Noémi Lefebvre’s second novel rips apart the structures of late capitalism and nationalism in layered, complex and humorous prose. Elodie Barnes explores the book, and talks to publisher Cécile Lee of Les Fugitives.
In the French city of Lyon, a state of emergency is declared. Protestors and police clash in the streets. Against this backdrop of social unrest, a jobless poet spars with an overbearing father in a private battle of words. Their arguments – of employment versus leisure, of the relative meanings of value and economy and productivity – soon take on greater significance, spilling over into the wider context. Over the course of the book, they form a relevant, yet timeless exploration of how late capitalism and its by-product of nationalism affect both the way we live and our fundamental identities.
Written with dark humour and sharply elucidated observations, Noémi Lefebvre’s second novel is just as layered and complex as her first (Blue Self-Portrait, 2017). Her writing reminds me of a Rubik’s cube: twist the prose in a slightly different direction and something else is revealed, a further combination of colours makes itself known, and there is always more in the puzzle to discover. As with Blue Self-Portrait, translator Sophie Lewis has done an extraordinary job of translating this complexity into English. All the more so, in this case, because – in an Oulipian-type constraint similar to Anne Garréta’s Sphinx – the gender of the narrator is never revealed. To write this in French, a gendered language in which much of the grammar rests on gendered constructs, is very difficult. To then translate it into English, without losing any of the fluency or beauty of the prose, is mind-boggling. It is also one of several subtle and not-so-subtle criticisms Lefebvre makes of the way our societies and cultures attempt to construct a person’s identity. Gender, here, is not important. It is so unimportant that it is not even given recognition.
Our narrator, then, is a drifter, a poet without a ‘proper’ job who spends days eating bananas and smoking cannabis. Against the wider social context of turmoil and violence (the book was written in the wake of the 2015 terror attacks in Paris and the state of emergency which followed), they enter into a debate with a father figure who is at once overwhelmingly present and absent: ‘For years everything that’s gone through my head has been debated in this courtroom that I call the house of the dead, where my father presides.’ This father is a constantly critical voice in the narrator’s life, who has a tendency to disappear at crucial moments and who views poetry as a ‘useless and entirely futureless non-profession’, and by extension the narrator as a ‘shiftless loser’. The debate between them centres around the idea of finding a ‘real’ job, which sparks a vicious circle of the poet worrying about finding a job, worrying about what to do if they actually got one, but still fretting about not finding one at all – a cycle that will, most likely, be at least partly familiar to anyone who has ever experienced unemployment of any sort.
The idea of a job is an anathema, and yet, in this world where a person’s value is seemingly determined by their productivity (and productivity is, in turn, measured by the amount of money they earn), what else is there to do? The narrator resists, continuing to ‘wander in the past perfect with uncertainty about the employment of the future.’ Value, after all, should not be measured by economics, but there is also the issue of finding a relevant, sustainable place for poetry in a culture that doesn’t seem to value the arts. These are questions that pervade the whole book. They are also questions which seem particularly relevant to us now as, in our pandemic world, we grapple with notions and definitions of ‘key workers’ and ‘essential sectors’, definitions from which the arts are conspicuously missing. In this world – both the narrator’s Lyon and our world, wherever we happen to be reading from – ‘the cultural sector is a graveyard for the soul’s repose’. We think we are being asked a simple question: is this really how we want to be living?
But, like all of Lefebvre’s writing, the questions are not so straightforward. Heavy sarcasm also pervades the voices of both the narrator and the father: Lefebvre is merciless in picking apart almost all the structures of society, from advertising and the media to the cultivation of the arts themselves. Ultimately, the narrative turns itself on the most fundamental of Western ideals: democracy, the nation state, and the capitalism they give rise to. The narrator’s internal monologue wanders around the philosophies of Klaus, Klemperer and Kafka, and constant comparisons are made between the Third Reich, other dictatorships, and the state of France as the narrator sees it: ‘…it still doesn’t feel much like the DRC or Syria or Pakistan or South Sudan, while still not quite being Switzerland either.’ Nationalism masquerades as freedom, while imagination and free thought are crushed in the name of unity. ‘But for all that’, the narrator reasons, ‘this wasn’t Fascism and it really wasn’t anything like the Third Reich here, it was no occasion to take the piss.’ And yet, of course, that’s exactly the point. At what stage does democracy end and fascism begin? At what point do we stop kidding ourselves with the outdated, superior notion that such things could never happen now, in a twenty-first century Western democracy? We saw for ourselves how the riots at the Capitol Building, which would by any objective measure have been denounced as an insurrection, were downplayed as rough protests. With a prescience that makes it seem as if the book could have been written yesterday, the poet offers a kind of alternative ‘manual for survival’, a series of ‘lessons’ for all those poets and artists left floundering in a world gone mad. Lesson three: ‘write national poems – they’re the securest type there is.’
