you've got mail - javier cercas and hedwige jeanmart exchange letters (part one)
Unfortunately, it’s going to take a little longer before Belgian and foreign authors can get together at Passa Porta. In the meantime, we’ve invited several European writers to exchange letters.
After Peter Terrin (whose exchange with Peter Stamm can be read here), we asked Belgian writer Hedwige Jeanmart with whom she’d most like to correspond. She opted for the great Spanish writer Javier Cercas. An initial letter was sent from Barcelona, where Hedwige Jeanmart has been living for several years, to… Verges, fewer than 100 miles away, where Javier Cercas settled when lockdown was announced.
It didn’t take long for a reply to arrive, which brought about many more. The opportunity to question with irony and wit the usefulness of literature and the role of writers at a time of immobility during a pandemic... A rare exchange, to be read here.
Barcelona, 3 November 2020
This letter won’t even have to cross the Pyrenees; we’re both on the same side of them. Without a pandemic and the restrictions we’ve now adopted, I might have dared suggest una copa on a terrace somewhere rather than an exchange of letters, but what can you do? Someday, somewhere – perhaps? A very vague invitation, I know. Time and space have never felt so unreliable. I’ve often been enchanted by their bad qualities: I love when life contracts or, conversely, expands; when it suddenly seems too small or too big, too slow or too fast, too hollow or too full, too bustling or too empty – mouldable to individual will. A spatiotemporal affliction that affects every writer, I believe. I suppose a cynic might say that this period is perfect in a literary sense. After what I’ve just written, what’s stopping us from having that terrace copa?
How about meeting at Las Delicias in El Carmel? My favourite bar, because of Juan Marsé and because it’s a beautiful walk from where I live: one I haven’t taken in a long time. It’s closed, of course, but as this is a letter we can pretend. We sit down and you ask me qu’est-ce que tu fais là and straight away I get tangled up in apologies: I have this horrible habit of using ‘tu’ more quickly than is socially acceptable. May I? No problem, you say. Then a long monologue begins – my own – but seeing as you’re playing the role of the recipient, you can’t interrupt me.
I begin by telling you, Javier, that I’m headed down the wrong track. And worst of all I don’t know what might reassure me more: you telling me I’m not the only one (meaning that my admission was, in part, right – how awful) or, on the contrary, you contradicting all my doubts (meaning my only consolation is that I was wrong). It’s all downhill from here. A crisis of faith. So why write? Can you tell me? Is writing not always a balancing act between the self and world? The more strained our relationship is to the world, the more likely it is we’ll fall off the tightrope. All these back-and-forths between life and writing are testing too. So why do it? Because we want to? Because we need to? Because we consider ourselves to have the right (or the duty, even, for the most egomaniacal among us) to question, to create a bit of havoc, to crumple up freshly-ironed cloth, to push open locked doors, to make others walk sideways until they’ve lost their bearings. In short, we tickle and we tease and we butcher. Except that now, I have a nagging doubt – or several.
Doesn’t taking the world we’ve found ourselves in as a subject produce work that’s a little too spoon-fed? More than this – I’m about to ask an obnoxious and moralising question – aren’t there more urgent, more ethical and more vital things to be doing? At the risk of being bogged down in the lexicon of “butchering” which I just employed (and which I find to be incredibly ugly), what would a butcher do with their blood sausages and pork pies if they were suddenly struck by a wave of empathy for the cows or pigs they’d put through the mincer just the night before. Do you see what I mean? That’s where I am right now – wondering if I’m still sure that there isn’t something more important I could be doing.
Tellingly, these alarming phrases keep coming into my head from out of nowhere, some of which I over-interpret. “A pair of boots is worth more than Shakespeare,” a horrendous and abysmally stupid quotation from Chernyshevsky – but why do I only remember it now? Another from Henry Miller, who said on his death bed: “I am alive to the end”. How wonderful – you might say – living until the end; what a mantra… Except that despite my profound attachment to this quotation’s speaker, I can’t stop myself from distorting it, from putting what Miller claimed up against what I know of him – that he forced himself to read as little as possible so as not to waste the crumbs of “real” life. He was lying, of course. This can only have been a lie, don’t you think? But doubt, with its deleterious effect, has sewed its seeds and so I spend hours thinking about these crumbs. My crumbs and those of other people.
