Interview: French Writer Marie Darrieussecq

Monday 31 August 2009

Is there anything worse for a mother than the death of a child? How does a person, a marriage, a family survive after such a thing?

Tom Is Dead by French writer Marie Darrieussecq is a novel set in Australia as a young French family arrives to begin a new life. Three weeks after they arrive, their middle son Tom, who is four and a half years old, dies.

We are in the mind and body of his mother who narrates the book—she writes the story of his death and his life, and it’s not till the very end that we discover exactly what happened.

Ramona Koval: Is there anything worse for a mother than the death of a child? How does a person, a marriage, a family survive after such a thing? Tom Is Dead by French writer Marie Darrieussecq is a novel set in Australia as a young French family arrives to begin a new life. Three weeks after they arrive, their middle son Tom, who is four and a half years old, dies. We are in the mind and body of his mother who narrates the book. She writes the story of his death and his life, and it’s not till the very end that we discover exactly what happened. It’s a remarkable book, one you don’t want to read, it’s such a terrible thing to read about, but it’s so well written, and translated in this case, that you can’t help but read on.

Marie Darrieussecq is a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival and Tom is Dead is her tenth published work, but not all of her work is translated into English. Her first novelPig Tales was published in34 countries and the books that follow have brought her much acclaim and many, many readers.

Marie Darrieussecq joins me now. Welcome to The Book Show Marie.

Marie Darrieussecq: Thank you.

Ramona Koval: Can we begin by hearing a short section from Tom is Dead?

Marie Darrieussecq: [reading from Yesterday we went to the beach… to …he was four and a half years old.]

Ramona Koval: Marie, it’s a very sustained voice through this book. Can we talk about how you found it, where you found it?

Marie Darrieussecq: For this book and for all my other books it’s always a matter of finding a voice. I have ideas, like any other writers or like any other people, and I spend a lot of time daydreaming or day-nightmaring, I don’t know how to say that, but…and I do nothing and I dream and suddenly I hear the voice, I have it, it’s about music, it’s about rhythm, and I can start the book. But it’s a long work.

Ramona Koval: But from the beginning do you have an idea of ‘what if’? Do you look at your children and say, ‘What if one of them died?’

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, I always write about my worst nightmares and about what should not happen, it’s almost a form of exorcism. But also for this book I became very superstitious, which is not my style in general. I started very simply…I have three kids and I started…I thought maybe I could set the book in Paris and I tried to write it but I saw my apartment and inevitably I saw my children and it was horrible. So I set the book as far as possible, and as far as possible was Australia, it started like that.

Ramona Koval: Did you have any connection to Australia? Had Australia come into your mind before?

Marie Darrieussecq: I had been to Australia ten years ago to visit a friend, Jen, in Sydney, and also to go to Hobart because…it’s a long story but my husband works sometimes in Antarctica and he takes the boat in Hobart, in Tasmania. So I’ve only been one week in Sydney and two weeks in Tasmania, and I took an excursion, four hours, in the Blue Mountains. But that’s far enough for a writer to make a country, to make up a country, because my Australia is an imaginary country.

As I wrote the book I discovered that for me it was a metaphor of grieving, it was the country of grieving, of mourning, because this woman, my character, is in exile from France. The child dies in Australia. It could have been anywhere because she travels with her husband who works abroad, and Australia is just the place where the kid died.

It all came into place as I wrote it because of the desert, because of the fires, because of the climate, because of the disappearing animals in Tasmania, because of the Aborigines’ genocide, and everything became a place of mourning really, and I didn’t think about it before.

Ramona Koval: So it was an impulse to have your nightmare somewhere that wasn’t in your home because presumably that would make it very difficult to live in your home during this time. Is that what happens to you? Do you become so taken over by the idea of what you’re writing?

Marie Darrieussecq: I write maybe two or three hours a day, which is not too much, I’m happy with that, but this book I wrote it like one hour a day. It was not really hard to write. I mean, I had the same technical questions as usual, about rhythm, music et cetera, but I needed to take a breath sometimes, you know, it was very…it was overwhelming, it was like plunging into a dark sea.

Ramona Koval: You took a breath then and you said you needed to take a breath. The sentences are very short. I have the sense that the woman is…she tells us she’s lost her voice…

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, at some point she’s really mute.

Ramona Koval: She’s mute, but she also can’t form long thoughts or long sentences.

Marie Darrieussecq: In general in my novels I have a lot of pleasure in describing the sea, the cities, the people, but I knew as I started the book that I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t do anything pretty, anything decorative, anything ornamental, because the sea for her is something absurd. Her kid is dead and the world goes on and the planet goes on turning and the seasons, and it’s a scandal. Everything should stop. And it’s unbearable for her, the beauty of the world. And so I could not describe the beauty of the world anymore, in a way. And the sentences are short because she is not there to do poetry, you know. And in a strange way this sobriety of the writing became also very rhythmical and in a way poetic maybe but in a strange way, yes.

