You need a myth for yourself when you write a novel – Gwenaëlle Aubry in conversation

During her visit to Zagreb in November 2014. as a part of the project Kritika danas, Diana Meheik and Ante Jerić met with the French writer Gwenaëlle Aubry to talk in-depth about her work ranging from literature and philosophy to theater. We are grateful for the time she took to answer our questions, inspiring us to emerge with new ones which will wait for, hopefully, next time.


You are known for the exceptional ability to render responses to trauma. Let’s take a scene constructed as the aftermath of the suicide bomb from Partages as exemplary here. Tragedy, injustice and pain inflicted on Sarah recur through the imagery taken from the Old Testament. She waits for her lover to mend the teeth that have been broken by gravel, the body that has been divided by half, hands that have been cut off at the wrists and a memory which by now resembles ploughed land. She waits for him to come with a letter, which is missing from the world, a letter which can bring chaos to order and repair her world finally. What we find interesting is that the invocation of the missing letter appears directly or indirectly in other places of your writing, in both Partages and Personne. We were wondering if you can tell us a bit more about the origins of this motif, connected to the Kabbalah, the place it occupies and the role it performs in your writing?

It’s a beautiful question. You’re absolutely right about a sort of coincidence of Personne [Croatian edition : Nitkoand Partages [Croatian edition : Podjeleon account of this motif of the missing letter. But I think when I was writing Personne it was not really conscious. In Personne it was very much called forth by the reference to Georges Perec, the oulipian practice of the lipogram, and of course, the form of the abecedary. But then, when preparing Partages, I re-read Gershom Scholem and suddenly was reminded about the missing letter. So, what you can read, for instance, in Scholem’s works about the Kabbalah is the idea that all the negative, all the violence of the world in which we live is due to the absence of one letter, which is not really identifiable – it might be the schin, says Scholem, but also a completely unknown, radically missing letter. This also means that the reparation, the tikkun, only depends on one letter, and obviously when you write you can’t but be seized by such an idea. When I was writing Partages, I was directly facing such violence that I think I really needed to have a kind of magic relationship to writing and to literature. I really needed to think that writing this novel could have something to do, at least for me, with reparation, with tikkun.

Also, I’ve been working on Plotinus and on mysticism. So another question is how this motif of the missing letter connects with the mystical one of l’indicible, of the unspeakable, the unutterable. I’m quite diffident in this motif of the unutterable, or at least in the kind of blanchotien use of it. The missing letter does not have to do for me with a kind of lethal injunction to silence but rather, and quite on the contrary, with the question of the impulse, the vital impulse, in writing. I take it as maybe an explanation of this strange motion which makes you, as soon as a book is finished, start another one. Why do you go on, why do you keep on trying and trying? Of course if you go on, it is because you feel something was missing in the books you’ve written before, and you’re looking for something else. But I don’t want to think of this motion, this kind of strange impulse, as a sort of disparate tension towards the unspeakable. I really think it’s, again, a vital question, something that has to do with la reprise, which I tried to explain yesterday in the lecture. This is why I would like to connect this motif of the missing letter to one very beautiful novel, and to one very beautiful figure, which is that of Pearl, the little Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This novel takes place in a puritan community in America, it is about the shame of a woman who is marked, stigmatized, for having committed adultery. She is the mother of a little girl called Pearl, whom she always dresses in red, and who is a sort of a living letter : the letter of shame transformed into something that is pure rhythm and pure dance and grace, because Pearl is also a kind of fairy figure. This is how I would like to think of the missing letter literature is looking for : as a way both to figure and transfigure shame, violence, exclusion- even though you know that there will always be something that resists, and against which you will always have to fight, rather than remain silent. Literature is, I believe, the mediation between language and the unspeakable.


In Personne, the alphabet helped you to confront the manuscript you had inherited along with the impossibility of its truth. At the last pages of the novel there is a sense that the truth you have written is ultimately ungraspable, constitutively incomplete and, ultimately, unstable. The fear it could collapse at any moment prevails. Nevertheless, the alphabet provided the means, if not a guarantee, of bringing chaos of memory into order. How come it imposed itself to you as the constructive principle of Personne?

