Nathalie Bauer: writing at the service of history

Nathalie Bauer, After a PhD in History, in 1990 her translations begin to be published, and she early becomes one of the most important French translators from Italian (among the authors she transposed there are Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Paolo Giordano, Margaret Mazzantini, Antonio Pennacchi). In 2000 she authors her first novel Zena, followed by Le feu, la vie (2007) and Des Garcons d’avenir (2011).

We are honoured to publish this interview that she issued with great availability and in perfect Italian.

Both your first novel Zena and your second one Le feu, la vie (so far unpublished in Italy) focus mainly on a gallery of realistic characters and their relationships. Your third novel, Hopeful boys (Des Garcons d’avenir), despite being based on your grandfather’s found diaries and correspondence, still maintains this framework. Indeed, in addition to the protagonist Raymond Bonnefous, you put many other characters on stage, who interact with him. To what do you owe your attention to the characters, their interaction, the balances and imbalances existing between them?

Characters are the pillars, the flesh of a novel, as well as concepts in philosophical thinking. They are the ones who hold the narrative logic, the plausibility of the story, the rightness of the tone. Also, thanks to them, you can measure the degree of truth of your book. Because at some point, as you write, the quasi magical moment comes when your characters «seize power», change the direction of the story, even burst into your dreams at night; they decide. At that point, you just have to go along with them as you would with horses, not restraining them too much and not letting them go at full speed.

Finding your grandfather’s personal writings must have been a thrill. What made you decide to share something so intimate with your readers, even if transposed into the form of a novel?

I made a novel from this material because I couldn’t get it published as a historical document. In France, the evidence left by the protagonists of the First World War is vast and, in general, publishers think that issuing the umpteenth work of this kind is useless. But I couldn’t accept the idea that this story might be lost in a void.

The characters of Hopeful boys flicker very lively from your pages. It’s true that most of them are real people, but you only got to know them through the papers that you found. Yet, you can make them so real that, while reading the novel, one has the feeling of knowing them; once the book is closed, one gets the impression of having been part of their lives up to the point where you have accompanied them, and would like to learn more. What enables you to make your characters so vivid?

The characters are all fictional, except for my grandfather – and maybe, to some extent, he as well is an invented grandfather. I kept the names that I read in the diaries (apart from Declercq) and I built the characters on the strength of my grandfather’s photos and writings, of association of ideas, sounds, impressions, personal reading, historical evidence, movies I’d seen, my unconscious, in short, of everything that nourishes an author. My grandfather never described his friends, he only spoke of their activities at the front. Nor did he describe his furlough periods in Paris and at home. I slipped into these voids, and inserted the plot in these spaces. I thought that my grandfather’s friends were certainly bourgeois because, at that time, those who undertook the study of medicine were mostly middle-class.
In fact, this novel is also a reflection on the French society of the time, particularly on the bourgeoisie and on the big breakthrough that this historical period represents in Western society. In the novel, I deal with the bourgeoisie in its main components: Declercq’s upper class, whose importance is declining not only from the social point of view but also regarding its ideas; the burgeoning commercial, industrial and financial bourgeoisie (Emile, the second husband of Declercq’s mother); the intellectuals (Morin) and the bourgeoisie of rural origin (Bonnefous), all very different from each other and all essential in French society. I was interested in exploring this environment and this shift, dealing with them from a literary point of view, not from a historical one.

The books I prefer are those which, once read, leave with you a further experience of life. This is the case with your novel. Can it be due to the experience that you yourself had when discovering all of a sudden this part of your grandfather’s life?

This book is also the result of a desire of mine: to know the young man my grandfather had been, and who certainly was still hidden somewhere inside him, during the sixteen years that we had shared. I’ve always considered him a hero, a mythical figure. He actually was, strictly speaking, because, as a surgeon and an administrator, he saved human lives. He was also a man of power, as a politician, but a politician dedicated to the common good, like those of the past. His physical presence was strong and reassuring: when I was with him, I was no longer afraid of anything and felt safe. A man who joins together all these aspects is also a mystery, an enigma; he seems to have found the right way to live and you want to understand what it is. Don’t forget that the men of his generation and social class never spoke of their moods and problems, never spoke of themselves, contrary to what happens today, therefore it was difficult to capture their essence.
Later, I dedicated myself to studying the First World War and I realized that it was a founding event for our contemporary society because it marked the end of the nineteenth century world and the birth of the modern era. It brutally transferred society from one to the other. This breaking point fascinates me: afterwards, they could no longer live as they did before, they could no longer go back.

