‘Our societies tend to reduce Islam to its political dimension’ – Sophie Van Der Linden on her novel Après Constantinople
Sophie Van Der Linden teaches in universities and art schools and has published four critically acclaimed novels for adults. She is a renowned academic and France’s most high-profile critic of children’s literature.
In the ensuing interview, I speak with Van Der Linden about her thoughts on Orientalist art, Islam and ekphrasis, following her latest novel Après Constantinople, published by Gallimard in 2019.
Après Constantinople features a painter called Georges-Henri François who travels through the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the nineteenth century. Is this character purely fictional or were you inspired by the life and work of the turn-of-the-century painter Georges François?
I had no knowledge of the painter Georges François, but I see that some of his paintings resonate interestingly with my story. Made up of three first names combined, the entirely fictional name of my painter refers to another nineteenth-century artist in a somewhat cryptic manner: the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Long overshadowed in France by the renowned figures of impressionism that came after him, Gérôme is a major painter, an Orientalist whose paintings, more than his biography, inspired me to define the personality traits of my character.
What drew you to that particular historical period?
It’s a geographical area, a country to be more precise, that brought me back to those former times. Two successive trips to Albania and two sojourns in the city of Gjirokastër in particular, the birth place of the great writer Ismaïl Kadaré, drove me to explore the traces left by the last period of the Ottoman Empire, at a time when its influence was waning in the Balkans. I came back from my second journey with my suitcases full of books bought in Tirana on Bektachism, on the Arnautes painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, on the figure of Ali Pacha of Tepelenë (whose fortunes have already been recounted by Dumas), travelogues of Orientalist missions …
When I got back to France, I delved into these books, extending my research to other sources, as if I was preparing to write a history book. But then literature caught up with me. I put all this documentation to one side and I gave myself over to sensations, atmospheres, and the imaginary figures floating around in my head. I felt a little like a director who had called on experts in reconstructing historical settings only to blur the whole background of the film.
Can I ask why you chose to focus on a fictional character rather than a well-known painter?
My intention was to create a fictional character and not a particular painter. But I was keen on depicting an Orientalist artist. Mathias Enard, who won the Prix Goncourt in 2015, rehabilitated this line of thinking in his novel Boussole. Half-way between the visions of Edward Saïd et Enard’s characters, my Orientalist is a character who projects his own vision on what he finds, while at the same time being able to adapt his sensitivity to his evolving perceptions of the culture surrounding him.
You challenge European Orientalism and its tendency to offer stereotypical views of other traditions and cultures, most notably the harem, which your female protagonist in Après Constantinople recalls with infinite boredom. Would calling your aesthetic approach post-Saïdean and feminist be a fair description?
My aesthetic approach is primarily poetic and doesn’t really fit into ‘-ist’ suffixes. But I would be lying if I denied my intentions. One of those is providing models of strong women with intimate, sensual and intellectual responses to life. Another is to offer a different perspective of the Orient, and particularly of Islam. Because of the radicalism and terrorism that confront us, our societies tend to reduce Islam to its political dimension, to its most obvious religious manifestations. On a humble level, I wanted to remind people that Islam is also a densely rich civilisation that is far more complex than it’s typically made out to be. I have a deep-seated belief that novels are one of the privileged spaces in which to explore the complexity of the world, its ambiguity, its equivocal nature. Especially when its public expression is as reductive and divisive as it is today.
You tend to blur historical settings. Is this part of what you call your impressionist aesthetic?
The impressionist approach you mention is linked more to writing, to the way I try to suggest sensations using a reduced palette of words. I aim for dotted effects and avoid being too explicit in my use of language. I like the idea that within the very linear art of language, you can work on various kinds of composition.
Your earlier novel De terre et de mer (Of Earth and Sea) also focuses on a painter called Henri. Why did you prefer to choose a male painter rather than a female one?
In De terre et de mer, as in Après Constantinople, my female protagonists came first, imposing their centrality in the construction of both texts. Two free and powerful female figures who were ahead of their time and out of synch with the place they inhabited. I deliberately placed them out of the foreground. The mystery surrounding them was for me a way of drawing the reader’s attention more powerfully. Again, this kind of construction was based on the art metaphor of the engraver who allows things to appear in the hollows that are gouged out. I etch the plaque; it’s up to the reader then to execute her own version of the print.
In De terre et de mer I started questioning the representation of visual art in writing, seeking inspiration from Chinese conceptions of landscape. The painter figure in that book was a way of exploring the landscape through the subjectivity of the artist’s gaze. I wanted to pursue this question of writing images, amplifying it in my next book. There’s also a literary episode that has obsessed me for a long time, namely the first sequence of The Grass Pillow by Natsume Soseki. The slow ascent of the painter towards his domain and the expected meeting with a stranger subtends the entire opening of Après Constantinople.
Après Constantinople is interleaved with ekphrastic descriptions in the manner of an art book, though without the actual pictures. It’s an original variant on the art book format to have the paintings depicted solely in verbal terms. Are you ever tempted to include reproductions of paintings in the manner of, say, Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother?
