author bio

imageSteve Uomini

The Goncourt Interview


Alvaro L. Brooks hesitated on the landing of the Rive Gauche 5th-floor apartment, not sure whether to knock on the door or ring the buzzer. How does one announce oneself to the person whose literary production has almost defined a generation? The wiry, diminutive academic fussed over his appearance in the hallway mirror before opting for the doorbell, which had a painted over look of permanent disuse. The sound emitted was so faint he had to press several times, worrying that the elderly Goncourt winner 2010 might be hard of hearing. Waiting for the legendary Yves Martin to appear at the door, he reflected on how much his academic and personal life had revolved around a man he’d never conversed with and who had countless times refused to meet with him.
            Alvaro was still a grad student when he first got drawn into the vortex of Martin’s fictional universe. There was a narrative power and authenticity in Martin’s work that was unique and irresistible from the very first read. Tearing through the seminal novel, The Compromise, in one uninterrupted sitting, Alvaro felt as if he were vicariously experiencing real events rather than reading an embellished story about them. As he compulsively turned the pages chronicling how the protagonist, Jean-Pierre Durand, chooses to collaborate with the Vichy authorities in a series of small but escalating moral compromises, leading to the denunciation of suspected resistance members, Alvaro sensed a strange mixture of revulsion and empathy that no fictional work had ever elicited in him. His overriding impression was that Jean-Pierre’s actions and, maybe even more, his abstentions, such as the pivotal moment when he refrains from warning his childhood friend about an impending arrest, are always ethically indefensible, but intrinsically human and therefore intensely believable. Even after publication of his dissertation and book, The Invention of Narrative Truth, Alvaro considered that even he, the world-renowned expert on Martin, still couldn’t pinpoint how such extraordinary veracity was achieved. He’d had to carefully mask his uncertainties about Martin’s unorthodox and amazingly effective technique in his most recent paper on “Ontological implications and narrative properties of the pseudo-memoir” delivered at a symposium on Occupation literature.
            The mystery surrounding the whole set of Vichy novels was of course deepened by Martin’s stubborn refusal to respond to interview requests or even invitations to public readings. On one notable occasion, a highly anticipated reading of the penultimate novel, The Auction Block, at the Fnac Montparnasse was cancelled without explanation at the last minute much to the frustration of Martin’s cult following. Though disappointed as well, Alvaro had been privately relieved to be able to maintain his quasi-monopoly on the deconstruction of the Durand series. The author’s notorious aloofness seemed to perpetually reinforce Alvaro’s status as self-appointed spokesperson for the Martin franchise, a position he assumed would be further confirmed by this new unexpected opportunity.
            It was only fair that Alvaro should act as the novelist’s public voice. After all, he had devoted his entire university career to Martin’s works. Every grant proposal, conference paper, teaching syllabus and even casual conversation with colleagues featured aspects of the man’s prolific oeuvre. Alvaro mused that he recollected more about Jean-Pierre Durand’s life than his own, which, aside from his respectable contributions to narrative theory, had nothing particularly dramatic or inspiring about it. No matter: if one chose to perceive the world essentially through the prism of great fiction, Martin’s books represented a treasure trove with thousands of pages of eerily life-like evocations. Spending every waking moment with the supremely antipathetic Jean-Pierre, Alvaro often felt he’d somehow had a part in the creation of this brilliant ordinary villain, enabling him to finally understand Flaubert’s famous assertion that he was Madame Bovary.
            The fact that so little was known about the author’s life only served to enhance the mystique surrounding the controversial tomes. Here was a writer who, like an aphasic child who suddenly utters full sentences, had published nothing, not even a short story, prior to Le Compromis, then suddenly began producing revered literary monuments. Alvaro’s theory about what he referred to in academic papers as the “spontaneous masterpiece” was that the stories were organized in more or less complete form in Martin’s head, comparable to the process that supposedly enabled Mozart and Mahler to compose polished works in one draft. Perhaps what intrigued Alvaro even more was the fact that Martin, a native of Oran, had never left Algeria before 1962 and therefore had no direct experience with Occupation-era “Metropolitan” France. Yet he was able to summon a wealth of detail that would have been impressive even for a contemporary eyewitness. Astonishingly, in the second volume, The Silent Remains, the narrator reveals minutiae about real life in Orléans in 1942, such as the whereabouts of certain Resistance hideouts, that have only been corroborated very recently by historians. This aspect too was the focus of one of Alvero’s conjectures, developed in a colloquium on “Intuitive factual reconstruction in historical fiction”.
