Antoine Volodine in the Paris Review
It’s been a nice couple of months for Antoine Volodine, publicity-wise. First, he had this long essay appear in The New Inquiry. Then Music & Literature honored the publication of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven with a week of Volodine-related content.
And now, the Paris Review has an interview with Volodine conducted by two of his translators, J. T. Mahany and Jeffrey Zuckerman.
There are so many quotable parts from this interview . . . First, for anyone unfamiliar with “post-exoticism” here’s a clip from Volodine’s explanation of the origin of the term:
Twenty-five years ago, a reporter at Le Nouvel Observateur asked in which literary category you would place your work, and you responded that it was outside and beyond the conventional categories of existing literature. The question prompted you to invent the nearly nonsensical phrase “post-exoticism.” But eight years later, the phrase had taken on some significance, enough that you published a book around it, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Since then, has “post-exoticism” come to mean something different for you?
I’d like to start by correcting an error I made. I attributed this question to a Nouvel Observateur reporter. It actually came from a reporter for Le Point in July 1991. Our conversation was exactly this—“What genre do you prefer to be classified in?” “Anarcho-fantastic post-exoticism.” It was a somewhat irreverent wisecrack, but it was a way, at the time, to confirm that I didn’t belong either to science fiction, the genre in which my first four books had been classified, or to highbrow French avant-garde literature, which Éditions de Minuit, my publisher at the time, often published. I took the opportunity of the interview to proclaim this break, which seemed evident to me but which literary critics had had trouble taking into account. They hid for far too long behind the adjective unclassifiable, which I can still find in numerous publications today.
I knew at the time that I was writing a literature distinct from the main literary trends all around me. In particular, I didn’t feel attached in the least to contemporary French literature, with all that implied about traditions, schools, and debates. I was steeped in translated literature, mainly from South America, the Anglophone world, Russia, and Japan. I knew French literature well, but I placed it among the others and not as an inescapable and necessary literary mold. Starting with the publication of my first book, I completely abandoned France’s cultural heritage and went independently and alone down a path that, in a way, had come from nowhere and went nowhere. “From nowhere, to nowhere”—this phrase nicely defines the literary process of post-exoticism, and I’ve reused it many times in clarifying or explaining it. Even in my first books, post-exoticism existed with its idiosyncrasies, its refusal to belong to the mainstream, its marginalized characters, its revolts, and its murky narrators. And behind this narration was a narrative background, a “backfiction,” guided by exterior and manipulative voices.
The next Volodine book that we’re publishing is Bardo or Not Bardo, a book made up of seven overlapping vignettes, all revolving around the Tibetan Book of the Dead and mostly taking place in the Bardo, or space that exists after life and before rebirth. Despite the seriousness of the setting—every chapter includes a person’s death, and most their journey through the afterlife—it’s actually a really funny book, with characters fucking up all over the place, both purposefully (one character decides to sleep away his 49-day journey through the Bardo) and accidentally (a different character reads a Tibetan cookbook into the ear of his deceased friend instead of the Book of the Dead).
Since I just read that, I also really like this part of the Paris Review interview:
You also talk about the Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, being the only non-post-exotic text shared among the various prison cells in which the writers are detained. That book’s realm, the Bardo, in which many of your writers and characters exist, isn’t necessarily the space of dreams, but the space between life and death, right?
We love the Bardo Thödol, which describes the floating world that follows death. Although we don’t appropriate its religious folklore or mystique, we see in it an immense poetic space. Our characters are quite often dead from the first page of the books in which they appear, which is why they cross the fiction like the dead cross the undefined space-time that follows their mortal passing. In theory, after death one enters the Bardo, where there is no longer calm or agitation, up or down, hot or cold, reality or dream, memory or invention. Opposites cancel each other out. It’s extremely exciting to build a fiction on this, particularly when there is also no longer I or you, male or female, narrator or character, or even reader or author. And since we are very open to the notion of compassion, this allows us to enter into the closest possible intimacy with our characters and share their thoughts, ramblings, and pain.
According to the Book of the Dead, the deceased’s walk through the Bardo lasts seven weeks and forty-nine days and ends either with enlightenment or rebirth. In post-exotic fiction, time is no longer measured, and characters often walk much longer through the fiction’s Bardic space. In Terminus radieux, this journey lasts hundreds of years, during which everyone mentally diminishes, loses language and intelligence little by little. They walk not toward rebirth but extinction. And they attain neither. The post-exotic Bardo seems to stray enormously from the Bardo described by Tibetan monks. In any case, for us, it’s a magnificent and inexhaustible reference.
Speaking of Terminus radieux, that’s the third Volodine book Open Letter is planning to bring out. It’s still a couple years off in the future (Jeffrey Zuckerman is translating it now, but it’s a 600-page book, so . . . ) but it opens with three characters “heading toward the hot center of a nuclear disaster zone, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” I can not wait!
Volodine is slowly building a nice oeuvre in English translation, with six titles already available: Minor Angels, Writers, Naming the Jungle, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, We Monks & Soldiers, and In the Time of the Blue Ball. As a publisher, I think you should start by buying our book, but as a reader, I think you should start wherever and devour them all. It’s a crazy world that Volodine has built, one that is more and more rewarding the deeper you read into it. All the various connections between the pseudonym, the books depicting this strange post-apocalyptic world, the books about the books and the post-exoticist writers—it’s all so fascinating and so much fun. Hopefully more and more readers will become ensnared in this spider’s web of a literary project as more and more of his books (from more of his pseudonyms) make their way into English.