The Literary questionnaire of

Jeanne Balibar

Actress and friend of the House Jeanne Balibar mentions literature’s power of escapism and the place that reading holds in her daily life.

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Does your lifestyle allow you to read as much as you would like to?

Oh dear no! Because even if I like reading for my work, what I love above all is reading “just like this”, to leave, to escape, to live somewhere else. When I was a child, I used to read all the time and all my family knew that I couldn’t hear anything when I was reading. They had to call me four times, I didn’t hear them, and it went on for several hours a day… I can’t do that anymore… However, I manage to read something that has nothing to do with my day, one hour almost every night, regardless of the time I’m going to bed… When I can’t I miss it.

Is there a particular book that has affected how you lead your life?

Honestly, I don’t think so… In the idea of “leading one’s life” there is a notion of guiding principle, and I really don’t have one, it’s quite the opposite… Maybe, like many women, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, because being entitled to have a place to retreat to, dream and create is a never-ending struggle for me and this book supports me. In a way, obviously, because it aims at showing how difficult and important it is as a woman, but maybe even more because the images that emerge - a dog crossing a courtyard for example - inspire me a lot.

"Even if I like reading for my work, what I love above all is reading “just like this”, to leave, to escape, to live somewhere else."

What is the most liberating book you have read?

Maybe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I have read it over and over. Every time I feel the same joy when I dive into these adventures, in this cheek, and laugh out loud alone. Or, in another category, Ô ma mémoire : la Poésie, ma nécessité by Stéphane Hessel. It’s a poetry anthology in French, English and German. Most of the poems are really famous, they are literature ”hits”, sublime, and as I speak quite well English and German but not totally perfectly, the translations allow me to feel the pleasure to read them in the original language, to vibrate with the sounds and images, to enjoy them fully. And Stéphane Hessel’s preface explaining why he learnt all these poems by heart throughout his life is beautiful.

What is the most harrowing book you have ever read?

Probably If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, about his stay in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Reading it is barely bearable. But this book is extraordinary.

Which fictional heroine would you like to be?

I would neither live their lives or be assassinated, but Nastassia Philippovna in The Idiot or Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, for their irony, their refusal of subterfuges, their courage, their sense of tragedy, their feelings full of passion and empathy and how they are “light-hearted in radicalness and despair”.

What is the best place to read?

Lying down on a sofa nibbling on biscuits.

"I have re-read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables recently and I was dying of admiration at every page."

Are you more romance novel or adventure novel?

Hmmm… Both I think… Either, or both at once like War and Peace by Tolstoy or The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. But I also love picaresque adventures like Don Quixote by Cervantes or Tristram Shandy by Sterne, which I’m crazy about. Or novels where nothing happens like Oblomov by Goncharov. Or of course detective novels like Dominique Manotti’s ones.

Do you prefer long novels or short stories?

Both. I have re-read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables recently and I was dying of admiration at every page, or else I devoured La plus secrète Mémoire des Hommes by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. But Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories recently shook me deeply.

Which book would you like to see adapted to film?

The Last One by Fatima Daas… It’s a wonderful book about the RER E, and about how a girl tells herself every morning “My name is Fatima Daas and I’m a young muslim from the suburbs who likes girls” while another person begins all its chapters with “Me, the President of the Republic”. Apparently it’s in the pipeline and Hafsia Herzi will direct it, which is great.

The title of a book you always offer as a gift?

Renoir, my father. by Jean Renoir. Not much, or not only, for the life of the painter Renoir, but for the writing of his son, the film director Jean Renoir, and the story he tells about Montmartre at the very end of the 19th century: the maquis de Montmartre and its inhabitants before it was demolished, it’s absolutely fascinating.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 1929.
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, 1884.
Ô ma mémoire. La poésie, ma nécessité, Stéphane Hessel, © Éditions du Seuil, 2006, n.e. 2017, Points, 2011.
Primo Levi, If this is a man, Translated by Stuart Woolf, Copyright © 1958 by Giulio Einaudi editore S.p.A.; Translation copyright © 1959 by The Orion Press, Inc. Published by Viking Books.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Classics, 2003.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, © 1990 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Reprinted by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Translated by Rosemary Edmonds, Penguin Classics, 1957.
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers, Translated from English by Richard Pevear, © Penguin, 2006.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Translated by John Rutherford, Penguin Classics, 2003.
Laurence Sterne, Tristam Shandy, 1759.
Ivan Gontcharov, Oblomov, 1859.
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Translated by Julie Rose, Vintage Classics, 2009.
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, La plus secrète Mémoire des Hommes, © Philippe Rey, 2021.
Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories, Translated by Katrina Dodson, Penguin Classics, 2015.
Fatima Daas, The Last One, Translated by Lara Vergnaud, copyright © Lara Vergnaud, 2021. Published by Other Press LLC, New York.
Jean Renoir, Renoir, My Father, © Copyright, 1958, 1962 by Jean Renoir by arrangement with New York Review Books, 2001.

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