The literary practice of ekphrasis has enthralled me for ages, most notably because on a professional level I’m a critic of illustrated books. The descriptions that open the chapters of the novel are nevertheless quite anecdotal. They’re not real evocations of real paintings, but they imitate a sales catalogue, giving a factual description of the images executed by my fictional painter.
In the economy of the book, their primary function is to signify that everything that the painter achieves during his stay in the Orient will leave something to posterity. If there is a catalogue, it means that he has survived his adventure and exploited it artistically. It’s also a little game I play with the reader. Some of the paintings are not actually based on real paintings, but they give an idea of the kind of imaginary décor around which the plot is centred. Others directly reflect real paintings, such as Edward Lear’s Arghyró Kastro… But this is just an unimportant little game. The real project resides in what the novel suggests about the painter’s vision of the natural setting around him, the drawings he attempts to execute, his perception of the singular characters that surround him.
Depicting these scenes in verbal terms, as you suggest, is a real challenge. I can only conceive of writing that meets certain challenges. My first novel, La fabrique du monde, questioned the nature of writing subjectivity. My second involved the representation of childhood. My next ones focused on the verbal transliteration of images. All these are attempts at formulating the impossible, offering answers to a conundrum that are of necessity imperfect, but seductive in their very imperfection, in this attempt to reach for that which resists, that which is tantalisingly out of reach.
Speaking of the ineffable, La fabrique du monde opens with an inaugural dream that has a dramatic effect on the heroine. Is the world of dreams something you will return to in your fiction?
The common denominator in all my novels is that they take place in a circumscribed world: a factory, a gymnasium, an island, and then a factory again. I never decide to do this in advance; it just happens each time I embark on a project. It seems to me that the motif is linked to the central theme of freedom. In my first novel, my heroine was a young Chinese female prisoner in a factory dormitory. The opening lines of the novel recount a dream: ‘To leave, propelled by the sole breath of liberty’. I wanted to translate the drive towards flight whose very essence is already a kind of freedom, a sense of freedom from constraint that is felt with such intensity that it is the only experience worth living. After this dream occurs, the aspiration towards freedom at all costs is the only motivation my heroine is left with. But throughout the novel, dreams are also a form of solace, an escape. This has been done before with great panache by other captivity narratives: dreams are the last window of escape for those who are shackled. Dreams are also powerful narrative operators in my second novel which focuses on the inner voice of a little girl who has been taken hostage.
Has your work with children’s literature had any other effects on the way you write fiction?
My second novel, L’Incertitude de l’aube, dramatised the plight of a young girl. I drew on my knowledge of children’s books and on folktales in particular to show that reading is also a comforting refuge in the extreme situations that we come up against. I was interested in showing that the act of reading is a bastion against the most radical forms of dereliction – the imaginative space that reading carves out for us, this immaterial goodness that nothing can take away from us. But outside of that book, I stay at a distance from the world of childhood in my novels.
I would argue that my multidirectional critical work has more of an effect on the way I write fiction. In particular with regard to the bond with the reader, a reader with a sense of curiosity, one who likes to get deeply involved in the act of reading and likes to respond to the subtle games offered by the author. That’s why I tend to write somewhat elliptically, so that the reader does her share of the work by filling in the blanks, connecting the dots. For all that, I don’t write romans à clefs!
You’ve written a book on the French children’s author Claude Ponti and yet your novels seem to be at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum. I would call Ponti’s work baroque (or even rococo) in its burgeoning density whereas you seem to want to pare down your work to a relatively minimalist format. Is this a contradictory impulse that will later appear in your books or do you just enjoy the qualities of minimalism and maximalism as separate, mutually exclusive forms of beauty?
It was a strange, even a somewhat disappointing thing to realise that I didn’t write the kind of books I admired the most. My favourite authors are those that offer dense, ample, luminous vistas that teem with detail. Books like Under the Volcano and The God of Small Things are among my all-time favourites. But I also love Erri de Luca, Alessandro Baricco, and the whole school of French stylists that write with a keen sense of sobriety: Patrick Modiono, Pierre Michon, and the much regretted late Hubert Minguarelli. When I write, I think mostly about style, poetry and fable. But what you say about a hint of the baroque in my latest novels is quite accurate: I wanted to write in a pared-down style that used suggestive ornamental details.
Can I ask what you’re working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished a new novel. This one doesn’t use the travel format. It focuses on my immediate surroundings: the banks of the Seine in the western suburbs of Paris, an area valorised at the end of the nineteenth century by the impressionist painters; a place of Sunday walks that lost much of its charm during the course of the twentieth century because of the combined effects of the housing crisis and rampant industrialisation. From the café I write in, though, I can still see a hundred years of French history from the vantage point of a singular territory, a space recently explored by Jean Rolin in Le Pont de Bezons (POL).
Interview Erik Martiny.
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