This year, the Francophonie Festival welcomes Agnès Desarthe, an English graduate and former student of the École normale supérieure.The winner of several prizes, among which the Monde literary prize for her latest book, This Fickle Heart, published by Éditions de l’Olivier in 2015, the author and translator replies to our questions.
Q: Agnès Desarthe, you are an English graduate and former student of the École normale supérieure. Your early works were translations. What is the source of this curiosity about, and love for English literature? And how does it apply to French literature? What does the cross-fertilisation of the two languages bring to you?
Agnès Desarthe: I began translating for practical reasons. I was looking for a job, and it happened that this was something I was qualified to do. I never thought that it would become such a passion. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, it was an adventure with close ties to my personal history. Coming from an immigrant family, I was secretly torn when it came to my relationship with the French language, which seemed to me both ungraspable and overbearing. Reading in translation allowed me approach it from a safe distance. Paradoxically, it was through becoming interested in English – by delving into this language that was strange to me – that I managed to get closer to the French language, and to reclaim my hold on it.
Q: You write for readers of all ages (both young people and adults) and across a wide range of genres (novels, plays, essays, short stories, songs…). What motivates you to address such a broad public and to engage with all these genres? What is the common denominator that links this diversity (if there is one: a message, a question, etc…)?
Agnès Desarthe: I am terrified of getting bored. Passing from one genre to another, from one audience to another, allows me to retain a sense of surprise. It’s also a way of relaxing. Children’s books refresh my mind from adult’s books, and vice versa. I know that some of my readers find it disconcerting that everything changes from book to book. They sometimes have the impression that they’re losing me. And if there’s a message in there, it’s linked to freedom. Not getting too comfortable, not marrying yourself to a genre or a style. Always appearing where they least expect you to.
Q: In a program aired on France Culture on 16th October 2015, ‘Literature: the Choices of Agnès Desarthe’, you spoke about the importance of reading to your development as a writer. You mentioned Flannery O'Connor, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Karen Blixen, William Faulkner, and even Virginia Woolf. To what extent do the books you read inform your work? What kind of relationship with an author would you want your readers to have? And why?
Agnès Desarthe: The books I read are an essential part of my work. Perhaps the most important part. They stimulate me, they make me challenge myself. They make me believe in the power of literature. I would tell any reader that they should befriend their favourite authors. It’s a relationship that is both intense and gentle, with no restrictions when it comes to time or place. A perfect encounter, with no borders. It’s the only thing that has the power to cheat death: when you read Hugo, it’s as if he’s holding your hand.
Agnès Desarthe: I want to give a general presentation of my work and my art as a way to inspire those present to discover my books. I’m thinking of this lecture as a first meeting, an initial contact.
Q: Are you familiar with China and Chinese culture? Do the cultural differences between countries such as France and China that are so unlike one another inspire you in any way?
Agnès Desarthe: I don’t know enough about China and Chinese culture to be able to speak about it. But differences always inspire me. They are the spice of life. I have certain intuitions, for example about the body – it seems that the body is experienced very differently in French and Chinese culture. This trip will be a chance for me to either confirm my suspicions or see them shattered.