The alphabet really came as a solution but not immediately. I spent quite a lot of time just reading the manuscript I inherited from my father, trying to understand what this strange injunction, «à romancer (to novelize?)» he had written on its cover could mean. I also extracted some passages from it. Not only for their literary beauty, but because of the strangeness which could be heard in them. Some sort of undecidability between reality and fiction (or lie, or delirium) for instance. But I didn’t have the form, although I really knew what I didn’t want. I knew I didn’t want a family novel, nor an intimate, autobiographical narrative. At the very beginning, I had even forbidden myself to use the first person. And then, this idea of the abecedary just imposed itself, and I knew it was the exact form, first of all because it was faithful to what I was trying to say : precisely to the idea of the impossibility of intimacy, as well as of autobiography or self-portrait. Personne is an attempt to describe a multiple subject, an «I» who was also a «we» or a «they», who was inhabited by an inner crowd, a company of masks, of persona, which the abecedary convokes one after the other, from «A» like Antonin Artaud to «Z» like Zelig. This form also acted as a kind of perfect constraint, because it placed intimacy far away, and at the same time gave rise to sort of an autonomous movement. It has something almost childish and sort of ludic, playful, which added to the jubilation of writing. But it is also arbitrary, both an arbitrary and a constraining order. And this is indeed what the Y chapter (the only one which does not bear any title, only this letter, that is to say the letter of the symbol) tries to say. As well maybe as the T chapter, «T like traitor». I think writing is a strange mixture of betrayal and faithfulness. It’s very dishonest to pretend that you can be completely faithful to anything, to anybody, to any kind of reality, and especially to people who are not there anymore to attest or confirm your faithfulness. And also, there is something completely contingent in every novel, an hypothesis, a line of fiction, a code, a protocol. This is also why Personne is a novel, and not an «intimitate narrative» : because it codifies a hypothesis, one hypothesis amongst many other possible ones: the risk and the joy of not being oneself, of not coinciding with oneself.


The alphabetical order creates tension between infinity of possible responses to the demand to novelize, and the necessary finitude of the response to that demand in 26 letters. Once the novel was published, have you ever been tempted to throw the dice once again, to start anew or simply to replace a figure under some letter with another one?

Indeed, it could be done, but I never had this temptation. I can’t rewrite, almost not even reread published book – even though, of course when reopening my very first novels, I sometimes think I ought to rewrite them. Also, Personne is actually very structured, not that plastic in reality. But most of all, I think every stage of writing is at the same time a stage of life, so that you are not the same person at the beginning and at the end. When you write a book, it’s a sort of complete mobilization, also of the unconscious, which is, I think, very much responsible for the density and the peculiar colour of the texts. Even if you decide the structure, even if you work consciously the prosody, the big part of what makes the texture of the text is mostly linked to an unconscious work and knitting, weaving and knotting around it. No, I really can’t go back.


In one of the previous answers you’ve mentioned Plotinus. In one of the most memorable passages from the Personne, you touch tangentially Plotinus’ notion of ‘We’. Maybe you could take up this motive and expand it in order for us to get a sense of your philosophical preoccupations and trajectory of your philosophical work?

