Books: A Siberian in Paris

The Books Interview: Andrei Makine swapped rootless Russia for lonely Pigalle - and for a fame that he detests.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Tall, handsome, with gentle blue eyes behind glasses, a blondish beard, a trusting smile, an expression of mild astonishment: Andrei Makine reminds me of certain characters in 19th-century Russian literature as I envisaged them - Aliosha Karamazov, Prince Mishkin, Dr Astrov... We met in a little cafe in Pigalle, that crowded area of Paris which before the war was well-known as a haunt of prostitutes and pimps, with dingy bars and cheap hotels de passe.

Makine has been living here for many years. He led me to a minuscule one-room flat nearby, where he works all day in monkish solitude. It opens onto a small patio, shaded by a Canadian maple, with a young yew, a lilac, a hydrangea, and just enough room for a table and chairs. "This house used to be a hotel," he explains. "I once met an old opera singer who told me that she had spent her first night of love in this very room, with a man she later married."

Despite media attention following his Prix Goncourt win for Le Testament Francais, an aura of mystery surrounds Makine. He has resisted the lure of Parisian beau monde, the literary coteries and grand dinners. He sees Russian and French friends, and jealously guards his privacy.

"I built myself a log cabin on the Atlantic coast where I could be alone and write," he says. "It has been damaged by ocean gales; one of these days I will rebuild it more solidly. The literary world is limited to the Sixth Arondissement, where all the publishers and newspapers are. Inevitably it is riven with rivalries and intrigues. I would be lost. But let's talk about books".

Did this Siberian-born novelist really have a French grandmother? "I won't tell you! It would ruin the book! You must separate an author's life from his work. Yet to some extent all novels are autobiographical; perhaps that is what Flaubert meant when he said Madame Bovary, c'est moi. Tolstoy believed that in an autobiography one had to say everything. He wanted to write `The Story of One Day of My Life', but he abandoned the project, because it would run into several volumes just to tell the whole truth about one day."

Makine's love affair with the French language began early. At school he wrote sonnets in French, and always dreamed of living in France. "It was in Russia I felt an exile," he said. Yet all his novels are "Russian novels written in French", as one critic put it. Though his blend of memory and imagination has won him comparison with Proust, his broad sweep and mystical vision, his emotional intensity and lyrical elan - at times teetering on the brink of purple-prose sentimentality - belong to the tradition of 19th-century Russian novelists.

So why does he write in French? "Living in France it would have been difficult otherwise. I would need a translator. But I'm against this linguistic demarcation between the mother tongue and the adopted one. Beckett wrote in French, while Nabokov and Conrad wrote in English, to mention the most famous cases. A writer invents his own language. Literature comes from the imagination, and the writer's imaginary world can be expressed in any language he chooses... What is difficult is to express the singularity of human beings. Only a poet can make your brown eyes unique among billions of brown eyes."

Makine left Russia when it ceased to be "a myriad of little Gulags", when to live and work freely was possible. I wondered why. "The Russia of my generation was engaged with a messianic, humanitarian project. I was not a believer, yet I was part of that project. Then imagine being told suddenly that the whole thing is a colossal lie, that the edifice is rotten to the core and must be pulled down, that Man is a wolf to Man, and that from now on it is every man for himself.

"I was torn between a Russia which was not ideal but had an ideal, and a Russia which was realistic but did not suit me. So I began to travel around the world before deciding to settle in France. Now Russia is a very bad copy, a caricature, of America. Money has replaced belief - in God, Communism, everything."

Makine's early life in Paris was difficult and painful, with loneliness and poverty compounded by lack of success. "It was the shock between East and West, which in a sense is the underlying subject of all my novels. What is happening in Russia today, or even in the Balkans, is part of this collision. As a writer I would be happy anywhere provided I have a few volumes of Hugo, Proust, Dostoyevsky... But to move from one language to another is a painful process - either one fails totally, or it becomes a new freedom, like a child being born."

