Welcome back to the Thursday Fiction Corner. As always, we are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, the leading publisher in avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! This week we feature an interview with Belgian author Paul Emond, conducted and translated by Becky McMullan. What happens when narrators transgress the “implicit pact” between readers and themselves? Paul Emond discusses below this possibility and its consequences, explored more fully by his unique styling in The Dance of a Sham.
Paul Emond interviewed by Becky McMullan. Translated from the French by Becky McMullan.
The Dance of the Sham is a book in a sentence, the reader does not have time to stop and process what he or she has just read; instead, one is compelled to read until the end, and without stopping. Did you work in this way when writing the book? That is to say, did you compose it in one “breath”?
No, it’s not at all “automatic writing” in the sense of the surrealists, for example. Despite the breathless pace of the words, it’s a very constructed novel in which the essential narrative template is the rivalry between the narrator and Caracala, the protagonist of his tale, or more so of his memories, or his most likely imagined memories.
The narrator is fascinated by the way in which Caracala was capable of telling stories, including eccentric and untrue stories, and of keeping his audience in suspense. Therefore for him, the narrator, it’s about doing the same thing with the reader of the novel: taking him or her along on a long story (the novel), to make the reader lose footing right from the beginning (as one might say of a swimmer), en route toward the ocean with no way of getting off the ship.
Dealing with this theme requires slow and precise writing, not only in terms of the rhythm of the language (not periods, but commas, and therefore a very particular scansion), but also the organization of the events being narrated. It was necessary, while also making sure to keep the same tempo, to glide from one plot-twist to another at the right moment, to construct the rivalry between the narrator and Caracala bit by bit, and to make other characters intervene in counterpoint. It was most of all necessary to play with truth and lies, so as to quickly make the reader aware that the story is full of contradictions, but also so that this same reader is amused and sufficiently captivated so that he or she will continue reading until the end.
The rhythm of the language is compared to dance, and the single sentence certainly requires the reader to rhythmatise what he or she is reading, in order to make sense of it. Do you think that this form of reading (and writing) attempts to bridge the gap between thought and expression in some way? That is to say—are we freed from the constraints of grammar and punctuation in your prose, as we are freed when we dance?
Oh, a lovely question! What a beautiful image you suggest! How I would love that to be the case! But the dance to which I refer is rhythmatised by commas and by a series of grammatical clauses, which are on the whole very common (mostly: subject, verb, object . . .). But let’s not scare future readers: there’s no need to take dance classes or grammar courses to find pleasure in reading The Dance of a Sham.
In the end, the narrator concludes the Caracala lies and tells stories “like breathing,” which can of course be compared to the role of the author, or storyteller. Indeed, the lies of his stories become muddled in the narrator’s supposed honesty. Can the author be seen more in the narrator, or in Caracala, or is the author caught between the two roles?
Let’s look at things a little differently. All stories are based on an implicit but essential pact between the author and the reader: I will read your story, says the former to the latter, but you must guarantee me that this story is not only interesting but coherent, believable, logical for me as the reader; Okay, responds the former to the latter, let’s go . . . The Dance of a Sham transgresses such a pact, the narrator happily contradicts himself in what he tells, or gives different versions of the same events, and that doesn’t seem confusing in any way. The gamble is that the reader accepts this transgression, and becomes an accomplice, establishing a slightly different pact.