I could go on and on but I’d rather leave it there. I won’t go any further. I’ve already taken advantage of your presence. And so, with the same brazenness that allowed me to insist upon this meeting, to assume immediately that we would be addressing each other as ‘tu’, to impose inept questions and vulgar images onto you, I’m ready to wrap up this terrace scene without even having bothered to respond to your sole question: What are you doing here? Would it be OK to discuss this at a later date?
Speak soon, I hope.
Translated from the French by Daniella Shreir
Barcelona, 2 December 2020
You’re absolutely right: nothing stops us from having a drink on a terrace, as long as the terraces are open (until recently, in Barcelona, they weren’t) and providing I’m in Barcelona. It turns out that, since this nightmare in the form of a pandemic began, I’ve been staying with my family in Verges, a town you may know or may have heard of, since I know you’ve been to the Empordà region. I have a house there where I spend more and more time, feel very much at home, and where you are, of course, invited. In any case, it would be nice for us to meet at Las Delicias: although I also admire Marsé – especially Last Afternoons with Teresa, which I consider to be his best novel – I’ve never been there. So, having a chat with you is a perfect excuse to go.
In your letter, you tell me that "this period is perfect from a literary point of view". You also mention that you're going through a crisis of confidence in literature and are wondering if there is nothing better to do.
I agree with the first point. I am almost certain that no great literary works will emerge directly from this pandemic. I know this because, even though we thought we were shielded from situations such as this, throughout history there have been countless epidemics like the current one, and, as far as I know, none of them produced any great works.
Just think of the so-called Spanish flu, which occurred towards the end of the second decade of the 20th century, when the First World War was still going on. That terrible epidemic killed over 50 million people, according to even the most optimistic estimates, which is more than those who died in the Second World War and far more than died in the First World War. Well, there are a huge number of novels, poems and films about the first war, not to mention the second, but I don't remember a single one that deals directly with the epidemic: just a few verses by T.S. Eliot where he refers to it, some Virginia Woolf character that suffers from it, and the beginning of Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook – the great Catalan classic of the 20th century – when the protagonist is forced to return home (precisely to the Empordà) because the authorities have closed the University of Barcelona. But that's all. So, we wait in vain for books on pandemics, just like García Márquez’s colonel waited in vain for the post.*
Does this mean that they are not productive from a literary point of view? Quite the opposite. The fact is that, while they are not productive directly, they are productive indirectly, and very much so. The reason for this is quite obvious to any writer, even if the truth is an inconvenient one (truths are often inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unpleasant, which is one of the reasons that people often prefer lies). The inconvenient truth is that, almost always, what is bad for life is good for literature; as writers, we feed on the bad, not on the good. That is why I am convinced that, in a happy world, there would be no literature. Well, there might be poetry – a little, and not very good – but certainly no novels. What for? If you're happy, what’s the point of writing?
Literature is born out of dissatisfaction, pain, fear, terrible crises like the one we’re currently facing, and we writers are scavengers: at best, we are like the alchemists who wanted to turn lead into gold. Writers – the best ones – turn the bad into good; dissatisfaction, pain, fear, and crises into beauty and meaning. And for this reason, among others – and contrary to what I believed when I was young, happy, uninformed, and aspiring to become a postmodern writer (an American postmodern writer, to be precise) – true literature is useful. Of course, as long as it doesn’t set out to be useful because the moment it does, it becomes propaganda or pedagogy and automatically ceases to be authentic literature and is no longer useful.
