Yann Brancherie de la librairie Le Divan (Paris 15e) recevait l’auteur britannique Jonathan COE, à l’occasion de la parution, le 10 novembre 2022, de son tout dernier livre : Le royaume désuni.
Les propos de l’auteur sont traduits en direct par Marguerite Capelle qui signe également la traduction de l’ouvrage.
J’ai gardé les interventions de chacun d’eux sans faire chevaucher les voix pour apprécier la version anglaise aussi bien que la traduction française.
“It's a novel about the past, about recent history and what we can learn from it. But with all of the eras that I write about in this book, and beyond, there is not one of these times in recent British history that I'm nostalgic for. And in many ways it's an optimistic novel…”
“C'est un roman sur le passé, sur l'histoire récente et sur ce que nous pouvons en apprendre. Mais parmi toutes les époques dont je parle dans ce livre, et au-delà, il n'y a pas une seule de ces périodes de l'histoire britannique récente dont je sois nostalgique. Et à bien des égards, c'est un roman optimiste…”
“It's a paradox, when your parents die, I guess, that although a distance opens up, a distance that can never be crossed just because of the fact of death, but at the same time there is the potential to enter into a kind of closeness which you wouldn't have had the opportunity for before. And this happened with my mother because I found in the course of clearing out her house: letters and diaries and photographs that I'd never seen before. And suddenly, as a young woman, she came alive to me in a way which was new and surprising for me.”
"C'est un paradoxe, quand vos parents meurent, je suppose : alors même qu’une distance s'ouvre, une distance qui ne pourra jamais être franchie du seul fait de la mort, en même temps se crée la possibilité d'entrer dans une sorte de proximité dont vous n'auriez pas eu l'occasion auparavant. Et c'est ce qui s'est passé avec ma mère parce que j'ai trouvé en débarrassant sa maison, des lettres, des journaux intimes et des photographies que je n'avais jamais vus auparavant. Et soudain, en tant que jeune femme, elle a pris vie pour moi d'une manière nouvelle et surprenante."
“Alors la musique qui surgit, si rudimentaire et imparfaite soit-elle, me paraît toujours une expression plus vraie des émotions que je voudrais faire passer.”
“Comme le murmure d’une rivière, comme le bruit de la marée montante, un contrepoint distant au chuintement de son balai sur les marches, une voix désincarnée chuchotant à son oreille, encore et encore, le même mantra : Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
LIVRES DE L’AUTEUR
La plupart de ses livres ont été publiés en France par les éditions Gallimard :
Le royaume désuni, 2022
Billy Wilder et moi, 2021
Le cœur de l'Angleterre, 2019
Expo 58, 2014
La pluie, avant qu'elle tombe, 2009
Le Cercle fermé, 2006
Bienvenue au club, 2003
Les Nains de la Mort, 2001
La Maison du sommeil, 1998
Testament à l'anglaise, 1995
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À LA TECHNIQUE
Conception : François-Xavier ROBERT
Musique d’intro : “My Favorite Things” composé par Richard Rodgers et Oscar Hammerstein, pour la comédie musicale La Mélodie du bonheur, réinterprétée avec un tambour chinois, un koto japonais et un synthétiseur.
Court extrait musical : Quatuor pour l
Merci d'écouter le podcast littéraire Le Jardin !
Seules les réponses en anglais de Jonathan COE sont retranscrites ici.
[00:00:15.640] - Jonathan Coe
Thank you all so much for coming and for reading me. If you read me... Perhaps you just came out of curiosity. I hope we have a nice evening.
[00:02:02.940] - Jonathan Coe
Well, I was not planning to talk about this immediately because it's the very personal side of the book, but the time frame of the book from 1945, as you say, to 2020 and the covid pandemic was dictated by the lifespan of my mother, who was actually born in 1934. She died in 2020. And as an almost immediate response to her death, I felt that I wanted to write a novel which was both a memorial to her and a fictionalisation of her life, but also a portrait of the social changes that she'd lived through in her 84 years.
[00:03:14.060] - Jonathan Coe
So I wanted to write something that was both a narrative of public events, historical events, but also a very intimate story of a very ordinary family. And the only way I could think of to do this was to focus on moments in the last three quarters of a century when the public and the private collided and were juxtaposed which led me in the direction of these big national celebrations or occasions such as: the Coronation, the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, the funeral of Lady Diana...where everybody or large numbers of people around the country were watching the same moment on their television screens or listening to them on their radios.
