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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.

Maylis de Kerangal: France’s Unlikely Literary Rebel

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Earlier this year, in the French weekly magazine Le Point, Richard Millet, an editor at Gallimard who has been nominated for a Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, called the writing style of Maylis de Kerangal “ideological and aesthetic candyfloss,” and described her readership as “thousands of imbeciles” who hail from the “international, de-cultured petite bourgeoisie.”

As for why Millet, who once referred to himself as “one of the most hated authors in France,” singled out de Kerangal for his scorn illuminates the way that de Kerangal is threatening a segment of the French literary establishment — and questioning what it means to be a fiction writer in France.

De Kerangal’s books delight in a lexical mix. Sometimes in her fiction, as in her conversation, de Kerangal vacillates between French and English. In one sentence, a surfer sees a “houle;” in the next, he’s regarding a “swell.” So too, her linguistic register shifts without pause. In one sentence, she is describing Staphylococcus aureus and mononucleosis; in another, she is weighing the moodiness of the 20th-century French rock ‘n’ roll singer Alain Bashung. “I don’t think a language can contain reality,” she said to me in French recently, “but I think by using all kinds of languages I can approach reality.”

Her novels have been met with increasing success and acclaim in France. In 2010, Naissance d’un pont (Birth of a Bridge in the United States) received both the Prix Medicis and the Prix Franz Hassel. Three years later, Réparer les vivants — translated by Sam Taylor and published recently as The Heart in the United States — made her a veritable literary star, selling more than a quarter of a million copies. She has become a household name in France; it was no stretch when Le Figaro branded her “the new literary phenomenon.”

De Kerangal did not grow up wanting to be a novelist — not exactly. “I imagined myself perhaps in reporting, in something that dealt with the universe of information, like being an ethnographer or anthropologist,” she said. She liked storytelling but did not think of herself as a “writer.” “I never dreamed of becoming a writer, but I dreamed of writing novels.”

This ambition may seem less odd to American readers than it does to some of the critics in de Kerangal’s native France, where serious writers are generally expected to be writers and nothing more — not journalists, not editors, not even writing professors. “Writers are often university professors in the United States,” de Kerangal, who has been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “This is not at all the case in France.”

De Kerangal, who was born in Toulon in 1967, studied history and philosophy in Rouen and Paris. She then worked as a children’s book editor at Gallimard Jeunesse, and, in 1997, left to visit the United States, where she started what would become her first book, Je marche sous un ciel de traîne, while living briefly in Golden, Colo. A year later, she returned to Paris and got another social science degree at the prestigious École des hautes études en sciences sociales and joined an important literary and philosophical review called Inculte.

As it happens, once de Kerangal started publishing novels — Je marche sous un ciel de traîne appeared in 2000 and has been followed by a new book every couple of years since then — she became a full-time writer after all. She has since pushed the limits of what it means to be a writer in France: in the past five years she has brought the language of blue-collar laborers and bridge construction (The Birth of a Bridge) and of medicine and of philosophy (The Heart) into her fiction, along with a fascination with popular culture and a flirtation with journalism. It is this linguistic mix, perhaps more than anything else, that most frustrates Millet and his ilk.

Classically respected literature, in France but also in the United States, tends to prize a specific hierarchy of language: a certain vocabulary and array of themes. Novels that use language borrowed from pop culture and medicine and use the investigative techniques of journalism, as The Heart does, tend to be viewed not as great literature but as either niche reading or lowbrow page-turners (for those “thousands of imbeciles”). The frustration therefore stems from the belief that respectable literature is being co-opted, that themes like death — central to The Heart” — must be dealt with in a certain way: allusions to rock ‘n’ roll artists and pages upon pages of medical jargon (for which de Kerangal tirelessly consulted physicians and specialists) simply don’t meet those standards. The argument is that de Kerangal is trying to mix too much and in doing so dilutes the fiction form.

In de Kerangal’s view, however, “Language and writing must incorporate as much poetic writing as…science, history, economy, geography, dreams, psychology. Writing must be like the texture of the world, having the form of the world. For me, that which is the heart of fiction, it’s the language.” She added, “Literature must be in dialogue with the contemporary world.”

In The Heart, that world is a dark one. At the beginning of the novel, 19-year-old Simon Limbres is killed in a car accident. (“Limbes” means purgatory in French; Jessica Moore, the translator of the British version, changes Simon’s surname to “Limbeau” to reveal the point to non-Francophones; Taylor’s American version lets the name stand.) His brain stops, but his heart continues to beat. We meet Marianne, his mother, who causally ignores the telephone before going back to sleep, unknowingly enjoying the final moments before she learns of her son’s fate; when she does find out, she must tell her husband, Sean. She is painfully aware that the moments before she tells him will be the last of his blissful ignorance: “it was the voice of life before.” We then meet Révol, the doctor, and the organ-coordination nurse; both are eccentrics who have come to view these kinds of horrors as tragic but also as common as parking and swiping their key cards while going to work each morning.

Together, these characters orbit around the enigmatic Simon and his still-beating heart, with philosophical questions of death and earnest inquiries into the ethics and history of organ donation arising, creating fissures in the characters’ lives, narrative propulsion derived from how they choose to confront the realization that a young man is technically dead — Simon’s brain has stopped — but his heart continues to beat. What does it really mean — in theory but also in practice — for a dead teenager to give another human an extended or better life via organ donation? In her most impressive stylistic success, it is de Kerangal’s unnamed narrator who must modulate these scenes and grand questions with an omniscience combined with poetic humanity, coolly explaining the details of death while maintaining an underlying understanding of its tragedy: a “mix of poetic materialism and materialist lyricism,” de Kerangal called it.

Recently, de Kerangal was in New York on a reading tour for The Heart, where she spoke at Albertine, the bookstore inside the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue, and at the Maison Française at NYU. At NYU, she noted that “there is no hierarchy between the different forms of language.” De Kerangal has proven that serious themes don’t have to be dealt with in the grave, straightforward manner beloved by the likes of Millet; rather, she shows that a novel comes alive when it is unconstrained by a single tone or linguistic register.

Perhaps de Kerangal’s most meaningful achievement has been to chip away at what it means to be a fiction writer in France, a concept she has struggled with since her adolescence. She has escaped the prescriptive definition of “writer” as narrow and elitist, and in doing so, has created novels that connect with a wider audience. “It is the sign of the profound nature of a book that is not written for the literary world,” she said, “that it is regarded, ultimately, as something more universal.”

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