Olivier Simon : What is Chaos brûlant [Burning Chaos]? A novel? A fiction? An essay?
Stéphane Zagdanski: Chaos brûlant is a novel, a genuine novel. All of it is invented. I could even say that the novel’s common thread, that is the DSK Affair, itself is invented, since it is re-elaborated by the mind of the narrator, who is a psychotic with the peculiar ability to see, or to believe that he sees, what people think, without their knowing it.
This character, named “Bag O’Bones,” tattooed head to toe with a skeleton, thereby enters into the mind of the protagonists and sees again everything the characters did that improbable summer of 2011. He relives, inwardly, the entire DSK Affair, and, in particular, the scene in suite 2806 [of the Hotel Sofitel in New York City]. He enters, by turns, into the mind of DSK, of Nafissatou Diallo—and later of [Benjamin] Brafman, of [Nicolas] Sarkozy, of Anne Sinclair, etc., knowing for example what the hotel maid is thinking at the precise moment she is performing oral sex on DSK.
How does he do it? How does he get into someone’s head?
There is a sentence by Proust which much inspired me and which says: “Novelists see through walls.” Thus, in a certain manner, I lent my novelist’s intuition to my narrator. I do not speak for myself as author, but my schizophrenic narrator has this capacity to allow the world go through him and to read thoughts, in so much as he is sensitive to the vibration of the human word.
Chaos brulant is also a novel about the battle between the Word and Number. Number is all that is on the side of DSK, of the IMF, of money, of finance, of the devastation of the world. And the Word is all that is on the side of the narrator, of literature, of speech, of poetry, of madness—but in the poetic sense of the term and of language.
It is a novel that also talks a lot about sex, and sometimes in a very harsh, crude manner. Why?
Because sex is omnipresent in the DSK Affair. We know all about the sexuality of this man. I have no reason to appear more prudish than what the media reported and exposed for a year. At the start, it is a banal affair of morals: a man violently sexually possesses a woman he does not know. There is no reason to not mention it.
Sexuality experienced in this way, that is, basically, in a way that is wholly dissociated from love, is before all else one of the failings of our time, one of the multiple aspects of the insanity of the period. Today an eight-year old child can watch on the Internet porn films of the utmost brutality and savagery. This slightly crazy and panic-stricken sexuality is, besides, incarnated by one of the book’s characters whom I like very much, and who is very touching: Goneril, the narrator’s fiancée. Goneril experiences her libido in the form at once of a delirium and a deceit. We see her and we hear her make love with Bag O’Bones, and we realize that she is delirious. And the narrator, who coldly observes her at the same time as she makes love with him and he loses his virginity—he is mad therefore he is cold—realizes in the end that sex is “only a huge and comical deceit.”
Is this not a slightly radical point of view?
It is the vision I give of sexuality today, such as it has spread throughout the world. And there is no reason for it to be less lunatic than the other aspects of the world. The relations between bodies and persons have no reasons to not be touched by the universal madness which characterizes humanity today. It is the same madness, for example, that we see in the streets, of people who are more and more tattooed. What is happening? What does this mean that the contemporary body has need to cover itself with ink? When these same people are less and less inhabited by writing; that is, by the ink which, in the West and in numerous civilizations throughout the world, is used before all else to write on paper.
Your characters have surprising talents. What can you tell us about them?
The insane of the Manhattan Psychiatric Hospital, in which much of the novel’s action takes place, are the narrator’s friends. These are people – all of them psychotics, schizophrenics – who think they are someone other who possesses a pertinent opinion about the state of the world. For example, there is one character who thinks that he is Karl Marx. It is he who, during the course of the novel, will give the key to the collapse of finance and of the global economy. There is another character who thinks he is Franz Kafka. He is rather more interested in the spiritual aspect of things, the way in which human spiritualities are parasitically fed upon by lie and illusion, and how people are possessed without their knowing it.
There is also Sigmund Freud who is interested in the case of Sarkozy. He analyzes the denial, the way in which Sarkozy lies in delirious fashion: he says yes when he thinks no, he says no when he thinks yes; and when he says he has thought a lot about something, it is because he has never previously thought about it. It is due to an exacerbated denial but this very denial also belongs to the time. It is similar to Goneril’s mind which is crammed full of advertising, and which therefore no longer knows the difference between true and false, between yes and no, between good and evil, between wealth and poverty. All her mental boundaries have been abolished, which is the same with globalization.
