French Novelist Maylis de Kerangal Takes on the Culinary World

The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

“Little by little, his sensations become more precise; at each stage of the preparation they are mobilized as one, coalesced into a single movement, as if the boy himself were being unified; it’s synesthesia, a feast, and now he can cook by ear as well as with his nose, hands, mouth, and eyes. His body exists more and more, it becomes the measure of the world.”

                                                                        -The Cook

Novelist Maylis de Kerangal hails from Le Havre, France. Before publishing her first novel, Je Marche Sous un Ciel de Traîne, in 2000, she worked as an editor in the children and youth department at Éditions Gallimard, one of France’s leading publishers.

Naissance d’un Pont (Birth of a Bridge), de Kerangal’s eighth book, won the Prix Medicis in 2010 and the Prix Gregor Rezzori in 2014. The English translation of her book Réparer Les Vivants (The Heart)—published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and translated by Sam Taylor—was named one of The Wall Street Journal’s Ten Best Fiction Works of 2016 and won the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize.

Now, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, thanks to the indispensable work of Sam Taylor, brings us the translation of de Kerangal’s most recent novel, Un Chemin de Tables (The Cook), which follows the path of a young Frenchman named Mauro as he rises through the ranks of the culinary world while struggling to preserve his identity and integrity as a cook with a singular vision.

Stylistically, de Kerangal’s writing is much like the haute cuisine she so expertly describes: refined, precise—yet utterly divine. Through the eyes of an unnamed female narrator—a friend and discreet admirer of Mauro’s—the novel captures the trials and rewards of a working world evolving with the times.

The Millions: Your descriptions of food, and the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business in The Cook are so specific. Do you have a love for cooking? What was your inspiration for this book?

Maylis de Kerangal: I don’t have a passion for cooking in itself, although I’m interested in what cooking tells about us: about our relationship with our body, our sensuous experience, related to taste and sight, to the ideas of tradition and research. The commensality inferred by cooking attracts me, the idea of the meal as the epitome of “social representation,” and the fact that it has been ritualized. The Cook was published in a collection supervised by the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon and entitled “Raconter la Vie” (Narrative Democracy). It aims at bringing a fictional representation to areas, fields, and particular paths underrepresented in literature. This collection was writing about work, and I chose to write on the work of a cook.

Today, TV sets have become kitchens; in countless TV-reality shows, the kitchen counters are now under the spotlights and the chefs are not mysterious characters working in the shadows and hidden in their kitchens anymore, but stars that appear on the covers of glossy magazines. I wanted to go behind the scenes and discover restaurant kitchens as though they were a part of an entirely new world. I met a young cook who had already worked in numerous restaurant kitchens and was attempting to reach a kind of cooking ideal. His personality and life path really inspired me for this book. I wanted to focus, as in my other novels, on the personal investment involved in one’s work, and the impact it has on their daily lives, with the fascinating yet paradoxical idea that work is at the same time a place where one is dominated and exploited, and a way to find personal fulfillment.

TM: You published five novels in your 30s before your sixth, Birth of a Bridge, was translated into English when you were 42; and all your novels since have been translated into English.  Did this mark a change in your literary career?  If so, how?

MDK: The Cook is my third book translated into English. Un Monde à Portée de Main, my last novel about the art of paintings, illusion, and Paleolithic wall frescoes, is about to be translated as well. Of course, translations have given my books more visibility, and made my literary life denser, regulated by trips abroad, meetings and lectures at universities. But what has changed the most, in my opinion, is my own perception of translation. I used to regard it solely as a highly technical conversion. However, I have quickly become convinced that translators are authors, and that they are “super-readers,” who know the text from the inside, delve into its depths, navigate through its polysemy, but also through its “blanks” and silences. I understood that translation could give me another perspective on my writing, could shed light on other facets, other layers of my fictions. Being translated caused an upheaval in my relationship with language and with my literary work.

TM: To your knowledge, what is the typical trajectory for an author’s literary success in France? Is publishing “late,” or age in general, a part of the conversation in literary circles?

MDK: I do not believe there is a typical trajectory for success—I published my first novel rather late when I was 33, other writers publish younger, others older. This is not a question I hear much about, except the very specific question of the first novel, the first novelist, the appearance of the “young author.” Where the question of age comes in, is in the “generation effects,” the fact that the same generation is crossed by the same questions.

