Anne Marsella, Paris-based writer, has written and published in both English and French and is the author of the award-winning collection of short stories, The Lost and Found and Other Stories (New York University Press) and the novels Remedy (Portobello Books), The Baby of Belleville (Portobello Books) and Patsy Boone (Editions de la Différence). Her short story Saint Fever was adapted for the off-Broadway theatre production All the Pieces directed by Carol Monpere in 2003. She is a recipient of New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Award and has benefited from a number of international fellowships. Her novel Remedy has recently been optioned by Screen Siren Pictures. She currently runs Madame du Châtelet Productions, a literary salon in Paris celebrating the feminine erotic.
A kingdom of otherness
“Are words alive? I believe it is the writer’s job to make them so and this seems to require she cultivate an intimate relationship with words, a very personal, singular connection to the sounds, feelings and meanings they convey. We are always running the risk that language will flatten our experience or become a prison in which the terms of our experience are decided for us, codified or just watered down to blandness. It takes but a brief perusal of the dictionary to see the patriarchal bias of language and as an antidote to this, I enjoy sleight of word, making meaning slippery and multiple by plucking at the polyphonic chords of language.
“Whenever we play on and accentuate the polysemy of words, we are shaking the foundations of the predominant signifying order that wants meaning just one way. When I write, I want words to surprise and jolt me from my complacency; it’s my hope they’ll shift me into new perspectives and relationships with the world. This is always an aesthetic experience.
“In writing Remedy, I decided to take a little joy ride through the discourses of fashion and Catholic piety. I tinkered with the pious jargon till its wooden quality became malleable like silly putty that could be stretched the length of the novel. Remedy’s conversation with the saints verges on the wacky, but this apparent silliness has its serious edge: the linguistic play means to resuscitate and restore what is spiritual and alive in language. In befriending the ‘holies’ (and fashion icons) my character rescues them from religiosity (or vapid fashionese.) Remedy is playing at being Catholic and she is also a devout Catholic, her every act of reverence is irreverent. How can this be? Or rather, as I see it, how can this not be? Metaphor works in just this way, by pairing unrelated or opposing terms to create a new language lens for apprehending the world. Metaphor is a container of contradiction.
“Remedy, like her name suggests, sets out to remedy and realign her Parisian world by embracing disparate elements – the omnipresent Catholic saints and her sex cravings, for example – as pleasurable paradoxes. She invents a lexicon to describe the people and situations she encounters: French co-workers are ‘spoons’, aristocrats ‘crusts’ etc. In a sense, Remedy invests words with talismanic properties; they protect against the encroaching estrangement she feels and allow her to knit relationships between herself and the multiple worlds she inhabits. When words come to life, they trick us into a connection with a more generous capacity of perception and knowing.
“I particularly like to sniff out the strangeness in words. Sometimes words seem to possess a whole kingdom of otherness; much of the time, a particularly unexpected relationship between words will create this effect.
“When I began writing, I often referred to a 1964 Concise Oxford dictionary I happened on at a flea market. It was a kind of magic book for me, published the year of my birth, and it contained an extraordinary number of weird archaic words and lingering Gallicisms. My writing thus far has centered on the experience of being a foreigner for whom language is both innate and borrowed, both of the self and the other; the words and cadences of my writing reflect this, or attempt to.”
Registers in the mother tongue
“The creative process is inherently instinctive. I see Instinct as a Great Lady leading the pageant with a Preux Chevalier named Mind who attends to her every step. When I came to Paris as a graduate student, I kept a razor-sharp focus on the French language. Earning my degree required I master French at a native level. I recall courses where we’d spend a month analysing two pages of a novel, scrutinising the words and syntax through the magnifying glass of a French literary sensibility. While this pace frustrated me, it taught me to pay attention to words. I began shifting this attention onto English and heard registers in my mother tongue previously hidden to me. I became privy to the range of foreignness the English language can accommodate, to how at ease it is in allowing in ‘strangers’.
“Around this time I began writing my first book, (The Lost and Found and Other Stories) diving for oddities in the Oxford Concise and stringing words together as much for their sound and resonance as for their meaning. Writing with acute attention to sound association resembles composing and adds yet another level of meaning. Something more is signified by the text’s music, and this added value is feeling, a sensibility unique to the literary creation.”
Writing with the body
“I am, essentially, a ‘jouisseuse’ when I write. I’m out for pleasure. Despite how difficult writing can be, or maybe because of it, I try to remain attentive to what pleases me. Pleasure is as much a thing of the body as of the mind; it happens at the confluence of both, at their meeting point. We have a long philosophical tradition of elevating the fruits of the mind while denigrating the body; this particular equation has had the habit of aligning women with the maligned body.