Ramona Koval: So the sea…I think there was another book of yours set on the sea or something happened on the beach.

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, most of my books in fact, and my third novel is the story of a mother who decides to let go her kid. I’m very interested in mothers who can’t cope with their children because it’s very hard to raise children and it’s not always as marvellous as it’s supposed to be. Yes, and it happened on the sea, she just let her go.

Ramona Koval: And so what does the beach, the sea, mean to you?

Marie Darrieussecq: I was just raised near the beach in Basque country, and then the sea has a very soothing effect on me, like most people I suppose, but it’s the best antidepressant I know, except psychoanalysis.

Ramona Koval: Of course you raise this issue, you were trained as a psychoanalyst, and your canvas is very intimate, it seems to me, from what I’ve read of this book and about other books. And I wanted to talk to you about that relationship between psychoanalysis, your own psychoanalysis, you’re practicing as a psychoanalyst and you work as a writer, and the canvas you choose.

Marie Darrieussecq: All this is very material, in a way. I spent ten years of my life fulfilling my childhood dream doing nothing but write, it was a dream, but it was a very melancholic activity. I woke up in the morning in my pyjamas, I made my pot of tea and I started writing and I loved it, but I was alone. And now when I know that I have an appointment at ten o’clock I have to get dressed, I have to be fit for somebody else, and when the bell rings I have this shot of adrenalin…

Ramona Koval: The alarm in the morning or..?

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, and I structure my day and I write in-between patients and it does me good. My patients cure me, it’s almost the same.

Ramona Koval: How can you concentrate on your own story when you have other people’s stories that you are intensely concentrating on?

Marie Darrieussecq: It’s merely the difference between oral stories and written stories. I write, they speak, it’s totally different, and when they speak I listen. So I have all these ways of dealing with languages but writing is completely…I don’t know, it’s my part, it’s something so archaic for me. Psychoanalysis is like my job, it’s very different.

Ramona Koval: So in a way…because presumably you don’t speak much during your job…

Marie Darrieussecq: No, I’m on the Lacanian side in Paris and I don’t speak much, no. I have no counselling, I’m not a coach, I listen to people and they find their own ways talking to me.

Ramona Koval: What about their stories and their struggles? Because you are interested in relationships, say, with mothers and children and intimate relationships with husbands and family and what it means.

Marie Darrieussecq: In general the people I receive as patients are artists, they deal with writer’s block or…they are never interested in my books, in fact, it’s not their problem. So I have two separate lives in this way.

Ramona Koval: But why do they chose you to be their psychoanalyst?

Marie Darrieussecq: Because I’m a writer and they know me as a writer and they think, they project on me all sorts of things, that’s called transference. So it depends on the people, but I happen to have artists as patients, painters or…

Ramona Koval: But I thought they were supposed to project onto you and view you as a sort of anonymous projection of them, but if they can read your novels they know what goes on in your head, and isn’t that rather counterproductive?

Marie Darrieussecq: You can have any sort of situation but as a matter of fact in general they don’t read them, they have this impulse, they say, ‘Oh I just bought one of your books but I didn’t feel like reading it,’ and it’s completely normal in a way. They are not here for me as a writer, they are here for me as a shrink, but they know I have something to do with art, so that’s enough for a start.

Ramona Koval: But back to the idea of them sort of struggling. You’ve got people on your couch struggling with their own feelings and dreams and horrors and projections. How does that make you think about your characters? It must give you an extra insight into the human condition.

Marie Darrieussecq: Sure, I’m very, very curious about human conditions, of course. But I have too many things in my mind, life will be too short to write all the books I already have in my mind, I don’t need…it’s not as if there was a reservoir of stories and I went to take stories…it’s not like that, it doesn’t work this way. It works with things you have very archaically in you, and it’s a matter of words and sentences and to find the right sentence at the right moment, which is, in a way, exactly the job of the shrink; you don’t have to speak much but you have to say the right sentence at the right moment and it’s very difficult and it’s a matter of music and of rhythm.

Ramona Koval: You said that this was your life’s dream, to spend ten years just writing, or your childhood dream. So what sort of a child were you?

Marie Darrieussecq: I was a lonely child. Of course you don’t write books like this out of nowhere, there was a ghost in my family, my brother was dead before I was born and it was a family secret, it was very heavy. I dealt with this dead brother who became some sort of an imaginary friend, and I lived along the coast near Biarritz, which is a surf spot. Well, I was this sort of child and maybe because everybody was silent, I started to write, but maybe not. I don’t know why I’m writing, all I know is that I have to do it. It’s both a curse and a pleasure.

Ramona Koval: But this book about a dead son seems to be related to this story of yours.

Marie Darrieussecq: Of course.

