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Nicolas Mathieu: “The deeper you go … the more you reach some form of universality”

Ⓒ Argenis Polinario - William Rodarmor & Nicolas Mathieu

Nicolas Mathieu’s novels are steeped in American influences, both in its literature and in its cinema. Their Children After Them, winner of the 2021 Albertine Prize, is set in a rural and deindustrialized region of eastern France, but its themes are universal and, according to translator William Rodarmpr, should resonate with American readers.

When your novel came out in France, critics wrote at length of its very French quality, not only because it takes place in rural eastern France, but also because it is a return to the literary tradition of social realism. Would you say that its English translation and release in the United States have further reinforced this Frenchness?
Nicolas Mathieu:
Yes, it’s a very French book, for many reasons. For one, it is part of a naturalist tradition—more Flaubert than Zola, for that matter. My writing style takes in a huge amount of facts, details, brands, and references that probably seem rather exotic to non-French readers. From that point of view, it’s very French. But I also envisioned this novel as belonging to the same school as the writers of the American Deep South. The story is set in the stifling valley heat, no doubt because I was thinking about authors like Faulkner, Larry Brown, and Steinbeck. I would even say that American writers have had a greater influence on my work than French realism. I’ve read those authors—noir fiction, especially—more so than Maupassant or Zola, and I think that this can be felt in the novel. There’s also that rather strange phenomenon whereby the more you focus on some tiny location, the deeper you go and, ultimately, the more you reach some form of universality. This is something that should never be considered during the writing process, but it can be achieved if you’re lucky. I invented a little valley called Vallée de la Henne, which would likely be located in the Moselle region, where the names of place end in “-ange.” For me, it’s just like Faulkner’s county—a place that is altogether recognizable, both historically and geographically, but a purely fictional location within the realm of novels and narratives.

Indeed. Any French reader who has followed the news in recent years is transported back by this reality and history to headlines from the past. They might recall the declining steel industry and the closure of the blast furnaces in Hayange, which turned into a hot political issue.
Right, but American readers may also identify similarities with Philipp Mayer’s American Rust or Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, whose entire first half is set in a little valley steel town. My work was also informed by these imagined worlds. And then there’s that very American expression, “Rust Belt,’ which could be applied to any formerly industrial region, whether it’s in Eastern Germany, in Italy, in Poland, or in the UK. Everywhere that my book has been translated, I’ve met people who have told me how they lived through such things in their childhood: moribund, economically declining places, and teenage years full of boredom and longing.

Turning to you, William Rodarmor, what is your reaction to Nicolas Mathieu’s comments, and how did you, as a translator, deal with the novel’s very French feel?
William Rodarmor:
Having just re-read the first few pages, I realize that the “Frenchness” problem crops up almost immediately. One of the main characters, Anthony, is described as a boy who can eat an entire baguette with La Vache qui rit cheese. Right away, the translator is faced with the question of whether or not to translate that literally, as “The Laughing Cow.” There are so many specifically French brand names in the book that it would be a genuine shame and betrayal to leave them out. But Nicolas is absolutely right. Aside from those details that are so valuable for bringing in that somewhat quick and easy exotic flair, he touches upon something universal in the way he replicates an atmosphere of hopelessness. I have seen some of this in Pennsylvania, for example. It’s full of valleys just like this one, a phantom of industrialization with similar sociological ramifications. It’s a French novel that resonates at a universal level.

The biggest challenge lay in translating Nicolas’ highly studied expressions, turns of phrase, stock sentences, and idioms. Because, in such cases, it’s not the signified that is the most important, but the idea or signifier conveyed. When a character utters a certain set phrase, they haven’t thought about their words; rather, they are expressing a situation or a feeling. So then you have to choose between trying to find an equivalent phrase in American English and translating the sentence literally. But whatever option the translator goes for, they will always face criticism, as I myself have experienced plenty of times. To translate is to betray, as I’m sure you are well aware. You can never win, whether you distance yourself from the author or stay close to them.

