As I said when I reviewed the people in the photo last week .I had been given the chance to ask Hélène Gestern a few questions about her book and influences here are her answers .
1 Is the photo that is the key to the story real ? If so how did you get it ? And was it the kernel for the story ?
The photo isn’t real, and no photo described in the book is, except one. The first photo is of course the kernel : it’s the major enigma (who are these people, why they are together in Switzerland at this moment), and the starting of point of Hélène and Stéphane’s investigation.
2 The epistolary novel was almost declared dead a few years ago, but with the increased use of email it has been revived. What made you choose it ?
I read few contemporary books so I know little about epistolary novel revival. But I admire very much great letters writers, as Madame de Sévigné, and novels of the XVIIIth century like Dangerous Liaisons. Recently, my publisher offered me a fantastic one, Guidi Piovene’s Lettera di Una Novicia (translated in French as La Novice, 1941). This genre owes a particular and fascinating rhythm : each letter calls for an answer. It also allows the writer to introduce several characters with “I”, so to get a polyphonic narration, without creating the massive autobiographical effect from a single “I”. Regarding The People in the Photo, two dimensions are interwoven : the past elements Hélène and Stéphane find out together, and the way it influences their present lives. I needed personal voices to express what happens inside, as the journey goes along ; therefore I chose an epistolary pattern. It was especially easy for me as I’m used to communicating by writing letters or emails – I nearly never make phone calls.
3 Your book revolves around affairs and secrets. Given recent events in France do you think the French have a different view on these matters ?
In my point of view, nothing happened in France regarding François Hollande : a man has an affair with a woman, so what ? Foreign newspaper attacks against him on this point seemed exaggerated as well as slightly ridiculous. The general feeling here is that we would prefer hear about his politics, considering the economic and social context. I’m extremely affected by private life violation matters and am scared to observe how quickly internet can destroy a person’s intimacy. A society that requires of each of its citizens, including politicians, an exemplary sentimental life, and that forces him/her to apologize on a TV show each time he/she does something wrong at home – anyway, it should be interesting to define what “wrong” means – seems to me a dangerous nonsense. Maybe the French are more tolerant about politician’s private life, as it involves consenting adults… If your question refers to DSK, what he did is not a matter of “affairs” or “secrets”, but a range of serious offences. Everyone was flabbergasted to discover who he really was, and you won’t find now a single person in France to stand up for him.
4 Which writers have influenced your writing ?
Georges Perec had a major influence, regarding the matter of construction : he elaborated a brilliant system to build Life, A User’s Manual, which is one of the most amazing novels of the XXth century. As far as photography is concerned, I admire very much Anne-Marie Garat, a French writer whose novels and work are almost completely dedicated to photography and memory ; W.G. Sebald, for the same reason – he had a great French translator, Patrick Charbonnier. When I was younger, I was also keen on some novelists like Kazuo Ishiguro, with his amazing stylistic perfection (his sentences give the feeling to listen to a river flowing) or Antonio Munoz Molina, a great Spanish storyteller. But the majority of my reading, for 14 years now, is dedicated to autobiography and personal diaries. I often write reviews in La Faute à Rousseau and some of them are readable on my site.
5 My blog is dedicated to books in translation. Which French books would you suggest for my readers ?
For lovers of epistolary novels and classical literature, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Choderlos de Laclos) ; for lovers of complex and brilliant story-telling, Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. I would also recommend Sorj Chalandon’s My Traitor and Return to Killybegs, the strong, dark, moving story of lies and broken friendship between the author and Denis Donaldson. One text I would strongly recommend to English readers is Hélène Berr’s Journal. She was a young Jewish student at the Sorbonne and she died in Bergen-Belsen camp at the end of the war. She wrote one of the most radiant, sensitive, lucid and moving texts I have ever read. She decided to stay in Paris during WW2 despite the dangers (her own way to resist to Nazis) and describes how everyday life is turning to hell for her and her family. At the same time, she falls in love. Within the awfulness and the darkness, despite her conviction she will be caught and die in a camp, she remains able to perceive beauty of life, to tell of her love for Jean, her fiancé, for countryside, music and Yeats’s poetry. Everyone should read this text.
6 How easy was it to work with your translator ?
The work was very easy : I had nothing to do ! Actually, one of the translators, Ros Schwartz, is a friend of a friend a mine, but we discovered this extraordinary coincidence after the decision to translate was made by Gallic Books. I’m aware that I am especially lucky, as the book was translated by two people, Ros and Emily Boyce, to give a genuine touch to the epistolary effect. One day, Ros Schwartz sent a mail to ask me three questions about a chapter. They were so precise, regarding some very subtle meanings (even for a French-native speaker), that I knew the translation would be great – and it is. I read the whole book in English and was so moved to see to what extent they succeeded in keeping the original rhythm of writing – nothing is more difficult – and to express how a friendship turns into something else through the way the characters sign off their letters – although there is no equivalent between the two languages. This translation is amazingly faithful, but with its own grace, its own poetry.