So, in my opinion, the pandemic will not produce anything of great value directly, but rather indirectly, because this nightmare is the ideal fuel for creation. That’s what I’m trying to say: that the pandemic will not be the subject but it will be the fuel of many books, in the same way that, for instance, The Metamorphosis tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning transformed into a beetle – that’s the subject, or at least the apparent subject, but the fuel is Kafka's profound sense of uprootedness, his inability to connect with his family, the world, and himself. In short, we may not immediately recognise the books that emerge from this pandemic, but emerge they most certainly will.
As you can see, I have inadvertently touched on the second point in your letter: that of the usefulness or not of literature, your current lack of confidence in it, and your sense that we may be wasting our best efforts on writing when there are much better or more useful things we could be doing. It is true, my dear Hedwige, that I have never suffered such a crisis, and I hope I never do. I think the real reason for this is that I can't imagine devoting myself to anything else, perhaps because I can't do anything else but write, as Beckett said about himself (Giorgio Manganelli said something similar: that he wrote because he couldn't even tie his own shoelaces). Or perhaps I write precisely to find out why I write – something I hope I will never discover, because if I do, then I might stop writing.
Anyway, this is all too complicated and, as you can see, I don’t have a very clear idea about it myself. In any case, it would be perfect if we could discuss this on the terrace of Las Delicias. In the meantime, perhaps you can explain to me when this crisis of confidence began, why it began, and what exactly it is. Like I said, I've never experienced anything similar so I'm very curious. And perhaps in my next letter I can explain to you what I think about the usefulness – or uselessness – of literature.
Thank you for writing. A hug, bye for now,
Translated from the Spanish by Francisca Rojas del Canto
* Translator's note: Here, Javier Cercas makes a pun on the title of García Márquez's novel El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, translated into English as No One Writes to the Colonel.
Barcelona, 8 December 2020
What a pleasure to read you. And an invitation to Verges to top it all off! I’ve never been but out of curiosity and a desire to visualise the destination of my letter, I looked it up. It’s perfect. So beautiful. I came across pictures of a medieval castle, ramparts, a narrow river, small stone bridges and skeletons. From what I’ve read, the village is famous for its Dance of the Death, held on Maundy Thursday, which seems to have a slightly Mexican flavour. I find all of this very tempting. So my image search was no digression but a lovely little virtual escapade. But let me return to the point.
Your letter is at once extremely vast and precise. It raises questions – and therefore answers – that I wasn’t sure I wanted to address. And yet I realise, having barely scratched the surface of this letter, that I risk doing precisely that.
You write: “what is bad for life is good for literature”. Your image of writers as vultures might bear some relation to the butcher I evoked, but in an even worse form. Maybe it would be better for these comparisons to remain between us. And, just so it doesn’t seem like we’re luxuriating in these images of slaughter, might we instead choose to evoke a great individual and collective chaos? How might that manifest in literature? Not through literal representation, you’re so right about that. Nor something that’s conscious either, even.
You mention war novels, infinitely more numerous than those fleeting literary allusions to past epidemics. At the risk of making myself out to be some kind of war veteran, I once happened (I hesitated for a long time over choosing the most neutral possible term for this experience) to find myself in a war. It’s a lot more graphic than any virus and maybe that’s part of the explanation. I’ve never written a line about war but it may well be there, lingering among my descriptions of wilting geraniums in their plant pots.
Like you, I believe that we write through a process of sedimentation, through an accumulation of successive layers, the final product of which does not allow us to deduce all of its composite particles, nor the direction of the wind or rain that brought them there.
Besides, this isn’t something we’d necessarily want to know, is it? I read in your letter that you believe you may be writing to discover why you write and that you hope you never find this out. That made me think a lot. Perhaps we could talk about that too.
Ok, since you asked, I’ll try and explain what I referred to, very awkwardly, as “my crisis”. Though writers may feed off what is bad for life, they nonetheless must still live. Because, at the end of the day – and this is no revelation – writers are still human. Social, and sometimes even socially engaged, beings; ones who live and find it increasingly difficult to put up with the dissatisfaction, the pain, the fear and I’d add vulnerability and above all a spinning head of doubts. These things may help us to write, but they don’t help us to live. Sometimes it’s all a bit too much for a head that, in certain conditions, functions a little like a triage ward in a field hospital for the war-wounded. We find ourselves unwillingly forced to make decisions under duress, to prioritise such and such an action and such and such a part of ourselves.