TM: Book-to-film adaptations are sorts of translations as well—translations which you are familiar with, as your book Mend the Living was made into a movie directed by Katell Quillévéré in 2016. What was that experience like, watching your words onscreen?

MDK: Yes, cinematographic adaptations are translations as well. But words aren’t visible on screen, and the writing is lost, the literary writing is overtaken by another language, a cinematographic writing which has its own syntax, its own vocabulary. What is visible on screen is the image of the novel, the image the director keeps in mind, and which is a landscape he remembers and is his only. What is kept in the cinematographic adaptation then has to do with a rhythm, color variations—if a sentence is dark or lighter—with a mental atmosphere, the outlines of the characters, the plot and more than anything else the aim, the purposes, the gesture of the narration—author and director must have a common aim, a “common gesture.” I was very moved by the movie because it was at the same time my novel but also something else, my story and another story. Something had been “moved,” changed. And precisely, it is this shift that is the print of adaptation. And then I thought about these hours spent writing in my attic room and upon seeing that all this work had become a movie, I felt a really strong emotion.

TM: The Cook’s French title, Un Chemin de Tables, while referring to what we call “table-runners,” literally translates to “table path.” I love that play on words—Mauro’s gastronomical life’s journey takes him from country to country, restaurant to restaurant, table to table. Was any travel involved in the research process for this book? Do global influences tend to suffuse your writing?

MDK: I like the exploration, the research process that takes place when I’m writing. For my books, I always try to go and see real places that will appear fictionally. Here, it is Paris, the southwest of France, which I’m familiar with; also Portugal and Berlin. But above all I visited Mauro in the kitchens, and in the restaurants he worked at. The end of the book depicts trips of Mauro to Thailand and Burma where he develops other skills, discovers other products that will impact his cooking. But there, he also feels the limits of an overly technical, exclusive cooking, disconnected from the countries where it is elaborated. He feels that since this prestigious cooking is globalized, it can also be smoothed, standardized, and having access to it is a social marker—due to the circulation of famous chefs in big metropoles and the fact that their names are now brands. The process of globalization—which I am contemporaneous of—worries and fascinates me. I had also written Birth of a Bridge like a “globalized novel.”

TM: I love to hear more about this process that “worries and fascinates” you, and that so clearly impacts your writing. How does your experience being a globalized writer interact with your sense of being a French writer?

MDK: In literature, the ground, the territory of this experience is language. How my own language, the one that has developed, that I have crafted in literary work, has been affected with this process of globalization, and how is it scrubbed by it? It seems to me that I do not envision my French as a conservatory, a reservation, and I consider that my own language is in a certain way an open space, which must be porous to the world around it in order to be able to describe it, to make it alive. However, I work against the very idea of ​​a globalized language, the “globish” that spreads the ideology of economic liberalism. All my writing shows it: peer into my sentences and find foreign words, specific idioms, professional lexicons, orality. It is a way for me to connect “my” French to the globalized world, to relate them. In the same movement, I seek to establish an increasingly intimate relationship with “my” French, in order to enrich it, to activate it totally, to show with ever more sensitivity its singularity. `

TM: “Mauro lived in his workplace—I realized this suddenly—this little room…had robbed him of a buffer between his workplace and his home, had stolen from him those tiny cracks, those hazy intervals, that can open up cavities of daydreams in the hardened concrete time of each day.” As a writer, do your work and your life bleed into each other? What kind of places, physical or mental, do you inhabit while writing?

MDK: I can write anywhere: in trains, coffee shops, kitchens…but mostly in a former maid’s room located 20 minutes away from my home. It is a kind of “airlock” which enables me to “take off” or, on the contrary to “land.” It is a “room of one’s own,” in a commonplace building. The walls are a stormy gray, it faces north and the lighting is matte, but the sky appears here “above the roof,” as in Verlaine’s poem. It is a workshop, a library, an ongoing construction, at the heart of a kind of ecosystem. But mentally, when I’m writing, I live in the world of fiction, of the novel. I imagine, visualize, hear it, and can perceive its vibrations. This place exists only in writing but I try to give an account of it, so that it can be corporeal. It is an avenue that runs along the sea, a volcano, a quarry, a coffee shop, a wave, a city that grows on the banks of a river, a forest. It is also a train compartment, a studio, an operating room. I cautiously separate the time of writing and the living time—full of so many other things! However sometimes the two temporalities mingle and create a continuous timeline where daydream, obsession, and prosaic reality are interwoven.