Plotinus is one of those who help me to circulate between philosophy and litterature. One of his main questions : «how can we come back here after we’ve been there » could be translated into this sentence of Beckett from L’innommable, which is for me something like the formula of what writing tries to do:Revenir est long, je ne sais pas d’où [Coming back takes time, I don’t know where from].” And there are other things as well : the question of silence, which does not play only as an interruption of language but as the ground for another use, poetic, incantatory of it; the mystic paradox, which is also at work in Meister Eckhart and in Georges Bataille, that is to say the idea that it’s when you’re not conscious of yourself anymore that you are yourself the most. And of course, this question of the self, which Plotinus calls the hemeis, using the first person of the plural, and which is not something substantial, but a plurality that reflexivity does not suffice to unify, and which has no identity but is rather the capacity of several possible identifications. Plotinus obviously still accompanies me, even though I now spend more time with Proclus, whose Elements of Theology I am translating with others. I’m also in the process of finishing a book, a genealogy of power, whose first part, Dieu sans la puissance, has already been published. The second part, Genèse du Dieu violent, deals with the process of substitution of the modern ontology of power and action to the Aristotelian one of in-potency and in-act. It is also a critical genesis of the divine attribute of omnipotence since I intend to show that it is in God – the first being – that being and power come to be tied together. But the question of omnipotence also interests me because this attribute is both metaphysically necessary (it grounds fundamental christian dogmas such as creation ex nihilo, resurrection, incarnation) and involves a kind of scission between religion and ethics. It engages all the religious procedures of transcendency, mystery, incommensurability. It also eventually skteches the quasi-teratologic figure of a God beyond good and evil, who acts as the illegal and arbitrary principle of any kind of law, whether ethical, logical, natural- that is to say, a figure of absolute power and pure sovereignty whose theologico-political applications can be catastrophic. One knows that Carl Schmitt, for instance, explicitely refers his theory of the state of exception to the theology of omnipotence.

So this ongoing inquiry really works as a diptych with Dieu sans la puissance, where I proposed an interpretation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics based on the notions of en dunamei and en energeiai– in-potency and in-act. Indeed, this conceptual couple allows a coherent, unitary reading of Aristotle’s metaphysical project. And it also grounds a remarkable theology which is that of a god without power but, nevertheless, neither impotent nor feable. Aristotle tries to think a very strange thing : the power proper to the Good, which he conceives as a non-efficient effectiveness. To this extent, he offers an alternative, at least conceptual, both to the theology of omnipotence and to that of impotency which has been reenacted by some contemporary thinkers such as Gianni Vattimo or Hans Jonas. The question also bears on the paradoxical evolution of the word dunamis : how, after Aristotle (and Plotinus plays an important role here) did it come to be reinterpreted not as in-potency but as power? How did God come to be identified with power? How did the concept of an omnipotent God beyond good and evil eventually substitute for that of a God without power and identified to the Good? Finally, how is this substitution correlative to that of the modern ontology of power and efficiency for that of in-potency and in-act?


It would be a shame to end our conversation about Personne before addressing the issue of the image and the place it occupies in your writing. Your depiction of Truffaut’s Domicile Conjugal, a film, a moving image, as an impossible memory, a forbidden testimony about affairs which took place before your birth, the archive of your unconscious is unforgettable. But the static image, photography, seems to be even important for you. Your characters are always looking at photographs. Can you articulate the relationship between (your) writing and photography?

Photography is really an issue, because it is connected with a question that is central in my work at the moment and which is that of the articulation between poetry and novel. I tend more and more to introduce poetry, blanks, verses etc. in my novels, but at the same time I am sort of more and more reconciled with the form of the novel, which has always been mine but to which I used to be quite reluctant. The whole question is that of the articulation between, let’s say, sideration and instant on one side, motion and temporality on the other. Sylvia Plath says that poems are monuments of the instant. Prose is something different: prorsus in Latin means straightforward. It’s an art of motion. And I would place photography and the static image on the side of poetry and of the instant. Take Sebald for instance: he keeps on integrating black and white images into his novels, and they really operate as an interruption of the narration, as an interruption of the movement, and really as sort of windows open on the Sheol, on the Hades, on the other world. When looking at those photographs, you really feel you’re basculating, you’re just falling into the other side. In La Chambre claire Roland Barthes says that photography is «le retour du mort». What happens in Sebald is that the dead are really on both sides – on the side of the one who is looked at and on the side of the one who is actually looking. I have this kind of magic relationship to photography. And, for me, it’s very much linked to a threat, precisely to the threat of silence, of sideration, of something that can just make any kind of novel and writing, and life, impossible. I was telling you about the need to integrate poetry in my novels. I also need to integrate images, or description of images in them. At least two of my novels really came from the fascination I had for some photographs. The second one [L’Isolée] came from fascination with the portrait of Florence Rey and with what the psychiatrists had said about her radical mutism, her radical silence. Two photographs were also triggers for Partages. But then the whole question is: how to escape this fascination, this static instant, how to change it into a dynamism, a prorsus, how to give it speed and rhythm – write a novel.


