Episode 2: Interview with Anne Weber (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. Um das Interview auf Deutsch zu lesen, klicken Sie hier.
Anne Weber is a writer, novelist and translator, working between German and French. Her novels rediscover ancient genres anew, such as the epic in Annette: Ein Heldinnenepos (Epic Annette 2020; Deutscher Buchpreis) and the saint’s legend in Kirio (2017), and push the boundaries of literary conventions, such as personal narration in Erste Person (First Person, 2002) and the implied author in Luft und Liebe (Love and Air, 2010). She translates her own works into French. Her work as a translator further brings German authors, like Peter Handke, into French, and French authors, like Julia Deck, Georges Perros and Cécile Wajsbrot, into German. Her German translation of Wajsbrot’s Nevermore, itself an essay on a translation project, won the Deutscher Buchpreis in the translation category in 2022. Weber’s reflections on irony, a key feature of her novels, can be found in her Schillerrede (Schiller Prize Speech), delivered in 2021. In a correspondence, entitled Ûber Gute und Böse Literatur (On Good and Bad Literature, 2022), Weber exchanges views with Thomas Stangl on ways of thinking about literature as morally and / or aesthetically “good”.
And from now on things will happen, which we are tempted to dub providential. It is as if someone no one really any longer believes in had minimally adjusted a switch or changed the points. [From: Annette, ein Heldinnenepos]
Karin Kukkonen: For your novel Annette, which tells the life story of a woman, you chose the form of the epic. Yet the gods do not play much of a role in your epic. What is the role of providence, divine intervention and coincidence in Annette?
Anne Weber: Annette is an epic in quotation marks, among other reasons, because it does without providence and gods. Coincidence is indeed important, not because I had conceded a major role to it, but because it plays such a crucial role in Annette’s life. Right after the passage in the introduction something truly extraordinary happens. Annette and her lover and two friends, who give them shelter, live in a hiding place in Asnières, a suburb of Paris. These two friends, who hide them, have on their fourth wedding anniversary on the day in question, and therefore Annette and her friend give over their room to them. Roland sleeps in the same house one floor down, and Annette is with her parents in Brittany. Exactly that night the Gestapo arrives (or the SS, I don’t remember precisely). In any case, the people whom Annette and Roland hid now get arrested in their stead. Actually, Annette and Roland are helpers for these friends. But because they have their anniversary on exactly this day, they turn into the saviours of Annette and Roland, for the simple reason that these are – accidentally – no present when they were supposed to get arrested.
The timing of the wedding anniversary and the day of the intended arrest is such an enormous coincidence that one is indeed tempted to believe or to ask oneself whether it really still is a coincidence. Indeed, that is the question one often asks when it comes to coincidences, especially if they seem particularly unlikely. Is it really coincidence or does someone or something stand behind it, pulling the strings or changed the points? And this matter then touches indeed on a form of belief in a higher power.
Karin Kukkonen: Do you see a difference between epic and novel in this respect? Perhaps one may be more inclined to say that it is invented with a novel?
Anne Weber: I think what counts here is not so much the difference between the epic and the novel, but rather that between novel and reality. After all, I have tried to keep to some kind of reality for this text I called an “epic”. To keep to, let’s call them facts, or to what I could find out about this life. I have tried not to distort anything, not to invent any additions, and to still turn this into literature. Yet I believe that as soon as one is faced with reality, one is more ready to entertain the thought of some kind of providence, rather than in the novel where, after all, we know that an author is behind it. An author invents the most unlikely things, even though novelists like to claim that reality invents much more unlikely events than any novelist. I think that is right, but one doesn’t believe a novelist as easily when they say that.
Karin Kukkonen: You first wrote Annette in German and then translated it yourself into French. Your oeuvre unfolds more generally between these two languages. Does this special quality of your work, namely, that you can fully draw on the semantic riches of not one but two languages, play a particular role for how you treat chance? Do multiple languages make the use of language less predictable?
Anne Weber: It isn’t the case that I would write in multiple languages at the same time. I write either in one language or in another, or rather one after the other. Yet it may occur that the language in which I’m not writing at a given moment proffers an unexpected word. For example, a word which would not suit the text I’m currently writing, because it is simply in the other language. This might be an element of contingency or unpredictability which comes into play thanks to bilingualism. It’s likely that language use in general gets less predictable in this manner. If one has two or more languages, I believe that one is more sceptical against anything predictable or against any kind of linguistic conventions. One perceives language with a greater distance and takes on fewer linguistic clichés. And perhaps that is my hope (to a small degree). Yet does really something unexpected arise, just because one is more critical against formulations that simply flow from your pen in your native language, or phrases you tap into your computer without thinking twice? As a writing person one should in any case avoid recycling worn-out formulations without further ado. I believe one is more thoughtful in this respect if one can draw on a second language.
