An Interview with Lauren Elkin
Set in Venice, Lauren Elkin's first novel tells the story of Catherine, an American grad student who has left New York to spend nine months studying early printed manuscripts. Almost immediately, she begins to feel estranged from her American life, in particular her fiancé and the publishing family into which she'd planned to marry. She takes a lover, Marco, who lets her in on a secret: a hidden, centuries-old synagogue to which a mysterious Croatian visitor had led him. Instead of the books she went to Venice to study, Catherine begins to research the history of the synagogue as she helps clear the mud from its beautiful mosaics.
Along the way a mosaic of languages -- English with snatches of French, Italian, Croatian, and Hebrew -- takes shape across the book's pages. (Elkin speaks French and Italian and knows a bit of Hebrew, but had to get a friend's help with the Croatian.) This internationality makes it seem somehow appropriate that the novel, Floating Cities, is appearing this month in French (as Une année à Venise) without first having been published in its author's native tongue.
Though Anglophone readers won't be able to read her novel right away, Elkin's nonfiction writing appears widely in publications including Bookforum, the Quarterly Conversation, and her blog (formerly called Maîtresse), which she started in 2004 just after moving to Paris for her own graduate studies (last year she earned a PhD in English literature from the Université de Paris VII and the CUNY Graduate Center). I talked to Elkin over Skype -- I in Chicago and she in London, where she was spending a couple of months away from her home in Paris -- about her novel, publishing in France, and what different kinds of writing require of writers.
How did it come to be that your first book is coming out next month in France without having been published in English?
It was a very strange and convoluted process, which I guess is kind of typical for first-time novelists. I had an agent in New York in 2007 who was shopping the book and couldn't really do anything with it. So I was like, okay, well, it's just a first attempt, I'll just put it in a drawer and do better next time. But then I was chatting to a friend of mine in Paris who is also a writer and just said something in passing about my novel. And she was like, you have a novel?
Her name is Tatiana De Rosnay. She's the author of a book called Sarah's Key that was on the New York Times bestseller list for a very long time. Her publisher in France was Héloïse d'Ormesson, and I guess Tatiana had enough pull because of her own success with Héloïse to be able to say to her, this is my friend's novel, I think it's really great, I think you'll love it too. So that was how it ended up getting into Héloïse's hands. And she read it -- in English -- and she loved it. That happened in 2010 and since then it's been the long march to publication. They had to find the translator and then the translator had various issues that prevented him from doing the translation as quickly as Héloïse had hoped, and so it was postponed a couple of times. Now it's definitely happening.
What was it like to see the translation of your work?
Oh my god, it was the weirdest, wackiest, strangest, most alienating and also really flattering thing. Because on one hand you're like, oh my God, it's in French. I didn't write that. I did write that, but I didn't write that that. And at the same time you're like, wow, I can't believe -- even though he was paid to do it -- that someone spent a lot of time in my little world, rendering it in another language. So that was the flattering part.
Also, he used really fancy French. I don't think that my English is necessarily really soutenu, really elevated English. I don't think of it as super mannered or prim or anything. But the French that he used is full of the passé simple and a lot of flowery subjunctives. I think it's really beautiful, but I was surprised by the tone.
Did the translation and publication process change the book in a way that you think will affect the English version?
One byproduct of the way that this has ended up happening is that I finished the book a really long time ago. I finished it in July 2007. So I as a writer have come -- well, I don't know how far I've come, but I think that I've come fairly far. Even just this past August, I massively revamped the English version. So the French translator did work a little bit from my revamped version but there were some things where the publisher was like, we just don't have time to fix that, we can fix it if we sell it to an English market. So I have felt, slightly, that the book is not totally representative of where I am as a writer right now. So I worry about being judged on it. But I think that's just a neurotic writer thing that I have to get past. Because we're always evolving past things that we've written in the past and we have to live with them.
The one area that it has affected, having looked at this translation last week: The second novel that I'm writing now I've been trying to write in French and English, going back and forth self-translating from one language to another. Because it's set in Paris, these are French characters, so to a certain extent it just comes out in French. But my style in French is not this really complicated passé simple kind of French that the translator used. That is probably in large part because I'm not a native French speaker so I don't write novelistic French really easily. So it's made me think twice about writing this thing in French. But yeah, the goal is to be able to publish the French version as I wrote it, not translated by anyone. So we'll see.
Catherine, the protagonist, is always thinking about her antecedents -- especially her Anglophone antecedents -- in Venice, whether James or Ruskin. I wondered how that relates to your own feelings about being an Anglophone writer in Paris with all the baggage and history that entails?