[00:04:42.790] - Jonathan Coe
A lot of these events involve the British Royal Family, but this is purely incidental because I'm not a royalist. The book is not "The Crown", and I think you've been instructed very firmly not to ask me any questions about the royal family. So we're sticking to that, thank you.
[00:05:38.890] - Jonathan Coe
The French title of the novel is not the same as the English title. In English, it's simply called: "Bournville". In French, it has the title: "Le Royaume Désuni", which I guess is a more provocative title because potentially it has two meanings. A country where the people are divided by political divisions or cultural divisions or ethnic divisions ; and also the idea of the United-Kingdom itself possibly breaking up and becoming disunited.
[00:06:39.860] - Jonathan Coe
But I like the French title because both of these meanings, both of these levels are present in the book. The family, like any family, has arguments, has disagreements, has conflicting points of view. There are three brothers because the character of Mary, who is based on my mother, has three sons, and one of them supports Brexit, one of them is opposed to Brexit. And yet at the same time, in the macro narrative, the bigger narrative that surrounds all this, you also have some stories about the relationship of England specifically to the other constituent countries of the United Kingdom. And there's a long section set in Wales which tells the story of an episode in the 1960s which illustrates, I think, English exploitation of Wales.
[00:07:32.460] - Jonathan Coe
And as you are probably well aware, partly as a result of the Brexit referendum in 2016, the United Kingdom as an entity, as a construct, is under a lot of strain at the moment. And in my opinion, not that I really want to get into politics tonight. There's a quite serious probability that the UK will, in its present form, cease to exist a few years from now, and Scotland will break away and become independent.
[00:09:29.280] - Jonathan Coe
This is not a nostalgic novel, I don't think, although I've seen it described that way by readers and in the press. It's a novel about the past, about recent history and what we can learn from it. But with all of the eras that I write about in this book, and beyond, there is not one of these times in recent British history that I'm nostalgic for. And in many ways it's an optimistic novel, because, although from one perspective, the situation we find ourselves in in the UK as a country, and all of us find ourselves in in global terms, that situation is very grave. In a way, this book looks at things from a more optimistic perspective because it's a book about social changes and a book about the progress that has been made during the last 75 years and what a much better country the United Kingdom is to live in in 2020. Not necessarily for people like me, but for people from minority groups who had a much harder time back in the time.
[00:11:37.760] - Jonathan Coe
You asked me if there was an audience for this kind of novel, and I think I better answer that question when I hear my sales figures
[00:12:23.700] - Jonathan Coe
I guess in a way this novel was written as a reaction to that kind of acceleration and as a form of resistance to it. Because although the book doesn't take a huge historical perspective (it doesn't go back centuries), I felt that the 75 year time span gave me an opportunity to take a more measured and objective view of the present, instead of just kind of trying to keep pace in a journalistic sort of way with the bewildering political changes in the UK at the moment.
[00:13:29.360] - Jonathan Coe
But it's true that the book is already a historical novel, not just in the sense that it goes back to 1945, but when it ends with a section which, when I was writing, it felt to me as I was writing very much about the present day: I was writing about an England where Boris Johnson was Prime Minister and Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne. And both of those things have changed now. In fact, we've had two Prime Ministers since then, so I wouldn't attempt to try and keep pace with that kind of historical turmoil.
[00:14:33.490] - Jonathan Coe
The novel ends with a phrase which also occurs earlier in the book, which is: "Everything changes and everything stays the same". And really, the point of what I'm trying to say in this book is that the kind of superficial political changes that we're talking about, the kind of things that we read in the newspapers: the change of government, the change of prime minister, the coming and going of different kings and queens...is not really what's important to people like Mary and her family. They're involved, at a different level, with much more fundamental human relationships which are a kind of constant. And the first time you hear this phrase, it's spoken or thaught by a white British woman in the 1940s sweeping the doorstep of her house, a woman in middle age. And at the end of the book, the same phrase is used by another woman who is much younger who is from a different place, who is an Iranian refugee who has come to Birmingham and is now living in the same house but is thinking exactly the same thing. And the idea I'm trying to convey, I suppose, is that the experience of these two very historically and culturally different women is actually not so different. And whether King George I or King Charles III is on the throne makes no difference, really.
[00:17:46.460] - Jonathan Coe
I've been talking about this book all week to French journalists and interviewers and during presentations like this, so I'm feeling kind of relaxed now. The week is over. This is my final event so maybe it's time to talk a little more personally about this.