Ramona Koval: You didn’t want to write it first, it’s the tenth book.

Marie Darrieussecq: Maybe one day I will write very simply the story of this dead brother and the story of my grieving parents, maybe one day, but it’s too soon. Each book has its own [unclear], it happens when it has to be written. But I was very aware, very familiar with the materiality of death, with the fact that when somebody’s dead, the others are still living, and the parents have to feed the surviving child, they have to take care of him or her and it’s very difficult. And I think the mother of Tom, she’d rather die than take care of the other kids, and that’s why the father…I love this man very much, this fictitious character. He feeds the other kids, he goes to the supermarket. Going to the supermarket when you have lost a child…

Ramona Koval: In the day or two afterwards, you’re talking about?

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, it’s something unbearable. And any sentence the people will say is horrible, nobody says the right thing. When a child is born you have all these clichés—oh, he’s so cute, he looks like the father—it’s perfect, you can talk about it, about this incredible event of the birth of a child. But about the scandal of a death of a child, nobody has the right code, nobody has the right clichés, it’s very hard to speak about it. So it’s also a story, Tom is Dead, of dealing with a language that is unable to say it.

Ramona Koval: It seems odd, doesn’t it, because children have been dying for all of human existence, that we shouldn’t find a language for it. Or maybe we don’t have the rituals we used to have about it.

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, we live in a…fortunately we have antibiotics, vaccines, but today specifically children are not allowed to die, if you see what I mean, it’s forbidden, children shouldn’t die. So parents are guilty, even if it’s a stupid accident, parents are always guilty. But also I was very interested…I went to India recently and, you know, you have this feeling that since many children die, maybe people are less sad but no, they are grieving just like us to the point that they have a specific ritual for babies who are dead. Babies who are dead don’t go in the cycle of reincarnation, they are not cremated, they are buried. The only people who are buried in the Hinduist tradition, babies between zero and six months, because they are supposed to come back as themselves in the womb of another woman. So people are devastated by the death of the babies.

Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about translation. I found this translation…I mean, I didn’t feel as if there was a wrong move at all.

Marie Darrieussecq: I don’t understand.

Ramona Koval: I didn’t feel as if there was a wrong word at all because it’s a difficult book to read because it’s so painful, but nowhere did I feel, oh, that’s the wrong word for something.

Marie Darrieussecq: I agree. When I happen to read it aloud like I just did I am caught by the book, as if I didn’t write it myself, if you see what I mean, and I think the tone of voice is really the good one in English, it’s well done.

Ramona Koval: Did you have much conversation with this translator?

Marie Darrieussecq: Her name is Lia Hills and we exchanged emails, as I do in general with my translators and I like it very much. Yes, she did a good job.

Ramona Koval: But because it’s about language, it’s about losing voice, it’s about exactly the right word…even in that part you read you described him as a ‘diffuse nevertheless’ in the background, and that is immensely interesting in English. What word in the French would be…would it be the same word? How would you choose a ‘nevertheless’ because ‘never’ implying he’s not here anymore, you’ll never see him, ‘theless’, the idea of being lesser or a young child, it’s a great word.

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, I think it’s even better in English, sometimes it happens.

Ramona Koval: What word would you use in French?

Marie Darrieussecq: I can’t remember exactly but it’s good in English.

Ramona Koval: It’s a real thing to chose the right word in a book which is about choosing the right word.

Marie Darrieussecq: Exactly, but I always deal with that. My first novel was called, in French, Truismes, it’s a play on words, but ‘truismes‘ means clichés, you know. It was the story of a woman struggling to find her own words without being educated. Maybe you heard about it, she was slowly turning into a pig, it was a story of metamorphosis, and because this never happened to anybody around her, she had to find words to describe it, even to herself. So I always deal with that. I’m a writer, it’s my work.

Ramona Koval: Where did the idea of turning into a pig come from?

Marie Darrieussecq: I don’t know. All I know is that I have all the time many ideas, some are completely irrelevant…turning into a pig seemed to me very irrelevant, but the idea insisted, it kept into my mind, and when an idea insists I have to do something with it. Tom is Dead, I was not so keen about writing a book so sad, in a way, but I had to do it. You don’t have a choice. If you have a choice it means that the book is not absolutely necessary for you. So I write the book I have to write.

Ramona Koval: You’ve written about a baby though before, haven’t you, that was not fiction.

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, it’s my only non-fiction book. It’s not translated yet but I hope Text will do it. It was about the experience of having a first child. For once I thought reality was beyond fiction, and it was the only time in my life where I had to do something else than write in the morning, I had to feed him. Now I have three kids, so I am more trained.

Ramona Koval: You should teach them to feed each other.

Marie Darrieussecq: You are right, but they are too small. And it was a complete change in my life, so I wrote about it.

