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Nancy Huston Unbound
by Nancy Wigston

Nancy Wigston speaks with the Canadian-born Author about
her latest, work, her past, and her return to writing in English

Nancy Huston

Born in Calgary in 1953, Nancy Huston moved to New Hampshire when she was fifteen, then to Paris at age twenty, where she has remained. A rarity among anglophones, Huston began her career writing in French. Les Variations Goldberg was published in 1981 and won the Prix Contrepoint. Seven novels and numerous works of nonfiction followed. Today Huston writes in both French and English. Plainsong, her first English novel, won the 1993 Governor General's Award for fiction in its French version, Cantiques des plains. In 1999, The Mark of the Angel, a gripping tale about a love triangle in Paris during the Algerian crisis, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize; it won the Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle and the 1999 Jewish Book Award. Last fall saw the publication of a novella, Prodigy; this fall a new novel, Dolce Agonia, will be published by McArthur&Co. Huston lives in Paris with her husband Tzvetan Todorov, a philosopher and critic, and their two children. Nancy Huston was interviewed in Paris.

Nancy Wigston: Let's start with Prodigy, which I think was sadly misjudged by some Canadian reviewers. Is it possible that this story of a premature infant who grows into a brilliant piano prodigy¨achieving everything her mother ever wanted¨may be entirely imagined, and that the mother may be willing her child into a perfect existence? The mother winds up in a hospital at the end of the story, but there are hints that in fact she has never left.

Nancy Huston: There are lots of signs throughout the book that she is still back in the white room. Those images might be flashbacks or flash forwards. My general message in writing¨if I have one¨is how fabulous the imagination is¨how real, how important and essential it is.

NW: And the way the husband is pushed off to one side, does that reflect the way fathers become redundant after such a birth?

NH: Yes, it's quite common, especially after problems at birth. I interviewed a lot of women about this. But I have to tell you the story of the book. The dedication, ŠFor, with and thanks to' Yves Angelo, refers to a film script I wrote with him a few years ago. We had made a film, Voleurs de Vie¨adapted from an Icelandic novel¨with a fantastic line-up of star actors, and it was a total, total flop. The film was very slow, very aestheticized, with lots of silence and mystery, but people want things that are sort of rambunctious, low budget. I think that if it had been made by someone from Japan¨to go back to the way we judge things¨they would have said that it was exquisite, subtle. But before it came out we were working on this subject together, of a young piano prodigy. A lot of the ideas are his. All summer we worked on it, then, on the way back from the Venice Film Festival, he said, ŠI'll never get the money to make this film, do what you like with it.' So I invented the structure. It was too beautiful a story to just let die in my drawer¨in Šour' drawer. I just called the producer last week and Yves is going to be making his own version of the film which will involve the same subjects, though it won't be the same story.

NW: Interesting. One of the Canadian reviews said it read like a screenplay.

NH: Hmm. I don't think this person reads many screenplays.

NW: I think she wanted the book to be longer.

NH: I didn't want to write a novel. I also felt I'd done a lot of talking about motherhood and music already in my novels. I didn't want to devote a year to it, and I didn't want it to die. It was very much like the situation itself. I had this little immature baby that was the story. The father disappeared and there I was, I had to breathe life into it all by myself and make it live. I was talking to the book as though it were Maya [the child's name], saying ŠLive!'

NW: You've been quoted as saying you felt "liberated" by writing in French, "that all writers should write even in their mother tongue as if it were a foreign tongue." Are you still writing primarily in French?

