“In Aboriginal cultures, there is a tradition of laying your hands on some kind of wealth—a shell necklace, for example— which bears your own name, and handing it around, passing it from hand to hand for as long as possible, thereby exerting your power everywhere the name is passed. Writers are also passed around, disseminated, present wherever objects to which their names are attached circulate.” — Hadrien Laroche
We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s Thursday Fiction Corner, we have an interview with French author Hadrien Laroche about his book Orphans, which will be coming out in English for the first time in October from Dalkey Archive. Laroche is a former student of Jacques Derrida, and has written three novels as well as books on Jean Genet and Marcel Duchamp.
Q: Henry né Berg, one of the characters in Orphans, seems to be inspired by a distant relative of yours, the banker Edouard Stern. Can we assume that Hannah née Bloch and Hélianthe née Bouttetruie are also real people?
Hadrien Laroche: That’s true. The day they announced Edouard Stern’s death, I called my editor, thunderstruck, and told him “Henry né Berg has been killed!” He was equally stunned. But one needs to be careful: in spite of what I myself thought at the time, in shock, Edouard Stern really was killed, not Henry né Berg. Orphans is a work of fiction, a fabrication. Henry né Berg incarnates the willing, philosophical orphan. He is one element of my portrait of Man orphaned of his humanity. The concept and experience of the orphan is the subject of all my work. My orphans belong to no one: to no name, no country, not even a language. And obviously, to no family. Milan Kundera said, “what an author creates [. . .] belongs to no one but himself.” I’m going further than that. To be the descendant of one’s work means something else: the work doesn’t belong to the author in the least, no more than a child belongs to its father, or a mother belongs to her child. So it’s not a roman à clef, nor is it autofiction. It’s rather an aesthetic project that starts from life experience.
Q: Could you explain the meaning of the initial “H,” aside from the desire to link the three stories together? [Trans. – In the French version, all three protagonists are simply designated as “H. né(e)” followed by a last name]
HL: In the English version of Orphans, published by Dalkey Archive Press, I’ve given names to each of the three characters: Hannah née Bloch, Helianthe née Bouttetruie, and Henry né Berg… And the last sentence of Orphans mentions that “extraordinary rock face” [ce formidable pan de roche]. I write myself into my novels. Once, my most treasured dream was to be the offspring of my own name. In Don Quixote it’s said of the character Vincent de Rosa, that “his arm was his father, and his works his lineage.” Through this book, I have understood the meaning of this phrase. More than by birth, man is made singular by his work. However, it remains important not to know which children you’ve fathered, not to want to identify them, to decide which works you want to carry your name. Not to decide who inherits what from whom: I believe that this is the only way something can be inherited, the only way to create a legacy… To turn art objects into orphans.
Q: Is this use of the letter “H” also a reference to Kafka, a mark of depersonalization?
HL: I wonder if my main reason for writing isn’t just to write my own proper name? In Aboriginal cultures, there is a tradition of laying your hands on some kind of wealth—a shell necklace, for example— which bears your own name, and handing it around, passing it from hand to hand for as long as possible, thereby exerting your power everywhere the name is passed. Writers are also passed around, disseminated, present wherever objects to which their names are attached circulate. Nevertheless, my intention is also to insist on the effacement of the name. In Orphans, Henry né Berg destroys his father’s automatic signature machine; in La Restitution, Henry né Berg accomplishes what his forebears have been attempting since the dawn of time: to efface the signature. I have to understand this double motivation to spread my name as far as possible, and to efface my own signature.
Q: You write these three accounts in a non-conventional fashion: what led you to this process of writing?
HL: As the historical orphan, Hannah née Bloch’s story is linear, following one day in her life. Hannah née Bouttetruie is the pathological orphan, suffering from a so-called “orphan disease”; her story metastasizes, pieced together from fragments of self-propagating stories. Henry né Berg’s story is a daydream. The narrator never actually encounters him, but instead walks along a mountain path, fantasizing about this distant member of his extended family. This story is the furthest from reality, and at the same time, it’s the most sensitive, because it’s so inward-looking. So each story is written organically, from inside the character’s skin.
Q: Is the end of the third story in Orphans a suicide? Is it a renunciation, a disavowal of humanity?
HL: Suicide? No! The end of Orphans is incredibly joyful—my books are humorous. You can hear the laughter that accompanies every tragic moment! In Orphans, the narrator is trying to do away with the ancestors perched on our shoulders. But I demonstrate that you never get rid of them—Berg doesn’t manage to rid himself of his. Except, because of this failure, he remains a book (and not a murder or a suicide). I don’t know if this is a victory or a success. But it’s there. Now, the book’s claims are in conflict with its contents. If there is a lesson in Orphans, it’s this: we all have to become sons, or daughters, we can’t escape that. Or the child of our own lives, though that’s not a given. Or rather, we can become the child of our own works; that’s possible.