We meet Olivier Guez, editor of the collection "Le Grand Tour" published in conjunction with the FPEU 2022
Journalist and writer Olivier Guez works between literary material and historical research, on large and documented works such as La Disparition de Josef Mengele (Prix Renaudot 2017). Last March, he published Le Grand Tour, a collection of twenty-seven texts written by European authors for the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Olivier Guez talks about this project, which he initiated, his passion for writing and his vision of contemporary Europe, turned upside down by the war in Ukraine.
With the support of the Institut français, as part of the "European creativity" call for projects launched for the FPEU 2022, the Institut français in Germany is offering a series of events on European literature in response to this work.
Updated on 30/06/2022
As a writer and journalist, you worked for a range of international media before publishing your first books. How did writing come into your life?
From an early age I was fascinated by the written word, in books and newspapers. I don't think I ever thought of doing anything else. As a child I read a lot of magazines and I was obsessed with history. My mother bought a lot of books and, as a teenager, I discovered the works of Albert Cohen and Dostoyevsky. I was marked by Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and then the trilogy by Jules Vallès. I loved the French classics, the novels of Émile Zola. Gradually, I started writing for a living as a journalist, and I wanted to do reports. I also wanted to tell stories, while writing essays. As time went on, I moved towards fiction and literary non-fiction.
Your essays often take the form of investigations, combining historical research and travel. How do you define the subjects you take on?
For me, it works like a love story. You meet people, and sometimes you have crushes or real love stories. I'm wary of crushes in literature because they can last for years, so I prefer to let a little time pass when I feel something. It's an almost physical feeling when a theme touches me and interests me. So I wait to see if it becomes serious or if it's just a passing fancy. I read a lot, I research my subject: it's not really an investigation, but I like to take the temperature. In the end, the most important thing is what I feel about the location and topographical research I do.
You have just published Le Grand Tour, a literary self-portrait of Europe in the 21st century, which brings together twenty-seven texts by authors from the member states of the European Union. Can you tell us how this project came about?
Having written about Europe and European culture, I have long lamented a certain absence at an institutional level. Of course, funding programmes exist, but nothing has ever really been considered of in terms of European culture. I thought that something could be done in conjunction with the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In October 2020, I met with the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, and I began to meet regularly his office. During our discussions, the prospect of a book emerged and I suggested this collaboration with twenty-seven authors. The idea was that they should tell the story of a place that evokes European culture or history. As for everything else, they had complete freedom.
How did you choose the authors, and also the texts that make up this collection? Was a selection necessary to ensure the unity of the book?
I wanted to work with authors I admired on the one hand, and collaborate with personal acquaintances on the other. In some countries, I must admit, I had to rely on the Cooperation and Cultural Action Services (SCAC) of the embassies. The authors had two months to write their texts, it was a real gamble. We then had three weeks to translate them and then a month to edit the whole book, so it was not possible to make a selection. I was delighted with these meetings and exchanges, the creation of the collection was a real success. Even though I couldn't read them all, it was very moving to receive texts from great contemporary European authors.
Initiated as part of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2022, Le Grand Tour was published while war was raging in Ukraine. Does the conflict reinforce the work's current significance, in your opinion?
Let's say it was a kind of wake-up call. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the incredible violence of this war which is now entering its third month... Everyone reacted in the same way, with surprise, disgust and also fear. I think that, for the first time in a very long time, we are facing a community of European destinies. Nobody knows how things will end, so there is a shared sentiment in Europe and, in a way, it is our civilisation that is under attack. I am thinking in particular of the atrocities committed and claimed by the Russians. It is a conflict, a particular moment in history and the book is part of that.
Does the unity displayed by Europe seem unprecedented to you?
I am waiting to see. At present, history is in progress. We will see what the situation will be when protests evolve, when fuel, a kilo of bread or pasta becomes more expensive. We will then have to see how long this unity will continue. In my opinion, we should not believe that Europe, European culture and liberal democracy only have friends now. I am rather cautious about the future, but there has obviously been an interesting reaction from Europeans.
With the support of the Institut français, a series of events will be held to discuss literature in Europe, including a European writing residency programme between Lyon, Berlin and Prague. Can you tell us about these associated literary projects?
There is a residency project, a partnership with the Villa Gillet, but also and above all a series of literary discussions, organised by the Institut français in Germany, with authors and translators from the different member countries of the European Union. However, I am not directly involved in the organisation of these events. I am currently working on my next novel, which is set in the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century, where the European powers play a very important role, of course. I'm also thinking about another book project about Europe, but I'll talk about that in due course.
Based on Le Grand Tour, the Institut français of Germany is offering, during the first half of 2022, a series of literary dialogues with authors and translators from the various EU member states. These dialogues are supported by the Institut français, as part of the "European creativity" call for projects launched for the FPEU 2022.
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