TM: Your writing style is very understated, almost a cinema-verité approach in its depiction of events that are obviously fictional, and textual. Your background is in the humanities: history, philosophy, the social sciences. Do you feel that these subjects preoccupy your fiction, and influence your writing style?

MDK: The collection Raconter la Vie (Narrative Democracy), in which this book was first published, was resolutely directed towards non-fiction. The authors are mostly researchers in social sciences. I studied humanities and I use these fields to nourish my interrogations on literature, but also to influence my outlook and my writing style. In return, fiction allows me to read reality, and shape it. The relationship with language is immediately determining and the fictional language is infinitely rich and complex. For The Cook, I used particular and professional lexical fields, whole areas of language that aren’t present in literature because they are reduced to a utilitarian use, and are not deemed able to convey beauty and sensibility. They remain exogenous to novels. As if they were in a way the offal of language, as if they weren’t worthy of being literary. I like their poetic beauty, I like to make their strangeness hearable, and I like their precision, which is always political and goes against standardization. Writing becomes then the place of detail, where the color chart of reality can unfold.

The Slow Bloom of ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

1.
When the postwoman delivered Suite for Barbara Loden to my mailbox, I was not at home. I wasn’t even in the country. The book boarded a flight to Paris, then traveled the 400-and-some miles between Charles De Gaulle airport and Roodt-sur-Syre, Luxembourg. I first held Suite for Barbara Loden in my aunt’s living room on Christmas Eve, but it wasn’t until I was back home in New York five weeks later that I began to read this book, which has traveled with me for a while­­; and in a sense, the story it tells has been traveling for even longer.

Nearly 60 years ago, The Sunday Daily News published the story of Alma Malone, a woman from rural Appalachia condemned to life in prison as an accomplice to a robbery. She thanked the judge for the sentence, a detail that inspired Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda. In the film, Loden plays Wanda as she stumbles numbly through a series of difficult situations with what appears to be total complacency: forfeiting custody of her children to her husband, swapping nights on her sister’s couch for strangers’ beds, and, eventually, agreeing to a lover’s scheme to rob a bank.

In her 2011 novel, Suite for Barbara Loden (a brilliant blend of biographical fiction and nonfiction) Nathalie Léger examines how her own life overlaps with Loden’s and Alma’s, through the prism of the filmmaker’s first and only film. An essayistic novel on the complexities of agency versus passivity in the collective female psyche emerges; the product of Léger’s unwavering fascination with Barbara Loden and her mostly overlooked work.

Wanda was hailed as a brilliant display of avant-garde cinema in Europe, and even won the International Critic’s Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1970. But when the film first premiered in the United States, it was not particularly well received. Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote: “Miss Loden’s film, by the time you are through with it, has, rather surprisingly, some of the look of classical moviemaking.” This isn’t ostensibly the opinion piece of a critic ripping a film to shreds–but all the same, note the condescension dripping from the words “Miss Loden,” and “surprisingly.” What laurels Loden received were given with pinches of salt.  What about Wanda captivated Barbara Loden and foreign audiences? And what captivated Nathalie Léger?

“All I had to do was write a short entry for a film encyclopedia,” Léger notes in Suite for Barbara Loden. That entry, which she was once commissioned to write by the editor, blossomed into a slim, yet exquisitely rich novel. She continues: “I try to see beneath Wanda’s lost expression, beyond her forlorn face and the nervous, distracted way she holds herself in front of other people. I’m trying to find everything that she has in common with Barbara.” The expression that inspired Léger can be seen on the book cover, drawn from a film still. Wanda’s hair is gathered in a flowery white headband, her delicate lips are parted. Most striking is her gaze: inscrutable, but the slight dip in her brow suggests fear, and anxiety.

But this is not the story of Wanda. Léger infuses the book with personal elements from her own life, namely the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her father. She writes, “[Wanda] sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.” This is, as Danielle Dutton—editor at the book’s publisher, Dorothy Project—puts it, the “obsessive and archival telling of one woman’s story through another woman’s story.” The Dorothy Project publishes fiction and non-fiction written almost entirely by female authors—similar to their U.K. counterpart, Les Fugitives, which publishes primarily award-winning francophone female writers. I view both of these small presses to be yet another link in what is an ever-expanding string of women who have ushered this story along.

