Jean Mattern on his Inspirations, Latest Work, and ‘Great Literature’
Jean Mattern is the French author of seven novels published by Sabine Wespieser and Gallimard. He works as the foreign literature editor at the French publishing company, Grasset.
Your first novel, Les bains de Kiraly, was translated into seven languages. How do you explain the international appeal of that particular work?
It’s hard for me to say. The reception of a book depends on so many factors, both in France and abroad. In any case, it’s a novel that questions the whole notion of origins, and the silence that surrounds origins in some families. I think that that’s a topic that pulls a lot of people’s heartstrings. I travelled a lot for that book when it was published in translation and I realised that I must have put my finger on something universal in that first novel. But there’s a lot of curiosity about first novels in general; it’s a strange phenomenon that holds true in France and other countries.
Can you tell us a few words about your latest published work, Suite en do mineur (Suite in C Minor)?
Again, the subject matter imposed itself on me: How does music help us live, and how do you cope with the shadow of the past at the age of 50, when it surfaces in your life once more? The writing spiralled outwards from these ideas. I wanted to return to Jerusalem in fiction, too, at a time when travelling is forbidden. And I wanted to pay my respects to all those who gave me the gift of music – the book is dedicated to them.
With its three narrators, the structure of your previous novel Une vue exceptionnelle (An Exceptional View) made me think of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Was there an influence there, by any chance?
It’s always difficult for a writer to determine the influences that bear on his own texts. We are all constituted by the books we have read, they work on us in unconscious ways. I can say, however, that as far as Virginia Woolf is concerned, I have read and reread her work since my youth. One thing that’s for sure is that my admiration for her writing and for the role she played in world literature is immense. When I wrote Le Bleu du lac (The Blue of the Lake), I had Mrs Dalloway in mind, for obvious reasons. During the writing of Une vue exceptionnelle, however, I wasn’t thinking of any of her novels in particular. But that doesn’t mean that that source wasn’t present in my imagination at that moment. So many things play out in the unconscious during the act of writing.
Who are the writers that had the greatest impact on you?
I can give you a list right now and it will reflect my current state of mind. If you ask me tomorrow, the list would no doubt be different. But today, it would be Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Amos Oz, E. M. Forster, and Marcel Proust.
Outside of France, which national literature interests you the most?
My profession has led me to be a comparatist and not a specialist of any given literary canon, and I think I will always have that outlook – open, curious, with an emphasis on literature in general. What I’m interested in is sourcing the universal themes which bind us together, beneath the particulars of each manifestation of literature, the moulding of language and geographical territories by varying traditions. I can’t really answer that question other than by saying that I’m captivated by literature that surprises and touches me, by works that upset the apple cart, so to speak.
What are the contemporary writers that you admire the most in France and abroad?
While I have no scruples about answering that question when it comes to the great writers who marked me for life, I have trouble doing the same for contemporary writers. I could tell you this: My tastes are very eclectic, but the divide occurs around what I really need. If the writing doesn’t manage to observe the unvarying rule of coherence between form and content, I’m not going to read very far. Literature isn’t entertainment, even and especially when it gives us pleasure. On the contrary, great literature focuses on the essential questions that ground us. It allows us to see the world, the matters of life, ourselves, in a new light. And this is reflected in the language: ready-made expressions, hackneyed images, reassuring clichés, all those are absent from that kind of literature. Demanding literature with a bold and original outlook is what I look out for.
Your novels are brief and pared-down. Do you proceed from minimalist principles?
I don’t know if that’s based on minimalist principles, but in my writing I always try to find the right word, and I tend to avoid verbal clutter. I go straight to the essential, trying to express with as much force as possible what I’m trying to say. This necessity pushes me to pare down my manuscripts when I work over them after the initial burst of creativity in what’s usually called the first draft.
How autobiographical are your texts?
My novels aren’t the least bit autobiographical. As a writer, the French genre of autofiction doesn’t appeal to me much, not for the time being. None of my novels recount events or things that happened to me in that particular way, and I include no literary stand-ins for myself. This being said, I draw on imaginary occurrences that were forged in my own life, or in those of my family, through stories that I’ve been told, and stories that no one wanted to tell me. The autobiographical part in my novels is, therefore, more emotional and geographical than strictly factual.
In Une vue exceptionnelle (An Exceptional View), your character Emile Stobetzky is descended from a Jewish family with Polish origins. While in the United States, writers proclaim their belonging to the Jewish community, few French writers point out their Jewish roots. Do you find that French culture lends itself less well to that kind of pride in cultural identity?
