Pierre Dumayet in Conversation with Michèle Bernstein on All the King’s Horses
Duration: 8 min 9 sec.
Pierre Dumayet (PD): This is a first novel. This is a brilliant book, very sardonic. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be successful; at least I hope it will be. It has everything or almost everything to please. Before we start talking about the book, it’s interesting to me, since this is a first novel, to talk about the story of a first novel. You worked in a publishing house when you decided to write this book, right?
Michèle Bernstein (MB): Yes, but that has nothing to do with it. It’s because I don’t know how to do anything else.
PD: What were you doing in this publishing house?
MB: Not much, not much. I brought documents to people, I sharpened pencils, I was a secretary, but it served absolutely no purpose.
PD: So you wrote this novel and then what did you do?
MB: I typed it, packaged it, and came up with pseudonyms.
PD: How many packages did you make?
MB: Four packages.
PD: You sent your manuscript to four publishers?
MB: That’s right. I sent it to four publishers under a pseudonym, and then I waited for responses.
PD: Under the same pseudonym?
MB: No, under different ones.
PD: Can you tell me which ones?
MB: Well, no, yes, finally my name is Michèle Bernstein, so the first one was called, I signed it Danielle Aaron, and then to better recognize the response I took Baron, Caron, Daron.
PD: What was the reaction of the three publishers? They didn’t end up accepting this manuscript because…
MB: I…It was refused. There’s another one who approached me…
PD: Why? Did they give you a reason?
MB: No, I don’t know. It wasn’t for them, and there’s another one who told me, he approached me, and then…I didn’t see an editor; I saw an assistant editor who told me it’s too well written. That’s right, I was told it’s not awkward enough. It’s not clumsy enough.
MB: It takes a certain kind of awkwardness. It has to seem clumsier. It’s not heartfelt enough he said, so I told him that in fact it was heartfelt. He told me heartfelt books don’t read like that. So I left. He was a bit cold. The third one was quite nice, but we talked about different possibilities and then nothing came of it; at the same time it was picked up so…
PD: It was picked up by Corrêa?
PD: Did working in a publishing house help you understand what you needed to do in order to be published?
MB: Probably, but I don’t think I was that self-aware.
PD: I think we’re definitely self-aware. There must have been a number of conventions that you wanted to incorporate.
MB: Oh, conventions…to each her own.
PD: Yes, but for example at some point, and in much of this book, your characters take a holiday on the Côte d’Azure in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
MB: Yes, I ‘ve never been there, but that’s where they go.
MB: It’s good for characters in a novel to go to the Côte d’Azure, don’t you think?
PD: You don’t think it might even be necessary?
MB: Oh necessary? No, not really, but it makes these characters happy in any case. I just put myself in their shoes.
PD: You didn’t know Saint-Paul?
PD: You talk a lot about Saint-Paul’s cafés. How did you know to…
MB: I just thought all the cafés in the world were the same.
PD: They’re not.
MB: They’re not? I suppose there are differences, but I thought the cafés in Saint-Paul would be like that.
PD: You told me a bit about your process earlier. Did you ask someone?
MB: Of course. I also asked how many cafés there were because I didn’t want to put four if there were actually fifteen.
PD: There’s a car. There’s often the mention of cars, right? Cars…
MB: Yes. I can’t drive, no, but in fact a car, we take cars and…
PD: Are they cars like the ones in Françoise Sagan’s books?
MB: I don’t know. I don’t know. I haven’t seen them. I haven’t seen any like Françoise Sagan’s. They must be even more beautiful.
PD: There’s a lot of drinking. Yes…There’s a lot of drinking in your book as well.
MB: Yes, they drink. They drink.
PD: That’s part of what characters in a novel should do though, right?
MB: No, but mine drink all the time.
PD: And in many others as well.
MB: But they’re good drinkers. They’re good drinkers.
PD: They drink like the French, though. They don’t drink whiskey. They drink marc, right.
MB: Yes, and their graceful drinkers, so they don’t get very drunk.
PD: And regarding your novel’s style, did you know, uh, what choices to make? Did you know that it had to be written a certain way? Concise? Prosaic?
MB: Yes, you can write in a concise, prosaic manner. It’s easy. It’s intelligible.
PD: Is that how one should write at the moment?
MB: No, it’s not a rule. You can write like that, but you can also write otherwise.
PD: Well, it turns out that you write like that.
PD: What kind of a novel is it? How would you compare it?
MB: Oh, I don’t know. What would you compare it to?
PD: I don’t know. Do you think it’s the only one of its kind?
MB: Oh, no, no, no.
PD: Well, what then?
MB: Well, if we consider that it’s a novel and that it’s just a novel, it can be compared to all the other novels that exists as novels, and then after that there are genres.
PD: Okay. And what genre would say yours is?
MB: Well, it’s not a historical novel. It’s a love story. That’s already a kind of genre.
PD: Yes, and we can also define this novel in terms of the morality of the main characters: the couple?
MB: In the ordinary sense of the term they would be considered rather immoral people. But if we take the word moral in a more flexible sense, like the search for a way of being, of a more acceptable way of life, then these are people who are looking for a new kind of morality, a new kind of human interaction.
PD: Okay, maybe now would be a good time to say even vaguely what the novel is about.
MB: Well, there are five or six people who all love each other, so between five or six people who all love each other there are things that happen that are easy enough to recount here.
PD: Yes. But in fact, even if that’s all that happens there’s still a link between that and this immoral moral, isn’t there?
MB: Yes, in the middle, in the middle of these characters there’s a couple, a boy and a girl, who are married and who love each other very much, and who don’t impede on each other’s freedom.
PD: That’s right, but it seems to me that if we…at least a third of contemporary novels have characters who share this kind of morality, right?
PD: Yes, but it’s a fact, isn’t it?
MB: Yes, there are, there are, there are … there are. No, I don’t know. You might be right, yes.
PD: And you’re under the impression that it’s the other way around? I have a feeling that it’s almost only characters in novels that act like that, no
MB: I don’t know. Really, I don’t know.
PD: You answered this question yourself. Your main character says “we are characters in a novel” – which is very clever.
MB: They are well aware of things.
PD: “You and I, we talk in little prosaic sentences; wouldn’t you agree? We’re even a bit unpolished. Those are novels for you.” It’s very clever.
MB: Of him?
PD: No, of you.
MB: Well, what you have is a fictional character who realizes that he’s in a novel.
PD: I think that…they….I read it as a parody of the novel. Was I wrong?
MB: No. It’s still a pretty serious story.
PD: Yes, but it’s not a parody?
MB: There’s always something more or less parodic when you have representation, but it’s still not a parodic novel.
PD: There are sentences … “Well I’m not very, very perverse. I ‘m kind of … I’m the kind that’s falsely naive who always wakes up far too early in a bed that isn’t mine.” This isn’t parodic? This is not…
MB: No, since they’re character in a novel, you said it. Characters in a novel can’t be parodic.
PD: This is a novel, right? It’s not a writing exercise?
MB: It’s a novel.
PD: But I rather feel that this is a way that you’ve found, that’s also excellent, of showing that you have a lot of talent…I think that it’s rather a novel…
MB: Thank you.
PD: Thank you.
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