Reading Constance Debré is like taking trains, ‘bringing some things into existence and letting others disappear.’ It’s something that cannot be stopped. A rhythm that grabs you, words that flare. Indelible, like the tattoo on her neck, ‘P.l.u.t.ô.t.C.r.e.v.e.r’ (sooner die). In her trilogy – Play Boy, Love Me Tender, Name – it is a question of detachment, dispossession, of a ‘world without fat’. Of evacuating everything to find out what you think. Of leaving everything to find your ‘I’. It is a matter of finding your centre, your body, going towards that place, the only one that counts, which is nothing other than ‘the experience of the human condition.’
Why say ‘I’ ? What do you do with the ambiguity that can exist between the narrator and the author ?
There is only confusion if you don’t understand that it’s a book. I’m not telling you what happened, I’m trying to write books, in other words, literature. That I am the source of the ‘I’ is both obvious and completely unimportant, because the ‘I’ is in reality the very site of the impersonal. It is always universal, that’s why we read it, why we follow it and also why it is present in literature.
It didn’t come into being with autofiction. Moreover, I’m weary of these codes associated with a certain kind of literature – novels and characters — I think that there is something cowardly in these conventions, in the artifice. I also wanted to take literature in its riskiest direction. I like things for their danger – I know that we’re only speaking about relative danger here – and I want to be able to answer for my sentences, without hiding behind my characters, in the most direct way possible.
You often cite Thomas Bernhard, who said he was writing "anti-autobiography"...
Yes, in the sense that what is important are not the events in life but the relationship between the ‘I’ and these events, our way of positioning ourselves in relation to them. The events of our lives are material for thinking. It’s through thinking that we make them our own, it’s a dialectic. Of course I use the events of my life, it’s the only thing I know, but the events in themselves are not important, they are just a raw material. They’re not what interests me, which is rather the question of our relationship to the world, which is always a proposition in the face of chaos.
What was it that prompted you to write ?
I started writing at a very specific moment in my life, when I became homosexual, even though for me homosexuality has no importance whatsoever. But it was at that moment that I discovered my centre, with a feeling of coherence. Suddenly I felt that I was there where I should be. Like when St. Augustine converted. What does that mean? I have no idea, but when it happens, you can finally do what you have to do. I had the impression that I could begin to write, that from that place things had meaning. It seems to me that writing is congruent with that search for truth and honesty, that you can’t just live any old way when you’re a writer. In any case, that’s how I see it.
Writing for you is a serious matter that implies a movement of dispossession. You have talked about the importance of a ‘"world without fat"...
Simplification is a necessity for trying to think about what is happening, to detach yourself from things. Matter encumbers the mind. But I’m not ascetic either, not a saint in the desert. Dispossession, detachment – they’re essentially a mental movement. It’s about excavating an emptiness inside yourself, to know what you think, to reappropriate the world.
Do you always seek to write what you think ?
The opposite seems impossible to me. I don’t see any interest in writing that doesn’t reflect or doesn’t allow for reflection. I detest the psychological novel. There is a way of saying what you think without falling into psychology. It is also in writing that you manage better to delineate your thinking. Thought – contradictory, shifting, contrasting – is, for all of us, our most personal, most intimate possession, and that which brings us closest to other people. I try, then, to think with what happens to me, what happens to us.
And also how to live…
Since I a very young age, I have only ever asked myself one question: ‘how must I live?’ I keep looking; it’s a quest, of course.
What is transgressive about your books ?
Absolutely nothing. I’m not looking to shock, I’m just trying to talk about things as they are, and implicitly to speak about what is artificial, conventional and meretricious in the way that others sometimes talk about things or talk to themselves about them. Those lies are violence. For example, in every experience of love there is an element of non-love, of anger, of chaos – it stems from the confrontation with the other. That is the whole grandeur and beauty of love. To conceal it seems terrible to me. It seems like love’s lie, like fear.
"I would like people to read me closely. I don’t want people to tell me to be nice [...] that you musn’t make people think that you’re spitting in their faces, when that’s in fact exactly what they need, to have someone spit in their face, and tell them to get over it, this pathetic life, because it’s killing everyone, this pathetic life." (Name). What role does the reader play in this? Are you trying to provoke a reaction in them, to wake them up?
