Interview with French-American linguist and author, Dianne Murez
e x c l u s i ve i n t e r v i e w
The following interview was conducted in French and translated by Diane Murez into English.
Link to French version: https://bit.ly/3msYS6a
Diane Murez, a trilingual writer born in Baltimore, studied for a year at the Gymnasium Goetheschule in Hannover on an American Field Service scholarship. After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University, she moved to Paris, where she contributed features to French and American magazines, shot experimental films, and became a French citizen. Her non-fiction children’s book, A Day on the Boat with Captain Betty, was published by Macmillan.
Her composite novel, To Each Her Own, from which “Home” was excerpted in Da Costa a Costa, an Italian anthology of contemporary fiction, will appear as a dual language publication with original drawings by Françoise Petrovitch. Currently she’s working on a Parisian trilogy, of which the first volume is called Rites of Paris, and the second, A Dancer’s Diary. She lives near Paris with her photographer husband, where she founded Mon Montrouge, a local political association, and Amitié et Culture, a group for attending cultural events.
Raia Del Vecchio, was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Switzerland. After graduating from the Geneva School of Translation, she studied Comparative Literature and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Freie Universität, Berlin.
She has translated into French Hebrew authors such as Eshkol Nevo, Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua or Gilad Seliktar and the films of Yaelle Kayam (Mountain, 2015), Avishai Sivan (Tikkoun, 2015) and numerous screenplays. She also translated from German Arnold Schönberg’s children's book Die Prinzessin and press articles from Italian.
Her first novel, Hôtel Receptor (Phébus, 2017), won the Prix des lycéens d'Île de France.
After you completed your university studies, you decided to settle in Paris though you previously had no particular ties to France. Could you explain this choice?
In fact it was by chance. I was unhappy in my love life and wanted to go "far away." At that time I was offered a teaching job at the American School of Paris. And, as luck would have it, I met a group of young intellectuals there who invited me to write for their new magazine, The Paris Metro, the first magazine devoted to the city of Paris. Their dynamic team was bursting with ideas, and I had the good fortune to take part in a project presenting an Anglo-Saxon vision of our adopted city.
When did you start to write and in what context? ?
Long before I started to write I loved to "tell stories." I think I inherited that propensity from my paternal grandmother, who told me lots of stories that weren’t meant for the ears of children: a neighbor threatened by the Mafia, an illiterate immigrant woman who confused a laxative with a chocolate bar. Following my grandmother's example, I told stories to all the kids in my neighborhood. In first grade the teacher wrote on my report card that I would surely become a writer. Actually, I wrote poems, sketches, and stories, but it took me a long time to come to terms with my desire to write literature. First I worked in teaching and journalism, then wrote books for children.
For your collection of stories To Each Her Own, written mainly in Paris, could you describe the experience of creating a literary text in one language (in this case English) when you were living in an environment in which another one (French) was spoken? Does it create a kind of schizophrenia, familiar to many exiles, or is it a way to recreate a "chez soi" or "home away from home"?
Probably both, though I never thought of my writing that way. When I was young I felt more at home in the world of books than among my contemporaries, and when I began to write I recreated that refuge in my imagination. When my characters started to involve me in their adventures, it was a great pleasure. For me, the schizophrenia to which you refer was less a matter of being divided between two countries, or two languages, than a split between interior and exterior worlds. Sometimes I felt guilty that I was so content in my own world, but luckily that isn’t a foible that hurts other people…. It so happens that the characters in To Each Her Own live in the U.S. and speak English, but that isn’t always the case in my other texts.
For this project you opted for a dual language edition using translators who are native French speakers. Did you first consider translating the text yourself? I’m thinking of writers like Nabokov, Beckett, etc., capable of writing in several languages, for whom such an experience proved to be a new creative process.
That’s a multi-layered question which raises interesting issues. Before responding, I have to say that I have an unforgettable memory of the afternoon that I had tea with Samuel Beckett at la Closerie des Lilas.
As he drank his Irish coffee, he spoke with an amazing eloquence and talent for storytelling, not pausing as he ranged from his latest lexical discovery to dinners with James Joyce. Never had I heard anyone speak the English language so beautifully, without the least hesitation or repetition of vocabulary. Beckett was a language genius, who spent hours doing research in dictionaries, and his brilliant mastery of language shows in his writing, for which I have a boundless admiration.
I think that Beckett, Nabokov, Conrad, and certain other geniuses possess a rare talent for writing in two (or more) languages. To be honest, that’s not my case. I never thought that my proficiency in written French was sufficient for translating into that language. However, in working with my translators (Pascale-Marie Deschamps, Jean-Paul Deshayes and Catherine Wallisky), I felt obliged to express choices about the translation, since I really do understand the language. That wasn’t true, for instance, for the Italian version of my short story Home. I was very surprised when an Italian reader remarked that the story must take place in Florence, since the main character used the Florentine word "babbo" for "Dad".
And what part did you play in the revision of the French translation? Was it complicated for you and the translators to each find your role? Sometimes it’s said rather ironically that if an author is happy with a translation, that it's a bad sign. By the way, that’s not the case for this book, where the translation is remarkable.
Each one of the three talented translators could only handle part of the text — for various personal reasons. So the final translation is a result of their different approaches. It was necessary to revise the entire text to harmonize their different writing styles, and especially to make sure that the various levels of language corresponded — the use of vous and tu forms, etc. This collaborative work on the translation was extremely enriching for me, and I learned to appreciate that the French text, even though it closely resembled the English, possessed its own unique character.
Also, I was fortunate to work with an excellent proofreader, Cybèle Castoriadis, who knew how to weigh the significance of punctuation in both languages, and how to find solutions so that it would not only be correct, but also meaningful.