Karin Kukkonen: Besides different languages, you also use different forms: the epic in Annette, the saint’s legend in Kirio, or puppet theatre in August. These forms have each their own relationship to reality and to fiction. Does this give a different shape to chance as well?
Anne Weber: When I started to write Annette, I posed myself a question: How can I work with the life of a person who really exists? She is not a fictional character. It went against my instinct to write a conventional novel. Not because I wanted to do something of a particularly unconventional nature, but because I was put off by the thought of exploiting or using this life for my own literary purposes, for example by inventing additional events, and writing dialogue in order to evoke the illusion typical of the novel. I thought it was necessary to make it clear that one does not encounter the one and single truth about this woman and her life. After all, I do not know the truth but merely propose my own perspective on this life and these characters. And I’m no biographer either. I wanted to write a literary work, and then it crossed my mind that there is this ancient literary form, which narrates daring deeds of heroes – not heroines so far – and this is the epic; so far no heroine’s epic. This opened the possibility for me to appropriate this story in a literary way not through fictionalisation, but through rhythmisation: by bringing them into a certain rhythm with free verse. Through the rhythm and the type area, that is, unjustified layout with a ragged right area, or “Flattersatz” as it’s called in German typography, readers arguably now and then get awareness that this is someone’s perspective and not truth itself.
It’s a different case with Kirio. Kirio is virtually an embodiment of chance. He is completely unpredictable. This feature determines probably not only his secret but also his attraction, when it comes to me in any case. He is unpredictable in his reactions, in his appearances and disappearances, and thereby rather different from the average human being.
By the way, Kirio is based on someone whom I encountered, someone from my direct circle of acquaintances. Different from Annette, I have invented and defamiliarised that person a lot, so much that no one, including that person, could not recognise who it is. My impetus in this process was my own astonishment about this person, my astonishment at the fact that he is completely without malice. He is someone who distrusts no one, who is “good” without following the intention to be so or some religious commandments that would require such comportment. This is simple the way he is. In the novel, by the way, Kirio does “good” without noticing himself, simply en passant, so that one gets the impression that it happens through his mere presence.
This character corresponds to the image I have of a saint today. And in the same way that I remembered the epic, after I had met Annette, I felt reminded of another ancient literary genre with Kirio, and that was the saint’s legend. The form became the foundation for the book. The saint’s life, for example, contains certain stages which you find time and again. There is an annunciation, the birth is announced, then there are the first miracles that already take place in childhood, the retreat into some kind of hermitage, and so on. These stages can also be found in my book. And, like in all saint’s legends, there are those who knew this person and tell of him. These witness reports then form a legend, because the reports get told again and again, and turn more legend-like with every retelling. Similarly, I have different narrators. Sometimes, one of them is asleep and needs to be woken up. I played a game with the narrative conventions of the novel, among other things, the fact that authors always have the people at hand that they happen to need. The personnel it at the novelist’s disposal, and one deploys them like a lord his servants.
Karin Kukkonen: Does the form thereby again establish the author as master / mistress of chance?
Anne Weber: The form is less to do with chance. It rather emerges from a problem of conscience: How can I approach a real person in a narrative? Is there something I need to consider? The special or unique forms I found are an answer to this moral challenge. I scrupled to turn Annette’s life story into a classical novel. It is clear that one ponders different things when one invents a character from when one deals with a real person; in particular, a person who is still alive. Yet in fact I already pondered the issue when writing about August von Goethe, the protagonist of my book August. Ein bürgerliches Puppenspiel (August. A Bourgeois Puppetplay), who has been dead for over 200 years. Even with him I had scruples and chose not to write a historical novel and evoke the illusion that takes readers to the 19th century where they could experience the events and listen to dialogues between him and his father. Such a choice appeared to me not only morally dubious or dishonest, but also a poor in a literary sense, I have to say. And therefore I had to find a different way.
The solution was to create a certain distance, by foregrounding the artificiality of the story. Readers can certainly respond to the story, also emotionally, but I wanted to make clear, already then, that this is not the truth about the life of a person, only a particular perspective on this life. This also provides a certain freedom, for example, regarding characters who make an unexpected appearance on the stage. What I call a “bourgeois puppetplay” is a stage creating a frame for a mental mise-en-scène performed by readers themselves. On this little stage the living and the dead can enter, fictional as well as real characters. August and his mother Christine make an appearance, but also Anne Weber, the author. Most of the characters correspond to real people, but there are also fictional characters, for example, from [Schiller’s] Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love). The classical novel does not provide that kind of space, where the dead and the living, invented and real persons can meet and speak to one another.
In Kirio there are multiple witnesses who knew him and report of him. But there is also the main narrator who remains, as chance or the author would be, some kind of highest authority for the story. In Kirio, you may ask yourself when it comes to this highest authority of narration, if the whole books isn’t a game, a riddle about this highest authority of narrator. And that takes us possibly back to chance – or non-chance.
Translated by Karin Kukkonen