Interview with Anne Marsella, by Harriet Alida Lye
I want to take my reader with me through the looking glass
One late evening, walking home along the Canal Saint Martin, I saw a blonde woman with a small frame rolling her shopping cart towards me, on the opposite side of the street. Even when she was far away there was something familiar about her outline. When she was near enough, I could see that she was smiling – a smile at once serene and alert – and it was then that I recognized that she was Anne, my friend. I don’t know why, but I didn’t call out to say hello; perhaps it was because she was too far away to call to, or perhaps I didn’t want to disrupt the thoughts beneath that unqualified smile.
Anne Marsella, a native Californian writer living in Paris, taught the only fiction writing class I ever took. Now, living in the same neighbourhood, reading Baby of Belleville, her latest novel just released in paperback, was like finding myself in a familiar world, only not: the novel happens to be set here and her writing brought me into the streets and cafés I know so well, but somehow placed me on the opposite side of the street. Baby of Belleville pulls the reader into a parallel, hyperbolic universe populated with characters as eccentric as they are sincere, all driven by the flustered yet unwaveringly hopeful voice of narrator Jane Maraconi: writer of literary rock operas; mother of Honoré; wife of musician Charles, who has “his head in his symphonies and forgets to duck”; often-unwilling member of the Leche League at Café Chéri(e) – Jane is a woman with a “talent for elaborate make-believe”.
Anne has chosen to preface the novel with a quote from The Confidence Man, where Herman Melville writes that
The people in fiction, like the people in a play, must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.
Baby of Belleville, an enchanting and surprising read, succeeds at presenting another world, yet one to which we feel the tie.
How have you matured as a writer? Has the change of form – from short stories to long novels – changed your approach?
I have always been most concerned with sensibility and language, with exploring a particular way of being in and seeing the world. My writing always starts with a voice which I hear very strongly and which is usually quite singular. And I follow the voice, so that the process of writing happens organically, without outlines or any pre-plotted narrative architecture, though I am forced to think about where the story is going, of course. When you write in this way a great deal of trust is required, a kind of faith in the process itself. Henry James commented that “we write in the dark.” It seems that as I’ve matured as a writer (or just gotten older!) the tension between trust and doubt has heightened, the dark James speaks of has deepened a shade, but it is precisely this grappling with doubt that creates art; perhaps the higher the stakes, the richer the work. I like to think this is true. I don’t believe my approach has changed much from the short story form to the novel, though with the latter I’ve had to figure out ways around the glaring plot question. If you are not writing a plot-driven narrative, you have to devise a scheme – the use of literary conceits, for example – so that novel retains a tight internal logic. I have always been enamoured with the early modern novel and drawn my inspiration from it. Remedy is written as an on-going conversation with the saints, in diary form, and unfolds as an upside-down fairy tale. Patsy Boone, the novel I wrote in French, is epistolary and The Baby of Belleville recounts the story of Jane Maraconi and her family in the picaresque style with a wink to Sterne’s Tristam Shandy. All three novels are woven together by an accumulation and repetition of narrative details, and of the three, The Baby of Belleville has the most elaborate (and perhaps convoluted!) plot. The challenge I place ahead of me is to make plot devising pleasurable, to have a bit fun with it.
Both of your novels are set in Paris. What about Paris interests you as a writer? Is your Paris different from the “written Paris” you have inherited?
Remedy, Patsy Boone and The Baby of Belleville comprise my Parisian trilogy with Remedy and Patsy Boone working as mirror narratives, the first written in English, the latter in French. All three novels depict Paris as a city of overlapping, multiple worlds where Muslim matriarchs, French aristocrats, immigrant plumbers, Catholic nuns, American expats and a host of others entwine destinies in unexpected ways, and this fictive world, as strange and “whimsical” as it may seem to some, does in fact reflect the “real” Paris where I’ve resided for many years. In Remedy I play with stereotypes of the American in Paris and displace them, so that they are no longer quite recognizable. The romanticized Paris played up in books like Adam Gopnik’s beautifully penned Paris to the Moon, simply does not seem real to me. I often think the myth of Paris is held too dear and to the detriment of seeing what is really going on here. I wonder how one can write a book about Paris and France in general without exploring its colonial past or lending an ear to its immigrant populations which have largely brought the country to its current prosperity. My imagination has been naturally drawn to these immigrant communities in the north-east of Paris, perhaps because I am an immigrant as well, and the question of exile and how it places one at the crux of myriad contradictions interest me: how can one make a home where one is not at home (and constantly harassed as with the sans papiers)?; what does it mean to be oneself, when one is perceived as other, particularly as an unwanted Other?; but also because in a city so groomed and polished, it is through the cracks and fissures of these more neglected neighbourhoods that my imagination has been able to make its entry. Right now France struggles to uphold its ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité against the winds of a growing xenophobia. My novels are not political in any obvious way, but they touch upon these current realities of French life.
