragedy. It’s perhaps just more visible when it comes to writers. By writing we bring those parts of ourselves to the surface.
AS: You find literary beauty in defeat. Would you say that single word is the essence of your desire to write this novel?
LG: Each one of us has an appointment with defeat. It seems like a binary notion, in the sense that there is defeat or victory, success or failure, but when we look more carefully, we see that it is a malleable notion, and it is difficult to affirm for sure. Sometimes we don’t know who is the winner and who the loser after all. That’s why I wanted to use a military presence in the novel; we realize it is complicated to say who lost and who won. It all depends on what timeline you focus on. At the end of a day of battle, if one side lost 2000 men and the other lost five, the first lost and the other won, but there will be another battle tomorrow someplace else, and even if this one is won, maybe the next one will be lost, and even if it’s lost this time perhaps it is the seed for the next war to be won. If you look at a short time period, it’s easier to say who lost and who won, but if you expand the time frame it becomes dizzying because at the end we don’t know and that’s what I find captivating.
Personally, I am not capable of saying whether I am victorious or defeated; we have moments of joy and moments of misfortune. What can victory or defeat say of our lives, I don’t know. I don’t fancy words such as success or failure. We will all know defeat. It’s marked on our life path. It does not mean that it is not worth living life fully—there will be losses of those we have loved, there will be losses of our younger self… Our world will slowly disappear, and each generation witnesses the disappearance of its own world.
AS: In Hear Our Defeats did your research on a particularly American historical event change your vision of the United States?
LG: At the start I didn’t know much about the historical context (of the Civil War). We don’t study it much in school, at least during my time. When I began to dig, it fascinated me. And when I came across the fact that General Grant, in addition to all that history, had a drinking problem, I was hooked. This weakness gives density to fiction: here is a man of victory on the battlefield but defeated in his personal life.
For me the United States is an incomprehensible country. As a French writer, it’s an unsettling place; on one hand I feel a great closeness with the U.S. through its movies, television series, and music; on these points we feel almost like a child of this culture. However, there is also a huge other part of the U.S. that we don’t know well and if we did maybe we’d feel less of an acquaintanceship. When I think of a country that displays everywhere: “In God We Trust,” that is not my world; it absolutely means nothing to me. Quite the contrary I find it scary. When I see such displays, it makes me realize how different we actually are. I am not from a culture that states, “In God We Trust.” It’s perplexing—one moment you feel close then suddenly not; on certain points we are even built-in opposition. Maybe that is the explanation behind the great European shock when Donald Trump won the presidential election; Europe had not understood how American Trump is. The same happened with George W. Bush. The favorite candidate of Europe is often not the elected one in America, because what we imagine America to be, is simply not.
(. . .)
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