You probably have stages that you go through in response to that question depending on how long you've lived there. I defy any writer to move to Paris and not be posing like Hemingway in a café within the first few months. I had that kind of Lost Generation love when I first moved to Paris. Actually, I wrote about this in an essay for the Huffington Post years ago, about the way that hanging out in cafés and pretending to be a writer like Hemingway actually did make me a writer. I wouldn't necessarily have self-identified as a writer before I studied abroad in Paris. I was more of a reader than a writer. But I guess if you pretend to do something for a while, you realize that, oh, wow, that was just a way to do get to something that I guess I secretly wanted to do.
I do have a really strong sense -- and this comes through in the Venice book -- of the narrative of the American abroad and the narrative conventions that seem to govern the experience of the American who goes to Europe. This idea that Americans can't ever feel at home going back to the old country. They all feel somewhat out of place and eventually have to return to the new world. You see that with expats in Paris who are a bit defensive about their limited French. They make a joke out of the fact that they haven't really been able to learn French. And that's a kind of snobbery all on its own that I think is implicitly critical of any Americans who think they can go to Europe and try to assimilate. As if there's something wrong with the attempt to assimilate and to make your home somewhere other than where you come from. I think this is a really interesting problem -- the idea of the limitations that are placed on Americans when they try to go abroad, to keep them American. And I think we probably think about that because of all these antecedents that have written the narrative for us.
There's a part in the book where Catherine talks about the importance of not getting too close as a scholar to what she's researching. As an academic who does research related to literature, who's also writing novels and journalism and a blog, how do you square all of those kinds of writing? Is there one that it feels like has some kind of primacy?
Academic research is one of those strange occupations where it's important to be passionate about your subject and, I think, not to research the thing that's most important to you. Because you're subjecting it to such scrutiny that you might become tired of it or find that it doesn't actually stand up to the scrutiny that you're subjecting it to. I mean, I wrote about Virginia Woolf in my dissertation, and I really, really love her. I just love love love and adore Virginia Woolf. So that's the exception to what I just said. But the others, although I do love Elizabeth Bowen and Jean Rhys, I find that there's more of an intellectual curiosity about those texts. It's motivated from a place of intellectual interest rather than oh, I love this so much, I have to write about it. And I find that in my freelance journalism, it's similar. I write about books that relate to my intellectual concerns.
But the novels, oh god, that's where all the messy heart stuff gets poured onto the page and you try to make it into something that will resonate with other people. There's that Woolfian idea that fiction has to be an expression of impersonality as well as personality. And I think that's a very true thing. I worked at a literary agency for a while and so I've read a lot of aspiring writers' manuscripts, and you can just tell when something has got it. I don't necessarily know if my work has got it. But when I read fiction that I really, really admire, there's this element where it's not about them. It just seems to be impersonal or universal or, I don't know, it doesn't seem to be furthering an agenda on the part of the author. And when you read something that's really bad -- or less good -- you can see where the writers are trying to prove something about themselves or trying to work through something that happened to them. So that's where I'm wary in my own writing of the distinction between stuff that's coming from me and from my own personal experience and my own feelings and needs and something that might have resonance for other people. You don't want to be too blinded by your own passions and your own agenda and the chip on your own shoulder when you're writing fiction.
The book covers a lot of Venetian art history and the history of the city itself. How did you come to the topic? Did it take a lot of research?
Oh god, so much. I was basically researching the novel instead of researching my dissertation for a couple of years. I love to research and I just spent all of these joyful hours at the BNF [the French National Library] in Paris reading everything I could about Venice.
The idea to write about Venice came because I was in Paris and very sad and lonely those first few months that I lived there and felt very unmoored and had all of these Sunday afternoons. Sunday is the hardest day in Paris. It's the day when, if you're French, you're with your family or you're with your significant other doing whatever significant others do together on Sundays. Sunday is the day to go to an expo or to have a long lunch or to go for a really long walk. And you can do those things when you're alone, but for me, my disposition is such that when I'm alone and I see everyone else doing those things together I feel very sad.
