Episode 1 : Interview with Gwenaëlle Aubry (Eng)

Chance encounters and surprising coincidences are the mainstay of literary fiction. But what does chance mean for an author? Do authors submit to the caprice of inspiration or do they plan for chance to emerge, pen in hand? In a series of interviews, realised for ALEA, Karin Kukkonen asks literary authors about the role that chance plays in their writing process, the plotting of their narratives and the relation between literature and life.

Pour lire l’entretien en français, cliquer ici.

AUBRY Gwenaelle – Date: 20120901 ©Hannah Assouline/Opale/Leemage

Gwenaëlle Aubry is a French writer, novelist and essayist. Her work ignites from highly mediated events, like the Rey-Maupin shoot-out and court case (L’isolée, 2002) and the second Intifada (Partages, 2012), but also life trajectories (Lazare mon amour, 2015; Saint Phalle. Monter en enfance, 2021) and devises mythological resonances (Perséphone 2014, 2016). Her essays and novels play out events through multiple configurations, perceived through multiple subjectivities, which take the form of the alphabet in Personne (2009; prix Femina; English translation: No One, 2012), mirroring dialogue in Partages (2012), or choral arrangement of four voices in La Folie Elisa (2018). Several of Aubry’s novels and essays were staged with a musical arrangement, such as for example, La Folie Elisa performed at the Festival d’Avignon and broadcast through France Culture, and Saint Phalle. Monter en enfance, performed at the Maison de la Poésie. In addition to her literary and essayistic work, Aubry is also a philosopher at the CNRS, where she pursues a research programme on The Archaeology of Power (Dieu sans la puissance, 2006 / 2020; Genèse du Dieu souverain, 2018).


Karin Kukkonen: In your last book, Saint Phalle. Monter en enfance, you evoke chance through the use of tarot cards. How do these cards function as a device for chance in your essay?

Gwenaëlle Aubry: For this book, which is not entirely an essay but not a fiction either, I had the constraint of the real: materials of a visual, historical, biographical nature in over-abundance that needed to be sculpted. Moreover, I knew straightaway that with this book I was going to write, for the first time, no longer starting from adolescence but in the direction of childhood. To play another game. There, again, the rule came from outside: from the great outside, from the great other place that is the Garden of the Tarots. Saint Phalle sculpted there, in the folds of a hill where they fit the landscape, the vegetation, the terrain conditions, the twenty two major arcana of the Marseille tarot. I have spent a week in this garden and I knew very soon that it was going to determine the form of the book, that is to say that I was going to reorder my narrative and theoretical material, starting from these figures, adjusting and hybridising fragments from her life and work and, above all, reading the work as a gesture of survival.

Yet the possibilities remained open: there is no sequence of exhibits in the Garden of the Tarots, no necessary path, one can retrace one’s steps, enter the same sculpture twice – everyone can invent their own trajectory. And I found certain sculptures more interesting or liked them more than others. I therefore fixed neither a constraint of order nor one of completeness, different from what I did for [my novel] Personne, which spells out the alphabet from A to Z. Starting from there, it was necessary to choose a principle of combination: which cards to draw and in what order? And a second question follows from this: How to integrate the combinatory logic with the linearity of the narrative, or that of the narratives, without reducing it? For the book also pursues two narrative lines; a double investigation or double search on the traces of Niki de Saint Phalle and on the more tenuous traces of the Little One, the child inside me that I take to the Garden.

Later, once the book had already begun to take shape, I read The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino, who takes up the tarot deck as a combinatory principle (it is not impossible that Saint Phalle had read him too, in particular, because her husband Harry Matthews was, like Calvino, a member of Oulipo). In his preface, Calvino says that he believed he was going mad: too many possibilities, an infinitude of combinations, and the vertigo of large numbers. For me, this was different, first, because I did not take all the cards but only those already drawn from the deck by Saint Phalle; then, because I worked with a selection from these cards, a sorting of the shot; and finally, because the story or the stories – the constraint of the real – pre-existed them, even if I (certainly) didn’t want to organise the biographical and visual material along a chronological order.

Strangely, it wasn’t for me to change plans: a first draw imposes itself, a first route from The Strength to The Empress, in a very instinctive fashion. A random draw, if you will, but a draw that was actually dictated by the opaque constraint of the unconscious, or in any case by a logic of associations and condensations that came to magnetise, to distribute and to reconfigure the different factual, narrative, visual, poetical and theoretical elements. After that, I didn’t know. I envisaged finishing with The World, but I didn’t know what cards I was going to draw in the interim. My plan was riddled with holes, it allowed for play, which is also always the case when I work with a novel. One needs to leave cracks, blanks, for the things that rise to the surface during the writing process. Besides, this process is less a surfacing rather than a precipitation in both the everyday and the chemical sense of the word: effects of speed, of drive, but also of unpredictable alloys.

