On the occasion of the release of his work On the Danube Path (“Sur la route du Danube”), the writer and geographer Emmanuel Ruben describes his journey through Europe, the multifaceted nature of his text and where he stands as an author ahead of the European elections.
Updated on 17/05/2019
Graduate of the École Normale Supérieure and a qualified professor of geography, Emmanuel Ruben has constructed, over 10 books, the foundations of a literary universe which fluidly blends disciplines and genres. Having made borders, history and travel his favourite themes, today he is publishing On the Danube Path, the second episode in his "European saga" which began with (The Frost Line “La Ligne des Glaces”) (long-listed for the Prix Goncourt) in 2014. He is currently the Director of the Maison Julien Gracq, located in the community of Mauges-sur-Loire in the department of Maine-et-Loire.
Europe is at the heart of your research and your writing. In what ways did the pursuit of the Danube feel like the ideal new angle from which to approach it?
The Danube is the second largest river in Europe after the Volga, and flows through the most countries of any river on earth – 10 in total. Before the trip, we bought maps of all the countries we were going to pass through and laid out our route. We realised that the Danube still acted as border a between the European Union and the rest of Europe at many points along its path. It represents one of the borders of the Schengen zone, notably for countries like Serbia and Bulgaria which are members of the European Union but are nevertheless not Schengen states. We cannot talk about the Danube without talking about Europe, something that Claudio Magris was already doing in Danube in the 1980s. The important thing was to travel in the opposite direction, against the construction of the European Union and above all against the prevailing winds.
In those two months of cycling through Europe, how did your writing project unfold?
I didn't write a single line during the 48 days of the trip. I naively thought I would be able to write – I had taken notebooks, a box of watercolours – but I never managed to get them out. I remember writing on a day when we arrived early on the banks of the Danube in Bulgaria, but it was so hot that the ink melted and the paper wrinkled. Often in the evening I thought I would be able to find the strength to write but, as we cycled over 100 kilometres a day, with our luggage, sometimes on difficult roads, I was too tired. When I really needed to speak, to remember, I would record poems on my mobile phone. In the end, this book is a bit like the blending of the song of the river and all the noises that we were hearing, that I was listening to while I was writing these poems.
Which places most lived up to the expectations you had when you started this trip?
I was asked this question often when I was travelling up the Danube. Every journalist hoped that I would name his own country and I consistently refused to do so. I always talked about Zyntaria, the 11th Danube country I invented as a child and which is the setting of all my books. For me, all the banks of the Danube are equal: “Danubia” is a big country and our feeling of geographical ecstasy never faltered, whether in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania or Serbia. Of course, there are places where we were excited about a particularly dramatic landscape, like for example the Iron Gates, but the most memorable places were not necessarily the most idyllic. I remember crossing Bulgarian landscapes where we were quite far from the river: they had an ordinary beauty, similar to that of Dordogne, but that was without a doubt where I felt a true geographical ecstasy.
You are a geographer, a writer, but also an artist and a photographer. Are the links between geography and literature easy for you to describe?
As its name suggests, geography is the writing of the Earth. All the great geographers are, in my opinion, great writers. Think of Strabo in ancient Greece, or Ibn Battuta, in whose footsteps we walked along the Danube Delta, or of Evliya Çelebi. If we go deeper into history, Élisée Reclus was one of my inspirations for this book: as a geographer, philosopher, and writer, he has influenced me enormously. He is the author of History of a stream (“Histoire d'un ruisseau”) which is both a book on geography and an incredibly beautiful novel. Geography has never been enough for me and I need all the resources of literature to understand reality, particularly the question of borders, which is one of the subjects that interests me the most.
Your book is coming out a few weeks away from the European elections. Is this chance timing or did you want to highlight the uncertainty of Europe's future?
It's just chance timing, as Europe is present in all my books anyway. I define myself as a French-speaking European writer. I think that today, it isn’t very appealing for a writer who was born in France and has decided to write in the French language to define himself as a French writer. That is a thing of the past. All my books interrogate Europe, and I could not approach it any other way. It’s true that On the Danube Path ends in Strasbourg at the European Parliament: in it I describe a kind of 'cyclo-lution', a revolution where I dream that all the European cyclists come pedal around the Chamber to shake the dust off the utopian European idea. Perhaps, in the end, this is in fact a small nod to the upcoming elections and current events.
Winner of an Institut français Stendhal Residency, Emmanuel Ruben travelled across Europe in 2017.
The Stendhal programme allows French authors or authors living in France to travel to a foreign country and work on a writing project related to that country.
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