“For a whole range of reasons – cultural, historical, biological, philosophical – women are perhaps well placed to write about their bodies or, as the French feminist Helene Cixous claimed, to write with their bodies. What we are touching upon here is the feminine erotic, which encompasses not only the sensuality of the body and imagination but more globally, a woman’s essential aliveness, her creative élan, the symphony of her emotions, her joie de vivre, her desires and spiritual connections. Poet Audre Lordes wrote, “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” In this sense, women’s experience of the erotic is a far cry from the reductively sexualized definition patriarchy has long affixed to it. In Lordes’ view, a woman’s erotic turn-on has political stakes; it is what frees her from the forces of oppression.
“Writing, of course, is a huge turn-on to any woman who writes, otherwise she wouldn’t bother! I wonder why literature, of all the arts, is often seen as pure mind-sport; the collective image of the writer has her seated at a desk in front of a screen, lost in thought. Essentially she is a head person. But what effect do the words have on the body? And how does she write with her body, as Cixous suggested?
“I’ve started a salon in Paris, Madame du Châtelet Productions, to explore these questions and am encouraging women writers to read/perform in their turn on, engaging their bodies in the text in whatever ways they find pleasurable. I propose a reframing of the text-body encounter, to see, as with the union of Cupid and Psyche, if it gives birth to Pleasure. The salon pays homage to Emilie du Chatelet, an 18th Century mathematician, libre penseuse, and coquette extraordinaire, who outwitted her lover Voltaire in science and math experiments, gambled men under the table through her remarkable stunts with numbers, translated Newton into French while pregnant and created the fashion of rouging nipples for the plunging necklines she favored. In her famous Traité du Bonheur she wrote, “We must try to invite pleasure in through all the doors to our soul: we have no other business but this.” Extraordinaire, non?”
A map to navigate the real
“The American poet Wallace Stevens once said “French and English constitute a single language.” This is accurate, but only from the perspective of the English language. French resists the invasions of foreign tongues, though seepage is inevitable, and has an Académie surveying its borders, a kind of Maginot line. What I love about the English language is precisely its malleability, and how, as a writer, I can move from its Latinate or French register to the Saxon with impunity. The Saxon craves the concrete, the tangible and the concise while the French spectrum lends itself better to concepts, essences and lyricism. By playing between these registers, by slipping in Latinate words, phrases, syntax to surprise the Saxon, by constant displacements between the two I manage to create an effect of foreignness, sometimes akin to magical realism, even while the story being told does not involve the slightest supernatural element. This has everything to do with shifting perspectives, of moving from the concrete to the abstract unexpectedly.
“When I wrote my novel Patsy Boone in French, I saw my challenge as finding a way to remain foreign within the designated borders. I wanted to see how much playing room the Académie would allow me and figured out that by switching from recherché speech and literary markers (the passé simple for instance) to contemporary Parisian street talk, I could have quite a lot of fun. I wrote in proper French but completely unlike a French person and the effect was often humorous (and a bit truculent I’ve been told!). Having lived among them for many years, I wrote the book expressly for the French as an American who pretty much knows how they think and how they perceive Americans. People have asked me if I’ve thought of translating it into English but I think the book would lose its purpose because it is, essentially, already a translation.
“Words are like a map we use to navigate the vast territory of the real. Representing the territory, they keep us at a remove from it and yet we struggle to find a way to the heart of that reality through our cartographies. In the poetic moment the territory comes through the mapping; language bleeds through the paper and brings us into an experience of the real.
“I am intrigued by our general uneasiness around difference. There is much to federate human beings around the planet and thank God for that, yet why do we harbor a mistrust of the singularities that distinguish one culture from another? In so many ways the French do not see the world as, Americans, say. The expression bon appétit has no English equivalent and Anglo-Saxons are hardly banging their plates to come up with one. This one term reflects a whole set of uniquely French cultural values around the meal, how it is eaten and its signification. There are endless examples of this.”
“Every book I’ve written has been fueled by some deep discontent I’ve felt compelled to sublimate and set aright. Writing is where I take my glaring contradictions, anxieties and cares. Some give their worries up to the Lord. I unburden them in the novel. It’s fantastic because of the freeing, transformative possibilities of the creative process.
“Among the writers who have influenced me: James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Cervantes, Melville, Rousseau, Diderot, Balzac, Flannery O’Connor, Clarice Lispector, Karen Blixen, William Gaddis, Ovid, Jane Bowles, Flaubert, Djuna Barnes, Shakespeare, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, John Hawkes… and so many more!
“The books I’ve found notable for their use of language: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, Moby Dick, the entire oeuvre of Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare, Second Skin by John Hawkes, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.”
Sleight of word
“Here are some choice morsels from Emily Dickinson I gathered for a project I was working on:”
My Blue Peninsula
The Opal Apron
Over the Comet’s chimney
My Hazel Witness
Panther in the Glove
Garden in the Brain
Duds of Emerald
Uniforms of Snow
The Whites of Wheels
A Purple Ravelling
Rafter of Satin
Dainty of Publicity
Anne’s portrait by François Goizé
(Interview first published on Pieced Work – January 21st 2015)