“A novel is a mirror walking down a long road.”
--Stendhal, The Red and the Black
As we writers know, we have a great habit of being locked up. In the den of our offices, under the flap of our computers, in the corner of our books. But still, choosing to stay at home to read and write and having to do so because the situation requires it is not the same. It's not the same at all. All the more so when death, suffering and illness threaten and rage outside.
In this new and frightening situation, how to write?
I must admit that in the first days of confinement, I was a victim of a real crisis of faith. I suddenly stopped believing in the force and power of fiction. It was completely new. Never, never had I ever doubted that literature could be essential to the world.
The novel I had been writing for many months seemed to sound wrong. Suddenly it disgusted me, I felt nauseous. I felt like throwing it all away, throwing it all away and never writing again, the reality seemed to have reached a degree far beyond anything I could have imagined. And everything had just exploded, in me and around me.
But since I'm a writer, I write. That tautology defines me. I cannot do without the gesture of writing. So, rather than fiction, I chose to throw on my screen the words that came to me, in spite of everything. Out of my rage and despair, out of my anguish too, came fragments, unconnected bubbles, things…
Little by little, over the course of the days, a kind of non-journal was born and, without my realizing it, I was able to return to fiction. I didn't throw away the novel in progress. I simply picked it up again, more calmly. And since then, it's been moving forward a little. I needed books too. Even more than usual. My house is full of them. My tables, even my bed. I read a lot, pecking here and there. I'm discovering a writer whose river of books I never would have touched before. It is Grégoire Bouiller and his Dossier M., more than 1500 pages and online supplements.
Then I plunged back into the essay by the French novelist and academic Philippe Forest entitled Le roman, le réel. This text seemed to me to be able to give me keys of comprehension on my crisis of faith of fiction.
It’s confirmed that I will not write on the corona. Not now.
I also talked on the phone a lot with my author friends from here and elsewhere. One day, my friend Isabelle Vouin, a French novelist, reminded me that during the Second World War, men and women had continued to write, even under the bombs, hidden in unsanitary cellars, even in the camps. So, she added, “you’re not going to be fooled by a virus.”
“But still. If I can still write, I won't write on the corona," I replied stubbornly, in a bad mood and a little off topic.
I still needed something else to cure my fiction sickness. Pictures! I watched five films by my dear Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish director whose colorful stories, women in high heels, wild transvestites and cheeky characters acted like a balm five nights in a row.
I have also read some pages from novels that have marked me such as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Kourouma's The Suns of Independence, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Purple Hibiscus, Laura Kasischke's In a Perfect World and Albert Camus’ The Plague (the most widely read novel, it seems, by my fellow citizens since last March).
How did these novelists write about the 1929 crisis, liberation from the colonialist yoke, a coup d'état, an epidemic of influenza or plague? Did they write while they were going through the events, that’s what I really wondered. I suspected the answer and it was confirmed to me by my re-reading. Unless they were diarists (we all think of Anne Frank's diary, of course) they all needed to step back from reality to write their novel.
Reality hits, it slaps, it’s rough, it’s raw and hard. Reality is the macabre countdown every night on social networks and on the news. Reality is the siren of the curfew every afternoon in Jordanian cities, the lack of masks and equipment for caregivers around the world and the fact that more black, poor and old people are dying. The reality is the threat. It is isolation and separation from loved ones. Relatives who become the distant ones.
What do you want to find to say in this explosion of reality? We are chaos. We are in chaos. The words explode in my face like the French president's words explode on the TV screen: “we are at war.” So what to do with the novel? How to make it? With what? All I have in my hands is debris. I don't know what to do with it. Especially not something about the corona.
A reminder: Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath ten years after the Great Depression. Kourouma, ditto. Ivory Coast gained its independence on 7th August 1960, his novel dates to 1968. Albert Camus composed his novel between 1938 and 1946, before publishing it in 1947, and the plague to which he refers, and which is supposed to have taken place in Algiers is a transposition of “the struggle of the European resistance against Nazism,” in the words of the author.
Reality slaps, hits, mistreats, but the novelist must take a step back, temporally or thematically. The step back seems essential, and before being able to tackle the subject of the crisis, one has to get through it. We must swallow reality like the boa constrictor swallows its prey. To disgust ourselves with it, to rage against it.
To be able to write about the corona, we must first live in the time of the corona. We have to let all this reality, as sharp and blunt as the evil crown is, enter our bodies and words.