So, I was reading a lot and happened to come across Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers and that was the first time I had ever read a really menacing vision of Venice, and that just got me thinking. And I had really loved Jeanette Winterson's The Passion. That was another major antecedent for me, a book that I think I had in my head ever since I read it in college. And feeling so unmoored in Paris got me thinking about how Venice is a place that is essentially unmoored itself. Going to a place where you have no foundations seems to resonate really well with the idea that Venice is a city that was built on the sea. There was no foundation whatsoever. The people who founded it were fleeing the Huns or the Goths, whoever was chasing them. And they were like, there's a little bit of mud over there, what if we drive down some piles into it? What possesses you to build a city like that? I think you have to be as crazy to build a city on the sea as you have to be to move to a foreign country and try to set up a life there.
There's one part in the novel where Marco has left Catherine and in dealing with that she feels as though she's come through a marathon. There's a satisfaction at not having crumbled. To me that seemed similar to being in a foreign place and just being more satisfied by completing everyday tasks. I wondered if that similarity played a role in the book and in your ideas of foreignness.
That's a great comparison. Because I think that part of why some people love to travel is that the sort of heightened experience that you're trying to get through travel is very similar to the heightened experience of being in love, where your daily life just feels enriched by having this new thing to think about. And yeah, when you're in between loves, traveling or moving to a foreign country can be a great way to feel like your life has suddenly become extraordinary. But then you have the same kind of pitfalls: just feeling like such a failure if you can't get the language right or you can't navigate the city or you're feeling lonely, which feels very similar to the failure of an emotional relationship or a physical relationship.
And with a romantic relationship you're having all of these feelings that other people have had before but they feel so exciting and so idiosyncratic to you, which is something you address in the novel in terms of visiting these cities that are considered to be museums. You have that Mary McCarthy quotation in there: "One accepts the fact that what one is about to feel or say has not only been said before by Goethe or Musset but is on the tip of the tongue of the tourist from Iowa who is alighting in the Piazzetta with his wife in her furpiece and jeweled pin."
Yeah, exactly. Everything you're feeling in Venice has been felt before and put better than you could possibly put it. It's the same about love.
Can you talk a little bit about the Anglophone literary community in Paris?
There's a really great community there. I've been spending time in Paris since 1999, although I didn't move there officially until 2004, and I've seen a really radical change that I think has been a consequence of Sylvia Whitman's having come back to Shakespeare and Company. I've seen an influx of much younger people who are very creative and who make things like magazines and have events and have shaken things up in a good way. And at the same time, Sylvia has organized more events at the bookshop that tend to invite a larger variety of people.
So Sylvia on one hand has turned the shop into a destination for lots of different kinds of creative people, as well as writers. And these younger people -- I'm thinking of Rosa Rankin-Gee, who started the Book Club at Le Carmen, or my friend Harriet Lye, who started a magazine called Her Royal Majesty -- they are always getting people together. So I think now, as opposed to in 1999 or 2002 or 2004, all of the earlier times when I lived in Paris, there's much more of an inclusive feeling to the literary community in Paris, which is not just literary and not just the same group of men, guys who are living at Shakespeare and Company. It's gotten younger, it's gotten more female, which I appreciate, and just more vivacious.
Also, there are a lot of poets in Paris and they do lovely readings, bilingual readings in French and in English. Very often it's poets who've translated each other, so there's a really nice rapport between the two of them and they discuss the art of translating poetry. One series is called Double Change and one is called Ivy Paris, and they do events very often. So yeah, those are the primary bolts around which Anglophone literary Paris turns.
Is there any interaction between the Anglophone and French literary scenes?
No. I will ask French writers, so, have you been to Shakespeare and Company? And they'll be like, I don't know what that is. And it's shocking because it's such a major tourist attraction on one hand -- it's right there across from Notre Dame and it's always in newspapers around the world; they get a ton of press -- but it's also one of the major centers of our Anglophone literary scene. The French literary scene and the Anglophone scene don't really intersect. Sadly, very sadly.
What has it been like to work with a French publisher?
I don't have experience as a writer in the States so I can't be sure to what extent it is different. One thing that's apparently going to be my experience soon is that they do these book fairs all over the country, which I don't think we really do. The publisher or the festival will pay for your ticket for the train and then you have a special book train, and all the writers will take that same train together to the festival. And then everyone apparently just hangs out and gets drunk and talks about literature. So I'm kind of excited to discover this world of book fairs. I'm going to be signing books, not necessarily giving readings, because they're not really into readings. So I'm a little bit nervous to be seated in some kind of tent with a stack of books that I'm just waiting for someone to stop by and buy. It seems really embarrassing; how big the pile is represents how many people have bought your book, and you have to watch people as they hover near your table, kind of pick your book up, and then put it down and walk away. So that's an aspect of the French process that I'm kind of wary of but also looking forward to.