In my case, this manifested itself very concretely as a kind of instinctive, animal withdrawal. On a day-to-day basis, that meant that the safety of my loved ones and the satisfaction of their primary needs came first and that the fate of my peers (everywhere, and well beyond the virus for that matter) made me want to bear my teeth and fight. In other words, I was compelled to act "directly" rather than writing "indirectly".
It was a dilemma that shouldn’t have been one because one doesn’t preclude the other – on the contrary. It seems to me that you’re well placed to know this. I know the person I’m writing to and why I chose to write to them: I’ve read you across media, from your novels to your columns, in life as in literature.
Anyway, to tie up this episode as quickly as possible, let's just say I may have been overwhelmed – this happens sometimes. And I find it hard to admit (I'm counting on you not to laugh) but I feel like being a mother took precedence over everything when it came to the triage I mentioned earlier. This had repercussions on my writing, but also somewhat more bizarrely on my reading. For example, I had this desire to reread Annie Ernaux’s The Years, despite having so many unread novels on my nightstand. I found myself deeply moved by a passage that had never stuck me before; I didn’t even remember it. One Sunday, the narrator prepares a roast for her children who are now young adults and who have returned home to spend the day with her. She decides to cook a roast because she knows her children like it very much, that they do not know the recipe and that they can’t yet afford to make it for themselves. The afternoon is a happy one and then the children take the train back to their respective homes. She clears away and puts the plates, dishes and cutlery in the dishwasher and tells herself that it was indeed a lovely Sunday.
I'm paraphrasing, as you will have noticed. A sublime passage that resonated with me at that precise moment, because it left me in a state of absolute peace. I'm not sure Annie Ernaux meant to write what I read, but that's okay, a novel is always the reader's – the reader has all the rights.
I therefore expressed myself in a very ambiguous way in my first letter. The useful and the useless do not concern Literature with a capital L. Nothing can shake my faith in it, a very personal and very intimate faith as a reader, because reading saves just as it frees. If literature makes the reader omnipotent, it seems to me that it sometimes places the writer in a dramatic state of powerlessness. So I was talking about the painful position of the writer who, despite knowing how to tie their laces (which is the position I’m in, and I admit that this has been worrying me a little since I received your letter), has little option other than to write and so finds themselves in an acrobatic, uncomfortable and even dangerous position.
Do you never experience this pain? You’ll tell me that sweat and tears are perfect for writing. And I will tell you that you’re right. Literature that doesn’t smell of sweat isn’t literature at all; if it just smells of paper, that’s because you’ve foolishly placed a book in your hands – it is of no interest. So consider all of this a moment of weakness, or just one more contradiction.
On that note, I’ll leave it there.
Wishing you a wonderful day in Verges,
Speak soon, I hope.
Translated from the French by Daniella Shreir
Javier Cercas (Ibahernando, province of Cáceres, 1962) is a professor of Spanish literature at the University of Gerona and is considered one of the most important Spanish writers of our time. The Anatomy of a Moment was Book of the Year 2009 for El Pais and Outlaws (2012) was awarded the French Prix Méditerranée étranger in 2014. In 2017 appeared The Impostor, followed by El monarca de las ombras, a non-fiction novel against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war, and The Blind Spot (transl. Anne McLean) in 2018.
Hedwige Jeanmart was born in 1968 in Namur. She studied journalism and worked for Médecins Sans Frontières in Moscow. In 2014, her debut novel Blanès, a delightfully absurd love story in the footsteps of Roberto Bolaño, was awarded the Prix Rossel. In 2018 she published Les Oiseaux sans tête, a witty novel about an unlikely encounter with a serial killer. Hedwige Jeanmart has lived in Barcelona since 2007.
how nice that you were able to take the time for some literature
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