As for the beat generation writers [who shaped a certain literary movement in Paris], what can I say but that times have changed so drastically and Paris is no longer an inexpensive bohemian hang out! The beat writers used Paris as a backdrop for their personal and poetic dramas, but had no intention of engaging in the culture or growing roots here. By definition they were drifters and anti-establishment folks. On the other hand the expat writers of the twenties – Djuna Barnes, Joyce, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway among others – have been an on-going inspiration to me. If today’s Paris were theirs, they would not be settled in the Latin Quarter, which has largely become a glorified outdoor shopping mall, but in a neighbourhood like Belleville probably.
Both novels, too, are deeply interested in religion: your protagonists are Catholics, superstitious, revere the saints. Where does this attraction come from? Do you see a relationship between fiction and religion?
I was brought up in a practicing Roman Catholic family where religion was a central, defining force. When I was about 10 or so I wanted to be an altar girl. My request was refused by the bishop because at that time girls were not allowed to serve at the altar. Thus began my war with the Catholic Church which reached a feverish pitch in high school when I wrote audacious letters to Pope John Paul II, calling him to account for the inequalities in the Church with regard to women. My feminist rants went unsent but they helped me define and refine my position. I broke with the Church in College, or tried. The bond was ancestral, it seemed, even ontological and rejecting it only created a greater demon. Still I had to bite back and confront it on my own terms. In the realm of fiction I could explore this inheritance without feeling so divided, because rather than division the novel promotes associative complexity; it puts its trust in irony and ambiguity.
I’ve written about religion almost compulsively – Catholicism, Islam, and to a much lesser degree, Judaism – but what better place to take such an elaborate history of struggle and contradictions, both collective and personal, than to a work of fiction? The novel sustains contradictions in a way we cannot and when we put them to the page, they begin loosening their grip on us. Writing is for me, above all, a place of freedom, my breathing place.
It is interesting that you mention superstition. It may be that the behaviour of some of my characters borders on the superstitious, but I would say that mystical is more correct. Superstition implies an irrational set of practices and beliefs, usually to protect oneself against arbitrary forces, whereas mysticism, though equally irrational is rooted in an interior experience, a meeting with the divine. There can be a fine line between the two and I walk that tightrope quite a bit in my novels. My character Jane in The Baby of Belleville suspects her mother-in-law of spiritual materialism, of placing as much, if not more, importance on outer form as on inner experience, yet Mathilde blissfully engages in her paradox, babysitting Jesus and plotting with the Holy Ghost, oblivious of any contradiction. We are left to assume that through these practices she accedes to some higher reality. It is impossible to read the heart of another, particularly in the murky realm of religion or spirituality where the waters run deep, and though what I write may verge on the irreverent, it is never, I believe, judgemental or dismissive.
When Mary McCarthy told Flannery O’Connor that she thought the Eucharist was a symbol and “a pretty good one”, Flannery responded “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” The ritual of communion was the “center of existence” to her, an experience of the most profound order. What interests me here is this: at what point does the symbol become an encounter? As McCarthy suggests, it can also simply remain a nice idea.
Similarly, reading can either be an agreeable diversion along the lines of McCarthy’s “pretty good” communion wafer, or it can be a profound experience, one that takes root in a person and inhabits her. At their best, religion and literature make us more alive, nourish our spirit, and engage our imagination so that we fear less and embrace more of life. Both must be experienced to be believed.
Do you have any form of ritual preparation before writing?
The hardest thing for me, being a fidgety person, it to sit down and stay seated at my desk. I work best in the morning, and in an apron, my work uniform. And I drink pots and pots of green tea to keep my mind alert.
Your protagonists have some close ties to your personal life. Can you talk about what it is to create fiction from life? To be inspired by your surroundings and, like Melville writes, to present another world?
