Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon invite

Leïla Slimani

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For the fifth edition of the Rendez-vous littéraires rue Cambon [Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon], the House of CHANEL along with ambassador and spokesperson for the House Charlotte Casiraghi invite the writer Leïla Slimani, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016 for her novel ‘Lullaby’ published by Gallimard.

Hosted by the literary historian Fanny Arama, this conversation begins with the actress and friend of the House Zita Hanrot’s reading of an extract from ‘Le Pays des autres’, a novel by Leïla Slimani published in 2020. The writer then talks about her relationship with writing, female emancipation through literary history and the universal and non-gendered scope of literature.

Leïla Slimani

Leïla Slimani was born in 1981. She is the author of three novels published by Gallimard and translated into numerous other languages: Adèle, Lullaby (Goncourt Prize 2016 and Grand Prix des Lectrices ELLE 2017), and The Country of Others. She has published various essays on current affairs, the status of women in Morocco and her relationship with writing. She also wrote the story for the comic strip À mains nues illustrated by Clément Oubrerie (Éditions des Arènes, deux tomes, 2020 et 2021).

Leïla Slimani, Adèle, Translated by Sam Taylor, © Faber & Faber, 2019.
Leïla Slimani, Lullaby, Translated by Sam Taylor, © Faber & Faber, 2017.
© Académie Goncourt.
© Grand Prix des Lectrices ELLE.
Leïla Slimani, The Country of Others, Translated by Sam Taylor, © Faber & Faber, 2021.
Leïla Slimani et Clément Oubrerie, À mains nues, Tome 1, © Les Arènes, 2020.
Leïla Slimani et Clément Oubrerie, À mains nues, Tome 2, © Les Arènes, 2021.

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Leïla Slimani unfiltered

Leïla Slimani was born in Rabat, Morocco. As a child, she never let the repeated lectures she received grind her down: “Don’t do this, don’t do that, stand up straight, behave yourself”. Quite the reverse in fact. These reproachful warnings galvanized her into action. They might well have been the driving force behind the cry of protest all women give at one time or another in their life, but which Leïla Slimani alone has been able to communicate so accurately in her novels. This protest is more a request for recognition than a demand for justice. It is a censure as much as a plea.
After studying in Paris, a city Leïla Slimani first got to know from descriptions in novels, she worked as a journalist for several years, specialising in social issues for Jeune Afrique. However, she soon realised that the information she was supposed to pass on to her readers lacked perspective, depth and precision:

“I loathe explanations. I want to leave questions unanswered, because it is in these gaps, in these black holes, that I find the material that chimes with my soul.”

Only fiction seemed able to give her the freedom to write without constraint, not only to express things that could not be tackled in the fields of journalism or sociology, but most importantly to escape from any pigeonholing, for example of her identity and social background due to her dual origins:

“When I sit down at my desk, I’m no longer really myself. I’m no longer a woman, I’m no longer Moroccan or French, I’m no longer even in Paris or somewhere else; I’m free of everything.”

So she wrote a first novel, which she later considered mediocre, then kept at it, taking part in a writing workshop which would result in the publication of Adèle.

This novel describes the life of Adèle, a young Parisian wife, mother to a little boy, who becomes addicted to sex, to seedy, secret adulterous affairs. How long will Adèle manage to keep up appearances? Will she be able to save herself from the impulses that torment her endlessly and threaten her psychological stability? This first opus showcases Leïla Slimani’s characteristic themes: desire, shame, degrading impulses, the tacit agreements that erode the social contract and undermine a happy marriage, renunciation and disappointment. Leïla Slimani’s books are an unfiltered read: her novels refuse any compromise, not only with social morality and other people’s opinions, but above all with language. She writes what people don’t write. What people don’t say. She risks indecency, coarse words, a cold, clinical gaze which is unsettling. She writes about primitive, brutish states of mind, the body’s weaknesses, the heart’s failings, the mishaps of desire and relationships, cowardly reactions. What society has long internalised in order to remain society is revealed in seemingly banal stories that chart the lives of people who are like us. Despite being humdrum and universal, these shameful situations still upset our dreams of perfection and mar the ideal relationship we have with ourselves.

In Lullaby, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2016, the novelist drew her inspiration from a chilling news item she read in an American newspaper. In it, she describes the complex relationship between Myriam and Louise, the babysitter of her two children. Myriam has mixed feelings: she has a deep sense of guilt towards her children, whom she doesn’t see enough, and a growing unease towards Louise, who is infiltrating the social intimacy of her marriage. Myriam and her husband Paul anxiously watch as their marvellous nanny changes. Did they do the right thing entrusting their flesh and blood to this stranger? Is it possible that her diligence conceals some shocking motive? Lullaby does, of course, provide a portrait of Myriam, a modern mother, torn between her need for independence and the love she bears her children, but the novel pays particular attention to Louise, a woman whose heart has become as hard as tree bark, whose instability and loneliness will lead her to do the unthinkable. Leïla Slimani’s stories assess the impact of the personal tragedy that lies at the heart of all existence, from the most romantic of lives to the most ordinary. She uncompromisingly examines the mechanics of our private crimes, and by implication those of our ideals.