The image is a trace of the past which captivates the observer, it interrupts the movement, but it also, in some way, incites it and thus opens the future.

Maybe I could invoke Plotinus one more time to speak about the image as a trace. He draws a beautiful opposition between Ulysses and Narcis. In a sense that you have a double use of the trace – the Narcissistic one, and the Odyssean one. The first one is about being hypnotized by the trace, being captivated by it. It’s matter of narcotic fascination. And then there is the other use of the trace, which is tied to Ulysses, and which is the dynamic one, which eventually brings you back home, but not before it takes you through a great deal of trouble, takes you around the world, rather than just leaving you to stare at the surface of the river, into your own image, into the Styx.


We have already mentioned that memory is not enough to guarantee loyalty which seems to be a recurrent motif in your writing. Can you tell us something, apart from your novelistic work, about the relation you have with the places dedicated to preservation of memory, to the defense from the threat of forgetting, places like the archives? Or, rather, what impressions you bear with you when you leave a museum?

The question of archives and the question of museums, I’m not sure it’s the same question. I have very ambivalent relationship to archives. I tend to keep everything, I tend to to accumulate traces. I’m really scared of oblivion, I really want to remember everything. I have these daily notebooks since I was 8, I’ve got all my life in them since then, even though they are just superficial notes. I need written inscription, I really need it, because that is my grip on reality. Sylvia Plath says it very well as well, and this is another reason why I feel so close to her, that she just needs words, words, words to interrupt the flow. And my grip on the flow can be just one word, just nominatives. For example: “I had a coffee with Diana and Ante” – just to grip on to things. That scattered material maybe waits for a book which one day will unify it, give form to this fragments of reality. As for museums, I like messy, old museums. I lived in Pisa for a while when I was about 19, and there was this mad museum, with a mad curator, and she just mingled orthodox Christ en croix, Christ on the cross, suspended slightly diagonal on the ceiling, with something in the lines of very strange bottles that belonged to, I don’t know, 19th century scientists, containing a monstruous foetus. It was in its entirety a salvage museum. But also, the Louvre as it was before, the National Gallery as it still is, the Uffizi as they were before, when you could just come in and see your painting, see the one you love, see your Uccello, and have this kind of complete free relation to it. The cold and didactic use of museums nowadays, this kind of uniformization of museums makes me quite sad.


You’ve compared Partages with a Greek tragedy and the resonances are obvious: Leila and Sarah are tragic heroines conflicted with their own destined narratives, their story is played out on the stage of history, each takes on the responsibilities that have befallen their communities: they have to resist and they have to fight, but ultimately, the price of justice is too high, they die as martyrs, and each turns into, as Leila says „an image, an idol, small inert goddess“. But there is also, in Partages, another kind of responsibility, which is to love and to give, to see the Other. And this is why the two strangers, two enemies, Leila and Sarah, meet as if they knew each other. Can we think of Partages as a Greek tragedy, but also a departure from it?

