Jean Mattern is a French writer and editor – he coordinates, at the prestigious publishing house Gallimard, the collections of foreign literature „Du Monde entier” and „Arcades”. In Romania, Polirom publishing house translated two of his books: The Kiraly Baths (2009, collection „The Polirom Library. Prose XXI”, translated by Silviu Lupescu, foreword by Gabriela Adameşteanu) and Milk and Honey (2011, collection „The Polirom Library. Prose XXI”, translated by Anca Băicoianu). He has been several times in Romania, both to launch his volumes and to attend different meetings – for example, in 2011, Jean Mattern was invited to the fourth edition of the International Literature Festival in Bucharest (FILB) and, in 2013, he was at the first edition of the International Festival of Literature and Translation in Iași (FILIT), in both cases as a writer, not as an editor.
Because I missed an interview with him on several occasions, I was glad when I heard that he will participate at the third edition of the International Literature Festival in Timișoara (FILTM, 22nd to 24th of October 2014). This time, I didn’t miss the opportunity :). It was a pleasure to talk with the French author, a very warm and open person who has many stories to tell, both personal and professional.
We discussed, in a cool and rainy autumn morning, about Timișoara, a city full of meaning for him, his books, especially about Milk and Honey, but also about September, his new book, from which he read, as a preview, a fragment at FILTM and which will appear, at the beginning of 2015, in France, about the things we cannot forget, his creative process, how we define our identity, about being a publisher, choosing volumes that enter the Gallimard collections, about his favorite Romanian authors, the Romanian book market versus the West ones and many more.
Pentru versiunea în limba română, click aici.
When did you come for the first time in Timișoara? And how was it for you? I suppose it brought to the surface many emotions and memories.
I was here in 2009, I came for the Romanian publication of my first novel, The Kiraly Baths, and I had a book launch in Timișoara.
Actually, it was a bit of a shock, because I heard a lot about the city and I knew my father went to school here, spent a lot of time in this place, etc. Bringing together what he told me about it, what I heard about it and the reality of what I saw was very emotional. Seeing the house of my grandparents – my grandfather left Timișoara in 1971 -, I remembered about the packages they sent to us – chocolate, for example -, because my two cousins were still here, and the experience was overwhelming. By the way, we did a thing: my father used to tear a hair from me or my sister and we put it in the letter which was going to be send to my cousins.
Yes, for my cousins to see they are the first ones to open those letters. The Romanian security used to open the letters, you know? So we had this technique. And I was a child then. It was something strong and exceptional.
I didn’t know about this technique…
Well, it existed. And these emotions, memories, came back when I was here for the first time.
Do you still keep in touch with your cousins?
No. The last member of my family who stayed here died a few years ago, so there’s no one left. It was normal, my father’s cousins were old, it was natural that, one day, they will disappear. It’s true that, when they died, I felt that the last link with this country died too. It was weird.
Taking into account that we are at the International Literature Festival in Timișoara, my questions will relay especially on one of your books, Milk and honey, precisely because a part of the main character’s experiences happen here.
Your father was born in Timișoara and he left when he was fifteen. Knowing that, I remember that I wondered how difficult was it for you, both as a writer and a son, to adapt the teller’s voice, a father on the death bed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t put the equality sign between fiction and reality.
I think I only could write this book because my father was not in this world anymore when I started to write it. Otherwise, I believe it would have been very difficult for me to write it when he was still alive.
Because the main character is on the death bed?
Yes, exactly. And, as you said, it is fiction and I made fiction out of it for two reasons: firstly, because I believe there is no such thing as reality, there are just different ways of looking at reality, and I think that fiction is a way of looking at reality where you get deeper, not in reality, but in some sort of truth, actually. What I’m interested in, both as a writer and a human being, is maybe more truth than reality. People think that facts exist – of course, in history books, you can write down the facts -, but it all depends on the way you look at these facts.
When I was fifteen, the age my father was when he left Romania, he told me a little bit from his story – to give me the feeling how was it for a fifteen years old boy to make those decisions. But afterwards, he didn’t like very much talking about it again. There are many things that I never knew about it. When I was fifteen, it was hard for me to take it all in and then, for a while, I wasn’t interested, it was too difficult.
