Fanny Chiarello

The price of freedom is renouncing absolutes

Shifting, radical and free, Fanny Chiarello appears to reinvent herself in each of her books. In A Happy Woman, she describes her encounter with American artist Meredith Monk, avoiding the clichés of the biographical genre.

Updated on 10/05/2019

5 min

Fanny Chiarello
Fanny Chiarello
© Aline Nihoul

Fanny Chiarello’s literary appetite is endless. In 23 novels published since 1999, she has dabbled in nearly every genre, from short stories to novels, including poetry and children’s literature. In both writing and life, the author of In Her Own Role (“Dans son propre rôle”) (winner of the Orange Prize and the Landerneau Prize in 2015) continues to explore neglected territories where questions of freedom and the shackles imposed by society arise again and again. On the occasion of the release of her latest work, A Happy Woman, she describes how her relationship with writing has developed and continues to evolve.

A Happy Woman stands out as a unique experience in your oeuvre. What was your writing process like?


I contacted Jean-Louis Tallon, author of a book of interviews with Meredith Monk [Editor’s note: Meredith Monk, une voix mystique, éditions Cécile Defaut, 2015]. He trusted me and sent me the email address of Peter Scisciolli, Meredith’s right hand man, with whom I corresponded for 14 months. When I arrived in New York, I met him. We spoke for a moment before he gave me the key to accessing Meredith, that is to say her schedule and where could find her. At that moment I felt like I had passed a test. Then each day I earned the right to be there, with her, as a silent observer and later as a genuine conversational partner. I was writing in real time, abundantly, and I returned with many more pages than the book contains today. At first, I imagined it would be in the spirit of Let's get lost, Bruce Weber's film about Chet Baker, which is neither a documentary nor a biography but rather an intimate and highly stylised portrait. When I landed in New York, I left this idea behind and I realized that I would just have to improvise.


With this book, you tackle music head on, something which is also very present in your personal imaginary. How does it inspire your works?


Music has more influence on how I think about structure than on my work at the level of the sentence, at least consciously. Right now, for example, I am working on a manuscript that is more similar in form to the Degradation Loops by Australian composer Jasmine Guffond or the Disintegration Loops by the American William Basinski than to any literary creation of which I am aware. A text is also sometimes born from my encounter with music. A Happy Woman is the most striking example but there are many others: when I became passionate about opera, I wrote no less than three novels which are more or less directly related to that world.


Movement is another recurring motif in your work. Where did you get this need to flee immobility?


My rejection of linearity is expressed above all from one text to the next, since I am constantly changing worlds and, even more so, forms. It reflects my approach to life. At a very young age, I told myself that I had only a little time left to live. What did I want to do with it? I have constantly asked myself this question, and the answer changes over time. Basically, I never intended to constantly move towards new forms, I do so spontaneously, out of a taste for experimentation, and probably also out of fear of boredom.

Basically, I never intended to constantly move towards new forms, I do so spontaneously, out of a taste for experimentation, and probably also out of fear of boredom

In Life Erasing Everything (“La vie effaçant toutes choses”), you describe nine women in search of their freedom. Can we read this as a metaphor for your search as a writer?


These characters are single women who have to invent a language to contain their unhappiness and try to mitigate it; who cannot rely on any ready-made discourse to move towards a kind of resolution. In this sense, they are like me: every time I write a text, it is as if I am speaking a foreign language without an established method. On the other hand, I and my characters are trying to escape the notion of the absolute and other mental constructions like it, which we believe cage us. We believe that the price of freedom is renouncing absolutes. Inventing one’s own language also means rejecting rhetorical shackles, the legitimacy of which is rarely questioned, as if there existed an absolute, unchanging and just language.


You said in an interview that: writing saves you from the real". Nevertheless, you sometimes have to dive into the world to write. Is this a pleasure or a chore?


At the time, I expressed myself too crudely. What bothers me is not the real, but the systems of interpretation that human beings have put in place to control it, systems which are imposed on us from birth. Writing makes it possible to create alternatives to these rules and question their foundations. Personally, I try to be as though newly-arrived in the world, to be surprised by what could seem familiar, to find no detail trivial. I do something similar with words, I keep observing their interactions, I never take them for granted. In fact, I am very clumsy when faced with reality and the language that structures it. I try, I search, I feel around. It’s exciting, it’s a daily wonder, and it’s also very fun.

I am very clumsy when faced with reality and the language that structures it. I try, I search, I feel around. It’s a daily wonder and also very fun

And what does confrontation with the gaze of readers bring you?


I never think about the readers when I’m writing. Once the book is published, I am always surprised by what some people see in it, as if they were talking to me about a book I would not have read, let alone written. It is quite fascinating and sometimes very funny when a reader contradicts me. When, for example, he insists on finding a reference in one of my texts which I did not include, indicating a reading which is at the very least active...


Your texts have rarely been translated. Would it be a big deal for you if A happy woman were translated to be read in the United States?


I would very much like this book to be translated. I think it could reach a certain audience in the United States, where Meredith Monk and the artistic context which shaped her universe are much better known than they are here. I would observe, without apprehension but with great curiosity, the reception my text might have there. I do, however, worry a great deal about Meredith's thoughts on this book. I have sent it to her. She can read French, probably not in all its subtleties, but enough to see that I haven't written her a hagiography.


A Happy Woman borrows its title from one of her pieces: does this mean that you are a “happy woman” today?


The experience changed me, and has probably made me a little more prone to happiness.


The experience changed me, and has probably made me a little more prone to happiness
The Institut français and the author

Winner of an Institut français Stendhal Residency, Fanny Chiarello lived in the United States 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. Learn about the Stendhal programme

L'institut français, LAB