This question of style is, of course, particularly important in your work, Nicolas Mathieu. You’ve spoken about how you really sought to find a voice in this book, namely that of 1990s teenagers who had their own specific manner of speaking and phrasing.

NM: First of all came the task of bringing out my own literary style. There are a few things I try to do when writing dialogue, one of which is to steer clear of expository speech. I must make sure my characters sound like real people. In life, we don’t speak simply to explain how a story unfolds, so there are no long paragraphs that exist just to set out the narrative. Dialogue helps me define the characters, allow their voices to be heard, and offer a sense of authenticity. There’s another issue when it comes to writing teenage characters. I remember being able to hold endless conversations at that age using only the words ‘cool,’ ‘totally,’ and ‘sure.’ This three-word vocabulary made up around 90% of everything we said, and the dialogue in this novel has tried to demonstrate that to some extent.

I don’t always write in a highly deliberate manner, only becoming aware of my choices when reading over the text later. What we end up with, then, is a hybrid vernacular that oscillates between different levels of language, just like I find myself caught between different worlds. I don’t know how this comes across, but there’s a sort of intermingling between a more scholarly register, more prosaic passages, the set phrases that caused William such grief, and certain vocabulary that would usually fly under the radar. One example that actually threw off all the translators was the use of words that only exist in a very localized context, such as reuleuleuh, a dialect term for ‘loser’ or ‘deadbeat.’ Even in Paris, they don’t know what a reuleuleuh is, for example.

WR: That’s precisely what’s so interesting. It wouldn’t be if there weren’t any challenge. I’m curious to know, however, whether you managed to find that manner of speech you were looking for. Did you hear your own childhood echoing in your ears as you wrote?

NM: Well, that’s what I attempted to do in any case, but that vocabulary has been tainted by more recent expressions. I didn’t notice this at the time and it was only later on that readers pointed it out to me. It’s not exactly an archaeological reconstitution of the way people spoke in the 1990s. I also spent a lot of time on public transport in Paris, listening to how people speak nowadays.

You mentioned feeling caught between worlds, a topic that has been explored in both literature and the social sciences in recent years, from Annie Ernaux to Edouard Louis, to Didier Eribon. This phenomenon of social climbing, which is subjected to powerful determining factors, has been theorized under the term “transclasses.”  How did you come to be interested in this subject?
I don’t think we choose our subjects; rather, they choose us. This notion of switching classes was pioneered by Annie Ernaux. I remember reading her books when I was 25, and finding that her ideas really rang true. It has really helped me to find the words to express this reality, which is my own reality, even if it has become something of a cliché or stereotype in modern literature. The reason I spoke of this is because this experience has had a profound impact on who I am both as a person and as an author, since it has defined my place in relation to others. I know that I will never reach the upper echelons. I remain between two steps on the ladder, playing the voyeur or spectator as opposed to the agent. So this wasn’t a choice. It’s the way that I exist in the world.

Even after winning the Prix Goncourt?
Honestly, yes. The world I came from will never be mine again, for many reasons. I no longer identify with a whole host of values, lifestyles, and habits of eating, dressing, understanding the world, spending money, and so forth. But to be bourgeois, you have to be born into the bourgeoisie, so I will never be part of that world either. An interviewer recently referenced the categories coined by British sociologist David Goodhart when speaking of my work, saying that I wrote for the “Somewheres” as opposed to the internationalized middle class described as the “Anywheres.” I myself feel like I’m hanging in the state of “Nowhere,” and that’s where my outlook comes from. I’m not saying you need to be a Nowhere to be able to write, but that’s the position I’m operating from. I’m not a Somewhere. Although my books are set in the same geographical space, it’s not like I’m promoting those locations; I’m in no way a regional writer. At the same time, in no way do I belong to the group that feels at home anywhere, speaks several languages, etc. That’s not my world either.

