Le dernier mot: An Interview with Jean-Michel Olivier
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FE: Could you tell us about your career as a writer?
JMO: For many years I alternated between books on fiction and essays. My first publications were an essay on photography, La toilette des images, and a piece, Lautreamont texte: le du vampire, where I tried to discuss Lautreamont’s “ ecriture vampirique” in his Les chants de Maldorore. I did an essay on painting called L’Empire de la couleur, an analysis of several recent theories on the importance and meaning of color. Later I turned to stories—I say “stories” because I feel that they did not fit the definition of the classical “ romanesque” novel. Finally I tried to prolong and strengthen that path called the novel. This resulted in three books, L’Homme de cendre (1987), La memoire engloutie (1990) which I consider my first true novel, and Le voyage en hiver (1994).
FE: Do you prefer writing essays or novels?
JMO: It’s difficult to say. Deep down, I feel the novel is a more open form, with ideas in constant motion through its characters and situations. That motion is more difficult to render in essay form.
FE: Can you offer a few details about one of your novels?
JMO: La memoire engloutierevolves around the idea of the first time: the first experience, the first step, the first punishment. The first experience in the novel is a man swimming in the sea, moving away from the coast. As he moves further away, he realizes t hat he won’t be able to make it back to shore, that he is slowly drowning. That is the novel’s main idea, the first time, and then “memory engulfed”. I had in mind a novel on the idea of the unconscious, on what Freud calls the Urszene , the primal scene, that which happens a first time and leaves its mark forever. Freud was mostly interested in scenes of trauma that leave impressions in early childhood. I suggest tat each day we are forced to do something new but these experiences don’t count because they are afterwards erased and one no longer thinks of them. There is a German proverb that states, Ein ist Mal kein Mal (One occasion is no occasion). That is an idea that I develop in La memoire engloutie. Instead of writing an essay on the first experience, I tried to express this in the narrative form of fiction.
FE: Tell us about Le voyage en hiver.
JMO: Le voyage en hiveris a different kind of story. In each of my books I try to do something new, new for me, a genre I have not explored or a theme I want to deepen. In Le voyage en hiver, I write about a path, the path of a mother. I had this image of a woman singing, a woman whose face I couldn’t see. And from that simple image, or rather sonority—a kind of series of sounds—I try to trace her journey. It is a story of a boy who is seven years old at the beginning of the book, then 17 or 18, who one day decides to go look for his mother who left him in Switzerland during the war—to protect him from the war but also to protect herself from a secret which she doesn’t want to reveal. At the end of the war the boy decides to set off to find his mother whom he knew for the first seven years of his life but whom he has not seen since. He begins with very little to guide him—just some post cards, pictures and information form people who met this idol. So he goes to Germany to Baden-Baden and then to Berlin. Finally the search for his mother becomes an investigation—very much like that of a detective—into the death of his mother. He has a vague memory of a certain path which pursues him, as he pursues the path of his mother.
FE: What authors have influenced you the most?
JMO: I was first fascinated with nineteenth century authors such as Lautreamont, and space his whole generation—from Nerval to Baudelaire—and from a slightly earlier period, Flaubert’s novels, as well as Gauthier, Mallarme and others. Afterward while studying English at the University of Geneva, I discovered such extraordinary writers as Melville, and then the generation of the 1880s: Joyce and Kafka, for example. Kafka has been very important for me purely on the level of literary technique and Joyce is a continent by himself. In his books, one has the impression that he surveys literature in its entirety, especially in Ulysses. Twentieth century writers such as Bataille, Michel Leiris, and Jean Genet have impressed me enormously. I have written many articles on Leiris and Bataille as well as on Artaud—a group that was rediscovered in the 70s when I was at the university. I really immersed myself in that era, rediscovering new authors.
FE: What is the future of young writers such as yourself? With the advent of the “information age”, is there apprehension that the book as a form might fall into oblivion?
JMO: Yes, you are right. I belong to a generation that has been stunned—in every sense of the term—by the nouveau roman (the New Novel), especially in the university. There was a sense that we had come to the end of something, that the novel was in agony, that we could no longer fruitfully pursue that type of writing. Many people were blocked, paralyzed—the period has been likened to an Ice Age. Finally the ice melted a little and that allowed the rediscovery of other authors and made it possible to write more simply and thus to open up new venues to things repressed by the nouveau roman or the formalism of the 70s. That is why I like to situate myself in the generation that comes soon after that period.
