PEN World Voices: “There’s just too many books.”

04/28/2011 4:18 PM |

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Previously at the PEN World Voices Festival‘s “Lunchtime Literary Conversations” at NYU’s La Maison Française, we met Ludovic Debeurme and Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold.

“I read a lot of novels—only great novels. I attach no importance to novelty, so I’m actually very liberated.” So explained, via interpreter, the dignified and elegant French author Laurence Cossé, a former journalist and bitingly satirical novelist of numerous works of fiction, many of which are available in English. Her most recent novel to be translated, A Novel Bookstore, is deeply interested with the process of taste-making for the erudite—the manner in which the serious reader of discrimination selects the novels that will occupy her time. This makes for an interesting topic of conversation, particularly when in discussion with the multi-talented Hervé Le Tellier, who besides working as a linguist, food critic, teacher, and mathematician, is also the author of over a dozen works of poetry and fiction, and a member of the famously selective, playfully avant-garde French literary collective Oulipo.

Cossé, one gathers very quickly, places a refreshingly unwavering trust in her own taste and aesthetic—or if not her own, the “enthusiasm of someone whose taste [she] trust[s].” In her view, however, there is a limited amount of fiction that might be considered Great—particularly when speaking of work by contemporary authors. (When asked by an audience member to name some important emerging French female authors, she imperiously replied: “There are a few rising stars, but their work is uninteresting. It would annoy me to speak of them.”)

Le Tellier claimed to be “less cynical than Laurence,” explaining, for instance, that “not every Oulipo member likes all the books written by other Oulipo members,” and—drawing from the example of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”—one must consider a “masterpiece” in the context of the epoch in which it is written.

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But both Cossé and Le Tellier agree that one must be choosy about the books he or she invest time in. They both claimed to adhere to a five-page test of each book they begin reading—after five pages, said Cossé, she knows if a book is worth bothering with. Said Le Tellier, “There’s just too many books—too many bad books, too many good books.”

The question of translation elicited interesting comments from both authors, each of whom had an example of an author who is, by frequent account, better in translation. (Le Tellier: Dostoyevsky is said to be better in English; Cossé: Goethe is best in French.) But as might be expected from an Oulipian who favors writing under pre-determined, often grammatical or linguistic constraints, Le Tellier also raised some interesting concerns about what of a novel might be irrevocably lost in translation. Calling a piece of fiction, at its most basic, an “arrangement of words,” he noted that if an author spends hours thinking about the placement of a single comma, only to have that comma disappear (for grammatical reasons) in the translation, “it’s hard to say what is preserved.” Something as integral as word order gives a text a “different musicality” when translated.

The conversation was deftly guided by editor and author Rakesh Satyal, whose self-admitted “gimmicky” question “what contemporary authors—French or American—do you think are under-appreciated?” gave both Cossé and Le Tellier quite a bit to remark on. In a quick quip which delighted the chatty audience, Le Tellier interrupted his co-panelist’s answer: “You say me, and I’ll say you.” Cossé—mostly ignoring (or not understanding) the joke—quickly responded that she loved the work of Cormac McCarthy and would “put him above everyone.” (This is a preference that is echoed in A Novel Bookstore, where one of the characters refers to McCarthy as one of the greatest living authors.)

Le Tellier talked of his preference for Nicholson Baker and Fred Chappell, apologizing because he believed that they were, in fact, reasonably famous already. He also noted that appreciation for an author is sometimes more pronounced in countries outside of his own, noting the example of France’s enthusiasm for Paul Auster. ”We have Great American writers in France who are not Great American writers in America.”