Yet what had risen to the surface in this case, was the real, in the brutal shape of an event: the death of my grand-father, and then of my grand-mother, who was, as one says, fallen back into childhood in old age, and who was also the guarantee of my own childhood; and then, after these two private bereavements, the collective disaster of the pandemic. I wrote about childhood and what is elsewhere, and suddenly I had lost my childhood and found myself, like all of us, confined to what is here. The real was breaking and entering twice – chance was intervening twice – and I chose to integrate it into the book. I allowed the paths in the garden to fork, and I drew cards I hadn’t foreseen: Death, The Hanged Man and the Madman. And, as I drew them, I played them. The tarot derives, like bridge which my grand-mother pursued with some seriousness, from a fifteenth-century game called “Triumph”. I believe that replaying the real amounts to the attempt to triumph over it. This had the result that from this moment on I set out to really play with Saint Phalle, that I applied the rule of her triumphant game. In the forking of the paths, the book really returned to its original plan, got to do what it said, that is, the book in turn became a gesture of conjuration. In this sense, the last random draw corresponded also to pulling the trigger (as in the Shooting paintings of Saint Phalle): by drawing these three cards, I reloaded. I returned the world’s violence. I did not simply choose flight to the great outside, the magic world or counter-world that is the Garden of the Tarots: by fleeing, I searched (and found) a weapon, to take up the phrase that Deleuze borrowed from the Black Panther George Jackson. Art does not change the real – that we know – but it can replay it. And replaying the real means, if not triumph over it, at least reloading the possible.


Karin Kukkonen: Do you think that there is a categorical difference between chance in a literary or philosophical essay and in a novel?

Gwenaëlle Aubry: I would make a difference here not only between the novel and the essay, but more generally between my literary and my philosophical essays. In the case of the latter, I leave no room for chance: ideas arise while I’m writing (luckily), but what is at stake there is integrating these ideas into a demonstration that is as tightly argued and as rigorous as possible. One needs to tighten the screws, not leave room for play.

It is a different matter with my literary essays like Saint Phalle. Monter en enfance and Lazare mon amour, which deals with Sylvia Plath: Plath and Saint Phalle are icons, and in many respects, motors of fiction, but I have respected the constraint of the real. I did not permit myself, for example, to fictionalise the blanks in the biography of Plath or to duplicate in a novel-like fashion the autobiographical writings of Saint Phalle. After this initial posit, the writing process was the same as with a novel, both on the scale of the phrase and on the scale of the overall construction: because I worked with and cheek-by-jowl with language, and therefore also with the body and the unconscious, I left space to play, to things that arise, to associations.

I would actually say that these two books, twins even though several years lie between them, thematise the relationship with chance – and, more precisely, with the event – from which my novels proceed: because what I track with Plath as well as with Saint Phalle is the method of survival. I believe that one writes (paints, sculpts, etc.) in order to give back to the world the violence that it has done you. I know in any case that my novels come from a response to this: events, intimate and collective events, which rupture, break the structure and which, on the same stroke, threaten the possibility of the narrative. I write starting from such events but also against them: in order to leave behind the silence, the staggering experience, in order to return. In order to find again a duration, movement – in order to draw breath again. I thereby aim to integrate the event that brings about the break, the staggering chance, into another structure – fictional – which, beyond the subjective need or necessity to which it responds, may also appear necessary to others.

Nevertheless, one needs to integrate the break without reducing it, that is to say, without transforming the break itself into a necessity. What I want to say with this is that I do no aim to stitch up, to console, nor to reconcile. The importance of play and formal variation on the level of construction comes from there: these do not respond to a formalist imperative but to the need to leave space for the event, for the rupture or, just as well, the inacceptable as they are, instead of turning them into a link in a linear story or a well-ordered narrative. Rendering them in a familiar form would mean to get used to them. Turning them into the principle of a game, conversely, means making manifest their contingence and, then, keeping the hope for other possibilities.


Karin Kukkonen: As a literary author, would you say that one finds one’s subjects by chance?

Gwenaëlle Aubry: In my experience, a subject arises in the form of a voice that is both urgent and blurred, in the form of one or more characters, or indeed from a situation (rather than a story).

I remember the moment and the place where each of my books have arrived. It is therefore also an event, a little like a romantic encounter: something happens that demands you and that remains fragile at the same time, as one does not know whether it will last.

It arises, but that has nothing to do with chance: it rather comes from an opaque, process of sedimentation and condensation that is tucked away. A subject matter is a surface, a silhouette and all the work of writing consists in retrieving the subterranean body for which it indicates the outline.

Translated by Karin Kukkonen

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