Yes, this is very important. At the beginning, I wanted to write a drama, I really wanted to have the form of an antique tragedy. As I always do when I start to think of a novel, I always think – this won’t be a novel, and at the end it’s always one but this initial reluctance helps me, I suppose, to modify the form from the inside. And when I speak of tragedy, here, I don’t mean fatum nor necessity (the end is open, one does not actually know whether Leila and Sarah die) but, as Jean-Pierre Vernant writes about Greek tragedy, a conflict of justices. Amos Oz also says that the Israelo-Palestinian conflict is not a western but a tragedy, which means that you can’t divide (partager) between the good and the bad camp. What I also wanted to do was to follow, from the inside, the intellectual and the affective logic of both, Sarah and Leila. To completely stick to it. To understand, in the full extent of the word, to try to get a sort of internal and carnal understanding of the both of them – their fears, their desires, their despair, their anger, as well as their shared attempt to escape, precisely, the fixed and assigned identity of a community. And when I say logic I really mean what I say. I mean something which is very reasonable and rigorous, and has its own dynamism. But something mad at the same time, since this novel is also very much about phantoms, about being haunted. Of course Sarah and Leila don’t inherit the same history, you can’t parallel the Shoah and the Nakba, but the space of the novel is that of memory, of archaic and obsessive memorial traces. When you read Sophocles, the confrontation of Antigone with Creon, when Creon speaks you think – of course, he’s right, I’m with him, and when Antigone speaks you think – of course, she’s right, I’m with her. This is what Greek tragedy, as a kind of experiment, makes possible. You are fully with one voice, fully with one reason, and then fully with the other. That’s what the tragic novel is for me. While writing this book, I was myself completely divided, deeply « partagée », having to pass the Green line all the time. It was like being the inner land of the conflict – and this experience can also be that of readers. So that I also needed to believe that novel was some kind of way out of tragedy. I needed to think that a novel could totalize what tragedy leaves divided. I needed to think of the book at that time, of any book, as a kind of magic object, where (this is also close to what you said about the Kabbalah) the contraries can meet. You need a myth for yourself when you write a novel, you need that. I’m not convinced about it anymore, but at the same time I’m now writing about a myth, which I think is actually the real escape out of tragedy. Because myth is a circulation between the contraries. What tragedy fixes and rigidifies, myth makes fluid and plastic. This may be why I now need to come back to it.


Sticking to theatrical themes, you’ve written an adaptation of The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch, and you’ve mentioned Antonin Artaud quite a lot yesterday in your lecture and of course in Personne. Can you tell us a little bit about the connection that you have with the theatre and the way it influences, if it does, the way you work, or the novels that you write?

I’ve done some theatre when I was a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, we staged French contemporary theatre, Koltès, Novarina… But while my link to poetry is very explicit, I don’t integrate any kind of dramatic form in my novels, I don’t even write dialogues (I really don’t like to write them). But even though my texts don’t have an obvious dramatic form, they are written to be read aloud, obviously written for the voice. And as soon as I can work with actors, as well as with musicians, it’s such a pleasure, and such a natural continuation of writing. When you read aloud your text, you coincide with the very movement of writing, and at the same time you don’t have any more the threat of silence, the threat of interruption. And working with musicians adds to the pleasure, because as good as actors can be, musicians are the best readers: they know that a text is made to be heard, they immediately capture its deepest stratum, they make its sonorous matter suddenly explicit and audible. Now, I may come back to theater one day, which was my initial desire when I started to write.


Was Partages staged in the theater?

I did some parts of it for a reading with Wajdi Mouawad, other short readings with some actors, and there was quite a long reading of it by two young actresses, one of them, Leopoldine Hummel, who is also a musician and a singer, will also play with me – and with other musicians – my short text about Sylvia Plath, Lazare mon amour.


Before we end, could you tell us, what is the next step, what is next for you?

I’m always quite reticent to speak of that, but yes, I am working on, rather I’m coming back to a project which is kind of behind all others, cause it was really my first literary attempt when I was between 18 and 23 or something like that, I spent 5 years writing, and always rewriting a book that was never published, and one day I just dropped it and moved to others. Now I’m coming back to it. In a sense, I wrote the others as variations of this first one. It’s a strange thing, let’s say I’ve been sort of propelled into this book by a sentence by W. B. Yeats. He writes somewhere, and it’s quite a mad and terrifying and beautiful sentence, «I have often had the fancy that there is some one myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought». So this idea of «tell me what is your myth, and I shall tell you who you are». I’m trying to take mytho-mania as a kind of principle of writing, and to put into words and images and prosody this strange projection – my strange projection – into a myth (that of Persephone), as well as the circulation between the myth and the contemporary: how a myth can pervade all your life, all your present.