[00:18:18.940] - Jonathan Coe
My mother had two sons, my brother and myself. But in this book I've given her three sons: Jack, Martin and Peter. And I guess the character who is closest to me in this novel is the youngest son, Peter, who is also a musician and has a relationship with his mother which is exactly, as faithfully as I could portray it, the same relationship that I had with mine. Which is that there was a great and strange intimacy between us, even though we had almost nothing in common and nothing to talk about. And maybe this is quite a typical phenomenon in the relation between mothers and sons.
[00:19:33.340] - Jonathan Coe
The portrait of her in the second half of the book is based on personal experience, on my memories of her. But in another way, this is a book I couldn't have written while she was alive partly because I wouldn't have wanted to and she wouldn't have wanted me to write it but also because the first part of her life, before I was born, I didn't really know that much about. It's a paradox, when your parents die, I guess, that although a distance opens up, a distance that can never be crossed just because of the fact of death, but at the same time there is the potential to enter into a kind of closeness which you wouldn't have had the opportunity for before. And this happened with my mother because I found in the course of clearing out her house: letters and diaries and photographs that I'd never seen before.
[00:20:25.020] - Jonathan Coe
And suddenly, as a young woman, she came alive to me in a way which was new and surprising for me. I don't know if people who read the book will feel the same way, but for me, the texture of the novel changes as it goes along. The early sections are constructed from these souvenirs, from her letters and diaries ; and the later sections are constructed from memory. And to me, this gives the book a kind of evolution which was not intended, but in the end, it pleases me and it works for me.
[00:22:57.940] - Jonathan Coe
Unfortunately you can't put music in a book or not really. You can refer to it, you can try to describe it. There are two pieces of music, actually, which are central to this book.
[00:23:10.410] - Jonathan Coe
One of them will be pretty well known to this audience, I suspect, and that's the "Quatuor pour la fin du temps" by Olivier Messiaen. And this is the piece that Peter, the younger son, rehearses and has to perform as a violinist in the long section of the book, which is set against the death and the funeral of Princess Diana.
[00:24:03.040] - Jonathan Coe
And the other piece of music is maybe less well known to you, but if there's one thing I would like you to take away from this evening, it's the name of this piece, because I think it's a masterpiece and I don't think it's well known internationally. It's an orchestral and choral work called "The Hymnus Paradisi" by a British composer, actually a Welsh composer, called Herbert Howells. And this is a piece of music that I remember hearing with my mother when I was a student at Cambridge many years ago, which in the book serves as a kind of moment of epiphany between Mary and her son, a memory which they share for the rest of their lives. And even when they cannot talk to each other because they have nothing to talk to each other about, the memory of hearing this piece, which, like my novel, was inspired by the death of a loved family member, the memory of hearing it together is what brings them close. Do listen to it if you get a chance on Spotify or wherever, because it's it's extremely moving.
[00:26:39.710] - Jonathan Coe
I have a kind of aspiration to write short, simple books with a small number of characters and one very focused point of view, but I can't do it. Even if I did it in this book: "Mr Wilder and Me", which is much shorter and much simpler than what I usually write. But, of course, as soon as I decided that the book was going to cover 75 years of history, that implied at least three generations. I gave Mary three sons. I gave the three sons children of their own. I write about Mary's parents, I might write about her grandparents.
[00:27:26.740] - Jonathan Coe
And pretty soon I realised that the book was getting more or less out of my control.
[00:27:58.460] - Jonathan Coe
My editor at Gallimard, Tiffany Gasuk, who is here tonight somewhere, suggested that we include a family tree (un arbre généalogique) in the book. So here it is. And this will help you navigate the labyrinth that I've created. And if there are any people here who have read more than one of my books, then you will discover characters from "La pluie, avant qu'elle tombe", from "Expo 58", from "Mr. Wilder and me" and even some others. Because there is a character with the surname "Trotter", who crops up in one of the sections. And that will be a name that's known to people who've read some of my other books. So I apologise for the complication, for the way that my novelistic brain works. But thanks to Gallimard, you have a user's guide.
[00:29:40.540] - Jonathan Coe
The other important person from my French working life who is present tonight, of course, is the magnificent translator of the novel: Marguerite Cappelle, whose French, I have to say, is better than my English. So don't be disappointed that there are no English copies tonight because it's a better novel in French!