Sunday, September 16, 2007

Guest Post: Éloi Laurent on Yasmina Reza

The following is a review contributed by Éloi Laurent:

Yasmina REZA / L'aube le soir ou la nuit (Dawn Evening or Night)

Choosing a portraitist is one of the most political acts a queen, an emperor or an aspiring President can accomplish, for a portrait always conveys sentiments, authority, melancholy, beyond anyone’s intent.

One reason why Nicolas Sarkozy might have chosen to have his portrait done so early in his presidency is that he wanted to give the French a clear picture of him, so when the time of his re-election comes in five years from now, they can see how much he’s changed, or not.

Yasmina Reza, 48, claims she chose Sarkozy as the main character of her new book L'aube le soir ou la nuit (Dawn Evening or Night), after having hesitated between him and the mysterious “G.” to whom the book is dedicated. Her mind made up, she went to Place Beauvau to ask the minister-candidate if she might follow his campaign. Already impatient, he cut her short: “I get it”, “you want to be there”.

Yasmina Reza is arguably one of the best and certainly the most famous and acclaimed living French playwrights, although, as often in France, her talent is more recognized internationally than nationally. She was born on May 1959 in Paris, to a Hungarian violinist mother and a Jewish engineer father, part-Russian, part-Iranian. Although she did not grow up poor, her family was of modest means. But when she became famous in the mid-1990s and started to give interviews, she regularly lied about her social background, claiming she had been born into a wealthy cosmopolitan family. To a journalist taken aback by her dishonesty and insisting that she not to lie to his questions, she mischievously answered: “Promised”.

She went on to pursue unimaginative studies, passing the holy “Bac” exam in 1975 and studying sociology in Paris X, from where she graduated in 1978. That was when she decided to become first an actress and very soon after that a writer, collaborating on the scenario of her first play in 1983.

In 1984, she failed in the Conservatory concours and instead attended the Jacques Lecoq school, setting to work almost right away on her first play, which she completed at the age of 25. Conversations après un enterrement (Conversations after a Burial) made its début at the Théâtre Paris-Villette in 1987 to instant success, wining prizes and fame for its author.

Of her style, she says : “I don’t think I write like a French writer: I use shortcuts, ellipses. They come from the strange language that surrounded me when I grew up, this way of saying things indirectly, and the wit”. In Conversations après un enterrement, she displays plenty of her characteristic stichomythic style:

Alex: Pourquoi tu rentres ?(Why are you going home ?)

Élisa: Parce que je ne vais pas dormir ici…(Because I’m not going to sleep here…)

Alex: Pourquoi ? (Why?)

Élisa: Parce que…(Because…)

Alex: Parce que quoi ?(Because why?)

Élisa: Parce qu’il faut que je rentre…(Because I have to go home…)

Alex: On t’attend ?(Someone’s waiting for you ?)

Élisa: Non…(Non…)

Alex : Alors ? (So?)

Léger temps (beat)

After La Traversée de l’hiver (Winter Crossing) in 1990, she went on to write her masterpiece, apparently with the trio of actors that would for months illuminate the stage of the Comédie des Champs-ElyséesPierre Vaneck, Fabrice Luchini and Pierre Arditi – already in mind. Art was more than a very successful play, it was an international sensation, triumphing on Broadway and London and winning both a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony Award in 1998.

The now classic scène d’ouverture of Art culminates when Marc/Vaneck apostrophizes Serge/Luchini about the white on white “ANTRIOS”: “Tu as acheté cette merde deux cent mille francs ?” (“you really paid 200 000 francs for this piece of shit?”). Reza touches here touched skillfully on the very subject that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explored in Distinction: the politics of taste in French society.

The bourgeois milieu, Parisian de préférence, would be a constant object of fascination and mockery for Reza, obsessed with the vanity, superficiality and depression of the French intellectual. In Trois versions de la vie (Life X 3, 2000), Hubert says to Henri: « il vous manque une portion d’envergure »… « On vous sent filandreux et égaré, vous devriez prendre des leçons chez votre femme » (You’re a bit of an empty suit…you seem beaten down and bewildered, you should learn from your wife). At that time (2000), Sarkozy, having been forced out of the RPR Presidency after the disastrous European elections of 1999, had withdrawn from politics and was contemplating a career in law.

