Biography - Nancy Huston: A view from both sides

In fiction, as in life, Nancy Huston crosses oceans and languages. But her new novel, a French prize-winner, met rejection in the US. Gerry Feehily meets her in Paris
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You can't help noticing that, while this café in the Latin Quarter is beautiful, boasts a polished brass counter, comfortable leather armchairs, and serves thick, strong coffee, the world is shrinking. Elton John pipes out on to the cobblestoned square, while an Irish-themed bar sells Guinness next door. Further down, a man sells Swedish sandwiches in a Paris that is not quite what it once was.

Making sense of this contemporary dislocation are authors. Many, like Nancy Huston, have English as their mother tongue but live abroad, unfazed by George Orwell's assertion that writers out of touch with their native land, or language, are hobbled. "That would be more true of poets, I think," she says, sipping on a Perrier and, somewhat incongruously for the elegant woman that she is, chewing gum. "Sartre said that when you write, you've got to do so as if your own language were a foreign one." Huston's own language, however, needs some qualifications.

The author of over 20 books, more than half written in French, she is equally at home, and somehow not, in both cultures. Though she still raises her dipthongs Canadian-style, and "out" sounds like "oat", her spoken English sometimes sounds French; her French, perfectly accentless.

"I had to switch languages at the age of six, growing up in Calgary," she says, "a watershed year for me. My mother left home. Later, with my future stepmother, I took a train to New York, sailed to Rotterdam, then took a train to Germany. I had a new family, a new culture." Such a wrench, she acknowledges, disposed her to being a writer. It also trained her ear. Excelling in French at high school in New Hampshire, she applied in her second year at university in New York to study for a year in Paris, and never left.

"I fell in love. Obtained my degree. Fell out of love. By 1976, I had reached the point of no return. I felt I could survive better in a place with no associations... where I could make myself over. It was an illusion that held me in good stead for over 15 years."

One such new identity was as a Parisian intellectual: studying linguistics, semiology and psychoanalysis, writing a master's thesis under the supervision of Roland Barthes. "I learnt much from him," she says. "How to identify cliché, how to know when someone has adopted 'a discourse', is holding forth. We learnt about 'terrorems': units of terror in political discourse, as in the expression, 'lackeys of American imperialism'. That was healthy."

It also probably helped her steer a course through the left-wing movements she frequented. Though she has expressed regret for having marched in support of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, she has none for her involvement in the women's movement. Here, she began publishing book reviews and essays. "To those who would listen, I was a novelist, though."

But there were some inner barriers to scale. Not only was French fiction dominated by the nouveau roman of Nathalie Sarraute or Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died this week, which can read like endless descriptions of furniture, fittings and anxious mental states. Huston was hindered by the formidable intellectual apparatus she had erected for herself. "There was a general incapacity to be sincere or enthusiastic about anything," she says. "Looking at everything askance with irony, which agreed with me in my twenties but didn't survive the onslaught of motherhood."

After the birth of her first child, she wrote The Goldberg Variations, with a cast of 30 characters invited to a friend's house to listen to Bach (Huston herself is an accomplished harpsichordist). Winner of the Prix Contrepoint in 1981, it is something of a declaration of independence. "Academics are too savvy. It was Barthes's own drama at the end of his life. He very much wanted to write a novel, but got stuck with the names to give his characters. I began my first novel two months after his death in 1980, as though this had freed me to embark on fiction, without a theoretical super-ego looking over my shoulder."

Huston revels in story, if not in melodramatic conventions. Her 2001 novel, Sweet Agony, might delineate the lives and loves of 12 friends assembled at a Thanksgiving dinner, but its narrator is none other than God, which allows her to freight her tale with the themes of mortality and time. It's a combination of high and low which might explain why, in France, she is a bestseller, and why in Britain and America she might be hard to categorise.

This is ironic, given that since Plainsong, in 1993, most of her novels have been written in English. "I like English better now. The two languages switched places in my brain. French has become for me the language of exchanges with my tax adviser, my children's teachers. I became disgruntled with French and the harpsichord at the same time. When I was young I wanted cold, intellectual instruments. Now I've gone back to the piano, because I'm strong enough to accept emotions."

Music, and the upheavals of Huston's early life, have nourished Fault Lines (Atlantic, £10.99), with a little-known episode of the Second World War at its core. More than 250,000 children from occupied Poland and Ukraine were kidnapped and placed in adoptive German families. Of fair complexion and blond, they were part of Heinrich Himmler's Lebensborn (Fountain of Life) project to replenish an "Aryan" race depleted by heavy casualties.

She says that "The reason this story struck me so violently was not so much the proof that the Nazis were so bad – since there is probably not a subject under the sun on which the consensus is so universal... but the question of identity, and what happens to a child when suddenly it has to switch lanes, learn it's a German child, learn the language, and how this would shape the child." Such is the fate of Kristina, one of the novel's four six-year-old narrators, growing up the favourite child in a Führer-worshipping family. As Germany falls apart, Kristina discovers that not only is she adopted, but that the German language she speaks is not her own.

In Canada, Kristina becomes a successful singer, but as a mother is incapable of providing security to her daughter, Sadie, who inherits her distinctive birthmark but little of her joy. Through Sadie's eyes, Kristina's boho lifestyle cannot compensate for having been farmed out to stern and dreary grandparents. In turn, Sadie, a harried intellectual uprooting child and husband to pursue research on the Lebensborn programme in 1980s Israel, hands another quantity of trauma on to Randall, her son. He is incapable of coping with the contradictions of Israeli society, where, beyond the border, a war in Lebanon is fought.

These faults lines culminate in one of Huston's most chilling characters: Sol, a child prodigy in California. Sol evolves "like sunlight, instantaneous and invisible" in a plastic world of George W Bush and "God bless America". Unbeknown to his parents, Sol is governed more by the chaos without. Addicted to internet porn, he surfs the web to witness beheadings of American hostages in occupied Iraq.

Although Huston's own French translation of Fault Lines won the Prix Femina, the book was rejected by her usual US publishers. That "may have something to do with the political climate," she says, not without a hint of mockery. "Apparently, American readers couldn't get past Sol. He was not considered a good commercial bet." She is reluctant, however, to concur with the suggestion that, given the novel's reverse chronology – beginning with Sol's America and ending in the Nazi period – one era mirrors the other. "America may be on the way to becoming monstrous, but the situation is not hopeless. I prefer it when readers start thinking of fault lines in their own families."

Airily beautiful, Huston has that resolute quality of an author in mid-career, with a slew of prizes, the run of personal tribulations, and the occasional literary spat that have been done with. In other words, she's fine – a fact demonstrated later when, running for a metro, she fights back two heavy closing doors, and wins. "I do weights," she says.


Nancy Huston was born in Calgary, Canada, in 1953. She grew up in Germany, and later in New Hampshire. After study in New York, she completed her degree in Paris, and wrote her master's thesis at the École des Hautes Études, supervised by Roland Barthes. She published her first novel, The Goldberg Variations, in 1981. In 1993 her novel Plainsong won the Governer General's award for best French-language novel in Canada, although first written in English and translated by the author. She won awards for Slow Emergencies (1994) and Sweet Agony (2001) in her adopted country. Fault Lines won the Prix Femina in her own French translation and is published now in the UK by Atlantic. Married to the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, she has two children and divides her time between Paris and rural Berry.

Nancy Huston will be speaking at Jewish Book Week at 1pm on Friday 29 February, at an event in association with 'The Independent':