The character of Zouzou is invented yet, in the context where you inserted her, she seems extremely realistic. She is also unusual for that time, one of those female characters whom you find yourself coming to love as you are reading and you would like to know in real life. On what did you base your creation of her?

I needed a female character to document the change that the First World War represented for women. From then on, women started to work in the fields and the factories to make up for the lack of male labour, they worked in the civil service, but also – and this is most of all what I am interested in – they started to «make a career»in the sciences, arts and entertainment. With the war, some opportunities opened up to those of them who were receptive, while most of the men, who were afraid of losing their benefits, stuck to the past. Socially, the war changed the rules of the game, marking the advent of the business world and the decline of both haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy. Money took the place of such values as family and birth.

Besides being a novel about the value of friendship, Hopefuls boys is a novel about memory, indeed it is published close to the centenary of the First World War. It deals with events that we perceive as remote, but which are not, like the humanity of your characters that emanates from every page. In your opinion, what is the importance of memory, especially in an era like ours which tends to be “forgetful”?

We all have a duty to remember the lessons of history because they allow us to avoid the repetition of past mistakes – in theory. In actual fact, history reveals itself as an eternal return, as a succession of cycles, and the events inevitably recur in different forms and deceive us. Yet, a writer can play an important role in this process, since he captures the air of the times and rereads the past not in a scientific key as the historian does, but in an intimate one, made of emotions and feelings.

I know you’re working on a new novel. What’s it about? Would you like to tell us something?

It’s a family saga. I continue the exploration of my family.

You were “born” as a translator. How did you move from translation to fiction?

In fact, I started to write first: a diary (when I was eleven years old), poetry (when I was fifteen), then narrative (from twenty years on), but my first pieces were never published (apart from some poetry in a magazine). In the meantime, while I was preparing my doctoral research, I found a job in publishing as a reader of Italian fiction and nonfiction. Then I was asked to translate. Therefore, translation entered my life almost by chance. After my PhD, I left college to work as a translator.

Erri De Luca said: «When somebody asks me how to become a writer, I simply answer: first become a translator». How useful is the experience of translation, of becoming familiar with others’ writing, in becoming a storyteller?

Stefan Zweig writes in Yesterday world that translating is the best way to learn how to write because it introduces you to other syntax and other ways of using the language. I would say that it is a wonderful workout, thanks to which you can write every day, wearing someone else’s writing and becoming agile in your use of language.

Is translation a form of knowledge?

It’s a form of understanding, of «savoir-faire», a craftsman’s know-how. Often I compare it to that of a carpenter or of a seamstress. Your work improves over the years, because you accumulate experience and fluency. It’s a humble profession, which prefers the shade to the light, and that’s why I like it. Writing, instead,  is a form of art, which includes risk and light.

Does translating mean betraying? That is to say: is translating also adapting, and rewriting to the extent that is required by the transformation into another language? What is lost and what is gained in the translation of a literary text into another language?

To me, a good translation is a translation which seems written in the target language and not in the source language. It must be smooth, fluent and at the same time it must evoke the original colours and rhythm. The translator must maintain a balance, being present and absent at the same time. The translator is a ferryman, the writing that he translates doesn’t belong to him.

Do you agree with Italo Calvino’s statement: «translating a book is the best way to read it»?

I’d rather say that it is an unforgiving way to read, since when you translate, everything catches your eye: beauty and errors, especially weaknesses. Typically, after translating a book, I never read it again. It’s a way of seeing through a magnifying glass. And for me, it remains a job.

Speaking about reading: every good writer is also an avid reader; in your opinion, who are the contemporary writers that should absolutely be read?

J.M. Coetzee, W.G. Sebald, Claude Simon, Salman Rushdie.

And the “classics” to be rediscovered?

I think they don’t have to be discovered, but to be read and reread forever, because they are the masters: Faulkner and Proust.

When writing, you express yourself in simple, direct language, while not renouncing intensely poetic images. To you, how important is readability in a literary work?

Without a story, the most beautiful writing idles, is just virtuosity, a pleasure created by the writer for his personal use only. What matters most is to put writing at the service of the story being told. With experience, you discover that there is only one way, the right way, which is good to tell a particular story. You can’t tell an intimate story, which requires a more extended time frame, or a family saga in the same way. The difficulty is to identify what it is.
This is generally the work that is done in the first hundred pages of a book.

Do you think that literature could and should produce consciousness in the reader?

For this topic we would need a whole interview.

Why do you write? Why writing?

I write because I can’t help it. Perhaps not to go crazy. Or to continue living. To try and tame the wild beasts around me and those that dwell within me.

Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)