Finally, my work with the translators did require rewriting at times, especially when an equivalent for the English text didn’t exist in French — as with plays on words, for example. Luckily, all of my translators are passionate about their work, and they were inventive in finding the word or phrase that came closest to what I wanted to express.
Who are the European or American authors who influenced you the most? Nowadays do you read in French or in English? And do you think that the French language or something French resonates in your writing?
When I was little, I mainly read the books in my school library. I loved biographies and exhausted their supply. Then I started to read the youth literature of the period, often detective stories. One day my father announced that this stuffing of my brain with “junk books” was a waste of time. He bought the Great Books collection and made me promise that for every three entertaining books I’d also read a classic. It was thanks to this deal, which he forgot almost immediately, but which I kept for years, that I discovered Henry James.
Henry James initiated me into literature. His books didn’t correspond to my age or to my milieu, but they revealed a whole unsuspected world. He talked about things whose existence was never mentioned by the people around me. And perhaps the romantic lives of his American expatriate characters awakened a desire in me to discover Europe.
Later I was influenced by Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, and I wrote about their use of Greek mythology in constructing their characters. I think that Woolf expanded the range of English much like Proust did for French, and both of them stretched the limits of the novel in their explorations of time.
In German I like Ingeborg Bachmann and Walter von der Vogelweide, so distant in time, but both so modern.
Sometimes I prefer to read in a foreign language when I’m working on an English text in order to avoid any interference of style. But I always return to Shakespeare when I’m going through a dry period in my writing. I plunge into the language of the Bard and emerge energized.
As for the influence of other languages, I think that’s a rather mysterious subject. There are times when certain words come to mind only in a particular language. If a French or German word makes itself felt with insistence, I try to examine its significance for me in order to find an English equivalent.
More than the sounds of other languages, their rhythms influence my writing. Kafka is often given as an example of a writer who uses "simple" sentences. On the contrary, I find that his astonishing way of utilizing short sentences in a breathless rhythm creates an underlying anxiety. That remarkable sense of rhythm is something I take a lot of care with in my own writing. Often I read certain passages aloud in order to listen to their rhythm.
Could you tell me how your collaboration with Françoise Pétrovitch, whose illustrations for this edition of Suite Américaine are magnificent, came about? Unless I’m mistaken, she was unable to read the original text, due to her limited mastery of English. Did she discover, thanks to the translation, another aspect of your personality, and you another aspect of hers?
Françoise Pétrovitch a tout de suite accueilli avec enthousiasme l’idée de collaborer à ce projet. Avec la graphiste Elsa Cassagne, nous avons beaucoup parlé de la meilleure forme à donner à cette collaboration. Françoise a insisté sur le fait que des simples illustrations ne l’intéressaient pas ; elle voulait dessiner ce que les textes lui inspiraient. Effectivement, elle a lu les textes en français et a choisi de dessiner un seul objet par histoire— comme invitation à la lecture et comme évocation de son contenu. D’abord, nous avons pensé aux dessins en noir et blanc, mais à la fin nous avons préféré la couleur pour évoquer le changement de saisons. Ce qui m’a épatée, c’est que les images que lui ont inspiré mes textes sont telles que j’aurais pu les rêver. C’est passionnant de travailler avec une artiste d’une telle sensibilité et je suis ravie de cette rencontre de nos deux mondes imaginaires.
Now for a question about your text. The first story, After the Beep, portrays a bourgeois woman, without any financial difficulties, "SDF" (sans difficulté financière ) as we say ironically in French*. Life seems to be unrelentingly cruel towards this poor widow, Janet, an embodiment of many bourgeois clichés. In a time of feminism, is this a way to denounce the insubstantial role of women who didn’t need to work and let themselves be supported, whether out of generosity, abnegation or laziness? And where does this fascination with cruelty come from?
The assessment of cruelty in my work surprises me, but I’ve heard it several times from French readers — though not the English-speaking readers. There was even a reader who made a comparison to Les Contes Cruels of Villiers de l’Isle Adam. Is this due to the difficult subjects I treat? Or was I influenced by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which the mother of the German family with whom I lived gave me to learn the language? I really don’t know.
As for feminism, that’s a question that touches me deeply. For me feminism entails an obligation to give a voice to women — all women — in all of their diversity, and not just in positive roles or as objects of a masculine point of view. I was struck by a letter of Charlotte Brontë's, in which she wrote about her desire to create a heroine who wasn’t beautiful — before she wrote Jane Eyre. So I think it’s just as interesting to write about a widow at loose ends, whose life raises true questions about our society.
You studied comparative literature at Princeton and have lived in Paris for a long time. In what way is American culture foreign to you today and in what way is French culture foreign, or has it become familiar? Do you have the impression that by being in that particular position you can be a go-between, able to explain one culture to the other — beyond the usual clichés?
One day a French friend said to me, "You're not American, you’re…Parisian!" She was talking about the cosmopolitan blend of people one finds in Paris, where a mix of cultures is prevalent, and it’s common to speak more than one language. On the other hand, it’s complicated to understand French society and culture at a profound level, and I believe that one never loses certain attitudes inculcated during childhood in one’s culture of origin. Although my culinary habits have been French for years, I still have a tendency to be too precisely on time according to my French friends. I have dual nationality, and I enjoy the singular status that allows me to take advantage of both cultures and to extract what I prefer from each. I believe that I’m capable of playing a role of «go-between", as you put it, and my current literary project is a Parisian trilogy about cultural difference.
* SDF is well-known in France as an abbreviation for sans domicile fixe, meaning homeless.