The work of the novelist is located not in the taking notes of the reality but in the re-transcription of the real or, after a slow ingestion. To say it with the words of Philippe Forest: “The novel has sense and value only to answer the call that the real addresses to each one of us, producing in return the echo of its word.”
The real, this sort of foreign language of reality, its double, its lining, as one speaks of the lining of a dress or a coat, this is the matter of the writing, of the text, of the novel. The real is the impossible, says Lacan. The impossible is literature, George Bataille replies.
I don't know if I'll be one among us to write a novel about the corona. What I do know is that this planetary crisis will have changed my view of the world forever. How I feel about the world. My reality. Is no more. The same.
In the last two or three weeks, I've entered a new phase of work. The virus has penetrated my words. I don't know how yet but I know that everything I write from now on will be marked by what we are going through. The creation, the act of creation is colored by our involvement in the world, and ours has just changed.
And then... And then... But…
Highways, avenues, markets, bars, hotels and restaurants have all been empty for weeks while hospitals have been filling up. The light blue of the gowns have overtaken our screens. Yet everything is changing and transforming at breakneck speed. I feel like I’ve got some accelerated traveling in my head. At night, in my sleep, I travel through cities on a motorbike, at full speed. Everything is empty but I rush forward. It's moving inside me.
I look to one side and in a second, nothing is the same.
You only find what you're looking for, Picasso is supposed to have said...No, I won't write about the corona, not for a long time. I've been looking for writers who could prove it to me and made me sure of that point.
But this Sunday, as we all do, and often with our friends in these days of confinement, I was chatting on Messenger with Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin and describing to him the two women chirping on their balcony above my garden, like two merry warblers, sitting two meters from each other.
He challenged me to make a text out of that pinhead of history and suddenly all the stored rage, all the anger and anguish and fear came over me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed not with words, but with sentences. It had just spoken to me. I found myself sitting for eight hours straight at my worktable in what, I must admit, felt like an attack of fever. And finally, on the night of Sunday, April 12 to Monday, April 13, 2020, in the midst of the corona crisis and to my great surprise, I wrote about corona.
The ink’s been spilled.
It's kind of a hybrid text - a monster of a text, as monstrous as this time when disease has invaded the planet—something between theatre, short film, short story which stages an entire building and particularly two women who, every night, meet on their balcony to discuss this and that. And then, in the course of their conversation, they realize that they both have the same lover. They go down to the street to fight with extension cords and curtain rods...
To my great anger came a great burst of laughter. As if I was throwing to myself a lifeline. I built all the characters from my friends and family, from my recent readings as well, including that of Dossier M. by Grégoire Bouiller. I have put all those I love in there, in patchwork, in mosaic, all my loved ones from whom I am cruelly separated, living the confinement alone.
I laughed myself to tears as I wrote. I confess, writing this text was a real catharsis. I was the first to be astonished by what I'd done and then I said to myself that laughter is definitely a powerful way of taking a step back from reality, a brand new way for me to knot the threads of reality and fiction.
And as always when I am faced with the astonishment of having written, I am reminded of what Flaubert had written in a letter to his mistress Louise Collet. “You don't choose the subject of your writing,” he said, it falls into your hands without your knowledge,” and I add, to your defending will.
I didn't want to write about the corona but I did it anyway driven by a necessity I don’t understand. I don't write; it writes inside me. My writing body does the work outside of my will. I am thinking of Erwan Larhrer, who had to tackle a subject he didn't want to deal with: the attack on him at the Bataclan in Paris on November 13, 2015. The book is titled: The Book I Didn't Want to Write (2017, Quidam éditeur). No, really, you don't choose the subject of your writing. It falls into your hands and sometimes in the cruelest of ways.
To conclude, I will quote Marguerite Duras at the end of her novel Emily.L, one of my favorites from this important French author of the second half of the twentieth century: “We must leave everything in the state of appearance.”
The writing comes out, the novel is done and will be done. Fictional writing as a powerful wave in the ocean of words we are made of will never finish running on the fragile line of our lives.
Anne Bourrel was born in Carcassonne, South of France in 1970. She studied literature in Montpellier (France) and Twickenham (England). After a short career in British education and a year working in human resources in rural France, she moved to Montpellier where she devotes herself to writing. She is the author of seven novels, many theater plays, short stories and two poetry books. She has already won six literary awards. Her latest publications include Le Dernier Invité, a novel, and Voyez comme on danse, theater, both with Editions La Manufacture de livres, Paris.