Nicolas Mathieu: Write in the Moment

In his latest book “Le Ciel Ouvert” the 2018 Goncourt Prize winner draws for the first time on his own life, publishing reworked micro-fictions that previously lived on his Instagram.

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Writer Nicholas Mathieu was born in the Vosges department of France in 1978. In 2018, he won the Prix Goncourt for his second novel, Leurs enfants après eux (And Their Children After Them), which sold 400,000 copies. In 2022, he published Connemara, another major bestseller. (Both were published by Actes Sud.) Mathieu’s realistic novels are studies of society, especially the middle class, and are rooted in a particular place, eastern France, known as the Grand Est.

Before he earned his living from writing, Mathieu worked in the corporate world; he does not have fond memories of it. That experience permeates Connemara. Politically on the left, he stresses the dangers of the barrier between France’s big cities and outlying areas. His Instagram account has more than 104,000 followers, and several times a week, he posts his reactions to current events, domestic politics and events in the lives of those close to him – he might comment on the behavior of a minister, a demonstration gone wrong or the confidences of his elderly father. He illustrates his reflections with photos that might be impertinent, wry or melancholy.

How much do you know about sociology?

NM I know that some sociologists appreciate what I do and notice the sociological nature of my work, but I don’t read much sociology. I’ve read Pierre Bourdieu and Didier Eribon, whose Retour à Reims [Returning to Reims] I loved. I’ve read Georges Perec and Annie Ernaux, two writers influenced by sociology. Perec touches me deeply. His style is immediately recognizable, especially for its delicacy. If I am influenced by sociology, it’s unconscious. I’m sensitive to details, of course, but such vigilance can be found in most writers and artists. Proust pays constant attention to symbols, and every symbol in his work has a meaning. The difference between a writer and a sociologist is that a novelist’s interpretation is not scientific – and so much the better.

Do you keep abreast of the zeitgeist?

NM That’s a good question – I’m afraid I’m losing my antennae at the moment. I’ve dealt with some “stuff” from the past, but today I lead a sheltered life. I no longer have a boss. I see people

who like what I write and who tell me so. I don’t have money problems anymore, and my relationships with others have mellowed. In short: it’s not real life. It’s very comfortable, but will I remain sensitive to the times? To avoid losing track, I keep an eye on social media, listen to [radio station] France Culture, read Le Monde and spend an inordinate amount of time in bookshops looking at new books. Ever since I was a child, I have spent two or three hours a week in bookshops. But I don’t make a point of keeping up to date with everything that’s published; I want to make sure that reading remains a pleasure.

Which writers are most important to you?

NM That changes over time. As a child, it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In adolescence, it was Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit [Journey to the End of the Night], Sartre’s La Nausée [Nausea] and the novels of Albert Cohen. My relationship with Céline has changed: I like him less and less. The second time I read Voyage, I was more sensitive to its style; on my third reading, I saw the humor, which had escaped me. As a teenager, I used to jot down aphorisms from it in a notebook. Now, Céline’s psyche disturbs me: he seems like a frustrated, narcissistic little boy who takes revenge on the world because it doesn’t entirely belong to him, and that spoils my enjoyment. When I turned 25, I entered another phase: Annie Ernaux became an important author for me, along with Jean-Patrick Manchette and William Faulkner. And, in the last five years, I’ve discovered three authors: Giono, Perec and Colette. Colette has a fantastic style and great audacity. She places an astounding adjective in every sentence. I really enjoy literature that’s about people living after 1914. It’s tight, controlled. I forgot to mention Flaubert. I liked Madame Bovary more than L’Éducation sentimentale [Sentimental Education] because it’s funnier. The chapter on Charles Bovary’s clubfoot ends with “‘What a misadventure,’ he thought, ‘what a disappointment!’” Flaubert speaks of neutrality when describing his style, but it’s nothing of the kind.

Do you keep a notebook of quotations you like?

NM Not anymore. I dog-ear pages, underline passages and memorize some of them, but I don’t write quotations down in a notebook anymore. I also know many poems by heart. Quotations can be an exquisite pleasure: someone puts into words something you had a misty feeling about. Opening a novel with a beautiful quotation is a pleasure: it sets the tone.

Do you like Albert Cohen’s Belle du seigneur [Her Lover]?

NM Not anymore. I dislike Albert Cohen for the way he looks at his characters. He doesn’t give everyone a chance and acts like a cruel little god. The book lacks generosity, and the conclusion is preordained. But I still love Les Valeureux and Le Livre de ma mère [Book of My Mother]. I’m an only child, so that book meant a lot to me. Céline was an only child, too. I had a neurotic relationship with my mother, but I’ve changed – that’s the risk of therapy!

Do you read about psychoanalysis?

NM Yes. Being in the world is not self-evident for me. I work on myself, and I’m interested in psychoanalytical theory, but I leave it completely aside when I’m writing a novel: I’m caught up in life, in a flow, in sensations. I don’t say to myself, “Well, a narcissist is like this or that, so I’m going to turn those characteristics into a character.” But leaving abstraction behind didn’t come naturally to me. At first, I was incorrigibly abstract, and my writing went off in all directions. Nothing good came of the first texts I wrote. I try to be attentive to memories, impressions and accidents that occur at the moment of writing; things unfold in the sentence as it’s being written. When I’m not writing, however, I run out of ideas. In fact, I never make a plan for my novels. A book is built up as it goes along, and I rewrite a lot. So much so that, after a while, my editor has to intervene and say: “Stop, your text is starting to look worse.” Rewriting is a neurosis. You can redo what you’ve done indefinitely – you lose your lucidity when you dwell on the same thing over and over again.