I usually feel a novel brewing when I find myself in the grip of a difficult, intolerable situation that requires a bit of sublimation to set me right. Writing fiction does not necessarily fix the outer situation, in fact it rarely does, but it can appease the psyche by giving it a bit more room, enlarging its house so to speak. The Baby of Belleville is probably my most autobiographical novel to date. Like me, my character Jane is Italian American, married to a composer, has a son and lives on the rue de Meaux near the Communist Party headquarters. But our similarities mostly end here and Jane’s tale takes on a life of its own. For me the pleasure of writing comes from the experience of becoming someone else for a time, and to make my world and myself “other,” I must obviously create a certain distance. This remove involves a number of displacements and juxtapositions both on the narrative and linguistic levels. I write in an associative way so that characters, situations or ponderings pop up and surprise me. I want to be surprised when I write, and not just from time to time, but most all the time if possible, and I think this gives my writing a particular and peculiar quality, which some have called “whimsical” for lack of a better word. Once, my work was described as magical realism, though it most certainly is not. But I think these perceptions come from my way of working the English language, which is to play (in a musical sense) on its two main registers, the Saxon and the Latinate, by shifting from one to the other unexpectedly: it imbues the writing with an “otherness” that may be hard to place. Most of all, I want the writing to shift me away from my preconceived notions and ways of seeing and hearing. I want it to present “another world” in Melville’s sense. Maybe a different way to put it would be to say that I am not a writer who is content to hold a mirror up to life’s dramas, ordinary or not; I want to take my reader with me through the looking glass. On the other side, things might appear a bit off or distorted or up-side-down, but they might also be revealing something we hadn’t seen or passed by in our habitual rush.
Does motherhood inspire you as a writer?
No it does not, alas, and this is why I chose to put motherhood in the center of my narrative in The Baby of Belleville. As a mother and writer I found myself struggling to meet the demands of the caring arts (taking care of baby) and the literary arts: the task of attending to both is frankly irreconcilable and yet it must be done. Since contradictions feed art, I took this one to the novel. I found it very hard to write about motherhood and am still amazed when other mothers who’ve read the book tell me they were moved and pleased by the motherhood bits. I have never felt so out of my league as when I became a new mother. I adjusted and did my best. With a baby you are forced to live in the moment, in an almost excruciating, sleepless present and this is completely contrary to art which requires the ability to step back and look back. I wrote parts of the book, particularly at the beginning, in the present tense to create those particular sensations of the fledgling mom, flustered and out of her mind with fatigue. What I wanted to express in this book is how a woman also gives birth to a new self when she gives birth to her first child. My working title for the book was The Mother of Honoré which comes from an Arab tradition of calling a new mother by the name of her first born — like Oum Kalthoum (the Mother of Kalthoum), the Egyptian diva, who incidentally, never had children but used the moniker anyway so that she wouldn’t be thought a tramp!
I think we are largely dishonest about motherhood, perhaps because in our secular society it is that the last lingering instance of the sacred. I purposely wrote about all the unfashionable bodily experiences involved, like the ins and outs of breast feeding or trying to get to the toilet when your baby’s screaming to be in your arms, or the pain you feel sitting down after giving birth etc.; but also the emotional aspects like feeling guilty about not enjoying any of it because you’re just too damn tired. Of course, I also wrote of the highs and passions of it all too, about the immeasurable love a mother feels, which is rooted so deeply in her, physically and psychically. How do you write about something so intimate, immense and yet so completely universal? I think many women writers avoid the subject entirely and probably for a good reason. But I felt compelled to give it a try.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a child I had the great ambition like many little girls to be on stage, to dance, sing and act. But I was also ferociously shy and my timidity frustrated my efforts in this direction. I always loved to read but never entertained the idea of being a writer. It wasn’t glamorous enough to the little closet actress! The writing happened the year after I graduated from college when I was in Aix-en-Provence. I underwent a kind of nervous break down due to a failed love affair and found myself completely alienated and alone in a tiny studio on a dark street. A voice came to me, actually it was what I imagined to be the voice of a very eccentric great aunt of mine, and I began to write letters (I had had practice with the pope!) telling her story intertwined with my own. It was this writing that sustained me through a rocky time when I was also battling anorexia. It would sound overly dramatic to say that the writing saved me, but in a sense it did, because extreme solitude can wither the soul and through writing I dispelled it. Life has been much happier since and I continue writing, but I still think that at its best writing comes from an urgent place. Not necessarily tragic or sad, but burning somehow.
Click HERE for a video interview on France24 with Anne Marsella