            In preparation for the interview, Alvaro had made a mental list of questions that he agonized over for weeks. More than anything, he wanted to avoid cliché and dismissed opening gambits about the “creative process” or the “origins of Martin’s inspiration” or the pros and cons of the fountain pen versus the typewriter etc., for fear of offending the artist’s sensibilities and putting a premature end to the interview he’d practically stopped hoping would ever occur. He assumed that the recluse genius didn’t suffer fools gladly and wished through his carefully-chosen queries to convey how much his outright idolization of the man was grounded in deep understanding and appreciation of his work. Another question he wouldn’t ask, despite intense curiosity, was why Martin had finally agreed to the unprecedented tête-à-tête after rebuffing him so many times. Did one of Alvaro’s recent papers on “The deliberate use of inconsistent spelling and idiosyncratic punctuation to heighten realism” somehow strike a chord? Was he seduced by the eloquence of the previous year’s article on “false memories and the faux-memoir”? In any case, one issue he intended to raise was whether an epilogue to the Durand quartet was in the works and if so whether the decorated résistant would finally be unmasked to reveal the shameless collaborateur readers had come to love hating.
Truth be told, not wanting to get ahead of himself, Alvaro nevertheless couldn’t help but fantasize how he could weave this last potential “scoop” into his next book on Martin. Actually, it was something of a vexing point for Alvaro, this lack of a final dénouement. Though he fancied himself a “postmodernist,” capable of accepting ethical ambiguities and unresolved moral dilemmas, he hungered for “closure” regarding Jean-Pierre’s ultimate fate more than he cared to admit. He believed there just had to be a concluding episode that would expose the closet collabo, not out of any misguided need for retribution but for transparency’s sake. What he wanted most was for a series that epitomized duplicity to culminate in a moment of absolute, unadorned truth. If the mood of the interview was right Alvaro thought he might just summon the courage to suggest some of his own ideas on this theme. Perhaps some external event would force Jean-Pierre out into the open. Or, better still, a confession, a kind of fascist-sympathizer “coming out” that would provide a climactic catharsis. Such reveries led Alvaro to concoct improbable real-life scenarios in which he played an active role in Martin’s work. An infirmity that would incite Martin to dictate to his most attentive follower a “Durand Requiem” of sorts… a commission for Alvaro to write a posthumous forward to the final volume… The prospects were intoxicating.
            He knew full well that he was getting carried away with these flights of fancy and that he should be thankful for the immense honor the interview itself represented, not to mention the benefits it would bring, such as guaranteeing his consideration for tenure.
            Standing outside the door, Alvaro reviewed his final list of questions with a growing sense of stage fright. A fleeting image of the now-hackneyed Bernard Pivot Bouillon du Culture questionnaire passed through his mind as if coming face to face with the creator of the world Alvaro inhabited, virtually, was akin to meeting St. Peter at the gates of heaven. In the purgatory of his mind though, Dante’s infernal gates more aptly evoked his trepidation at finally meeting the 21st century Victor Hugo. He found himself almost hoping that his hero, recently short-listed for a chair in the Académie française, had forgotten about the interview or that some ailment would prevent his coming to the door. No such luck: just as Alvaro’s panic had reached its paroxysm, the door opened and suddenly, there he was, in the flesh.
            Alvaro was immediately taken aback by how profoundly commonplace Martin looked. There were very few known photos of the man, all prior to 1980, so Alvaro had visualized a paragon of eccentricity, when in fact the most gifted literary mind of his times looked generically like anyone and everyone. He exhibited no exterior signs of superior intellect, nor did he seem to possess any remarkable trait at all except perhaps for a vaguely ominous blankness of expression. Invited in with a courteous little gesture of the left hand, Alvaro entered the apartment, which also surprised him by its distinct lack of any particular originality. Alvaro noticed, as they made their way to what Martin referred to as the “salon,” that there were very few books in evidence and none, as far as he could tell, having to do even remotely with World War II. This made him even more self-conscious about the first edition copy of his favorite, Faust Revisited, he’d brought for dedicatory signature, which he had envisioned reading something like: “To the most competent scholar of my art.” In the absence of any discernable workspace, Alvaro guessed that somewhere nearby there was the “writer’s den.” What he wouldn’t give to catch a glimpse of that inner sanctuary whose cork-lined walls, he pictured in his mind’s eye, stood covered with inspirational news clippings and photos from the 40s. He could also almost see the master himself, surrounded by ritual objects of his craft, religiously fulfilling his daily quota at special, prescribed times. Perhaps, Alvaro let himself hope, his host would see fit to show this intimate lair to his most knowledgeable admirer.
