Dispatch from PEN World Voices: A Lunchtime Literary Conversation with Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh

My first PEN WV event this week was on Wednesday afternoon, at the regular “lunchtime literary conversation series” that is ever-so-conveniently around the corner from my office. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Past events have often featured rather unlikely pairings—for instance, all Norwegian author Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold  and French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme had in common, I believe, was that neither had been published in English–and often, that’s part of the appeal. In these slightly off-kilter match-ups, there can be an endearing attempt on the part of both guests–who in all likeliness, are not familiar with the work of their co-panelist–to connect with the other’s work, to find common ground in artistic practice or thematic interests. To affirm their shared status as successful, notable authors–and usually as authors whose native language is not English–carefully navigating a week-long literary event where most of the audience has never before heard of them. Yesterday’s event broke with this tradition admirably–Nicole and Zanganeh, although neither contemporaries in age, background, or writing concerns, were a delightful and well-matched pairing, who both obviously had a great deal of respect for one another’s work.

I wrote about the event for The L Magazine; you can see it here. The full text is below.

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The Lunchtime Literary Conversations series, hosted by La Maison Française at NYU, is now a mainstay of the PEN World Voices Festival. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors—usually one of French or Francophone extraction—to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Wednesday’s conversation, between Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh, was a delightful pairing, highlighting the “miraculous points of intersection [of] interests and passions” that both authors share. Nicole, who was born on the tiny North Atlantic island (and French territory) of Saint Pierre, is a respected Proustian scholar at NYU whose cycle of five interrelated novels about his native isle, L’Oeuvre des mers, has taken inspiration from À la recherche du temps perdu. Zanganeh was born in Paris to Iranian parents, and currently teaches at Harvard. She is also a respected literary critic, and recently wrote her first semi-fictional book Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, in which she pays homage to her own Great Author.

Although both speakers graciously shared the mic and consistently shifted the conversation to the other’s work, the panel clearly belonged to Zanganeh, a wholly enthusiastic, well-spoken, well-read, and charming speaker. On her impetus, they started by discussing the “anxiety of influence,” particularly when one’s work has been so affected by an author of such great stature, like Proust or Nabokov. Nicole referenced Enchanter (Zanganeh’s book), in which, he noted, she “constantly” quoted Nabokov, integrating his work within her own without ever “breaking tonality.” Zanganeh laughed that doing this was “indeed very perilous,” since Nabokovians are “very jealous of their author,” and eager to find fault with tributes that fall short of their inspiration. All the same, she said, “in order to pay homage fully” to an author like Nabokov, “you need a measure of disrespect and irreverence.” It was necessary, she said, for her to “punch him on occasion.” She then reeled off a short, happy list of censures against her hero: “He was a terrible poet! I don’t like his Russian works—I secretly don’t like Pale Fire that much.”

Nicole then suggested that Enchanter was not just about Nabokov, but rather “a lively way to say something about Nabokov, using his own words.” This got to the heart of Zanganeh’s reading of Nabokov, to her strongly felt assertion that he is “a great writer of happiness.” So her own book about him “had to be playful.”

Zanganeh then turned the conversation to Nicole’s work, starting by reading a short excerpt from L’Oeuvre des mers, which had been translated into English for the occasion by NYU professor and lauded translator Richard Sieburth. (It bears noting that none of L’Oeuvre des mershas been translated into English, nor has any of Nicole’s other fiction. Even if only based on the passage read during this lunchtime event, this clearly needs rectifying.)

When setting out to write L’Oeuvre des mers, Nicole felt a great deal of responsibility toward the place where he was born, his “filiation.” Saint Pierre, he explained, “had not yet entered into French literature.” (Chateaubriand and Celine, he mentioned, had written maybe a page each about the island, but that was all.)

The Saint Pierre that emerged in the course of the conversation was something of a no-man’s land, neither North American nor really French, a French territory, but not one that most could locate on a map—”a place that is, and yet isn’t,” Zanganeh summarized. And yet, as a child, Saint Pierre was the whole world to Nicole, to all of the residents. “We are dealing with an island,” he said. “Islanders think that nowhere else exists.” At the age of 14, in order to continue school, Nicole had to leave Saint Pierre in order to attend a private school in France. From this experience, he began to practice “focusing from far away,” a skill that has served him well in the course of his novel writing, as he very rarely returns to the island now. “I always had this dual image of being far away, and still exactly where I was [in France],” he said.

After meandering discussions of lived experience’s integration in fiction, the Proustian sentence, how “all of literature is a rewriting,” and the elasticity of English as compared to French, the conversation concluded with the question of practical writing techniques. When she starts a project, Zanganeh admitted, she has difficulty focusing. “You want to do anything else—you want to check your email, run around, eat chocolate,” but it eventually becomes easier to focus on writing. For Nicole, it’s not a matter of forcing himself to work for a specific number of hours a day, but rather to “give as much information as possible in each sentence.” He tries to capture images, to see the full possibility of a given location or circumstance. As with a child, he explained, for whom “one centimeter of asphalt is a world.”

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