William Rodarmor, how easily did the author’s particular outlook, class-based approach and ‘in-between’ position as a writer come across to an American readership?
: As you’re well aware, there’s no such thing as class in the United States, since we’re a perfectly equal nation! All joking aside, social classes are obviously divided by wealth here, even more so than in France, where other elements come into play. And in Nicolas’ book, the characters know exactly which stratum they belong to, as does the reader. So although there aren’t exact matches between France and the States, the groups are easy to identify simply by their level of education and dialect. In fact, I took a great deal of care when translating dialects. I see translators as being kind of like ventriloquists, slipping a sock over one hand and making the puppet talk with one accent or another. And the task is actually two-fold, because we must re-create the author’s voice and let their characters speak. I make a real effort to let the person on the page be heard, so that the reader doesn’t feel like they’re being lectured to by some overeducated California know-it-all. Therein lies the challenge–and the fun of the task. I often say that what’s great about translation is that translators get all the joy of writing without ever having to suffer from writer’s block. I step into my office in the morning and the book has already been written by someone else! It’s amazing; I’m so lucky!

Nicolas Mathieu, let’s talk briefly about the choice to set your novel in the 1990s and punctuate it with songs that marked the period, starting with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This was the era of grunge, with all its individualism and disillusionment. What was going on for you at the time?
To be perfectly honest, my main reason for choosing the 1990s was to make my job easier. I wanted to do a coming-of-age novel, so I naturally drew upon my own teenage years. Along the way, I realized the value of focusing on the 1990s and ultimately writing a novel that could be described as generational, which was not at all what I had planned from the onset. That period felt like the end of the world. The end of industrial France coincided with the end of the conflict between the Eastern and Western Blocs. I lived out my teenage years during this recess period, which felt like the end of an era. We believed that liberal democracy had won, which left us feeling disenchanted. We didn’t have to get our hands dirty anymore, so the only thing we could do was despair and make noise. I remember those years being pretty bleak. There was no longer any political enthusiasm to speak of, and people felt that the revolution would never come. There’s this long rant in that film by Éric Rochant, Love Without Pity, that sums it up, where the protagonist says something like, “There’s never going to be any revolution or brighter tomorrow. All we’re left with is the Common Market, and falling in love like idiots.” This is a neat summary of the mood at the time.

It was also a decade marked by teen movies, stories that sometimes reeked of hopelessness, such as those of Larry Clark. Did these also influence you?
Well, those that have stuck with me from those years are Tarantino movies and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. But this novel did take inspiration from a few other films, namely those of Jeff Nichols, such as Shotgun Stories and Mud. That was a key reference for the start of the novel. The first scene of that film shows two kids crossing the Mississippi to get to an island. Then we see the sun coming up. I vividly remember my first time watching that and thinking, “That’s the kind of feeling I want to get across.” What it means to feel young and invincible. That’s how the novel starts out. My characters are sitting on a beach, and they want to go to another beach where there might be something interesting to see.

In the novel, there’s a certain teenage intimacy, with a more political dimension. You have sometimes been labeled as a politically engaged writer. Would you define yourself as such?
“Engaged” is a pretty strong word. Because, again, I feel like I’m more of a voyeur or spectator than an active agent. Having said that, no writing is ever completely innocuous. Flaubert said in his letters to George Sand that to write is to take revenge. There’s something political about the very exercise of describing something. The world is always presented to us as being opaque, so describing it involves making choices and revealing its inner structures and workings. Personally, I tend to think everything is political. There’s something political going on from the moment you depict two characters talking with each other. Describing human relationships is never something neutral or ethereal. I was also strongly influenced by Annie Ernaux, especially The Years. I wanted to follow in her footsteps, seek precision in details and intimate, lived experiences, all while offering a broader viewpoint that could paint out a whole panorama. We also get some of this in the work Flaubert, which moves between taffeta frocks and grand historical events. This shift of focus is another way to be political.