Poetics of Work is an outsider of a book. It’s the kind of ‘novel of ideas’ that is a perfect fit for its UK publisher, Les Fugitives. Having read several of Les Fugitives books (and loved all of them in different ways) I found I couldn’t imagine Poetics of Work being published by anyone else. Like the rest of their list, it seems like so much more than a book: it’s an exciting, provocative piece of art, inside and out. It also comes across as the product of a very intimate process, and that, according to editor and founder Cécile Lee, is the reason many readers keep returning for more. ‘Many books are admired and engaged with, but I get the sense our readers have a deep emotional connection with our books… that it’s, well, some kind of love! This may be to do with their materiality as well. And really, we couldn’t do anything less. Of course every publisher wants to take the greatest care of every book, but we’re such a small company, every book is incredibly personal.’
She is a little reluctant to talk about the origin of Les Fugitives. ‘It’s funny,’ she says, ‘that the idea of an origin seems to matter so much. The idea that you originally have about a project doesn’t necessarily mean that it then follows that idea; the idea of the origin being ‘of truth’ is arguable.’ But still, there are always beginnings, and Les Fugitives started because Cécile wanted to publish a single French book in English translation – Natalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. ‘It’s the cornerstone of the whole Les Fugitives project,’ Cécile says. ‘I wanted to found a company that could house that book.’ Suite for Barbara Loden is a genre-defying, almost surrealist exploration of women and cinema, of the actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden herself, of the soul-searching process of researching a life. It’s a book that demolishes boundaries and escapes labels. It was also a book that no one else would touch in translation. This sense of risk became part of the Les Fugitives DNA. Even the name itself conjures up a defiance of the norm, and also comes from les lettres fugitives, fugitive letters, there one moment and gone the next. This play on words was deliberate: by giving this name to the company, Cécile was also preparing herself for the possibility of complete failure. ‘Everything had to be possible, including that the company itself would be a fugitive, transitory, only ever publishing this one book. I was preparing myself, to quote my reluctant mentor at the time, Charles Boyle, to say ‘We’re like that rare cactus in the desert, only flowering once every ten years!’’
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The translation of Suite for Barbara Loden was a success; Cécile says that she and her co-translator Natasha Lehrer were at times amazed at how well Léger’s singular prose worked in English. ‘You never know,’ Cécile says. ‘Translation is an alchemical process, and we almost couldn’t believe it at times, how powerful the text was in English, how moving, and challenging. As origin stories go, it’s a lovely one to have.’ The book won the 2016 Scott Moncrieff Prize, launched Natasha’s career as one of the most sought after French translators working today, and was quickly picked up by US publisher Dorothy, a publishing project (further partnerships would follow with Deep Vellum, The Feminist Press, and New Directions among others). It also gave Cécile the confidence to move forward with publishing further books. ‘I founded Les Fugitives to house Suite for Barbara Loden, and I wanted Les Fugitives to be a place that would welcome books from the same literary family. I wanted to make more books that were genre-defying, by women writers, books that no one else was publishing in the UK, and beautiful books about writing, art and artists.’
Cécile had experience in the literary world – through her academic studies, through translation, and brief stints as a literary agent assistant and as a bookseller, but it was her experiences in working for John Calder and Clive James that were her biggest inspiration. I ask her about Clive James out of blatant curiosity. ‘I worked for Clive for four years. In the very beginning I would teach him French conversation (his spoken French was atrocious, but he could translate Proust off the page, with mindboggling flair), but then became his personal assistant and digital editor of his website. During that time I met a lot of high-profile writers, actors, artists, journalists…Clive himself, though, was a huge influence. I’m only just beginning to realise how huge! His reading recommendations, his cross-cultural references, his ways of writing and thinking about art, academia, poetry, novels, history and many other things, all had a big impact on me. And he also showed incredible faith in me. Of course I found my own path and my own voice, but working for Clive was a gamechanger.’ Still, she maintains that Les Fugitives was born of passion more than publishing acumen, and this lack of a preconceived plan is what gave Les Fugitives its idiosyncratic character. ‘I don’t think that something like Les Fugitives could ever have been born out of a carefully market-researched endeavour, although I did have to learn what a USP is. I worked tirelessly, fumbling in the dark, and while it made life very difficult I think it also yielded an openness and a flexibility that I don’t think could ever have been planned. Having said that, our publishing model is actually very traditional. There are other publishers who are far more experimental in terms of both their modus operandi and the content of what they publish, like Unbound and Prototype, both excellent.’
