A Visit with Châteaureynaud: Part 2 of 3

March 13th, 2011 § 0 comments

This is the second of three posts about a recent visit with author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, recently translated into English for the first time with A Life on Paper. In the last installment, I describe arriving at his house, and discuss his latest works. The evening conversation drifted toward literary chatter, which is where we pick up:


Châteaureynaud at Les Inédits Reading Series, 1/24/11

“How’s the new novel coming?”

“I’ve written up a few synopses of ideas so far, to see which one I like best.”

“You work from synopses?”

“I didn’t always. I probably just put my head down and dived into Les Messagers,” he said, referring to his first novel from 1974, which won the Prix des Nouvelles Littéraires. Slim, dark, and elusively allegorical, it concerns an aimless young man who apprentices himself to a mysterious messenger forever seeking the intended recipient of the message he bears. It was reissued by Actes Sud in a revised version in 1997.

“Do you do them for yourself, or your publisher?”

“Both. They’re usually around fifteen pages, though the one for L’Autre rive was sixty, and sold my editor on it. Of course, the story changed a lot after that.” The 650 page L’Autre rive [The Other Shore] recounts Bennett Riven’s search for his biological father against the complex sociological backdrop of Écorcheville, a city on the river Styx. The 2007 novel won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire at Utopiales, the science fiction and fantasy festival in Nantes. It is, by his own admission, the closest he’s come to magical realism—which may, he opines, be the way all novels of the fantastic incline.

“The basic pattern of the classical fantastical story—reality destabilized by a breach—lends itself to the short form,” said Châteaureynaud. “True novels of the fantastic are hard to pull off, and the successes few and far between, guiding our way like landmarks.”

Uniting as it does settings and characters from his hundred-odd short stories, L’Autre rive has the feel of a statement or summation.

“There’s this holdover idea in French literature that one of a writer’s great tasks is creating a consistent, coherent world over the course of a body of work: Balzac, Zola,” said Châteaureynaud. “Critics look kindly on it.”

“Is that what you were trying to do with L’Autre rive?”

“Not consciously, no—that’s not what I set out to do,” he smiles. “But my world isn’t very coherent, either.”

While characters and settings seem to recur throughout Châteaureynaud’s work, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the names have been intentionally re-used, though any given incarnation of a person or place may have only an oblique connection to the last, or the next. This lends continuity in his body of work a dreamlike quality, a sense of slippage.

“I have the great fortune of remembering my dreams,” Isak Dinesen once said. Châteaureynaud shares this blessing. He claims always to remember his dreams on waking, though he has never kept a dream diary. Many dreams have been fodder for stories. Now, with age, he wakes several times a night, each time with a dream in mind, but never turbulent or disturbing. He rarely has nightmares anymore.

“I have this theory,” he says. “I think I owe the fact that I sleep well to writing. I really do. I think forty years of writing have sort of purged or cleansed my subconscious.

“Work was a sort of penance, and won me a certain reprieve.” As he says this, he has a faraway look in his eye—the fabulist, afraid he won’t be believed. “But even when I did have nightmares, they were never gory. They had more to do with anxiety, or dread.”

Châteaureynaud’s story “A Room on the Abyss” contains the lines:

People seem to take it for granted that elevators never go higher than the building’s highest floor… Fox isn’t convinced. The elevator, he thinks, could easily shoot right by the final landing without even slowing down.

“Was that,” I ask, referring to the neverending elevator, “a recurring dream?”

“No,” he chuckles, “I lived that.”

Drawn from personal experience, the image of a garret occupied by mother and son occurs frequently in his work. The room at the top of the world was a haven and an eyrie, but getting there was always an ordeal. “I hated that rickety elevator.”

In one of Châteaureynaud’s recurring dreams—perhaps the most recognizable as a type, the “public speaking” dream—he is giving a reading. When he looks down at the page, he cannot, despite frantic efforts, find the line he needs.

“It probably stems from a fear that the book is no good—it doesn’t have the words you need.” he muses. In another frequent dream, he wanders an endless house, a house with an infinite number of rooms (something similar occurs in his story “La demeure de l’amour est vaste”). If that dream mirrors Borges’ horror of infinity, yet another presents a neurotic Sisyphus.

“I’m going through the piles of stuff people have thrown out in front of their houses on the day the township comes by for large refuse,” he says. “In each pile there’s a great find, something amazing, a priceless comic, a forgotten record, a first edition, something I’ve been looking for. Soon my arms are full; I can’t carry it all; I have to pick something to set down. At the next pile, I lay it carefully beside me on the ground and go back to rummaging, but the next time I look it’s gone. This happens again and again, driving me absolutely wild. There’s also one about a car I keep losing or crashing, and keep stubbornly replacing, over and over.”

G.-O. has a number of amusing stories about cars. In 1974, when he spent his days mounting tires as an unskilled assembly line worker at Saviem, the Prix des Nouvelles Littéraires for his first novel Les Messagers netted him the then-princely sum of 50,000 Francs, with which he could have bought three cars, though “I contented myself with just one.” The prize no longer exists today, and would amount without inflation to about 7500 Euros—not even enough for a new Vespa. The Renault 4L—“L for Luxury”—that he bought served him well for the next decade, during which he took up the bric-a-brac trade, though by the tail end it was ailing.

“The doors wouldn’t close any more, so I bungeed them shut from the inside when I was driving. I’d be at the wheel with the elastic strap running just under my chest. Also the hood was loose, and would pop up and block your view when you stopped at an intersection.”

Chateaureynaud was more of a rag-and-bone man, or rummage sale dealer on the flea market scene that fringes respectable antiquing, a distinction drawn in French between the words brocanteur and antiquaire, and one he is careful, with his customary modesty, to make. He retains fond memories of the friends he’s lost touch with from those days, “acquaintances of happenstance,” and brocanteur characters, with their low cunning and happy-go-lucky ways, affectionately litter his fiction. Châteaureynaud locates the charm in their fly-by-night lifestyle and some essential guilelessness in these characters more often depicted as sharpers with an eye for a quick buck.

“Once a guy presented me with an old board game from my childhood, in perfect condition. It was the exactly kind of thing I went for, but how had he known?” he said. “I passed it on to my eldest son, and now it’s in pitiful shape; some of the pieces are probably lost for good.”

What comes across in this comment is not the plaint of the collector who bemoans all things not mint-in-box, but a sort of so-it-goes on the inevitable fate of objects, which even or especially our fondness for erodes. Use endears to us the very things it destroys, something Châteaureynaud understands both as a writer and brocanteur. One thinks of the virtuoso Blandeuil’s beloved instrument in its scuffed case—his only solace and companion, on which wear has conferred the terrible value of mortality—as he flees town in “The Dolceola Player.”

At other times, his focus shifts from a quest for these talismans that desire endows with the ability to restore to us a lost time. Instead, Châteaureynaud presents the impassivity of the world of objects, mute witnesses, which predate and will outlast us, pitiful and bewildered wanderers among them. His memoir, Life Watches Us Go By, begins:

From the first day, from behind every window, from the embrasure of every doorway down every street we walk, life watches us go by. The mannequins in their displays, the statues and the mascarons never lift their pupilless gaze from us. Clocks atop their tall iron posts at intersections once measured our passage. Most have been removed, only a few survive in the most touristed neighborhoods. Paris no longer tells us the hour from every street corner; we must now each seek it on our wrists, where time beats like blood.

Next time: the fantastic contemplated, career regrets, a medieval allegory on the birth of French literature, “my most Boullean novel”, writer’s block, and more

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