William Rodarmor, how did you deal with this political dimension of Nicolas Mathieu’s novel?
: It was a little tricky, because politics–especially French politics–strikes me as completely incomprehensible. A parallel can be drawn between the French National Front and the rise of Trump in the US some years later. Among the working class, you find that same hatred of the self-righteous establishment. There’s a thin slice of our democracy that acts in an irrational, dangerous manner. I recall there was one word in the book that gave me a lot of trouble, which was ‘charter.’ After some searching, I learned that it referred to airplanes being chartered by the French government to deport undocumented immigrants, a subject that stirred up a lot of political debate at the time. I immediately thought of “Deportees,” which is an incredible song written by Woodie Guthrie and popularized by Pete Seeger. It’s about Mexican immigrant farm workers who get shipped back to their country once the harvest is over, as they are no longer wanted, and end up dying in a plane crash. That was written just after WWII, so it’s hardly a new or original concept.

In France, particularly after the Yellow Vest protests, there’s been a lot of talk about semi-rural life and those “living in a countryside in decline,” to use the subtitle of an essay by sociologist Benoît Coquard. Rassemblement National voters in France and Trump voters in the USA are often portrayed in quite an unflattering light. Nicolas Mathieu, how did you approach them in your writing?
For me, being political meant writing about such people without ever spilling over into vilification. I’ve often said this, but it remains true: I approach my characters with a moral code akin to that of Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game, which says, “The terrible thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.” Writing involves making a move toward becoming someone else. I’m not at all interested in using my privileged position to chastise people, or explain why they’re wrong. That’s not how I want to write; I want to replicate life. So I never set out with ideological, sociological or philosophical principles, and I’m mistrustful of preachy thesis novels with no life in them. Nevertheless, I’m aware that my choice of the characters and places I depict isn’t purely coincidental either, since I wanted to bring to light those underrepresented worlds. In spite of myself, I have been cast as a spokesman (or rather megaphone!), but it’s a role I’m reluctant to take on. I don’t want to be the writer of the Yellow Vest movement, to put it bluntly. Novel writing shouldn’t ever enter into that area.

Among the inspirations that you drew upon from the United States, there has been little mention of the noir novel, despite its crucial importance. You chose this genre for your first novel, Aux animaux la guerre, but not here. Why is that?
Actually, throughout the writing process, I was convinced that I had written a noir novel, where the plot served as a pretext for dealing with other topics such as people’s lives, describing the valley, or setting up the coming-of-age story. The opening section with the theft of the motorcycle, and the gun, relied on the codes of the noir novel. For a long time, I used to write boring pieces that no one wanted to publish. Then I found a way to get readers hooked when I discovered this genre, particularly in the books and articles of Jean-Patrick Manchette. By pulling on the strings of drama and using devices such as suspense, I can get people on board with the narrative. This then lets me do what I set out to do, which is to talk about the world as it is, really get stuck into the writing, bring characters to life, and express specific percepts. What does it mean to feel the summer heat at sixteen years old? Or to see a girl in a bathing suit when you’re fourteen and squirming with pent-up frustration? Taking perceptions and fixing them in place so that they can outlive those who first experienced them–that’s the true purpose of literature. But I have done the work of enticing the reader and bringing them pleasure. There is also a slightly more political idea whereby I tell myself that the more appealing the text is, the more people will be able to access my message. My great fantasy is to write like classic 1950s cinema, which encompassed everyone and reached a billion viewers per week worldwide, while simultaneously offering incredibly harsh life lessons. I want to be the John Ford of literature.

Nicolas Mathieur received the Prix Goncourt in 2018 for Leurs enfants après eux (ed. Actes Sud, 2018). William Rodarmor’s English translation And Their Children After Them (ed. Other Press, 2020) was awarded the Prix Albertine 2021.

The Albertine Prize, co-presented by Van Cleef & Arpels and the French Embassy, recognizes the favorite French-language fiction title by American readers that has recently been translated into English. It aims to highlight the works of authors from the many countries where French is spoken, reminding us that language and literature transcend borders. The selection committee is made up of two honorary co-chairs of the Albertine Prize, American writers Daniel Mendelsohn and Rachel Kushner, as well as staff from the Albertine bookstore and the French Embassy’s book department.



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