Ann Charney has published one previous novel, Dobryd, and a book of reportage, Defiance in their Eyes: True Stories from the Margins. She has received awards for fiction and non-fiction, including two National Magazine Awards, the Chatelaine Fiction Prize, and the Canadian Authors' Association Prize. Charney spoke with Padma Viswanathan on November 28th in her home in Montreal.
Padma Viswanathan: What were the seeds of the book, where did it begin?
Ann Charney : I think it began with a visit to the place I call Rousseau's Garden, this extraordinary tract of land north of Paris. I was amazed that this man to whom this land belonged, the Marquis de Girardin, had been so influenced by a writer's ideas that he had taken his entire fortune and used it to create a world that was in accordance with Rousseau's ideas. That seemed to me a very compelling thing. Especially if you're a writer, the idea that another writer's words are so powerful! That led me to reread some of Rousseau's writings, and I was struck by what a contemporary writer he is, to what extent his message is so relevant, so applicable, for today. I have a heroine who suffers from the most common disease of the day, high level anxiety, and much of his writing is about how to relieve that condition, through meditation, through contemplation, and through nature. So those were the vague origins. But there were other things. I had wanted for a long time to look at what the relationship would be like between a woman who is an artist and her daughter. Not from the mother's point of view, but from the child's point of view. Also, when this child grows up, she has a sort of artistic career and hence she's able to say that when she looks at her mother as an artist, she feels compassion and when she looks at her as her mother, she feels resentment. And then there's the notion that our parents are for the most part like the dark side of the moon. We don't know them really as people, we only know them as parents. And to what extent do we have the right to know them? That was another question that intrigued me.
PV: Can you talk about your relationship to Paris and your decision to set your novel there? It's an enormous challenge, even if several of your characters are Canadian.
AC: I went to school there for two years, and when I came back, I spoke French really well, and then studied French literature. And I have friends from when I lived there, so I go back twice a year. My husband (Mel Charney is an architect and visual artist) also has a lot of work shown in France, so when I'm not going for my own reasons, I'm happy to go for his.
PV: I know your husband has done research on gardens (as does Claire's husband, Adrian, in the book).
AC: Yes, I probably never would have seen the garden if not for his research.
PV: What was your fascination with the place, compared to his?
AC: I think we were looking for very different things. Mel sees what's there. I tend to be fascinated by the aura of a place. I started reading the story behind the gardens, what a place of pilgrimage it became, how many famous people through the centuries have come there. I think that appealed to me more than what I actually saw, because the place is, to a large extent, quite neglected. Mel appreciates it in a physical sense. For me, reading about the place was more magical than seeing it.
PV: So the Rousseau thread was integral to the book from the start?
AC: He certainly was a presence, from the beginning. I don't think I would have been interested in writing a story about a woman who has panic attacks and who may or may not want to have a child with a man who doesn't want to have a child. I don't think that would have been enough for me. I have to have certain resonances, from the past. It really intrigued me, from the beginning, the idea of creating from Rousseau, a commentator who comments on various events that happen in the book. I don't know if you're aware of this, but all the quotations from Rousseau are made up. I wrote them. [Charney is referring to a scene in the garden where Claire hears the voice of Rousseau speaking to her.] It's not a biography¨he's a fictional character who Claire evokes in the place, and she's also reading a book which is of dubious authenticity, of his letters. I did do a lot of reading, assimilated his views and his way of writing, and took off! When she feels she'd just like to be with her husband, and he's so absorbed in the place, and everyone around them is having these intellectual debates, Rousseau really speaks her mind, when he says, "He's a fool for ignoring you." These are the kinds of things people need to hear sometimes, and so they find them in different places. It's interesting because my American editor sent me the manuscript with various questions, and asked, what's the source of these quotes? I replied, "My mind."
PV: That's great, because Claire asks the same question of Zoe [Claire's closest friend in Paris is a psychoanalyst] and effectively gets a psychoanalytic explanation for the origin of these quotes, which is kind of what you're giving me now.
AC: Everyone assumes the quotes are true, including my editor, who actually knows quite a bit about French literature. And all the reviewers have assumed they're true, too.
PV: But the details about Rousseau's life that you useÓ
AC: Those are all true.
PV: And those also reflect on the story, for example, that he was writing about the welfare of children yet abandoned his own five children to the care of an orphanage seems important in a story about a woman dealing with abandonment by her mother.
AC: I'm glad you got that.
PV: I also wondered if Rousseau's appearance could be seen as Claire trying to give herself assurance that she is on the right track.
