On Wednesday, Sept. 13, the Department of Romance Studies at Duke hosted “On Literature and Peripheries: A Conversation with Nicolas Mathieu” in the Rubenstein Library’s Carpenter Board Room.
Conducted entirely in French, this casual round-table conversation was hosted by Professor Anne-Gäelle Saliot, Director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke.
The event's guest speaker was Nicolas Mathieu, winner of the 2018 Prix Goncourt (Goncourt Prize) for his novel “And Their Children After Them” (“Leurs Enfants Après Eux”). The prestigious Prix Goncourt, often considered the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, includes such past winners as Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.
Additionally, Mathieu is a 2023 Artist-in-Residence at Villa Albertine Atlanta. Founded in 2021 by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Villa Albertine is a cultural institution that offers U.S. residency programs for French creatives. Through Villa Albertine Atlanta, Mathieu will work on his next novel this fall in Oxford, Miss.
The Chronicle sat down with Mathieu and Saliot for an interview on the day of the event. All interview questions were asked in English, with Saliot providing interpretation from French to English for parts of Mathieu’s responses. This interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.
The Chronicle: Can you tell me a little about the place you grew up in?
Nicolas Mathieu: I grew up in a small town in Eastern France. [The theme of] this area was deindustrialization.
Anne-Gaëlle Saliot: It has parallels to the Rust Belt in the U.S.
NM: I came from a small middle-class family. My parents didn’t go to college. I started to write. I went to Paris. I quit my original walk.
AS: Yes, [walk] as in social class. I think the fact you have to leave the provinces in order to become a global writer shows visibility was a form of classism.
NM: (Interpreted by Saliot) So I left the provinces. There was a desire to be righteous [in going to Paris], due to the social raptors, [my] former environment and social class. It was a form of extreme luck that I won the Goncourt Prize. This led to many [book] translations and a visibility, both national and international, that has changed my life radically — economically, professionally, socially and symbolically.
TC: (Toward Saliot) What is the connection between you and Mathieu?
AS: So Nicolas mentions Villa Albertine. It’s an artist residency that has been implemented by the French Embassy in the U.S. I myself became very involved as the Director of French and Francophone Studies [at Duke]. This center is one of the networks of the Center of Excellence of the [French] Embassy. I’m working with someone in Atlanta at the Embassy, who is extremely proactive and generous. He [regularly] invites artists to come here.
Also, I teach a class [“Reading Contemporary Literature in French for the ‘Choix Goncourt’ Prize”] on the Goncourt Prize. So, I’m particularly interested in having people who have received this prize talk to students.
It is a very special prize that changes your life in such a way that can be quite symptomatic of what’s going on socially, politically in France and Europe.
I was particularly keen on Nicolas Mathieu’s visit because he has written on the [French] provinces and this dichotomy between Paris and the rest of France, which is still an important element of French life. Paris tends to absorb all the representation. When you think of France, you might think of Paris, but you might not think of the rural, post-industrial places. I grew up in a similar place in the west of France. I also came to Paris and [had] the experience of changing [social] classes.
And I thought Nicolas’s coming-of-age story of a radical teenager [is] great for students, because you are at the moment of your life with all these changes, having left your homes and parents, experiencing autonomy. Literature can express these moments of transition.
TC: What are some questions or topics that stood out at the conversation today?
NM: (Interpreted by Saliot) There were a lot of questions on the process of writing. There were also a lot of questions about the material and fabric of my work, which has to do with realism and the social tensions in France. Questions about the impact of capitalism and its relation to racism.
AS: I think there were a large array of diverse questions. I asked questions on cinema and music because Nicolas uses a lot of references to popular songs — “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, CAKE’s “I Will Survive” and Guns N’ Roses. There were a lot of questions which indirectly touched on the question of democracy and the role of literature in relation to that, particularly political literature.
TC: You mentioned the influence you had from American Deep South literature. How would you describe that style?
NM: (Interpreted by Saliot) What draws me to American Southern literature is a relation to the peripheries. Those are pieces that are far from big cities most of the time. If you think of the rural areas [in Faulkner’s book], they are what might correspond to the French equivalent of the periphery. There is this notion of being on the bottom of the chains.
In “And Their Children After Them,” there’s a climate of muggy weather — the storm and the heat, an atmosphere of sultriness that penetrates novel as a direct reference to Faulkner and other southern literature.
There’s also the question of “white trash” — white working class people who might feel disenfranchised. There was a special emphasis on this question in “And Their Children After Them,” [with] workers from North Africa who were badly treated by the French system. There is a kind of intersectionality going, both racial and social. There is a past-industrial parallel, which is not exactly the same as but echoes [“white trash”].
TC: What were some earlier literary influences you had?
NM: (Interpreted by Saliot) There were French authors I studied at school that were seminal for me, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Patrick Manchette. These influences continue to act on me, [showing] a possibility to talk about these marginal lives as potential literary topics and characters.
TC: Did you “rediscover” anything, or have any revelations about your past self while working on that novel?
NM: There wasn't a big revelation, but it was more like many details. Many daily life details that you have to write about [in] the 1990s. It’s your childhood, like a brown T-shirt, a taste, something that was fashionable then but is not anymore. A form of reminiscence. It was much more about the texture of life — the fabric, elements of the past life. Sensations.
TC: What connections are there between your main works so far?
NM: (Interpreted by Saliot) There is a kind of mysterious thread. This thread is something that wasn't really obvious or deliberate, but revealed itself: one character might reappear in the next novel, [under a] different name or [at a different age]. It’s kind of like repeated motifs.
TC: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
AS: Duke students are very, very fortunate to have [French-speaking] writers and artists [visit]. I don't think there are many universities who have these kinds of possibilities. Students should make the most of those opportunities to listen to writers in French.
There's not that much of global literature translated into English, only a bit more than ten percent. As a university, we have to make a global experience accessible in all its diverse linguistic, cultural dimensions. I think I'm on a mission here. Linguistic and cultural differences are important to train global citizens.
“On Literature and Peripheries” at Duke was part of a series of conversations with Mathieu throughout the southeastern United States before the beginning of his residency. The Department of Romance Studies plans to host another conversation in October with 2021 Goncourt Prize winning author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, in both French and English. For more information, visit Duke’s Department of Romance Studies website.
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Katherine Zhong is a Trinity junior and local arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.