Having offered Maghrebian-style mint tea, Martin returned from the kitchen after a brief moment with a tray that he set on the table between them with an adroit, practiced movement that effectively disguised a slight tremor of his fingertips. Alvaro didn’t dare break the silence he hoped was complicit as they both proceeded to stir crystallized sugar into their glasses. Departing from all of his previously imagined scenarios, he began to frantically search for a “small talk” topic that could serve as a transition to the formal interview, hoping desperately all the while that Martin would seize the initiative. Would it be appropriate, he speculated, to discuss French national football results with the great architect of the Durand memoirs? In the event, chitchat proved quite unnecessary as his prestigious interviewee abruptly broke the spell with a general preliminary declaration.
“You have understood absolutely nothing about my work”.
Alvaro nearly swallowed the mint leaves at the bottom of his glass as this statement reverberated in his mind. Prepared for some contentious give and take, Alvaro had not expected such a categorical assessment and was left utterly speechless. After letting the stunned scholar dangle for a very uncomfortable minute, Martin began to develop this theme in the form of a syllogism that effectively turned Alvaro’s whole life on its head. When it was obvious that the academic was having trouble absorbing the author’s reasoning, Martin opened a tattered briefcase and produced a visual aid that looked to be a very large stack of yellow, dog-eared papers inscribed with tiny, densely written manuscript notes in an unfamiliar, meticulous handwriting. In doing so he quoted from memory a passage he claimed was from Tolstoy:
Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread into the fabric of their lives.
Alvaro listened, distracted by the towering mass of folios that looked like an ancient telephone directory that had been put through a washing machine several times. Thoroughly confused, he felt as out of his depth as he had the first time he checked out the intimidating 847-page Compromise at the university library. With a quick flash of impatience, Martin registered his perplexity and tried a less cryptic approach.
The unbearable “simple” truth was then delivered in a casual, detached tone of voice, as if Martin were reciting one of the more Spartan variations from Queneau’s Exercices de Style. The manuscript had been found completely by chance in the wall of Martin’s first Parisian apartment near Montmartre. It contained, practically verbatim, the entire text that would come to be known to the public as Martin’s magnum opus but in reality was the true confession of a guilt-ridden collaborator… with a flair for writing. Apart from the pseudonym Jean-Pierre Durand, the epic testimonial of the events from 1941 to 1944 was purportedly all factual and owed nothing to the “narrative strategies” or “stylistic topoi” Alvaro had spent years discussing in conference rooms and lecture halls.
The demolition of the Martin myth simultaneously destroyed the foundation of Alvaro’s whole university career, a fact that explained, Martin added almost offhandedly, why such a devastating revelation could be safely made to the one man who had too much invested in the illusion to relay it. Martin smiled broadly for the first time as he pointed out that by transcribing the chanced-upon diary he was merely inverting a maxim attributed to Napoleon that Alvaro himself had used in his book as a heading to the chapter on life imitating art:  “What is History, but a fable agreed upon?”
This last point was lost on Alvaro, who was having trouble focusing his attention. So flabbergasted by the magnitude of this disclosure, Alvaro didn’t even think to ask the obvious question as to the real identity of Jean-Pierre Durand (who might still be alive and possibly had descendants). Nor did he raise the equally glaring question about what could possibly motivate someone to commit a literary fraud of such grotesque proportions. No, the first and ultimately only question Alvaro had was this: why tell him and why now? It was almost gleefully that Martin replied, informing the confounded academic that he found his endless disquisitions exasperatingly tiresome and – would he like a bit more tea? – he kindly requested that Alvaro “cease and desist” with regards to the Durand legacy. In his view, he was doing Alvaro a favor by showing him the sheer pointlessness of his intellectual pursuits and, in turn, Alvaro would be doing the world a favor by discontinuing his absurdly futile research.
The injunction would prove superfluous since Alvaro, as he stumbled for the door in a daze, filled with quite enough “artistic verity” for one day, had doubts as to whether he would ever again write anything more elaborate than an errand list.

Author Bio

Steve UominiSteve Uomini is a native of Portland, Oregon. Since 1989 he has lived in Paris, where he now works in an international school. He holds a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and is the author of Cultures Historiques dans la France du 17e Siècle (L’Harmattan, 1998) and several articles on French 17th century historiography. This is his first fiction publication.
contact the author: Steve Uomini