2.
Mid-way through reading, I had to put the book on hold, so that I could watch Wanda. I had to see for myself. With every frame, I thought of Barbara, playing Wanda for the camera–but also Barbara behind the camera, watching herself playing Wanda. A game of mirrors.

Suite for Barbara Loden isn’t just the story of Barbara Loden: It’s the story of Nathalie Léger, and to a certain extent, the story of women everywhere. How better to preserve oneself than to be the author of one’s own vulnerability?

Nathalie Léger first published Suite for Barbara Loden at 52. It is her third book, but her first to be translated into English. Authors can experience a second “bloom” when their work reaches a foreign audience, and that is certainly true of Léger and her work. An excerpt was published in The Paris Review, and the book has also been featured in The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

For this piece, I interviewed Natasha Lehrer, who initially co-translated the book for U.K. publisher Les Fugitives. She provided some insight on the subject: “No English language publisher in either the U.S. or the U.K. wanted to touch Suite for Barbara Loden. It was too odd, too difficult to classify, too non-generic. After [the] Dorothy [Project] published it in the U.S., it kind of went mad.”

The translated work is a remarkable feat of collaboration. Lehrer, a native English speaker, worked with her native French counterpart, Cécile Menon, to convert Supplément à La Vie de Barbara Loden into English. According to Lehrer, “Working together like this we created something with the language that I could never have achieved on my own.”

It was Lehrer who brought my attention to the #namethetranslator hashtag circulating on Twitter. More and more people are beginning to consider the translation of books to be art, rather than what it was long thought of: grunt-work divorced from the intricacies of the original piece. Translators and their supportive readers believe the translator should be central to the design and promotion of the edition—though there is some debate surrounding this point, resting upon the difficulty of judging whether a translation does the job well enough to be credited alongside the author. To learn more, read this article on the subject, or Katy Derbyshire’s take on why one must be forgiving of a translator’s work.

Flaws in translation are inevitable, as there are so many factors to consider, all of which are determined by the translator’s individual interpretation. Lehrer confides just how difficult the process is:
“[T]he intrinsic challenge of translation is maintaining the author’s voice and yet liberating the text from being shackled to it, letting it live and breathe freely. Léger’s style is very literary, very allusive, and very French. You don’t want to sacrifice the very quality that makes it distinctive but you have to avoid sounding arch or pompous. Every word, every comma counts. It’s like filigree work–incredibly finely detailed, but you don’t want any of the effort that went into it to show.”
For the publisher, there is no debate: the translators’ names are boldly displayed on the back cover of the novel. The Dorothy Project, along with Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, deserve credit for enabling a sort of symbolic homecoming for Barbara Loden. Her story in its many forms has traveled from the U.S. to France and back again, like a migratory bird.

Recently, it has even reappeared onscreen. If you are a fan of Netflix’s Russian Doll, you might just catch a glimpse of Suite for Barbara Loden. The second episode opens on the show’s protagonist, Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne), waking up in a hangover haze (not unlike the opening scene of Loden’s film, in which Wanda emerges, bleary-eyed, from a mound of sheets on her sister’s couch). The book is a prop, strewn carelessly on the bed, face down, some of it read, if not read entirely.

The show employs the Russian Doll–a woman replicated, miniaturized, and incorporated into a larger version of herself–to symbolize the reincarnation central to its premise. Throughout the season, Nadia dies a number of times only to be resurrected again, on the night of her 36th birthday. Her path is violently circular, while Wanda’s is relatively linear. She moves ever-forwards, though with all the forethought of a somnambulist floating gently towards a cliff.

Alma is Wanda is Barbara is Nathalie is…arguably, the story that ties these women together has had a slow bloom. Through mediums, languages, spaces, it has refracted, and not unlike the Russian Doll, it has grown larger with every fold. This 2018 publication of the novel brings closure to a 50-year saga, coinciding with the height of the #MeToo movement, which has given women everywhere renewed strength through common vulnerabilities. The book lends its voice to this cause, by retracing the lives of so-called “weak” women in bold, by highlighting the strength in simply bearing, if not prevailing.

The original French title called the book a “supplément,” an addition to the life of Barbara Loden. Numerous titles were experimented with over the course of the translation process. Lehrer muses, “One of the most peculiarly interesting things about the act of translation is that often it takes moving quite far away from the original [in order to] to realize how to get close to it again.” And so the English version opts for a slight deviation for the title: “suite” evokes a string of melodies that bleed into one another, a continuum. I wonder where it will go from here.