Interview: Daniel Arsand
1) How did the historical setting of Lovers, and your research relating to the setting, influence your telling of Sebastien and Balthazar’s lives?
“For me, Lovers not a historical novel. It takes place in the 18th Century, in France, but it is extra-temporal inasmuch as its themes are love and intolerance. It’s not the reconstruction of another era that interests me, it’s the exploration of hate for others, of love, of the illusion of love that can isolate you from the rest of the world and therefore protects you from authority. The story that I tell in Lovers belonged to one of my previous novels The Black Horses (Les Chevaux Noirs). There, I wrote about the ancestors of my protagonist, a killer, but I ultimately realized that I had devoted too many pages to them, and that I had laid out to many stories, without there being one clearly in the foreground. So, I cut a hundred years off the family tree of my hero. But then I felt that I had skipped over the heads of Balthazar and Sebastien too quickly. I wanted to write that story, but I didn’t know how at the time. And then, one day, I reread the pages that I had put aside and I knew that it was the moment to write a history of love, to write Lovers.”
2) How difficult was it for you to recreate that historical setting?
“No, not very difficult. I know enough about the 18th Century on a historical level and a cultural level, so long as it’s the French, English, or Swedish, or Italian 18th century. Twenty years ago with my friend Nicole Bon I edited an anthology of 18th century writers with the publisher Balland. So, I rather quickly saw the setting of my book, the clothing that my characters wear, the atmosphere on the streets and in salons and rooms.
3) Did you initially begin with the novel’s elegant structure in mind, or did that evolve as you wrote?
“The structure of the book is self-imposed. I have vivid memories of the marvelous time I spent writing this book. Everything fell into place by itself, it was all written as if in a state of grace, perhaps a writer experiences this once in lifetime. Every morning, early, I set down one, sometimes two chapters. And then, once it was finished, I felt that there was almost nothing to remove, to modify. The first spurt of writing became the definitive text. To write a story that skews toward the tragic, while writing in it a state of intense joy may seem strange, but the happiness of writing is stronger than the melancholy that runs throughout the text.”
4) What immediate issues and questions do you think Lovers raises (or should raise) for a reader?
Lovers is about love, about the relation one can have with another, about the manner in which one loves the other; it delves into the idea that one can have romantic adventures while continuing to love only one human being; it speaks to jealousy, to indifference, but most of all to intolerance. It is a violent book. In some parts of the world we still burn humans, just like in the Middle Ages, for their choice of whom to love, or how to love, for their homosexuality; or we hang them, or stone them, or otherwise persecute them. This is unacceptable. In a certain manner, Lovers is a political novel.
5) Lovers is very clearly a hymn to love and physical passion, but treats other themes like one’s relationship to nature, class, and vocation. To what extent were these your preoccupations while writing Lovers?
“I wasn’t in love when I wrote Lovers. One of the greatest French novelists, Colette, wrote that one cannot at the same time make love and write about love; I believe this is true. On reflection, I wrote this novel after I had been harassed verbally and very violently in my private life: so, the theme of intolerance was particularly important to me at that time. In my work as an editor, I published one of the great writers of the 20th Century, Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann; I published Against Barbarism (Contre la barbarie), an anthology of anti-Nazi texts. I mention this because even Lovers, in its own, way resists barbarism, wages war against cruelty. One has to know how to say “no,” at a basic level. That’s what Klaus Mann teaches us, and it was one of the things I had in mind while writing Lovers.