Q&A with Howard Curtis and Dominique Fabre
With the recent publication of French author Dominique Fabre’s Guys Like Me and the recent review thereof, we thought, why not get author and translator to chat quickly about the book, Fabre’s writing, and a bit more? Both were happy to do so, and translator Howard Curtis was kind enough to both prepare the questions and translate Dominique’s answers. Below is their Q&A.
Howard Curtis: Dominique, I can’t think of any other current French writers your work reminds me of. Your concentration on the everyday lives of supposedly ordinary people seems quite unfashionable. Do you feel a bit of an outsider in contemporary French literature? Is there perhaps an older French tradition that you relate more to?
Dominique Fabre: Actually I’m not aware that what I write is especially different, I’ve never wanted to be an outsider, but without ever being quite sure why I’ve always been a little bit outside the mainstream, and that’s just the way it is. I try to write about the strange and fascinating aspects of our lives, without turning them into something they aren’t. The everyday is the dimension of our lives, whether we like it or not. I am in fact very fond of certain writers from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s—Henri Calet, Emmanuel Bove, Guérin, Guilloux—who strike me as very modern, especially since they weren’t trying to be, but they’ve been forgotten. On the one hand, they were from working-class backgrounds, and then in France we had the nouveau roman. And that was followed by autofiction, always something new to replace the latest novelty, and so on.
HC: What’s remarkable about your work is that although the subject matter may seem dull, you manage to make it exciting and to keep the reader’s attention. One way you do this is through your style, the way you move constantly from present to past, from thoughts to memories to dialogue, sometimes in the same sentence, to convey the main character’s state of mind. I wonder if you can say something about how you evolved this style.
DF: Yes, I don’t write about amazing adventures! As far as the writing is concerned, it’s a kind of stew, I mix things up the way we all do when we talk to ourselves, I think this way of writing more or less reproduces how things happen in our heads, when we’re alone or when we’re not lying. This “style” is still evolving from book to book, I’m pleased when people tell me they recognize my work after two lines.
HC: Your novel has a very specific setting, not just Paris, but a particular suburb of Paris, and you include many references to actual places with which most of your readers would be unfamiliar. Are you ever afraid that your readers, especially those outside France, would be alienated by this, or do you think, on the contrary, that it adds to the book’s fascination?
DF: Almost all my books take place in a little corner of the Paris suburbs where, it’s true, nothing unusual happens. That’s why you can imagine all kinds of stories, which contrast with the rather gray setting. I spent my teenage years in the suburbs, I know certain places well, and that avoids me having to worry about getting the geography right when I’m writing. I’m a big fan of the Gare Saint-Lazare, and I always try to include a train in my stories, which gives me an excuse to go on an aimless excursion in the Paris region. I love these neutral places where nothing much happens, they give me a greater sense of freedom than places filled with significance. And perhaps this relative anonymity of the locations—a station platform, an apartment building, the Seine—actually allows the readers to imagine the settings for themselves.
HC: Your main character frequently refers to, and quotes from, F. Scott Fitzgerald. What does the work of Fitzgerald mean to you? And are there other English-language writers you feel close to?
DF: I fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald, he’s the first American writer I read a lot of. He foresaw many things, he was unhappy but quite brilliant, and The Crack Up is a great text about depression. Two American writers who mean a lot to me are John Cheever, who’s a wonderful stylist, and John Fante, whom I often re-read and whom I discovered because Charles Bukowski talks about him. John Fante is a very individual writer, a great stylist too, I find. I’ve also learned a lot from reading the books of Bernard Malamud . . . Actually, the list of wonderful writers is a very long one. There’s a British writer from the ’60s I really liked: Alan Sillitoe, he’s rather forgotten now, if I’m not mistaken.
HC: Finally, if you could sum up in a few words what you hope a new reader, especially a non-French reader, would get from your work, what would you say?
DF: Perhaps a sense of how wonderful and how fragile our lives are, and also the importance of resisting a technological consumer society in which the degree of mass dumbing-down can sometimes be really alarming.