NH: Of my last five books, three are in English. I'm writing more and more in my mother tongue, now, as I age. I started in French, paradoxically, ironically. I've said before that it has to do with my mother and my relationship with her. I was abandoned by my mother when I was six. I was raised by my father and his second wife, who is German. Interestingly enough, my mother split when she had three kids, eight, six and three. My brother¨who was eight¨also changed linguistic and cultural identities and lives and works in Montreal. We only talk to each other in French, my brother and I¨except to fool around sometimes in English, sharing memories and jokes. And it's not even the same accent, to anyone on the outside it's quite comical. My little sister, who was only three, adapted much better; she didn't have as many memories of our real mother. So for me, English was fraught with that ambivalence¨it was the person I was who'd been rejected, who was so worthless that even the person I should have been able to count on the most in the world didn't think I was worth hanging around for. So when you have that kind of flak at an early age you probably look for a way to survive, and I think that really the foreign language at first was exactly that. My stepmother took us to Germany during the divorce and exactly the same thing happened there that would happen fourteen years later when I came to France. I latched onto the German language like a life buoy and I learned to speak it fluently in four months¨I liked myself much better with the protection of the mask, this veneer of the foreigner. Deep down I think that's why I decided to settle here, to do that almost incomprehensible thing of tearing myself away from roots, my family, my friends, my past, my language, my culture. It's not at all because I like the Eiffel Tower or care about wines.

NW: Or that you dislike Canada?

NH: We'd left Canada. I'd lived from the age of fifteen to twenty in the States. Two years in New Hampshire, where I finished high school at a little backwoods school, a year in Cambridge, Mass where I worked at Harvard as a medical secretary in a psychiatric clinic, at age seventeen, which was pretty heavy.

NW: Always choosing the easy route.

NH: Yeah [laughs] I can't believe they hired me. I was totally, totally suicidal by the end of that year. You can imagine what it was like to type up the files of these brilliant, crazy people. I certainly had no more illusions about the rationality of the adult world. Then I lived in New York for two years, going to Sarah Lawrence College.

NW: And you never returned after your junior year abroad?

NH: No. This is my senior year abroad [laughs]. But it could have been any language. It happened to be French, and I'd had a fantastic French teacher in New Hampshire, from Alsace. She introduced us to Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf and we'd sing in class and read plays by Cocteau and Sartre. That was my most francophile period.

NW: And now your books are not only popular in France but also hugely admired in Quebec.

NH: I have a great relationship with the QuTbTcois now, after a bad start.

NW: You're referring to Cantiques des plains? [The book's award was criticized by some Quebec journalists, who claimed it was a "translation."] Wasn't that just a narrowminded few, not your readers? Rather like what is happening now in England, where the London press seems to be attacking The Mark of the Angel for being set in Paris and winning French awards?

NH: Maybe so. But I think it's also the fault of the cover in London, which is lurid. I objected to it, but a little too late and too mildly. It shows a naked woman, so they bring their own associations to it. Here's the British cover [a man's hand is on the woman's flank]. You would never guess it's about the Algerian War.

NW: What made you try writing in English?

NH: A friend of mine from Algeria, Leila Sebbar, suggested we do a book on exile together¨it appeared in 1986. That book [Parisian Letters], really plunged me into a tailspin; I was very seriously ill when it came out, with a neurological illness; my legs were numb. The doctors told me I couldn't have invented my symptoms out of pure artistic creativity, but I read my illness as if my body was saying that I'd frozen my roots. And so I figured maybe my tools were whetted enough, that I felt competent enough, professional enough, to take on my mother tongue¨and all the memories of the past and childhood that came flooding along with that. That's when I wrote Plainsong, between Š89 and '91, and that was absolutely exhilarating. In the meantime, over the fifteen years I'd been here, the French language had become banal to me¨it was the language of being a mother with my kids, going shopping, arguing with the bank tellers, yelling at taxi drivers, doing my income tax forms. It was no longer pure music, whereas the English language somehow was. I discovered with great glee that I could write in English. Even though the book won the prize for the French version, I still think it's pretty good [laughter].

NW: You tackled a lot of Canadian issues there.

NH: Perhaps that could only be written by somebody who'd been away from the country for a long time, with other time perspectives to put Canadian history into. Do you realize how recent 1900 really is? Growing up you don't realize that.

NW: And also how fragmented our stories are, because we are the place everybody goes to make a fresh start, to forget. So that the girl, Paula, has to invent stories about the grandfather she loved because she only has fragments¨because the present alone doesn't nourish us.

