One of my favourite quotations about writing, one that for me expresses writing’s demands, is this maxim: You must kill all your darlings. This phrase is frequently attributed to William Faulkner, though its provenance is contested. I don’t know whether he wrote or merely said it, since I discovered it in a conversation between the writer Nathalie Sarraute and the director Claude Régy:
Sarraute: I recently read a quote from Faulkner which said: You have to kill your darlings, those you love so much because they are so beautiful, so charming to look at . . . You must get rid of them, they are dangerous. I found this phrase he wrote magnificent. Kill your darlings.
Régy: Is that what you do?
Sarraute: Indeed, I recently killed some while thinking back on that phrase. It was heartrending, you have cherished them so much, worked on them, they are adorable and lovely to look at . . . They carry with them an element of death. They can kill the surrounding text . . .
I like the idea that the author must be ruthless with regard to superfluous words, that they must be prepared to sacrifice a phrase – no matter how beautiful – when the needs of the text demand it. I try to constrain myself in this way, and writing my most recent novel, Mise en pièces (translated by Laura Francis under the title The Collection), gave me the opportunity to take this even further: not just at the level of the sentence, but at the level of the material.
The Collection follows a woman, Jeanne, as she meets men, sleeps with them and goes on her way, without retaining any memory other than the very precise image of their penises, which she progressively assembles into a mental collection. Very early on, my intention had been to centre the novel on Jeanne’s sexual life. I then became aware of a strange phenomenon. As soon as I gave Jeanne characteristics (an age, a personality, a profession, etc.), these elements appeared to be determinants of her attitude to sex. If Jeanne was older, she became a cougar; if she was young, a man-eating nymphomaniac; if she was a stay-at-home mother, a bored bourgeoise using sex to cheat on her husband and stave off her depression. The smallest clarification became explication, and the more clarification I gave, the more I reduced Jeanne’s liberty: her sexual life was no longer a choice but a consequence. Western culture has forged hundreds of narrative frameworks that we perpetually apply to female sexuality. These frameworks have a reassuring element in that they allow one to explain, to offer ‘whys’ and ‘becauses’, to domesticate and frame this disturbing thing that female sexuality represents for a patriarchal society. But it was not my aim to reassure the reader by offering them explanations, even less so to confine Jeanne in determinisms.
I was thus resolved – kill your darlings – to let go of everything that made Jeanne a character and which risked being turned against her at any moment. To say nothing about her was the only way to allow her to be everything. I therefore gave up knowing her age, imagining her physique, being privy to the rest of her life, and it was from this act of suppression that The Collection truly began. The novel took shape through this absence, was constructed from this position.
This relinquishment of what ordinarily makes a character come to life has nothing to do with the deconstruction that the proponents of the nouveau roman were able to carry out. If there is deconstruction, it dismantles the relationship that a novel maintains with its character. Jeanne puts up a resistance to the voracity of the novel that, the majority of the time, wants to know everything and say everything about the characters that inhabit it. I saw the novel’s seemingly innocent ‘desire to know’ as an extension of the desire to know, and the resultant possibility to judge, control, or even cure, that has weighed on female sexuality for centuries. This is why it was so important that the The Collection free itself from this desire.
This first renunciation brought with it another – kill all your darlings. As I wanted to neutralise the discourses applied to women’s sexuality, I also had to forsake the sexual narratives that produce these discourses. In stories where the protagonists are women whose sexuality is judged excessive, the narrative permits only two outcomes, fall or redemption: either the woman reforms her behaviour or she is punished, victim of her own excess, the devourer devoured. In order to escape from this dichotomy and avoid any note (no matter how miniscule or discreet) of condemnation or reform in the novel, the most efficient solution proved to be to forsake the narrative framework entirely.
There is no plot in The Collection. Jeanne does not transform and the reader that follows her does not encounter in her movements the reassuring trajectory that would convey them from a beginning to an end, via the middle. The Collection is not an evolutive novel, it is a circulatory novel, governed by a spatial principle rather than a temporal motor. It is as though space takes over the position vacated by time: the Parisian geography that Jeanne surveys becomes the only indicator of the work’s duration. This is the positive aspect of the sacrifice demanded by Faulkner: by renouncing the predictable, you open up a space for the unexpected; by abandoning the paths towards which writing first propelled you, you encounter the text in a new light.
My desire to unknot the binds of narrative drove me to invent new methods of working. After having written the whole novel, I printed it out, assembled the different fragments, arranging them a bit like the Musée Imaginaire postcards that André Malraux spread out on the floor to observe them as an ensemble, except that instead of images, there was text. I knew what kind of rhythm was generated by each fragment according to its flavour – description, anecdote, sex scene, reflection on Jeanne and on her way of eluding us, phantasmic scene – and I progressively ordered these fragments, guided not by concern for the coherent succession of scenes, but preoccupied solely by the rhythmic line that this arrangement would produce: I wanted the reader to navigate the novel like a space vibrating with distinct intensities. For me, The Collection is a rhythmic ensemble rather than a story, and it seems to me that this rhythm renders Jeanne with far more precision and mystery than a factual description would have done.
Perhaps the reason Faulkner’s phrase pleases me so much is because it reminds us that writing is not simply an additive process. In French we have the expression: ‘the anguish of the blank page’, which designates the emptiness of the page a void, a lack the writer must fill by covering it with words. Faulkner’s phrase reminds us that writing does not recover the void, but composes with it; that writing is not the substitute for absence but produces absences in its turn, so that the novel may finally learn to speak also in its silences.
Photograph © Evelyn Berg