When I was a grown up, I started asking questions, but every time he was very reluctant to answer those questions, most likely because it was painful. I had to respect this. At the end of his life, he started again to talk a little about it, so I had some more details, but not that much. At some point, he talked about his feelings and I thought that my challenge, as a writer and, maybe, as a son, was to recreate his emotions. I wasn’t able to recreate his story in details, but the essence of what it meant, of what he went through, in a personal, deep, individual way is there.
True. I thought about it when I read the book and, afterwards, when I wrote down my questions and went again through the book: it isn’t about history, it could have happened in any other hard period, the emotions and thoughts of the characters matter.
Yes. And it is also a book about friendship. And that’s a very universal thing. It could have happened in Timișoara, Paris or London, anywhere.
Milk and honey is a small book, but it is, in the same time, a very powerful and strong one. So I had the feeling that the writing process took some time…
Yes, indeed, it was a long writing process. I am a slow writer, in general, even if I write small books.
The main character struggles a lot to find his place. Did you ever believe that you don’t belong to a place?
I think you belong more to stories, language, memories than to places. Sometimes, my father found it very difficult to define himself, especially when people asked him where was he from. Very often, he said: I’m from the Banat. Not from Romania, France, Germany or whatever. That was his solution.
I believe that was interesting because it was a way of not defining your identity in terms of nationality. I learnt a lot from that. Nationalism is really a poison in European history and it is much more interesting the way that my father chose. When I wrote the book, I also tried to surface that, I thought, for example, at how do the landscapes reflect in our mind. If we are honest to ourselves, I think these details are more important, more present in our mind than the nationality. By the way, this is another thing that I wanted to write about.
Did you ever think how could have been your life now if your father hadn’t left?
No, I never played that game until the end in my head. I guess my life would have been very different, of course. I wondered, yes, but never went it through. When I came here for the first time, I had to face it to myself that it wasn’t my home, but I had a very special link to this city.
It is surprising that, besides the awful experiences and the hard decisions to make, we also read, in Milk and honey, about a strange love, an imposed one – the teller forces himself to love Suzanne and he succeeds. They get married. Both are immigrants. Is it the most credible way to love in their situation?
It’s not an imposed love in the sense that somebody forces him, he wants to love her, it has to do with his will. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love her…
No, he gets to love her…
Exactly. And I think that, in situations like Suzanne’s, she falls back into common ground. And the common ground between them is immigration. You never know why people bond, why do they get together. It’s a link between them, they both speak Hungarian and both had to leave behind their mother country. Maybe it is enough for them. Sometimes, it is the tiny little detail that gets people together.
Forgetfulness is a weird companion in our life road. Sometimes, the time refuses to offer it to us (p. 77, Romanian edition). Can you tell us one thing that you wanted to forget and you couldn’t?
Of course we would like to forget a lot of things in our life. Most of us would like to forget the pain we experienced at a stage or another – loss, death, illness, unrequited love, etc. But I don’t believe in forgetfulness. I think that our role in literature, as writers, is to deal with what we cannot forget. Dealing with it in terms of writing doesn’t make it go away, but it brings it to another level and, from my point of view, makes it possible to deal with it in, I hope, a better way. This is, for me, the relationship between forgetfulness and remembering.
At the festival, you read a fragment from your new book, September, that will be published in January, 2015. I understood that it has something to do with a childhood memory. How does this work? How do you start writing a book?
I never know what I am going to write before I start writing.
I started to write rather late in my life, I was around 38 years old, and I never wrote fiction before. The way it happens for me – and I think it is very different for every writer – it’s one detail, very often a personal memory, a true one, which sets it off. It’s like a trigger. That’s why many people think my books are autobiographies, but they are not. In Milk and honey, the detail that triggered all was the moment in which my father told me that he had to say good-bye to his friend.
For me, it is enough to have one image, one situation in my mind and then I can go into fiction and write something about it. For September, the new book, it was this memory of the drama of the hostage crisis and my father not knowing how to explain it to me. But I didn’t write it from this perspective, it just put me on the track. Immediately, after finishing September, which will appear, as you said, next year, I started to write another one. I’m doing that now…
That’s a surprise!
(He laughs) Yes. It happens all the time: when I finish a manuscript, a new idea comes by. I don’t know how long it will work, so I take advantage of it. Maybe one day it will dry out and there will be nothing left.