Books come to Les Fugitives from different places – from translator recommendations, from foreign rights agents, from the authors Cécile and others have read in the original French (although Cécile makes a point of not relying on the French literary press or on services like French Culture) – and that same spirit of openness has resulted in a fluid editorial line. Les Fugitives have four books confirmed for 2021, and a similar number for 2022 and 2023. One of these authors is male, Jean Frémon, in the otherwise all-female catalogue, and another – the award-winning writer and translator Lauren Elkin – writes in English. As Cécile pointed out in the beginning, ideas develop from their origins. When I ask her how she curates the Les Fugitives collection – how she finds these delicate threads that seem to pull all the books together – the answer is a whole fascinating discussion on its own. ‘The idea was always to present a segment of contemporary French literature to an English-speaking readership. But I also realise that the books I’m drawn to are not simply Franco-French. These authors are writing about countries other than France. They are writing about forms of art and artistic expression beyond writing. And then there are women writing about women, stories written in layers, non-linear narratives like Blue Self Portrait and Poetics of Work. There are definite themes, but I also never wanted those themes to become ties that bind. So Les Fugitives, unconsciously to begin with, has become a place of multicultural discussion. There is a willingness to embrace the other and examine the other as ourselves and our own opacities to ourselves, whether that’s through female representation or through the idea of exile, and there is an ongoing conversation between our books. Within these ballasts, editorial fluidity is key. It means that we’re able to publish books that we love and that fit into the discussion, regardless of whether the author is a man or a woman, writing in English or in French. Finding new ways of exploring that conversation is really exciting. You think you know what you want, but often you’re surprised and connections form where you weren’t expecting them. And once those connections manifest themselves, we have to publish the work. It’s an obligation, almost, because I know that what these books have to say is relevant and worthy of attention here in the UK, as well as elsewhere.’
Cécile does, however, exercise an element of caution. ‘Because times are what they are, we tend to concentrate on books by authors that we’ve already published. We can’t take the same old risks all the time! And it’s also important to us that we nurture our authors’ work. Half of each year’s list will be books by writers we’ve already published, or writers that are already established. It’s a more conservative choice, but one that is necessary.’
Les Fugitives is also developing and expanding in a practical sense. It’s always been Cécile’s ideal that the company is not just one person but a collective, and ‘sometimes that ideal feels like a reality’. But, Cécile says, ‘The people I work with are wonderful. I’ve learned the craft of editing from fellow translators and editors, who were patient with me, notably Sophie Lewis. I network, for want of a better word, with other indie publishers, and I like to think that individually and collectively, we influence each other but also end up influencing the mainstream, in this intellectual and cultural force that is literary publishing. Lest we forget, big publishers also produce jewels sometimes that are worthy of the indies…’ (she says, tongue in cheek). Another goal is to do more outreach in academic circles. ‘There’s an existing interest among universities in some of our books – Eve Out Of Her Ruins, for example, and This Tilting World – and I want to nurture that. A book like Translation as Transhumance is proving to be quite influential, for instance.’
At the end of our conversation, we return to the ideas inherent in Poetics of Work: the balance that must be struck between working and living, a balance which we all have to try and manage, but that I think Cécile must have been treading quite finely during these years of running a business and maintaining a family life. She agrees. Our society, she says, has lost track of the fact that both art and leisure are vital, and we’ve made the fundamental mistake of confusing ‘value’ with ‘money’. ‘Work and productivity seem to be everything in today’s Western world, and yet leisure is fundamental to wellbeing and to people actually being able to ‘function’ without feeling like mere cogs in a system. I’m very much in agreement with Ananda Devi who says that art – not work, not money, not religion, not knowledge – is what makes us human. I include the practice of sports in the category of meaningful entertainment (and I do think art is entertainment, in the noblest sense of ‘divertimento’ – that which distracts us from death, but also from our biological or social functions as human beings – no wonder totalitarian regimes try to control art, to muzzle artists and thinkers). I’m not from the kind of socio-economic background that is normally associated with a career in literary publishing, and so I’m uniquely able to appreciate the struggle that other people have to get where they are. I also know that the value of what we do here at Les Fugitives isn’t in the money we make (Les Fugitives wouldn’t exist otherwise). Noémi Lefebvre reminded this to me last time we spoke. And Michèle Roberts told me once about John Keats’s concept of ‘negative capability, which speaks of the same sentiment.’
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to express their sincere thanks to Cécile Lee for this interview. Feature image by Elodie Rose Barnes.