Without a reader, there is no book. You don’t know what a reader is when you are writing, but the reader is the very condition of writing. They are very present well before the book is published. I am speaking to a part of all of us, I’m convinced. That part that will understand exactly what I’m talking about and will say to itself: "now that, I hadn’t thought about", or rather "that’s exactly what I think but I didn’t know I thought it". If I write things that are direct, even trenchant, it is because we – and I include myself in this – have had enough of softness, of things we sometimes can sink into, so much so that we want to be invigorated, to be told, "enough’s enough, you have to do something, think something, you have to get up".
What do you mean by a pathetic life ?
It can be a hundred different things: a life lived in vain, a life of lies, the obscenity of existence or of our own existence. It’s everything that disgusts us and against which we have to struggle each day. It is our own powerlessness, our own mediocrity. It is our doubts, which are constant. Everything we need to extirpate, all the stupidity, everything that we should refuse, everything that imprisons us and drags us down. The great difficulty is finding a balance.
Intransigence cannot be absolute, because if it were we would be alone and life would be impossible; we must nonetheless infuse some into our acts and thoughts. There is, I think, an intransigence that welcomes the other. We must see ourselves as moral agents, and develop in the singularity of our moral relationship to the world.
In Love Me Tender and in Name you talk about those who don’t manage that. ‘I understand them. I have always understood those who don’t manage to do so. But I hold firm. I think it is something in the body that makes me hold firm’ (Love Me Tender). ‘The heroic life is full of corpses. Not everyone can cope [...] Most people can’t. But I can. That’s the way it is.’ (Name). What does holding firm come down to?
I spend my life oscillating between ‘I’m not going to make it’ and ‘I’m going to make it’... And ultimately, if it’s the latter - to what end? That’s the human condition. Every morning, ten times a day or ten times a year, you’re floored by angst and despair. That’s the way it is, it’s unbearable. You never stop wanting to extract yourself from it. In reality, I understand best the people who don’t manage. I understand the vanquished and sometimes I can respect the vanquishers. It’s not for nothing that I was a criminal lawyer for a long time, and I defended those who had fallen. It is they, moreover, who have always seemed to me closest to humanity.
Your body is almost a character in your books. ‘Today I have a body. It took years. It’s no longer an idea, a rhetoric; it’s empirical reality in the mirror’ (Name). You write that your grandfather, the minister, had no body. What does it change to have one?
It’s about accepting living in one’s entirety, and doing so seriously, while trying to be maximally responsible for everything. On that basis, you can engage with the other.
Do you recognize other bodies in the same way you recognize your own?
I never ask myself that question. Paradoxically, the body in itself has no importance for me. I prefer to speak about ‘pure hearts’. I think that they are people who know their own weaknesses, who feel an obligation to be fair, with themselves and others. That will mean accepting their own violence.
Solitude is present, and sometimes even desirable, in your books. Why is it useful to you in your quest, in the same way as discipline is ?
Writing is something very lonely. When you start writing, you have to cut every mental or material link – as much as possible. Solitude is a site of reflection; it’s on that basis that you can speak to others. You have to go all the way there, to that place that we all know, the experience of the human condition. From there, by distancing yourself from everything else, you can say what you see, what you understand, what you are living through, what you have lived. That’s why it’s certainly much easier to write when you’re single, for example; however, if you were single and living alone on an island you wouldn’t know anything about the world or the self, you would be living sheltered from life itself, and it would be impoverishing. As for discipline, it’s something personal: everyone finds their own structure to escape, definitively, from the chaos.
"I will always tell the same story. That you have to get out of there. Anyway, anyhow. Get out of there. Go further and further away. Geographically or without moving" (Nom). How did you reach this conclusion?
I think you have to shuck off a certain number of things to bring a valuable 'I' into being. Leaving is first and foremost a mental movement, a mental path. Separation is the first movement towards freedom. You have to accept that you are alone, you can’t always place yourself in the position of victim or executioner. In reality, I think that every one of us is the totality of the world and the totality of time. In any case, you are always the centre of the world. Of course, that’s a bit crazy, but when you feel that, you feel your own existence. It’s something important and serious, at the same time crushing and futile.
Do you fear things getting complicated again ?