So, one little detail and I take the train. Actually, the writing takes it over. It’s very interesting, the writing process really can take it over. That doesn’t mean it is not a hard work. For me, writing has two phases: this first period of inspiration, in which I just listen to what I hear in my head – sounds like I’m a madman (we laugh). Oh, and people sometimes ask me: What was your intention when you wrote that? Well, I had no intention at all, I just wrote it, it sounded good and logic, I liked it and so on. The second part of my writing process starts when the first part is over, there’s the hard work because for me it means that I will work on every sentence, composition, balance of every paragraph, etc. I’m not having a lot of fun.
It’s funny, when you were talking I thought that, in the first period of writing, you are a writer; whereas, in the second part, you are an editor, which is your daily job.
Yes, it may be so (we laugh).
By the way, editing and writing go well together?
I don’t know, because they don’t go together in my head. I keep them in different parts of my mind. I do all the writing very early in the morning, before I go to the office, or on the weekends, and I try to not mix them up. It’s like I have two hearts. I don’t think about the editing when I write and I don’t think about writing when I edit.
Being an editor at Gallimard, how do you choose what books are fit to enter one of your collections? What are your criteria?
The obvious answer would be quality, of course. But then you will ask me How do you define quality?
Of course I will (we laugh).
I thought so.
Well, at Gallimard, in this tradition of both a very old publishing house and a series of foreign literature, our demand is that a writer finds the right tone for history, have a subtle, complex, deep combination between the right language and the subject – this is, in a very clumsy way, my attempt to define quality.
Me and my team try to maintain this level of quality by not going for easy, commercial choices, but saying that publishing has also to do with time – you need time to promote and impose a writer on the market, even if, luckily, Gallimard is still a publishing house where financial balances are o.k., we have the money to lose money for a while, until an author or another also becomes worthwhile financially.
Definitely, our priority is not an immediate commercial success, but hearing a voice and a very good writer.
What Romanian authors did you publish and which one is your favorite?
That’s a tricky question here, in Romania (we laugh).
I read quite a lot of Romanian writers, when I can access them. And, of course, I read Romanian literature also for publishing purposes. Du monde entier – From all over the world is a book collection at Gallimard where books come precisely from all over the world. We can only publish thirty-five or thirty-six titles per year in that series, because otherwise we can’t promote them. This is not a lot when you think that there are a lot of books published every year, from all the languages. That’s why we don’t have in our collection as many Romanian writers as we would like to publish.
But the one that we have been very loyal to, because we published three books written by her, is Gabriela Adameșteanu. I think that she is one of the best writers not only in Romanian fiction, but also in European fiction. She’s very strong, combining intimate, personal stories, with history – a thing that I love in fiction. In Provizorat, one of her books, she’s very courageous, she has chapters with parts of history that Romanians don’t want to hear about anymore. The first book of hers that I published, O dimineață pierdută, is also very good, she’s an excellent and powerful writer.
And, of course, I also read writers published by other publishing houses, like Norman Manea. I also really like Dan Lungu. So I follow Romanian literature and I hope we will be able to do more for other writers. We’re working on it, have a little patience (we laugh).
Being objective, what’s your opinion about the Romanian book market, compared or not to the one in France?
I don’t have the whole picture but, as I understood, there are some very good individual publishers – like Polirom, which is also my publisher here – and people are very courageous trying to also have quality, but I think there’s a problem with the distribution system and that there are not enough book sellers. So, the problems are more economical or structural than editorial. I’m sorry that my colleagues have to struggle so much.
I think that the Romanian market needs more support and regulation. In France, as you know, we have a fixed price, a lot of regulations about books and I think it is worth having them if you want to have a book market with a lot of variety. I don’t believe the book market is only about the product, it’s also about literature, it’s a cultural product. In France, the whole country defends what we call „a cultural exception” and that’s a very important notion for us – meaning that you shouldn’t treat a book like a bottle of water, in terms of economy, for example. Romania could do more to protect the tradition of publishing, writing and find better regulations for this market. It’s a lot to do.
And it’s happening in all Eastern Europe countries, precisely because, in the communist period, you had too many regulations and you don’t want one more. I totally understand. But, after so many years, you have to turn around and see that all Western book markets, for example, have book regulations – we don’t have a free price – and a lot of laws. This will help a lot, also by bringing people back in bookshops.
A last question: if you would have to choose a profession that has nothing to do with literature, what would it be?
I had no idea, as a child, what I could do except „making books”. When I was six years old, I told my mother that I would like that, even if I didn’t know what it meant. I’m very good at making cakes (strudel, for example), so maybe I could have been a confectioner.
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