The last two weeks have been very busy. First there was the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Awards, a lovely party in an art gallery in Mayfair. The company was brilliant and the food delicious. The prize went to The Seventh Well by Fred Wander, translated by Michael Hofman. The novel based on the author’s experience in the camps has been compared to Primo Levi’s writing. Published in East Germany in 1971, it was recently rediscovered and published here last year by Granta, sadly after Fred Wander’s death.
The following week I was invited to the Muslim Writers Awards, a much grander affair: 600 people at a seated dinner at the Hilton Park Lane. There was a slightly akward moment when I was given a pink dot to stick on my clothes but I was promptly reassured that this was the VIP treatment. The award ceremomy opened and closed with prayers and there was no alcohol in sight but all the talk was about showing the world that Muslims can be writers, a positive force for good, not just terrorists. One felt the pain and irritation at being stuck in stereotypes. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed who hosted the first part of the evening was funny, lively and went on to win the Non Fiction Award for her book Love in a Headscarf. The fiction award (sponsored by the US embassy) went to Kamila Shamsie for Burnt Shadows. To find out more about the awards, do visit the website. It was a fantastic evening, I learnt a lot and hope they did get some coverage in the mainstream press, they deserve it.
Then Hay-on-Wye, the most fantastic festival, particularly when the sun is shining as it was this year. I only went the second week-end and what a feast it was. I listened to many fabulous speakers. I hope we will be able to bring you some of them such as Reza Aslan who explained brilliantly the difference between Jihadism and Islamism, Rupert Isaacson on the moving story of his autistic son, Stanley Greenberg on advising the great and the powerful and, hopefully, my friend Agnes Desarthe.
I was delighted to see Agnes at the Hay Festival, brilliantly interviewed by Philippe Sands. I have always been a fan of Agnes, ever since the wonderful Five Photos of My Wife. At the time I worked at the French Embassy and had had the pleasure of welcoming her at the Institut for a conversation with Anne Fine whom she translated into French (she also translated Virginia Woolf). It was also the occasion of my first visit to Jewish Book Week where she had launched her book.
Chez Moi is the story of a woman, Myriam, who opens a very special restaurant. She has no money and her restaurant doubles up as her home. She washes in the kitchen sink and sleeps in the dining room. Her restaurant is a utopia, a place to feed people food that will nurture them. Her first clients are two philosophy students who can’t afford to pay more than a few euros and whom she welcomes with open arms. We gradually discover that Myriam had a life before, a husband and a child and that she literally ran away with the circus…
The French title of the book was “Mangez-moi”, judged too sexy for an English audience. “Eat Me” was a reference to Lewis Carrol. Like Alice, Myriam feels she is always the wrong size in the wrong place. She is a misfit trying to fit in and the success of her restaurant is that it becomes a haven for others. “Eat Me” is also the act of the mother feeding her baby. There is nothing more generous, more maternal and giving than feeding others. Myriam’s menus are full of brilliant and original ideas, they make people think and feel in new ways.
I won’t say more because you have to read this delicious book. You will find it most nourishing and will be suprised by its many layers. Here are a few questions I asked Agnes ahead of her visit and her answers.
– Myriam’s restaurant, Chez Moi, is a healing place for her and for others. How did you come to write this wonderful tale?
First to heal myself, I guess. I had been very disappointed by the literary world, having been member in a jury for a huge literary prize and witnessing all the shady scheming behind it. I just thought “why would anyone want to write a book when nobody seems to care wether it’s good or not. One should better cook! ”
But then I don’t know whether Chez moi is a tale. I seem to have a problem with reality, When I read a book that’s supposed to be realistic, I think to myself: “What a strange vision this is!”. When I write, I try to be as close to my sensations, and my perceptions as possible, but then noone believes it.
– Chez Moi is a novel about hunger and the need to be loved. At the core of it, is the image of the bad mother. Why do you think this remains such a taboo?
I had no idea it was a taboo. I thought sleeping with a teenager was the taboo part of the book. But that seems to agree with everyone.
Bad mothers… I don’t know. We all are, aren’t we, never good enough. Myriam thinks she’s a bad mother, but that’s not what I think about her.
What is poignant in this character is that she lost access to motherly love. It’s there, somewhere in her, but she doesn’t know the way anymore.
Maybe it’s such a taboo because love has, what a shame, become a moral value.
-You are both a writer and a translator, how do the two nurture each other?
Tranlating enables me to explore parts of the lexicon and syntax that would otherwise remain dormant in me. By putting my feet in someone else’s boots, I accomplish travels that I would never have been able to make with my own shoes (always too small, always hurting).
And being a writer, I take writers seriously. I know writing is hard work and that if one chooses to write in a certain way it’s not only because he or she doesn’t know any other, but because that’s the way he or she wants it to be.
– What tip would you give to a would-be writer?
Let go of yourself, lose control!
Agnes Desarthe’s new book “Le remplacant” is not yet available in English but I hope it will be. It is a very personal essay about her substitute grand-father, the man her grand-mother married after the death of her husband in the camps, it was originally going to be a book about Korczak, both men having decided to look after and love children who were not theirs. Above all, it is a reflexion on the mystery of good which is so much more interesting than evil…