For the release of her new novel, Le diable parle toutes les langues, Jennifer Richard looks back on her sources of inspiration, the evolution of her career and her Stendhal mission in Germany.
From fantastical tale to historical fresco, you enjoy using a range of literary genres to talk about the subjects that fascinate you. How do you feel your career has progressed?
I used to situate my early texts in the fantastical realm because it allowed me to freely express my ideas. I was looking for the most accurate expression of feelings and emotions. What emerges most from these stories is solitude and melancholy, which are more intimate than they appear. With my third novel, L’Illustre Inconnu, I changed tack. Having matured and shed the ego that young authors are often encumbered with, I decided to get some perspective and take a little slice of history for myself. The saga Il est à toi ce beau pays opened my eyes to our relationships with history and politics. I was no longer happy with just fiction and started to read less novels and more essays, which gave me attentive and critical perspective on current events.
Your childhood was filled with travels with your parents. Were they a source of inspiration for your literary work?
I was born in the United States, which was a promised land for my parents. This dual nationality and their own roots meant I didn't view France as the centre of the world. As a child, I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I began to read. It wasn’t so much as passion for words or stories, but the idea that I had of what it was to be a writer: an independent job, one of peace and solitude. I started writing short stories and chronicling my travels. I didn’t realise that, for most authors, writing is something they do on the side of a job that actually pays. Now I know what my place is: I want to observe the world, reflect, rebel and share my surges of clarity with the reader.
Thanks to a Stendhal mission grant from the Institut français, you spent time in Germany preparing for your latest novel, Le diable parle toutes les langues. How did this project come about?
Several chapters of the novel are set in Germany and I really wanted to visit the places I was describing: Essen, Berchtesgaden and Berlin, of course, for the chapter on the 1936 Olympic Games. I took advantage of my stay in the German capital to visit exhibitions on the Centenary of the Weimar Republic, a crucial period I cover in my novel. I also needed to take the time to practise my German so I could read the archives I found. Two key finds emerged from this research: one showed that Basil Zaharoff had done business with Alexandre Parvus, one of the instigators of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the other that he had been one of the Nazi Party’s biggest financial backers in 1932. This really enabled me to get to grips with my character.
Your story, Le diable parle toutes les langues, focuses on the figure of Basil Zaharoff, an arms dealer who made a fortune during the First World War. How did you come across this main character?
By chance, when I was reading some articles, I saw Basil Zaharoff’s name pop up in connection with Leopold II, a prominent figure in my previous novel, Il est à toi ce beau pays. The Belgian king’s mistress had sold her estate in the Paris area – which was purchased with funds that the monarch took from his Congolese colony – to Zaharoff and his mistress in 1915. I initially planned to write the rest of my novel on this form of colonisation. But as I carried on reading, I realised that Zaharoff’s life was so dense, so long and influential, that it had to be tackled separately. After reading everything that had been written on Basil Zaharoff, I still had one question: what were his true connections to Germany?
In your books, there is a tangible passion for history and particularly the First World War. Where did this interest come from?
The First World War is a major period in my imagination. When I was a teenager, stories about infantrymen sparked a feeling in me of rebellion against power and huge compassion for the men who were so trusting in their leaders. I dedicated a chapter to this war in my novel L’illustre inconnu, and I remember writing it in an almost religious way, feeling very small when faced with the suffering of the men I was writing about. I had that same humility and resentment when writing a chapter on the Algerian War, to which my father was conscripted. I have endless respect for the men who came under fire, as well as equally great contempt for those who subjected them to it.
Requiem pour une étoile, your second novel, was an apocalyptic fable set in an increasingly chaotic world. How do you view the crisis we are living through?
My novels, particularly the early ones, show how pessimistic I am that humans might wake up to the beauty of the world. I’m working hard on this weakness, but circumstances haven’t fully changed my mind, in fact they are making me quite sceptical about the evolution of civilisation. As for the social upheavals we are witnessing, I think that it’ll be a few years before we get some clarity on things. Only then will we know whether, in order to “protect” the population, it was necessary to lock us down, to lead us into bankruptcy, depression and suicide, to forbid us from dancing, exercising, celebrating the seasons and embracing our loved ones. In a word, to stop humans from living as we have since the dawn of time.
Winner of the Stendhal programme, Jennifer Richard stayed in Germany to write her new novel Le diable parle toutes les langues. The Stendhal programme supports French-language authors whose writing project justifies living abroad for at least one month.
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