I’m not afraid. I have great curiosity about all aspects of existence. When I speak about solitude, it’s also because it’s what I likein other people. My own solitude doesn’t fascinate me.It’s notcompromising for an ideal or livable existence. We need other people and sometimes I meet ones to whom I am attracted. As for looking back,I never think about it.It’s not for that that the past nolonger exists.
The question of childhood and its destruction is at the heart of Name. You call into question the widespread belief that childhood trauma conditions adult life, and more broadly the dominant structure of the family. Why ?
It’s the religion of the age. I find it false, stupid, wicked. There are people who have suffered great violence, but the majority of the traumas people talk about are little events. It’s the whole question of victimization. When you’re a victim, it’s the other person whois guilty; you’re a saint and everyone else is a bastard. Posing as a victim is a very good pretext for committing every kind of violence. It’s also putting yourself in an infantile position. For my part, as I remember it, I was eager for childhood to end so I could become totally responsible – to choose my pleasures but also take responsibility for my faults, my suffering, my failures. Holding your parents responsible for every bad thing is a way of always making allowances for yourself. There is no room for the other. If you’re sometimes over whelmed by distress, it’s not because your parents refused to buy you an ice-cream at the age of five, or because your parents divorced. It’s just part of the human condition. Existential angst is not a family affair, it’s much wider, much more beautiful than that. There are no guilty people, unfortunately – or fortunately; that’s our tragedy but also the grandeur of human existence.
Upward social mobility is often a theme in literature. The reverse movement much less so. Do you consider yourself to have gone down in the world ?
No, I’m a writer, I have the codes I have, the culture I have… For sure, I don’t have a lot of money but that’s the consequence of my actions and doesn’t bother me. I’m a little bit on the periphery, but just like all writers should be. I think when you write being at the periphery is the least of your worries. I cannot stop myself being a little suspicious of writers – unless they are completely committed, and some are – who speak about the pain of the world whilst being sheltered from it, living a completely bourgeois worldly existence. It’s important, where you speak from. There is a kind of reticence in talking about the lives of writers, but I’m sorry, it matters. You have to be coherent, at the very least. Writing distances you from every sense of belonging and exposes the lie of every identity.
You write "perhaps writers have to become once more what they are, what I am, a cockroach, a rat" (Name). Do you speak from that place ?
Yes, you have to speak alone, from that place, I think. But I don’t know where literature comes from. I was listening to an interview with Duras who was saying that at the start of every book is an act of vengeance or a trial.
Is revenge the impetus for you ?
I don’t think so. But there is anger, rage, disgust, despair… You only have to read Dostoevsky.
In Name you have a very striking passage on personal taste, good taste and bad… "The degree zero of thought", you write…
Yes, it’s a bit repulsive. I’m very struck by this obsession with taste in the papers. Asif the aim of an existence wasto have‘good’ taste. And look at what they consider ‘good’ taste: it’s buying such-and-such a pair of jeans, such-and-such a pair of trainers, going to such-and-such a restaurant that you don’t really care about at all. It’s pathetic. Buying a certain thing in a certain place really doesn’t distinguish you in anyway. It’s a contemporary obsession; it’s bleak. As if the pointofour existence isjust to betheconsummateconsumer.Ithink we’re betterthan that.
‘I would like to shave my head. I think about it every day. But perhaps afterwards there will be nothing left to do. Perhaps afterwards I won’t have any more ideas. Any more desire. That’s why I don’t do it’ (Love Me Tender). What do you make of this now that you’ve done it ?
I’m very happy that I did it. I do it every week and it’s always a pleasure. It’s very pleasing to feel clean, sharp, including on top, precise to the point of being able to feel your skull under your fingers, like a memento mori, except that it’s not a skull placed on a table but mine. When it comes to the use of my body, I have almost stopped my habits and discipline, and I’m sticking with it. What more is there to do? What more is there to write? The book to come is the only question I’m interested in. It’s the only question.
Your books are addictive. There is a rhythm that grabs us and won’t let go. Do you read out loud when you write ?
What I most worry about is being boring. I want to seize the reader, I don’t want them to leave. When I work I don’t read my texts out loud. There are phrases that I read in my head; it’s a very calm reading. Everything is relaxed. I never want there to be crescendos. I get rid of sentences that are too loud. I want it to be strong and matte, as flat and taut as possible.