[31 July 2014]
How do you write about a writer whose expertise is writing about writers, about the recent book on writers she’s published?
To calm the nerves, you follow the advice of Mario Vargas Llosa, who reminds us that “…literature is a balm. To be used the same way as one would bandage a wound. It heals, it calms, it relieves. Sometimes it even produces a scar. It may hurt, but it also helps.”
This piece of advice is but one of many remarkable insights contained in Florence Noiville’s absorbing collection of essays, Literary Miniatures.
Noiville’s route to writing was as fantastic as the stories she pens. A financial analyst by training, she quickly tired of that field; instead of wallowing in the security it offered she fearlessly cast it aside (well okay, she admits to a little fear) and knocked on the doors of French newspaper Le Monde, seeking a position as a writer. They set her to work interviewing authors.
It was here that she developed the remarkable method described by the title of her recent collection: Literary Miniatures. It was the product partly of insecurity, partly of accident. Assigned to interview a great writer she knew little about, she sat silently through the interview, in contrast to those interviewers who feel the urge to fill silence with more questions. “Personally, I was so insecure that I let the vacuum expand into infinity. Like blank pages,” she writes in her introduction. “That was probably lucky for me, in the beginning. To be just an ear. And to be able to connect the two – the ear and the blank page.”
Still plagued by lack of confidence, one day she came up against one of journalism’s greatest nightmares: returning home from an interview, she discovered she’d lost all her notes. In a panic, she rapidly put down to paper those impressions she could remember from the interview. She realized she had no choice but to “…write my interview from memory, to reconstruct the meaning of the dialogue, to accept that I would be more than ever, taking the risk of projecting my subjective reaction onto it”.
She nevertheless submitted the highly stylized result. Her editor ran it, and shortly thereafter she received a note from the subject of the interview, saying it was the best piece on him that he’d read. This unique style – born of an authenticity sired in desperation and integrity – was a success. And it became her trademark.
“That erased all my doubts,” she writes in the introduction, which portrays a deft confidence that has clearly grown with time. “Now, if a writer sees him or herself in my text, all the better.”
Literary Miniatures is a collection of these literary impressions, previously published in the pages of Le Monde. It’s a remarkable piece of writing: a work that establishes its own literary style at the same time it probes and studies the styles of others. But then, this is an outcome of which her subjects would approve. As she says of William Trevor (but the words could apply as easily to herself): “Let’s get to the essential, in a few words, please, since nothing can truly be expressed. Since writing is only a maladroit groping in the labyrinth of words.”
This is startlingly evocative – even poetic – language for a critic, and yet the beautiful language that cascades through Noiville’s literary character sketches is every bit as compelling as the characters she interviews. Her work is one of those remarkable pieces of literature that operates on two levels: as literary reportage, and as a literary creation in its own right. It is, first, a fascinating glimpse into the characters, motivations and inner thoughts of the writers she’s had the privilege of interviewing over the years.
Her unique style renders these ‘miniature’ insights more piercing and perceptive than the longer interviews readers might be used to, and which belabour so many literary texts and journals. Instead, she cuts straight to the heart of the matter, grabbing on to some insight or feeling she detects in her subjects or their work; some inner motivation that drives the writer and which she then pursues in a candescent flowering of words.
Carefully chosen subtitles alert the reader to the particular reflection they can expect (Sempe – ‘Nostalgia Makes Me Laugh’; Javier Marias – ‘We Have All Experienced Betrayal’; Enrique Vila-Matas – ‘We’re All Actors on a Stage’). There’s insight, analysis, wisdom, and more to be found here from a wide diversity of the world’s top writers.
There’s Saul Bellow, taking aim at “American writers, academics and intellectuals, ‘those great priests corrupted by culture’”. There’s Neil Bissoondath, arguing iconoclastically that (in Noiville’s words) “…it is not because one is black that one is black. In other words, each person defines himself as he wishes and not in the way others see him.”
There’s Carlos Fuentes, speaking of the eroticism of language: “There’s always a sort of coitus of words that come together and wilt together”; and John Le Carre speaking out on globalization: “Globalization is not a good thing… It is a system that reinforces poverty in the name of a concept in which I absolutely do not believe – progress. The result is simple. On the one hand, you have an increase in poverty; on the other, individuals or organizations whose incomes are enormous but which are socially useless.”
The diversity of her interviews, and the snatches of poetic prose she draws from her subjects, is truly remarkable. With Milan Kundera, she plays a delightful little game: every question she sends him he replies to with a quote from one of his published works.
There’s more: in less than 200 pages Noiville engages with 28 writers from around the world. Her subjects reflect a wide diversity of styles and nationalities, from giants (Nadine Gordimer, Imre Kertesz, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison) to those less well-known among North American readerships (Herta Muller, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Carlos Liscano, Aharon Appelfeld).
And there’s Florence Noiville, herself. Her prose carries the text, lightly framing and accentuating each of these creative voices with a style and beauty that is all her own.
On Saul Bellow, whose work depicts: “…the distress of the cultured individual, asphyxiated by mass civilization, drunk with the flood of information and solicitations that assail him, seeing the anchors he has depended on come loose, no longer able to battle inner confusion and generalized chaos.”
On Cees Nooteboom: “The voyage is worth it. A little existential escapade. One leaves behind the weight, the magnetism of the rocks, the stelae and the dead, the souls of the departed that play among the tombs. And, says Nooteboom, ‘We soar alongside the divine.’”
On A.S. Byatt, the loner: “To be alone or to write – those are ultimately the irreplaceable ways of…talking without being interrupted? Of course, but also, perhaps, of being truly oneself.”
On the wisdom of Jean-Bertrand Pontalis: “Here, then, is his guiding principle. To be able to change himself at any moment, ‘to escape the risk that others will identify you’…Always a love for beginnings. And beginning again. Always that need to open windows onto other worlds. In oneself and outside oneself. To be here and elsewhere. Inside and outside at the same time…”
It is her ability to put her finger on the deep essence of these writers and express that essence in language that borders on the poetic which makes this collection unique, charming, and almost impossible to put down.
Noiville writes in French; some of the credit, no doubt, goes to her English translator Teresa Lavender Fagan. And, of course, some credit goes to the talented subjects of her interviews. But Noiville – now also a novelist in her own right – deserves high praise for the collection of ingenious and creative snapshots of the souls of writers she has produced over the years, and compiled here in a collection that is at times breath-taking in its beauty.
Each of the ‘miniatures’ takes only a few minutes to read, but the sweep of words and ideas lingers much longer. If, as Vargas Llosa says, literature is a medicinal balm, the concentrated power of Literary Miniatures is an extremely strong one, best taken in small doses. It’s a collection that will inspire readers to both seek out authors they discover here for the first time, as well as re-read old authors with a new sense of familiarity.
As for the writer and journalist who compiled these vividly evocative miniatures, it leaves us eager for more.