Ramona Koval: The idea of starting to train as a psychoanalyst…when did the writing come and when did the training come?

Marie Darrieussecq: I had a very strong experience, when I compared my agendas I realised years after that I wrote the first page of Truismes, of my first novel, the afternoon of my first session, my very first session on the couch. And I slowed myself to become a writer. I was already a writer but I was not published, it was all a mess in my mind. So it gave me a lot of strength.

Ramona Koval: What was it about that first episode on the couch?

Marie Darrieussecq: I can’t even remember. But all I know is that when people tell you that it is a narcissistic experience…no, it opens you to the other people, you get aware that the others are others and they are not like you, and that others exist. And secondly there is this cliché that psychoanalysts can sterilise artists, but no, on the contrary…

Ramona Koval: Because they’re using all of their imaginative ideas and speaking them and they should be writing them.

Marie Darrieussecq: They get rid of their neurosis and they can work. I mean, being an artist is about work, it’s not so much about neurosis. Neurosis in general prevents you from working, and to be free to express what you have inside. Neurosis is not something so rich artistically.

Ramona Koval: Unless you’re Woody Allen…but you keep writing the same thing.

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, but he worked on it.

Ramona Koval: The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is the campaign, I suppose, about this novel by Madame de La Fayette, The Princess of Cleves, which is apparently a big scandal in France and you’ve taken a part in this. Tell us about what happened.

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, I love this story. The Princess of Cleves is a very classical novel written in the 17th century and that French pupils are supposed to read at school. Sarkozy, our president who is not exactly my friend, said, ‘What’s this rubbish? Why should young people lose time reading this old stuff? They should study computer and do benevolent social work.’ Very bizarrely there was this huge movement, popular movement, of people saying, ‘I love this book, this book was very important to me,’ and they started reading it aloud in the street, there is a MySpace page on the internet, there are badges, ‘I read The Princess of Cleves‘, that you can wear in the street. And it is really amusing because this demagogical speech about literature, ‘it’s rubbish, it’s useless, it doesn’t raise money’…well, it didn’t work. People said, ‘I don’t agree. I like this book.’

Ramona Koval: And why do you think he would have said that? I thought Carla Bruni was working on his whole cultural side.

Marie Darrieussecq: She’s a nice girl but she’s a singer, she’s not so much of an intellectual. Her sister Valeria is a very good actress in independent movies and she does movies but…well, Sarkozy tried to…you know, he talks to the real people, the people who get up early in the morning to go working, to drive their cars and to make money…

Ramona Koval: Because reading and writing isn’t work?

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, because for him reading is a loss of time and it doesn’t raise money, he is this kind of guy. He’s our president, it’s a catastrophe!

Ramona Koval: So what’s your role in this campaign?

Marie Darrieussecq: I wrote a preface for the reprint of The Princess of Cleves, it’s a bestseller, it’s been sold since the 17th century…

Ramona Koval: And what is the story of the book?

Marie Darrieussecq: It’s a great story. It’s the first novel about a triangular affair. The Princess of Cleves is married to the Prince of Cleves, and she falls in love with the Duke de Nemours at the court of the king of France. And she never sleeps with her lover. Why? Generations after generations of people have asked, ‘Why doesn’t she sleep with her lover?’ Even when her husband dies, he’s really a nice man and she likes him a lot, even when he dies she doesn’t sleep with her lover. Why? So French people have been talking about this book for centuries and Sarkozy will not change that.

Ramona Koval: I can’t imagine any other country that such a popular movement would rise on behalf of an old novel.

Marie Darrieussecq: Yes, I know. Also it’s a very short novel, it’s only 100 pages, it’s kind of…

Ramona Koval: So it’s not as if it would take a long time…

Marie Darrieussecq: Exactly. Personally I think I have read it 20 times and it’s really one of my favourite books and that’s why I was very personally offended.

Ramona Koval: What do you think is going to happen with that book? Do you think he’s going to withdraw his critique?

Marie Darrieussecq: He’s too stubborn, and he’s like on a different planet. He dreams of America and he thinks France should be more American et cetera. He’s so funny this guy because he said, ‘If I am elected I’m going to go to a monastery and to be mute for three days, a retreat.’ And as soon as he was elected he went on a yacht with his friend on the Mediterranean Sea.

Ramona Koval: It was a retreat yacht.

Marie Darrieussecq: It was a retreat yacht, exactly, it’s a new concept!

Ramona Koval: I’m sure he’s got a very formidable opponent in you.

Marie Darrieussecq: Actually, yes.

Ramona Koval: The book we’ve been talking about is compelling, it’s called Tom is Dead and it’s published by Text here in Australia. Marie Darrieussecq, thank you so much for being on The Book Show today.

Marie Darrieussecq: Thank you.


Marie Darrieussecq
French author


Tom Is Dead
Marie Darrieussecq
Text Publishing


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