NH: Yes, and this is even more true in the States, where I just spent a couple of weeks. It's getting very scary how they're skating on the surface of the present¨anything older than the day before yesterday doesn't count.

NW: How is your work received there?

NH: I would say not all. I was touring for Vintage, who published the paperback edition of The Mark of the Angel; there were tiny, tiny audiences. I can't promote myself in the States; I can't spread myself that thin. It's too enormous. They have several thousand authors in this immense choreography of readings all over the country and I can't compete with that; I'm forty-eight, I've written twenty books; I can't do it. But the Vintage purchase was nice, because it also meant publication in Britain and South Africa and Australia.

NW: I've noticed your English can sound very French. When you wrote about returning to Calgary after many years, for instance, you said you felt "aggressed by the matter-of-factness of the language." Where are you in terms of language?

NH: I think the fact of having lived so long in a foreign language makes me hyper-conscious of style and things people take for granted¨sloppiness, laziness, clichTs. That's what I meant when I said people should write in their own language as if it were a foreign language. Rilke was extremely jealous of Rodin¨whom he greatly admired¨because he could just set down his clay at the end of the day and go out and live. He didn't use the same material for his art as for ordering wine at the restaurant or getting his clothes cleaned. Language is such a dirty medium; it serves all purposes in the world from morning till night, so you really have to clean it of all those presuppositions and pre-associations and try and invent it anew. Knowing two languages in depth¨I hope, at least that's my goal¨to be as musical as I can. I want every note to have its own place, its own weight and to contribute to the harmony of the whole. I realize that things like "aggressed by" are simply gallicisms. When I write a novel I'm not working on cleverness or style or bedazzlement¨I don't want to be Joyce¨I really want people to be deeply, deeply involved in the story. So I always have my translations revised by an outside reader, whom I pay, in both directions, whether I write first in English or French. I thank the woman who reread my translation of The Mark of the Angel and who made a number of important suggestions¨tiny things, but they make a difference.

NW: It seems to me that rhythms are an important part of your work. For example, in Instruments of Darkness, Nada, a very tortured being, writes about a real medieval woman, and at the end something quite unexpected happens, so that the whole story, which has been terribly dark, lightens and becomes almost giddy, flirtatious.

NH: That was one of the most thrilling writing experiences I've ever had¨to watch Nada changing under my eyes. It was, along with Plainsong, one of my happiest writing experiences. Another thrilling thing was switching places between apparent reality and apparent fiction; Barbe Durand was both a true story and the novel-within-the-novel. Everyone who doesn't know me, who doesn't know I'm a happily married woman with kids, very stable, predictable, thought that I was Nada.

NW: Is there much autobiography in your writing?

NH: Millions of details that come from my own experience but nothing really structurally similar. Even Slow Emergencies, which is about a mother who leaves her daughters, is very little about what happened in my own family, although it explores the theme of abandonment. I wish my mother had left in such a glorious way [Lin, the fictional mother, becomes a famous dancer].

NW: That novel is dance-like, isn't it?

NH: Yes, I did try and construct it like a piece of choreography, but I thought of it more as something that was very densely curled up, closed at the beginning around the character of Lin, then sweeping in ever-widening circles. That book was hard to write, but it's been really rich in sequella. The novel I just finished uses some of the same characters¨something I've never done before. And I'm currently working on a musical comedy based on [Lin's daughters] Angela and Marina in New York.

NW: There's such a lot of research in your work, whether it's about dance, music, Blackfoot Indian history, the middle ages, post-war Paris.

NH: Yes, that's why it's such a great job; you get to be so many people; you get to have so many lives, unlike what Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that you only have one life and each choice you make eliminates all the others. I remember when I graduated from high school in the States, I took the S.A.T. exams and my four-hour achievement test¨on which I got the unbelievable score of 800 out of 800¨was on the subject, ŠMaturity is the Acceptance of Limitations.' I have always wanted to read what on earth¨at age sixteen!¨I could have said, because I have never accepted limitations, I can't accept them. I'm hungry for all of these lives. ˛

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