Why did you choose to give pseudonyms to invented characters and not to the novel’s real protagonists: DSK, Sarkozy and Nafissatou Diallo whom you explicitly refer to by name?
In a certain sense, those who most exist in this novel are my invented characters. And those who exist the least, in the realm of the word, are those who are reflected on our television and computer screens, the DSK’s, the Sarkozy’s…There is a kind of fundamental inexistence to “celebrities”. These are people who have visual, hypertrophied media existences, whereas their spiritual and verbal existence is manifestly atrophied.
This is effected, for example, in Sarkozy’s manner of speaking, from which I have used many ordurous expressions. His relationship to the French language and to language is well known. It is disastrous. Nicolas Sarkozy is without doubt the politician who, in a century, is the worst at expressing himself. Now, in France, political rhetoric had, until him, always counted.
These “celebrities” are therefore those who have the least substance; they symbolize this devourment and this devastation which are the subject of Chaos brûlant. So it is not an accident if my invented schizophrenics choose some of the great names of thought and literature as pseudonyms. All this constitutes the combination of the world today and a world which, if it seems forgotten, sends its cordial regards to the memory of our contemporaries.
Interview by Olivier Simon for myboox.fr
English translation by Robert G. Margolis
Julien Bisson: The DSK Affair is still on everyone’s mind. At what moment, and why, did it suggest itself to you as material with which to begin a novel?
Stéphane Zagdanski: I had been on the lookout for some while for the opportunity to write an I.M.F., an “Instantaneous Metaphysical Fiction,” a novel interpreting ‘live’ and in their minutiae some of the various villainies which are emblematic of our time. I also planned to dedicate a novel to money or, more precisely, the spiritual ravages produced by its financial transmutation.
Very quickly, towards the end of May, 2011, the explosion of the DSK Affair appeared to me as the ideal pretext for such a novel. All the symptoms of the collapse of Western civilization were fused together in the tragi-comedy of a single man: an absurd mechanical sexuality dissociated from all linguistic refinement (which is at the antipodes of the world of de Sade); a pathological existential blindness, belong to the arrogant oligarchy who are leading the planet to its ruin; the hypertrophic media feeding on its own emptiness, its abyss of non-thought occupying the entire space of description and commentary; the criminal political impotence dressed up in the advertising rags of the most moronically impudent public relations…
To what kind of literary genre does DSK belong? Should he be likened to Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities? To Don Juan? To another type?
DSK is an impoverished and grotesque version of King Lear: a man who believes himself to be at the summit of a sovereignty of which he dispossesses himself by the excess buffoonery of his own character, and by the ignorance he obstinately shows of himself and of others. A man whom nearly everyone has abandoned, who falls into helpless disarray and who no longer finds refuge anywhere; like DSK being released from Rikers Island.
How did you work on this book, and, in particular, with regard to the DSK Affair itself? What part did artistic license play in presenting the facts and the psychology of the individuals in this affair, for which a ruling in a civil suit is still awaited?
The spectacular panic around this affair—media coverage of which surpassed that of the September 11, 2001 attacks—and the role of the new media, like YouTube and Twitter being an important them of my novel—I put myself into the skin of a total voyeur, dissecting everything I could find about DSK on the Internet, but applying to this electronic documentation the mordacious critique of the Word nourished by literature and thought.
Thus I present pure images which I make reverberant with the most secret intentions, unveiling the psychology of my characters with an unfettered license, the license of the novelist about which Proust wrote that he “sees through walls,” in this case, the walls of suite 2806 of the Hotel Sofitel in New York City.
Beyond the character of DSK, you evoke the madness of our world, brought front and center by the Manhattan Psychiatric Hospital where Bag O’Bones, the novel’s narrator, resides. Bag O’Bones even says that “the apocalypse has already begun.” In what way can literature help in these circumstances?
Literature has no utility in a world in which the Word is in decline, in disintegration, because Number has planned its extermination. As much as to want to convince a stockbroker of the beauty of Rimbaud’s poem Solde [Balance] devoted to “what will never be sold.”
Literature, on the other hand, when it knows what it means to think, is alone in the position to describe, to decipher, and to laugh at, this universal cataclysm. From a certain point of view, it is nothing; from another point of view, it is everything.
Interview by Julien Bisson for France-Amerique
English translation by Robert G. Margolis