I have long kept notebooks. I ponder matters there, not on a daily basis, but regularly. It’s the way I work. Then, one day, I let go of my notebooks because a novel is underway – a novel that, on the face of it, has very little to do with what I have been noting down over the months.
What determines the start of a novel is a sentence that pops up all of a sudden and seems to me to contain an entire book. For there are sentences you produce one day – it’s rather mysterious – which carry within them a story that accounts for everything you know and have experienced in life, and articulates these matters more effectively than you could ever do in any other medium than the novel.
This means that gathered together in sentences of this kind is your entire life, with all your memories and impressions, and all the books you have read, suddenly simultaneously present and alive.
How is that first sentence made? The only thing I know about its production (for there seems to be something miraculous about it each time, and no reason, therefore, why it should ever happen again) is that it requires on my part months of silence and solitude, a form of inner tranquility, and close attention to what is taking shape inside me.
How do I recognize a sentence that contains one of my novels? Because, however scrawny and insignificant it might appear – and there are times when it looks like nothing at all – it’s always packed tight, like an egg in its shell: you couldn’t fit anything more into it. It makes a sound, the ‘sound of my life’, as it were. That particular form of recognition, where you have the impression of recognizing the ‘sound’ of your life, is virtually impossible to explain.
The day the sentence, ‘I was seven the first time I saw my father dressed as a girl’, popped into my head – it’s the opening sentence of The Wishing Table – it was packed tight, like an egg in its shell. Contained in that sentence was my entire life, both real and imagined, all the books I had read, all my memories and impressions. That strange sentence contained my life, even though I had never, of course, seen my father dressed as a girl when I was seven.
The moment that first sentence has been written down (for it has to be written down; if I just store it away nothing comes of it), a sort of parthenogenesis or self-fertilization kicks in, whereby each sentence brings forth the next with relative ease. Then interspersed with this are scenes I have imagined, and scraps of memory. What’s interesting at this point is how well my imagination and memories get along together, as though they had been waiting for one another, waiting to meet in order to form the story. This may, in fact, be what is happening in that mysterious first sentence: all of a sudden there’s this perfect romance between the imagined and the experienced. Proust’s famous opening sentence ‘Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure’ is emblematic of this, I think.
As I narrate the scenes of a novel, very often I’ll recognize characters from previous books of mine, who reappear under different names and in different situations, or someone I knew in the past though wasn’t particularly close to, or a scene, a house, a landscape I’ve seen in a film, or a character from someone else’s novel, though I won’t be able to remember which novel it is.
In short, what I come across when I write is a patchwork, but one which, bizarrely, appears to be cut from the same cloth, and a cloth that is new and without a snag.
Generally speaking, I always get held up in the middle of the book. Right in the middle. It’s become so systematic, in fact, that I now know that if I’m stuck at page fifty, the book will be a hundred pages long; when I’m held up at page eighty, it will be a hundred and sixty pages. This almost always happens, and it’s to within a page. And since I have the impression when I write that I’m going on a long walk or climbing a mountain, I deduce from this that it’s when I reach the top that I take a break.
At this point, things get stressful, where previously everything had been going well. It’s as though I don’t know how to find my way back down, as though I can no longer see a path. The last sentence on page fifty or eighty has failed to bring forth the following one. The system of parthenogenesis or self-fertilization has stalled.
I do find what comes next, but only after trying several different paths and taking several wrong turns – trying to advance the story, that is, when I can no longer feel it or see it, when it’s no longer alive. So I return to the last point where it was alive and start searching again. Things carry on like this for five or six days: each day I write five or six pages, and each morning I do away with the five or six pages from the previous day and go back, once again, to the point where the story was still alive.
Eventually I found a little trick – at the time of my very first book, Les gouvernantes (The Governesses). In order to continue, I needed to invent a counterfeit sentence so perfect that even the text would be taken in by it. In other words, the text had to mistake the sentence for a sentence it itself brought forth. At this point, one might say that my text, which up until then I had been on good terms with, becomes an enemy, or at any rate an opponent. I have to hoodwink my text into thinking a moon is a sixpence. That is why in the middle of my books, there is always a counterfeit sentence, a sentence that gives the impression of being genuine – lively, heartfelt, fully formed – but is nothing of the sort.
Once I’ve managed to hoodwink my text, I can resume my journey, and the sentences start bringing each other forth again without difficulty. Nevertheless, I have to be very careful at this stage, more careful than on the way up, because, like it or not, I’ve committed a sort of crime up there on the mountain (to pass off a counterfeit sentence as a genuine sentence is a crime in literature), and at any point the text might realize and swoop down and swallow me up and – who knows? – get its revenge. A bit like in Prosper Mérimée’s The Venus of Ille. So I keep a low profile until I reach the end. I make my way back down as though descending the slope of a live volcano.