AC: I don't know. I do think it often happens that when we are looking for one thing, we find another, and we think it's the wrong thing but it's actually the right thing. So she's trying to follow the footsteps of her mother, and she conjures up this other person and she ignores this [act of creation] but that discovery is crucial to her own feelings.
PV: It's also true that Claire persists in the face of, well, Marta's adamant denial that there's anything to discover. So it does seem to me she has a prescience and a sense of the importance of whatever she's doing there.
AC: Yes, and I think Claire's conviction was confirmed by the opposition she encounters. Marta is not a conventional person, but she refuses to talk about what happened to Claire's mother. This goads Claire on. Also the discouragement she receives from ZoT, and Adrian, who think one should be discreet, that this is a private matter. And Claire feels there's no reason to be discreet.
PV: Few of your characters have political concerns at the forefront of their lives. Marta is the only character who is stridently anti-bourgeoisÓ
AC: Well, she's more than anti-bourgeois. Her whole life has been involved in radical politicsÓ
PV: I thought this was elegantly handled, and that it gave the book a contemporary feel because it reflected the fact that the preoccupations of intellectuals have changed.
AC: Exactly. Politics generally have gone into the background. Recent events have brought them to the front again, but for a long time it just wasn't what preoccupied people. Hence, the intellectual as a public citizen in North America has completely disappeared. I wanted to show how different (contemporary intellectuals) were from Marta and her friends¨they might have picked the wrong causes, but they were very passionate.
PV: And your feelings about that?
AC: Oh, I'm much more with Marta. I'm an anomaly! I grew up with a mother who was very passionate about politics. And then I wrote about politics. I very much admire Marta. She's my favourite character.
PV: ZoT pays tribute to Marta's and to her own mother's strength. Then Marta goes off to Amsterdam to reclaim her grandson¨a very conventional, grandmotherly thing to do. And yet this act is very much within her character.
AC: Yes. We now subscribe much more to a code of "hands off," you can't be judgemental, can't tell people what to do, have to let people learn for themselves. And Marta doesn't believe in that¨if she sees something wrong, she's going to march right in there and fix it. She does it for her friends and she does it for her grandson. And I think she makes an enormous difference in his life. I guess I'm setting her up as a kind of contrast to what we've come to today. I do really admire her values and the way she lives, even though she's difficult and cantankerous and cranky. But those qualities I think have more to do with age than with her true character. I love that she has this need to take everything personally. It doesn't matter if it's going on elsewhere. For her, it's very important.
PV: So you feel that about her even though she's withholding this important information (about what happened to Dolly) from Claire?
AC: Well, I understand it¨it's painful for her to go back to that place, and she's fond of Claire and wants to protect her.
PV: I was upset with Marta for not coming clean.
AC: As somebody says in the book, though, Marta is a pre-Freudian. She's good at practical problems, but not emotional problems. She thinks Claire should do something, have a baby, stop obsessing because it is unhealthy. She doesn't see why she should indulge Claire, she just sees it as a kind of weakness. She's not sympathetic to her at all.
PV: I suppose Marta would have no idea that this might be necessary information to help Claire become a stronger mother.
AC: No. You can also tell she doesn't have the best relationship with her own daughter. I don't think she has much psychological empathy. She has a lot of political empathy. And since she herself is such a dynamo, she finds it hard to understand other people's viewpoints. But I like her enormously. I like the fact that she doesn't feel she is betraying her (late) husband by sleeping with another man but she feels she's betraying him by sleeping with a man who has the wrong political views.
PV: She says at one point that she thinks the fact that they were more free made their marriages more stable than marriages of today which are seen only one way.
AC: There are many people like her of that generation (Marta is in her seventies) living in Paris and elsewhere; I just happen to know a whole community of them in Paris. It's almost like they had to leave the Canada of their time in order to live those kinds of lives, lives in which politics matter.
PV: So you don't find that among Canadians?
AC: No, I said the Canada of their time. She would have left in the early fifties. From what I've read, the Montreal of that time was a pretty tight-laced place, perhaps not as much as the Toronto of that time, but more so than Paris or London. A lot of people chose to leave for places like that because they wanted to live in a freer way.
PV: Marcel is also a fascinating character. I adored the tension Claire felt every time he appeared.
AC: Yes, I'm very interested in jealousy women have not necessarily because of other women but because of friendships that men have with other men, that exclude them. I've certainly experienced that. I've been to many places where people talk across me as if I was not there, and I've never seen that written about.
PV: Can you tell me a little more about where Marcel came from?