My novels are permeated by the question of belonging and the transmission of ancestral memory. Although getting as close as possible through fiction to our intimate truths – what we sometimes call identity – seems important to me, I hope my novels ask more questions than they answer. I have a strong belief that fiction allows the full complexity of these questions to come into play. In other contexts, these questions are often bound by an ideological or political straightjacket in a more and more obsessional, sometimes hysterical manner. Literature should transcend these cultural divides by shedding a different light on the human condition.
Moreover, French universalism certainly poses the question of identity in terms that differ from those used in many other neighbouring countries (notably in Anglo-Saxon countries), but I don’t think that that plays a decisive role in the way I confront these issues. In any case, I’m very careful to avoid words like ‘roots’ which go against my conception of human freedom, and therefore of my characters’ freedom, regardless of the cultural fields they have personally crossed. The metaphor of ‘roots’ is one of the most frequently used images in the identity debate and yet it seems so inappropriate to me. I have no ‘roots’ in any field, soil or strip of land. My writing, the span of my imagination, my existence, all are self-evidently nourished by stories, cultural and religious facts, by encounters, but they leave me free to go – on my own two feet or by dint of my pen – whither I desire, be it in my life or in my novels.
Your characters in Le Bleu du lac (The Blue of the Lake) have experienced the effects of the sexual revolution. James Fletcher, the narrator’s English lover, takes more care of his sexual organ than he does of his nose, going as far as to anoint it with moisturizer. Do the body and sexuality occupy more space in your work these days?
That’s for you to say. It seems to me that the body and sexuality are both fascinating and extremely difficult to explore for a writer. The infinite nuances that exist in our various ways of experiencing sexuality, the link between carnal pleasure and amorous sentiment are essential questions, but they’re fragile, delicate, and the potential pitfalls are numerous when you attempt to tread on that fine ridge line without stooping to sentimental kitsch on the one hand, and pornography on the other.
Can literature not be pornographic?
Literature can in my view be pornographic of course, but it has to transcend it too. The pleasure and arousal that a viewer experiences in front of a pornographic scene are mostly instinctive and drive-related. I feel it’s the writer’s duty to come up with a more complex, less ‘primal’ perception, or the writing loses its meaning.
Do you find that French culture is becoming puritanical?
I don’t know. But the risk is there. I’m unsure what will be left of desire once the necessary rebalancing that is taking place at the moment in France and elsewhere (#MeToo, etc) runs its course. And what about seduction? We’re at the very outset of a no doubt necessary process that involves a certain amount of risk to our way of living together. And puritanism is certainly one of those risks.
Can you tell us a few words about your current writing projects?
Just this: As in all of my novels, without exception, the narrator of the next one will have a link to one or several of the other characters in the other books.
What is the part you like the most in the creative process?
I like every phase of the literary process. The excitement of the first sentences, the emergence of the characters’ voices, is particularly pleasant. When the characters start to come to life (it’s always a matter of voices with me) and the story is assembled, when I hear the music of the narrator. The writing can be very quick at those times, even for me (I tend to work rather slowly). I love those moments when the idea springs out at you in the middle of everyday life – it’s why I always handwrite my texts, so I can jot down a sentence on one of my Moleskine copybooks. But I also take a lot of pleasure in working word by word, honing one sentence after another, trying to readjust, rectify, removing the superfluous parts to balance the text with just the right word, the vital essentials. It gets very intense at times and this gives me a real surge of joy.
Has the sanitary crisis had an impact on your work?
I’m not aware that it has, but I hope it hasn’t. I don’t wish to work on anything that would be the reflection of this mournful time. At least not for now. Art in general, and literature in particular, allows us to escape all forms of enclosure, no matter what they may be. I have absolutely no desire to write about the curfew and those who wrangle about vaccines and face masks. I just have no interest in that kind of thing.
Does your experience as an editor modify in any way your relationship to your own writing?
If it does, I’m not aware of it. The two activities are entirely compartmentalized in my mind, and even the organization of my day (I generally write very early in the morning, and during weekends and holidays of course). I suppose I’ve managed to erect watertight barriers between the two.
Is French literature still dominated by autofiction and biographical fiction in your view? Do you discern any new tendencies?
There is a lot of biographical fiction at the moment, and some of it isn’t the best. There are more books these days that reflect certain specific social conditions, I find. But there’s great variety, thankfully, and there are always more books on offer than I have time to read.
Do you think there will ever be a return to experimental fiction in France?
It’s still there, in the margins, though it isn’t very visible. I’m not sure the market will allow it to develop. But it won’t disappear either, I’m pretty certain of that.
How do you explain that the French book industry publishes so few novels on the climate crisis?
No doubt because it’s a difficult subject to tackle from a novelistic point of view, at least for the time being. It’s a little disembodied as a subject, not something you can just rush into. But it will come in due course, I imagine. I’ve read books from other countries that deal with these questions.
Interview by Erik Martiny.
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