Growing up in a traditionalist society heightened Leïla Slimani’s desire for independence. She is continually pondering not only the impact of other people’s opinions in her novels, but also, and more particularly, that of the constraints internalised by women who are primarily battling themselves to lead lives in line with their personal ambitions. Her stories all assess the cost of freedom, an obsession embodied in different guises depending on the heroine’s profile. Her third novel, The Country of Others, is the first part of a sweeping intimist portrait charting the life of Mathilde, a young woman from Alsace who has fallen under the spell of Amine, a foreign officer with whom she sets up home in the Moroccan countryside after the war. The main viewpoint is that of a young French woman forced to adapt to the culture and customs of Moroccan rural life. Amine is a determined farmer living on stony, hostile land. While his wife struggles to raise his two children properly in an isolated house that is often without electricity, Amine desperately tries to farm the land using laborious yet innovative methods. The focus is very much on the portrayal of the women: women who are rarely seen in novels, who cook and work their fingers to the bone for others, and who hardly ever rest their aching, toil-worn limbs:

“When I write, I always think about all the women, dead or alive, who haven’t been able to write, who haven’t been able to create, who’ve been prevented from writing by their background, by the simple fact of being women. And every time I write, every time I speak, every time I meet readers, I am in a way mourning all those women.”

Mouilala, Amine’s mother, a widow who has lost several children, anxiously keeps a close eye on Selma, the youngest girl who is growing up too fast and dreams of independence, forbidden getaways and lingering kisses. Ito and her daughter Tamo, the Berber maids on the estate, who get by without knowing how to read or write, and whom Mathilde despairs of introducing to Western household practices. Above all, there is Aïcha, the daughter of Mathilde and Amine, a wild child who is independent, brilliant and fierce. She is the “woman from before the Fall” tasked by Leïla Slimani with fulfilling the promise that Mathilde was unable to fulfil. In The Country of Others, the men work and are recognised for that. But the women are permanently stuck betwixt and between. They try to find themselves, either by making a dash for the boundaries of the estate, like Aïcha, or by escaping with the desire to disappear forever, like Mathilde.

Life is at times treated by Leïla Slimani like a disease, which has to be fought. There is a touch of Beckett in her novels: people’s bodies are care-worn, recalcitrant, they refuse to do as they’re told. However, she admits that she draws her deepest sources of inspiration from the East: Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Stefan Zweig, Milan Kundera. She admires those great novelists for their ability to explore humanity’s pent-up anxieties, to develop a metaphysical vision of the novel. They taught her to describe fear, shame, desire, guilt, despondency, emotions that are experienced by all her heroines. If reading Leïla Slimani is a journey through troubled waters, a fairly radical exposure of appearances, this is also due to various female sources of inspiration, such as Carson McCullers, Marguerite Duras and Simone de Beauvoir, who owed their exceptional fate as much to their nobility of spirit as to their resolute political convictions, which they never played down.

Les Rendez-vous littéraires rue Cambon [Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon] wanted to interview this remarkable writer about the essential prerequisites for an incisive and acerbic style of writing which leaves no reader unmoved.

© Jeune Afrique.
Leïla Slimani, The fragrance of flowers at night, Translated from French [Leïla Slimani, Le parfum des fleurs la nuit, © Éditions Stock, “Ma nuit au musée” 2021.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Leïla Slimani, How I write, Translated from French [Leïla Slimani, Comment j'écris, © Le 1/Éditions de l'Aube, 2018.] by Sue Rose, 2021.
Leïla Slimani, Adèle, Translated by Sam Taylor, © Faber & Faber, 2019.
Leïla Slimani, Lullaby, Translated by Sam Taylor, © Faber & Faber, 2017.
Leïla Slimani, The Country of Others, Translated by Sam Taylor, © Faber & Faber, 2021.

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Bibliographic record

© Académie Goncourt.

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Leïla Slimani, Lullaby, Translated by Sam Taylor,

© Faber & Faber, 2017.

Leïla Slimani, Chanson douce,

© Éditions Gallimard, 2016.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, © Columbia University Press, 1982.

Pouvoir de l'horreur. Essai sur l'abjection, Julia Kristeva, « Tel Quel », © Éditions du Seuil, 1980, « Point Essais », 1983.

Leïla Slimani, The Country of Others, Translated by Sam Taylor, © Faber & Faber, 2021.

Le pays des autres, Leïla Slimani © Éditions Gallimard, 2020.

René Char, Lettera amorosa suivi de Guirlande terrestre,

© Éditions Gallimard, 2007.

Leïla Slimani, Adèle, Translated by Sam Taylor,

© Faber & Faber, 2019.

Leïla Slimani, Dans le jardin de l'ogre,

© Éditions Gallimard, 2014.

Sonietchka, Ludmila Oulitskaïa (trad. Française de Sophie Benech),

© Éditions Gallimard, 1996 (1995).

Lou Andreas-Salomé, La Maison, Traduction par Nicole Casanova,

© Éditions des femmes Antoinette Fouque, 1997.

Leïla Slimani, Comment j'écris,

© Le 1/Éditions de l'Aube, 2018.

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865.

Lewis Carroll, Les Aventures d'Alice aux Pays des merveilles, Traduction par Henri Bué, 1869.

Vie et destin de Vassili Grossman, Traduit du russe par Alexis Berelowitch et Anne Coldefy-Faucard, à paraître aux Éditions Calmann-Lévy.

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Léon Tolstoï, La Guerre et la Paix, Traduction par Irina Paskévitch,

1879

Blaise Pascal, Pensées,

1669

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