AC: I know a lot of intellectuals who could be Marcel. He personifies the best and worst of that type, the erudition, the extraordinary ability with words, but also the extreme neurosis that goes with this. He's appealing and ludicrous at the same time.
PV: Claire has so much resentment toward him, yet the "strange and wonderful day" when she encounters Rousseau in the garden, for example, was his initiative, so she ends up being grateful toward him.
AC: Well, he's unable to rise above his neurosis, and Claire at the beginning can't go beyond her own irritation. But once she starts to understand things about herself, she can be much more generous and accepting toward him. But he doesn't ever get to that point, can't go beyond his own neuroses long enough to empathize with someone else. He remains a child in some ways, even though he's extremely smart, learned. But also his experiences in life are limited, he lives in a world of ideas.
PV: The countess is also a great character, as much an emblem as a person, fossilized.
AC: She represents a way of life that has vanished. What's interesting about this is much as you realize intellectually that this stands for a level of privilege and inequality that's unacceptable, and that one wishes would change, for life to become more egalitarian, nonetheless one still feels a regret that some of the aesthetic parts of that world vanish along with the inequality. Did you get the humour? Lightness?
PV: Yes, sure, especially with Marcel. And Marta, certainly, is quite over the top.
AC: Yes, especially as regards men. Marta is always the femme fatale. She's a woman who's attracted to men, to the fray of male-female relationships. There are women who remain very coquettish, no matter how old they get. Marta is always very concerned about her hair, how she dresses. In a sense, the Countess is like that, too.
PV: It's interesting, given how different their political orientations are. Marta gets quite irritable, when Claire is dressing for a dinner party¨is that a kind of jealousy?
AC: I think it is jealousy. I think the most revealing thing she says about that is how it's unfair that Dolly will always remain young. She makes many revealing comments about age.
PV: You used the term "coquette" to refer to her¨ I think of a coquette as someone who is reliant on male attention, someone quite unlike Marta.
AC: I think that is quite typical of French culture, that women there don't think they jeopardize their intellectual strength by being coquettish. In a sense, I think French women managed to maintain a better relationship with men as the gender wars went on, by combining emancipation and attractiveness. I don't necessarily want to do that but I admire it, I like watching women who have that side to them.
PV: Are there writers whose work you feel you are continuing with this book? Repudiating?
AC: I never think of writers to repudiate. I think more of writers I admire.
PV: You have mentioned wanting to portray women who are like those you knowÓ
AC: I do want to portray women who are not victims of their own emotions, in the throes of hopeless, unrequited relationships. I'm interested in portraying women who are like women I know, who are interested in a great many things. In Jane Austen's novels, you had women who were intelligent, very much the equal of the men in the novels. I'd like to believe I'm continuing her tradition. Also, my graduate thesis was on Marcel Proust, and I was very influenced by the idea of seizing time. Dobryd was about a place I knew as a small child, Defiance in Their Eyes was about Montreal and a whole culture I discovered as an adult, and Rousseau's Garden is, I suppose, about my love affair with France, and what each of them does is preserve a segment of the world I'm very fond of. But to return to your question, my impulse in writing Dobryd was that I couldn't find my own experience at all in all the books I read about the Holocaust. They were all so sentimental, sad, filled with sorrow, and I don't question people's right to do these things, but my experience was different. I wanted to write a book about the possibility that children can find happiness even in the grimmest of circumstances. For me to write that book was to find my own experiences. As for Rousseau's Garden, there have been so many accounts of Americans in Paris, but not from the particular vantage point that I have.
PV: Another aspect of the book's setting is that you are rendering in English many conversations that would have taken place in French. Was that a particular challenge for you?
AC: I know it should have been, but it wasn't. Yes, I tried to convey the form of French speech, and a couple of critics have commented on how it sounds stilted, and I think they just didn't get it, that I was trying to capture style of conversation that people of that particular social class and French milieu have with each other.
PV: I particularly liked some of the stiffness, of Simon and Marcel.
AC: Yes, I did that deliberately.
PV: You don't feel it with Claire and Adrian.
AC: I felt it distinguished their form of speech. Some people think this is successful, other people don't.
PV: You made reference to Proust. Rousseau's Garden seems in certain ways a tribute to the magic of conversation and social life, and so much of what I adore in Proust is the gossipy parlour scenes, dinner parties, which bring to mind yours¨conversations that have the power to transport.
AC: I'm glad you say that.
PV: It felt elegiac.
AC: That's a good word. I think that's what I'm doing is writing elegies for life as it slips through our fingers. ˛