One of the most impressive books I read in 2009 was Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel (if you haven't read it and want to know more, there's a post on it here). When I saw that the author was coming to Edinburgh to talk at the Book Festival about his 2005 novel Monsieur Linh and His Child, published in English this year, I was very keen to hear him and to learn something of what lies behind his work. A professor at the University of Nancy (he told us that the somewhat sniffy attitude of his colleagues to his successful writing career - they believe that "the best authors are the dead authors" - had led him to move from teaching literature to teaching film studies!) he has written a film script, a play and a novel in the last year alone. In conversation with James Runcie*, he spoke mainly in French with an interpreter there to translate, but what a pleasure he was to listen to.
Philippe Claudel read the opening pages of Monsieur Linh and His Child, a book which his interviewer described as "full of resonance and with a fantastic twist", its themes loneliness, mourning, and the redeeming power of love and friendship. Straightaway it was obvious that the language is very simple and pared down, but very powerful; ecomonical in all things, the novel has only three characters, an unnamed location, and is in effect "a closed universe". Asked whether he "writes long and then reduces down", Philippe Claudel mentioned his novel Grey Souls, a book brimming with characters and plot, after which Monsieur Linh was for him an exercise in refining, like a craftsman chiselling away at a piece of sculpture to reach a stark minimum. The other challenge with this book, as with his earlier novels, was to use beautiful language to describe dreadful events or to express the emotions they engender, but ironically here the book also shows how useless language per se ultimately is as the two main characters, Monsieur Linh and Monsieur Bark, do not share a common tongue but nevertheless forge a strong bond without speech.
James Runcie asked whether there was a moral purpose behind his writing - the expression of hope and grace as well as suffering; is he, then, an optimistic writer? Philippe Claudel said his work was not a form of preaching, but humanity is at the heart of what he does, and despite portraying characters injured by life, compassion and redemption figure too. In a novel where the protagonists are dispossessed, marginalised people, thrown up by turbulent events like so much flotsam and jetsam on the shore, he shows how a deep and tender friendship can be a source of healing.
*For a glimpse of James Runcie's work click here.