Perhaps that’s why Thomas Mann called literature The Magic Mountain. It’s not just his novel he calls by that name, but literature as a whole. I imagine that Mann was frightened of being swallowed up by writing, since his was a mountain that people couldn’t come back down from, and longed passionately to die on. But perhaps in The Magic Mountain there’s a counterfeit sentence, too. A sentence that pretends to be alive, pretends to be part of the text, but is actually entirely fabricated, a bridging device.
When writing a book, I’m more interested in what arises out of my imagination than in the memories that emerge. In part this is because my imagination surprises and amuses me, but above all because it is so much more knowledgeable than me. When what I’m writing is based on a memory, I’m aways eager to see what imagined passage that memory will open onto. I always have the impression that I experienced the event I’m recalling as fiction – like one of my own fictions, in fact. With memories there always comes a rather disturbing moment when I no longer know if I experienced such and such a scene or if I wrote it. I wouldn’t say, like Marguerite Duras, that ‘what is written replaces what has been experienced’; if anything, I’d say the reverse: that what is experienced has already been written, even before it turns up in a book. And that once it turns up in a book, there is virtually no difference between memory and imagination, because they are woven from the same cloth. Memory has turned into fiction, but the event in question may itself have been experienced as fiction – like a book or a dream, or even a novel you were in the process of writing while the event was unfolding. There may be a way of living, my own way perhaps, that consists of believing that what is going on inside you and all around you is actually a novel you’re in the process of writing.
To come back to the little technical hurdles you come across when writing a book: the main one I encounter is ‘branching’, because a sentence will often bring forth not just one, but two or three others. You have to choose one, the one that will take you right to the end, for the other two don’t go right to the end, but lead to dead-ends. It’s exactly like a maze: there’s only one way out. So it’s not unusual that I go astray and choose a sentence that is perfectly enticing but leads to a dead-end five, ten or fifteen pages later. At which point I retrace my steps, delete the pages I’ve written and choose the other sentence, which I have sometimes been careful enough to keep present in my mind. I spend more time paring away than expanding: I tend to cut back rather than develop. This is true even though, my master in these matters being Kafka, I always strive to exceed the limitations of a completed scene or paragraph. I always try, that is, to take things a jot further, because contained in that jot is something very precious.
Most days (once I start on a novel I work on it every day), I read the whole thing through before taking up where I left off. As I write fairly short books, this is not too difficult. During the writing, the part already written is always entirely present in my mind, with its details and micro-details. I’d be unable to advance, I think, if I didn’t have constantly present in my mind the overall shape, the movements, volumes and spatial geometry of the part already written, with its minute shifts in tone, shading, lighting and rhythm, even when these are not obvious to the reader. The ‘subject’ of the book preoccupies me very little. It’s the object’s composition that’s my main concern, because the truth and presence of the book, the consciousness it conveys, resides mainly in its composition; in the wording, and in the thinking behind it.
Last and by no means least is the all-important question of the ending. Where will I stop? When will I stop? A story, as we know, is never finished, since narrative time is not the same as chronological time. Writers work – quite simply – in eternity. There comes a moment, however, when the book itself is packed tight like an egg, and to pursue it further would damage it and undermine its presence.
Often I’m torn between the desire to have done with it, and even to have done with it as quickly as possible (in his wonderful lectures on the novel Roland Barthes, you may recall, says that writers only begin a book in order to end it), and the desire to remain in the novel as long as possible, so at home do I feel there, so perfectly at home. I write dozens of pages more than I need. These are a holiday where I pretend to myself I’m still in that Eden where the imagination plays with memory like a child. Some of those pages are quite good, but they’re not the book, they’re no longer the book. So I have to make drastic cuts, which is another thing I always end up doing. Then, for a few weeks after the final full-stop, just for the fun of it, I continue to imagine ways of prolonging the book, though I know, at heart, that it can’t be done. For once you have left the maze, you have left it.
After finishing Le cheval blanc d’Uffington, which was published in 2002, I wrote in one of my notebooks that ‘completing a book was like returning from the land of the dead’. There’s certainly an element of truth in this; you’ve been playing with ghosts, and I don’t believe in novels that don’t play with ghosts. At the very least you’ve been through an unusual psychological experience. And then, before you know it, it all starts again: the long, secret preparation, the long secret ceremony of preparing the opening sentence that will contain your entire life, and off you go again.
The above is an edited version of a talk given at the literary festival Les Écrivains du Sud in April 2013. It was first published in French in the review Études, in May 2016.
Image © Archie Binamira