Do you ever feel you can’t stand what you’re writing?

NM Yes, that’s why I never reread my books. When I hand one in to my publisher, I feel I could have done better. When I read aloud a passage in public in a bookshop, I sometimes think: “Ouch, that’s no good.”

Do you teach writing workshops?

NM I taught one at a law school in Nancy, and I’m thinking of doing it again elsewhere. I like that kind of exercise. It seems to me that in France, we still believe in the mythology of inspiration. In the United States, it’s the opposite: in some novels, there’s a know-how that’s starting to show too much. We need to find a middle ground between those two poles.

Do you have any favorite films?

NM I have three or four. The first is Rocky. I projected a lot of my characteristics onto it: tenacity, hanging in there even if you’re not necessarily the best. I was an outsider in the literary world, and it took me a long time to break into it. Rocky still touches me now. It’s the story of a loser, and its name evokes the solidity of a rock, the earth. I love American literature because it conveys a different social image of the writer than in France. Here, the key to success is a degree. In the United States, the idea that you can be a failure and a genius at the same time circulates in novels and films. I also admire François Truffaut’s L’Homme qui aimait les femmes [The Man Who Loved Women], Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Louis Malle’s Le Feu follet [The Fire Within], based on the novel by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. It’s the story of a man who feels a distance between himself and the world. Between the ages of 17 and 27, I was very curious and went to the movies a lot. Today, I’m more like Candide, cultivating my own garden.

Did success seem unattainable when you were young?

NM Yes. I wanted to write good books and have them published, but I could see that it would be a long road because I didn’t come from a bourgeois, intellectual background. My father had left school at 14, my mother at 16, and success was a fantasy. Newspapers opened a window on a world that wasn’t my own. Another important factor in my intellectual development was a program on the television channel Paris Première called Rive droite / Rive gauche, with Élisabeth Quin and Frédéric Beigbeder. That’s how I discovered the writers known as the Hussars: Roger Nimier, Paul Morand and Antoine Blondin. For me, an aspiring Rastignac, Rive droite / Rive gauche was a breath of fresh Parisian air. Paris Première also had the program Paris dernière, in which Frédéric Taddeï wandered around Paris at night. I said to myself, “That’s what I want to do.”

Are your friends writers?

NM Some of them are, like Maria Pourchet. We went to the same high school in the Vosges, a few years apart. She was published long before I was, and I sent her an admiring e-mail when Champion came out. I’m friends with Pierre-Henry Gomont, a comic-strip artist with whom I’ve worked. I occasionally bump into Laurent Gaudé and Jérôme Ferrari, both published by Actes Sud. I hang out with crime writers. It’s a less competitive world simply because there are no prizes for crime novels that can change your life overnight. In the literary world, there’s an academic side: the top of the class and so on.

What do you read when you’re writing?

NM There are certain writers I avoid reading at such times, so I won’t be tempted to imitate them. Céline, for example; his style is so heady that I might not be able to detach myself from it in my own writing. Above all, when I write, I do research. For Connemara, I read texts on consulting and put out calls for contributions on Facebook so that people would send me newsletters. Some of the things I received were so outrageous that I didn’t use them – no one would have believed them.

Have you been influenced by your travels?

NM I haven’t been on any major formative trips. But while my writing hasn’t been influenced by my travels, I do have a unique way of structuring space that stems from my perception of two different worlds, the provinces and Paris. When I returned to the provinces after living in Paris, I felt like I’d earned my stripes. I was proud. I have an ambivalent relationship with my region, like the relationship a person might have with their family: I wanted to leave as soon as possible. I’ve never been an apologist for the Grand Est, but when I go back, I feel at home. Another place I love is the Mediterranean. It’s an important part of my books.

Are you a hermit when you write a novel?

NM I’m not a hermit at all. I write in the morning, setting myself a quota of a thousand words a day. I count in words, like they do in the United States, not in number of characters. I read that Jack London did that. I need silence, which I have in my house in Nancy. I have a small garden but no office. I write on my sofa or in bed. Around 3 P.M., I stop, do some exercise or administrative stuff. I look after my health. When I’m promoting a book, I can’t write. Meeting people requires a lot of energy: you have to smile, travel from one town to another, have dinner with many people. I don’t know how Amélie Nothomb does it; she’s been keeping up the pace of a novel a year for 25 years and also doing a lot of promotion and answering readers’ letters.

You’re very active on Instagram. Do you correspond with your readers there?

NM A close relationship develops with some readers, and I reply to everyone. On the other hand, I don’t answer all the letters I receive.

You said you like American literature and cinema. Have you ever been to the United States?

NM I have. I was disappointed by New York. My image of the city was formed by the cinema of the 1970s. I was expecting to see Fame and Serpico – not Rocky, since the film is set in Philadel- phia – and that wasn’t the case. I’ll soon be spending five weeks in Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford, Mississippi, thanks to Villa Albertine, a French residency program in the United States. When I went to New York, I realized that there was a gap between the America of the East and West Coasts, and that of the interior. So I’m going to the South to see what’s going on there. I don’t know yet whether the novel I write will be set in France or in the United States.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 14 – buy it here.

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