It’s difficult to think of two more rivalrous literatures than English and French. The studied aloofness — the French were the last to acknowledge Shakespeare, while Anglophones have never fully appreciated Hugo, the one Frenchman who loved Shakespeare— has, of course, been balanced with influential borrowings (we’ll trade you our Poe for your Rimbaud). Occasionally, writers native in one language will make the decision to write in the other, though interestingly, considering how English has overtaken French as the globe’s lingua franca, more noted English-speakers have adopted French, Samuel Beckett and Julien Green being the most famous examples.
Added to this list is Nancy Huston, a native Albertan, born and raised in Calgary, who found herself in France as a university student (she wrote her master’s thesis under Roland Barthes’ supervision), and stayed. Adopting French, she published her first novel, Les variations Goldberg, in 1981, and quickly found acclaim. Though originally writing in French and then translating her own work into English, Huston penned her past few novels in English first, which she then rendered into French. Her latest, Fault Lines (Lignes de faille), won the 2006 Prix Femina, though an American publisher was difficult to find, undoubtedly for Huston’s juxtaposing Bush’s United States with aspects of fascist Germany. Huston is in Prague this week to promote the Czech translation of Fault Lines. As she has been globe-hopping promoting the book, I e-mailed her a few questions about her work.
The Prague Post: I’ve read in a number of interviews that the decision to write in French led you to your “literary voice.” Did it also lead to a greater fluency in your native tongue?
Nancy Huston: I don’t think the goal of writing is to feel a “greater fluency.” In fact, I would say almost the opposite: that one should always write as if one were writing in a foreign language, as if one weren’t quite sure of what words meant or how to use them, as if nothing about the whole issue of language and meaning were self-evident. Writing in a foreign language, many people have said before me, is at least as much an advantage as it is a handicap. It forces you to weigh your words, to listen to the way they sound, to wonder whether you really need them or not. Writing in French also gave English a 17-year rest, so that when I came back to it in 1990 to write my novel Plainsong, it had almost become a foreign language to me!
TPP: I know that many of your older books were originally written in French, while some of the latest were first written in English. Do you find that one language lends itself better to particular voices or tones that you’re trying to achieve?
NH: The only criterion is the language spoken by my characters. As to why I decide to set some novels in English-speaking and others in French-speaking countries, I don’t know. I’d say it’s one of those questions whose answer I need not know.
TPP: A few of your earlier books in French have yet to be translated into English. Have you any future plans to bring these out in English?
NH: The only novel that hasn’t come out is Trois fois septembre, which is my least favorite novel anyway, so I’m not going to fight to have it published.
TPP: After your writing and acting work in the film Emporte-moi, have you any desires to explore cinema further?
NH: As an actress, not really. It’s too frazzling, and I love solitude too much. As a screenwriter, I’ve been working with screenwriter Marcel Beaulieu on a film adaptation of Plainsong over the past five years, under the auspices of Zingaro films in Montreal, and still don’t know whether or not we’ll ever get the financing to shoot. Generally speaking, my experiences with the world of cinema have been disappointing.
TPP: Do you feel any special kinship with other English speakers who have chosen to write in French? Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Beckett or Julien Green?
NH: I definitely feel kinship with Beckett, though I never got the chance to meet him. Less with Julien Green.
TPP: Are there contemporary French authors who you believe should be translated into English that haven’t? Alternatively, are there any writers in English who the French haven’t been properly introduced to, in your opinion?
NH: I’m not very enthusiastic about contemporary French literature; on the other hand, I have often discovered English-language writers through the enthusiasm of my French friends.
TPP: About translations of your work in other languages, such as the recent Czech translation of Fault Lines, are you in contact with your various translators, or do you just hope for the best?
NH: I just hope for the best, but I’m always glad when translators have a few questions for me.