FE: What are your writing plans at the present time?
JMO: There are two books which I have more or less finished here in Ann Arbor. One, Les innocents, is a novel in which I try to imagine Salman Rushdie coming to Geneva to receive a literary prize in 1994 on the tercentennial of Voltaire’s birth, for which Geneva organizes enormous festivities. I imagine a sort of plot to assassinate him. It is a novel with thirteen characters each obsessed with a particular idea—the sort of obsessions of fanatics and fundamentalists. There is the mayor, who thinks only of protecting the environment at all costs, who is obsessed with stains, dirt and so forth. Anther character is a professor of etymology at the University obsessed with the purity of language, and there is a caricature of a cop who is sexist, racist, stupid—that sort of person—who is obsessed with obeying orders, who is a fanatic of order. Other characters in the book are bound to ideas of purity, innocence, etc. All these characters have in common the belief that the others are guilty, but they themselves basically can do no wrong—and that certainty that one has never done wrong renders them at once both vulnerable and extremely dangerous.
FE: You are offering a contemporary reading of the problem of religious fanaticism¿
JMO: Exactly. One character is precisely one of those “religious fanatics”—which I put in quotation marks because the problem is never so simple: there is not one fanaticism, but obviously many, and we should avoid lumping them all together. This character is nameless since one of the first things fanatics often renounce is their names; like kamikazes, they are entirely devoted to their mission. He is a student of religion obsessed with religious law, with “the book”. I avoid stating which book—it could be the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, or something else. In fact, in my book it is the discourse itself—religious, extremist—that is shown for all its dangers. So this character evolves side by side with the others, including the writer who comes to claim his prize. At various points their paths cross and at the end they almost meet. . . but I shouldn’t give away the ending.
The second book I wrote herein Ann Arbor is comprised of three stories with a common theme, which is the title of the book, Le dernier mot (The Final Word). I was interested in this idea because, with writing, one never knows what the end will be when one starts the book. What is strange with this book is that, in a certain way, I began with the end. I had in mind the idea of a story of a dying philosopher and I tried writing with enthusiasm and courage, but I wrote three and a half lines and after that found it impossible to go further. I was blocked and those lines became catastrophic. So I set it to the side for a while and tackled it from a different angle, starting with the second story in the book, then the first and finally the last one. Little by little, I found the type of coherence I wanted…Writing is a sort of immense walk forward, as you move in the text, it becomes a kind of exploration, an ongoing process.
LA MEMOIRE ENGLOUTIE (excerpt)
A man is drowning near the coast. While he’s sinking into the sea, he becomes the memory of water. HE mixes a chaos of remembrances. This is not an end of life statement, but a sum of total experiences, discoveries, pleasures and fears, tales and romances belonging only to him, which form a sort of personal mythology.
His life pours out in front of his sunken eyes. A living scene calls for another one, half worn off. It’s Livia’s voice and Peter’s face, the first cigarette, the first punishment, the first step, Cinebref with his forbidden pleasures a gallery of sea monsters…
And Lucrece’s profile, Dara’s hair, Judith’s laughter…
It’s a mass of forgotten faces, stuck inside the wa of memory, which reappear once, and call out for him. As he follows the thread of these first times, he discovers all the original scenes where his life, facing the outside, has suddenly broken in two.
Jean-Michel Olivier is a writer and professor of French literature in Geneva; he was the International Institute’s Visiting Swiss Professor for 1995-96. His publications include both critical essays and works of fiction: La toilette des images (Actuels, 1981); Lautreamont: le texte du vampire (L’Age d’Homme, Collection “ Contemporains, “ 1987); L’Homme de cendre (L’Age d’Homme, Collection “ Contemporains, “ 1987); La memoire engloutie (Le Mercure de France, 1990); Le voyage en hiver (L’Age d’Homme, Collection “ Contemporains, “ 1994); Olivier was interviewed in December 1995 by Frieda Ekotto, Professor of French literature in the Department of Romance Languages.