His new novel, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina (translated by Geoffrey Strachan; Sceptre, pounds 15.99), takes place among the Russian emigres of the first wave. Born with the century into an upper-class family, Olga has a happy life of masked balls and country outings which comes to an and with the Revolution. She is raped by a Bolshevik and saved by a White officer, Prince Arbyelin, who marries her.

Together they escape to France. Later, abandoned by her husband, she lives in a village near Paris with her haemophiliac son (shades of the Tsarevich) and works as the librarian in a community of emigres.

An intense relationship develops between mother and son, and when in summer 1947 Olga is found semi-naked and almost demented beside the dead body of a member of the community, rumours abound. Was he her lover? Was it a crime of passion? Did she kill him in a fit of jealousy? She is cleared of murder (it was a swimming accident) but is she not guilty of a far greater crime in her relationship with her son?

"The story circulated among the old emigres, and I became interested because of the metaphysical impossibility of speaking about Olga's relationship with her son," explains Makine. "What excited me was the poetic substance I could work with. If you use the word `incest', the novel is destroyed - obscene platitudes or silence become the available alternatives. The book is about absolute love, which is beyond morality and conventions.

"Olga is an extreme character living an extreme situation, on the thin line between madness and sanity, between God and the Devil. She is like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, but while Raskolnikov has his mother and sister, Sonia (the woman who loves him), the Prosecutor who is determined to save him by making him confess, and finally his faith in God, Olga has nobody and nothing. She experiences her inferno entirely alone, without God or society.

"The modern existential Man does not find the Gospel. Olga is an exile alone in an indifferent society, and she does not believe in God. There is no redemption for her. I'm told the book is very successful in Russia - people say it is about God doubting, hesitating. Should He condemn Olga for what she has done, or forgive her for having loved so completely and selflessly?"

In France the story has provoked Freudian, Oedipal interpretations. "Freud, Marx, Lacan," Makine comments, "they have a very limited vision, which they develop to excess. I think life is infinitely more complicated than their partial explanations. The world is far more cunning than these gentlemen. There is what Hegel calls `history's ironic wink'. The task of literature is to understand life in all its contradictory complexity; to recognise in each being the tiny grain of eternity."

Makine is not a believer, but his passionate and lofty ideas about writers as "the legislators of the world" have a religious ring. "Religion has appropriated this idea," he argues. "Alexander Blok has a beautiful poem about a woman sitting on a rock by the sea. This instant which the poet captures is `the grain of eternity' - what remains after organic disintegration. The same idea is behind Proust's enterprise: we are mortal, and only through the power of the Word can we retain those we love."

Makine insists that his life has not changed much as a result of his success. Not for him shrewd investments, the acquisition of property, ostentation. "I need so little. In France 70 per cent of what you earn goes to tax, the rest I spend or give away. My engagement with literature is total - it does not leave room for other commitments. Some writers can separate life from work, but I can't. I write slowly, and when I'm working on a book I think about it 24 hours a day. It would not be fair on a wife."

Makine has never returned to Russia, but his next book will be about the Brezhnev era: "There was a subtlety in life," he remembers. "No one believed in Communism any more, but there was no overt opposition either. People just knew the score; they winked in connivance. Now it is total chaos, and it will take years before Russia finds equilibrium. I may not live to see it, but it will happen."

Andrei Makine, a biography

Andrei Makine was born in 1957 in Krasnoiarsk, Siberia. He studied literature in Kalinin and Moscow, and began his career teaching philology at Moscow University. In 1987, when glasnost made it possible for Russians to travel abroad, he settled in Paris, where he began to write in French and taught Russian. His first novel, Confessions Of A Fallen Standard- Bearer, was rejected by publishers. He pretended it was the translation of a Russian book, and when publishers demanded to see it spent three weeks translating his own French into Russian. It was accepted "for the quality of translation". Two more novels "sank without trace". Then Le Testament Francais (1995) won the Goncourt, Medicis and Goncourt des Lyceens Prizes, and became a global best-seller. The Crime of Olga Arbyelina is published this month by Sceptre.