Philippe Djian’s novel Elle, which Other Press will release in English translation in late May, was much discussed even before the film version garnered Isabelle Huppert an Oscar nomination earlier this year. Published in France in 2012 under the title “Oh…”, this dark tale of Michèle, a woman who is raped and later has a consensual sexual affair with the rapist, was highly controversial.
“In France, many people said, ‘this is the story of a woman who falls in love with her rapist,’” says Djian, his mouth twisted into an incredulous smile. “That is completely false. You have to remember that she knew this man before the rape: he was her neighbor, she had spoken to him; she had even found him attractive. When she realizes he is the rapist, she is not happy. But it’s complicated.”
Indeed it is. Michèle unmasks her neighbor Patrick as the rapist (he wore a ski mask during the attack) after she has forthrightly indicated her interest in sleeping with him and been baffled by his rejection. When she realizes Patrick can only have sex when it’s violent, she chooses to play this dangerous game. “This is a woman who at a certain moment in her life asks herself if she is still capable of doing something crazy,” comments Djian. “She says, ‘If I am not capable of doing something crazy, I’m already very old and I can’t do anything.’ It’s a very particular thought; I don’t think that all women think that way. This woman thinks that way.”
Djian, 67, the author of more than a dozen novels, didn’t set out to write about rape at all; that’s not how he works, he explains, speaking from his home in Biarritz. “I never know what I’m going to be writing about when I begin a book. I begin with a sentence; if that sentence interests me, if it says something to me, if its rhythm interests me…it’s the style and the language that determine the story, not the other way around. The first sentence is going to tell you those things.”
With Elle, it was the verb in the first sentence that caught Djian’s attention. “When the character says, ‘I must have scraped my cheek,’ I stopped and asked myself, ‘who is this woman?’ Simply because her choice of the word ‘scraped’ is less violent than saying, ‘I wounded my cheek.’ I asked myself, ‘Why is she on the floor? Did she catch her foot on the rug?’ No, there are broken things around her. So, she was raped. The whole story unfolded like that. I don’t write a book to explain things. I look at things. I listen to people and look at how they behave in their lives. I don’t judge.”
He credits Huppert, director Paul Verhoeven, and screenwriter David Birke for staying true to his non-judgmental attitude in the film, Elle. “I think the film has great respect for the book and is really very close to the book. At the same time, it’s another story, a story seen from a distance; it’s as if someone took a step to the side to look at the same things as me. It’s not at all the story I wrote.”
That’s because, for Djian, the essence of a story is in how it’s told. “Really, since Shakespeare’s time, they’re always the same stories! You don’t have that many different elements: passion, hate, love. I think that today the only interest for a writer is to find the tone, the melody of the world that surrounds you. What do you hear? How do you see it? That’s what interests me.”
Not that Djian aspires to write obscure novels for the happy few, he hastens to add. “In France, there is this idea that there is one kind of literature for intellectuals and another kind for the people. I find this idea suicidal for the cohesion of a society. I want to be popular, in the best sense of the word; I want to write for everyone.” He often toys with genres: the novels Unforgivable and Consequences, both published in English translations in 2010, bend detective and thriller conventions in pursuit of their characters’ psychological depths.
“People have always wanted to be entertained,” Djian comments. “That doesn’t mean that things that are made to entertain are vulgar, on the contrary. I think they are beginning to understand that in France, thanks to American television series like Six Feet Under and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. These series are very entertaining, but they also pose all the big existential questions about friendship, forgiveness, jealousy, betrayal, death. The idea that in order to tackle these important questions you must be boring is ridiculous.”
Doggy Bag, a series of six as yet untranslated novels, was inspired by Djian’s enthusiasm for American television, but he is even more enthusiastic about American literature. “I know it better than French literature,” he says. “American writers didn’t just make me the writer I am, they made me the man I am. They taught me how to live, from the time I read Jack Kerouac at 15 and he gave me a direction in my life. I have said that Raymond Carver taught me how to cross the street, and people joked about it in France. But what I was trying to explain is that an author can change your vision of the world, can change your way of living. Once you have read writers who touch you deeply, once you have penetrated their universe, you don’t cross the street in the same way, you don’t see the things the same way.”
True to the inspiration of Kerouac, Djian spent his most of his 20s on the road. “I liked to read, but becoming a writer, no; for my generation it was music and movies that appealed. I didn’t really pursue any other professions, I just traveled a lot to discover the world, discover life. But I had a summer job at Gallimard (one of the leading French publishers) when I was 14 or 15, an older man there took an interest in me, and we continued a friendly correspondence. It was he who said, ‘Why don’t you try writing?’ At the same time, I left Paris and settled in a village in the south of France; I didn’t need much money, so I could write all the time. Then I was published, in 1981 (the story collection, 50 contre 1), and right away I was making a living at it. I’ve never had another job besides writing—lucky me!”
Nowadays, in addition to his own writing, Djian conducts workshops in Switzerland and France, once again sustaining an American tradition not much esteemed on his native turf. “In France, the critics said, ‘It’s impossible, you can’t teach writing,’ which is absurd: think of great American writers like John Gardner and Raymond Carver who started like that. Obviously, I don’t make writers, but I can edit, pose questions, save them some time, help them move forward. In every profession, there comes a moment when you must give back what someone gave to you. American writers have given me so much joy through their writings that I feel I must give that to another generation.”