‘I don’t know’ – the reason for writing

EVENT: Stéphane Audeguy - Theory of Clouds (Friday, 23 September; Lobby Books)


Stéphane Audeguy, author of Theory of Clouds, talks to Georges Lory.

When I arrive at Lobby Books, the shop is empty. In an adjoining room I spy the author and friends finishing lunch, enjoying the renowned cuisine of Robert Mulders’ 6 Spin Street Restaurant, which shares the elegant Herbert Baker-designed space. They do not want the bill yet, I overhear Robert whisper. It looks and sounds so convivial, this fraternity, that I am a little envious, but also instantly in a happier mood – authors, with their overworked intellects, robustly fragile egos and alert sensibilities are undoubtedly at their best postprandial. And so it proves. French novelist Stéphane Audeguy’s charming interviewer, Georges Lory – translator of Krog, Gordimer and Breytenbach – is genial and witty, and Stéphane himself an appealing combination of erudition and idiosyncratic thought.  He begins by thanking the Zulus for putting an end to the Napoleonic dynasty.

He speaks English a little like Johnny Cash or Elvis, but he’s more philosopher, less country/rock star. In fact, Stéphane’s most distinctive and endearing quality is to start with a known fact, then proceed to speculate, exercising his imaginative reach in a way that ultimately locates what he calls “the potentialities in every moment”.

He takes the real-life Richard Abercrombie (who travelled the world photographing clouds and expecting full English breakfasts in Muslim countries), but then “improves him” by “lending him some experiences” that allow him to experience the key human emotion of shame.

Stéphane doesn’t believe in God, which, paradoxically, makes him even more aware of the miraculous presence of things in the world. “Look at a still life, for example. You’ll see there “herring, oysters, bread. But you know that this is not a painting about oysters, herring and bread. It’s about the miraculous presence of things.”

Listening to Stéphane, I am reminded of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don't know’”. Says Stéphane: “We don’t know, there’s so much that we don’t know. We don’t even know why we speak.”

It must be this not knowing that inspires his speculative fictions. What if someone had been able to survive Hiroshima by diving underwater – what would that man’s preoccupations be in later life? Collecting books about clouds? What if Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s long-lost brother could take his fictional revenge? What if an ape gave birth to a hairless infant with opposable thumbs who had some trouble peeling bananas with its feet? What if the city of Rome could speak to us in the voice of an old woman?

It’s no surprise when he mentions that he’s been a lifelong fan of the work of “fictionalising philosopher” Philip K. Dick. Fiction has to invent things that are not possible yet which contain a symbolic truth, says Stéphane: “Telling stories to escape the rational, scientific, so-called ‘truthful’ approach to life – that’s what I do.” Science has been the accomplice to the worst outrages of the 20th century – Nazi Germany and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and Stéphane is haunted by the plumes of smoke emitted by these atrocities.

The potentiality of our after-lunch moment is sublimely achieved when Stéphane’s interlocutor, as well as author in his own right, Georges Lory, looks at him with a mixture of profound sympathy and amusement and asks: “Do you cry often?” “Not every day”, comes the reply, “but I’m highly aware that we are made mainly of water. If you dry my corpse … there won’t be much left … a few stones.”

He identifies strongly with the subject matter of his first, acclaimed novel La Théorie des Nuages (The Theory of Clouds). “Being a writer is like being a cloud – full of water, light, heavy, ever-changing…I may look rational, but what I do is close to shamanism. It’s a job for a witch.”

What about the fraternity I witnessed when I arrived, and which lies behind Stéphane’s second novel, Fils Unique (Only Son)? Fraternity, Stéphane and Georges agree, is what makes France so resplendent. The definitive caractéristique of the French is “the ability to go towards foreign cultures”. But, when Georges presses Stéphane to offer more on his theory of brotherhood, the author admits that he is “not a fan of family relations”; he balks at the fact that “once you have a brother, you can’t make him not your brother”. It’s the only moment when he teeters on the edge of divulging any autobiographical information. But he he doesn’t. “I’m trying to be as non-personal as I can – a writer is like a sponge: nondescript, not interesting, but which holds a lot of water, a lot of things.”