So, what secret d’Etat did Reza reveal in L'aube le soir ou la nuit (Dawn Evening or Night) that convinced The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist and The Persian Mirror to write (pretty good) reviews of her book before it was even translated?

First of all, the title is strange, since the commas are left out, which may be meant to signal the pace at which the main character is going to run through the pages before our eyes. It comes from the top of page 126 : « Il n'y a pas de lieux dans la tragédie. Et il n'y pas d'heures non plus. C'est l'aube, le soir ou la nuit. » (There are no places in tragedy. Nor is there time. It’s dawn, evening or night). The disappearance of the commas from the title signals the disappearance of daylight, victim of the speed of politics.

There are at least two books in L'aube le soir ou la nuit. For the sake of the argument, let’s call the first “L’Aube”. “L’Aube” is a book about French politics at the height of its drama: the presidential election. It is almost empty and pretty boring. Reza does little to hide that she does not share her subject’s passion for politics. Primary Colors, a book written from a much greater distance, is a candidate’s textbook compared to Reza’s “insights” about one of the most successful campaigns in French contemporary history. Some advisers of the President have even anonymously complained that Reza “spoiled” the unique material she was given when she was granted full-time exclusive access to Sarkozy. The regret is shared by the reader when Reza accidentally reveals her political eye in a merciless description of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s hairdo.

In the only written interview so far for this book, she tells Jérôme Garcin from Le Nouvel Observateur that she is not interested in “politics but in political destiny” and adds : “même s’il a eu la courtoisie de ne jamais me poser la question, il a toujours eu la conviction que j’étais de gauche” (“even if he was gentleman enough not to ask, he always knew I was of the left”). The central character here is without a doubt speechwriter Henri Guaino who, besides telling Reza at one point “tu ne comprends rien à la politique” (you don’t understand the first thing about politics”), works tirelessly at night in a surreal communion with Sarkozy. The fact that the President-elect chose to keep “genius” Guaino so close to him in the Elysée Palace, speaks volumes about the difficulty he may be experiencing in moving away from the poetry of the campaign to the prose of government. But in that subject lies another book.

Le Soir ou la nuit” is a play where Reza, who often performed in her own plays, impersonates the loving mother of Nicolas, her agitated child. When Reza marvels at Sarkozy’s superb proclamation “Oui, je suis un enfant d’immigré” (“yes, I’m an immigrant’s son”), she seems to hear only “Oui, je suis un enfant” (“yes, I’m a child”). In this much better book, there is a poignant moment when the face of Sarkozy’s son Louis appears on the welcome screen of the candidate’s cell phone/mirror. About Sarkozy, Reza tells host Nicolas Demorand on France Inter: “ Cynique ? Il n’a pas cette qualité” (“Cynical?, No, that’s not a trait of his character.”).

Writer and subject are both undeniably at the top of their art, him playing stupid to make her laugh ; or playing seductive to make her blush; her, never far behind or even listening behind his back as a mother might to her son’s phone call to his girlfriend. But she is not listening: she is working, catching the bits of her character that he would not give away. This book is about role-playing and both actors know exactly when the play has ended. They have nothing to say to each other anymore in the “real” final conversation asked by Reza of the newly elected President. Curtain.

Out of this year-long voyage into smoke and mirrors, oddly described in some reviews as conveying “honesty”, only two things can be taken for granted. A) The book is a mega-hit. B) It will not receive the Goncourt, the short list revealed on September 12th including Marie Darrieussecq, Amélie Nothomb and even Olivier and Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, but not Reza.

Yasmina Reza and Nicolas Sarkozy share two traits unusual in the French elites: Hungarian and Jewish roots and contempt for and by high-brow culture. They might have met. But as Yvan puts it tortuously in Art : "Si je suis moi parce que je suis moi, et si tu es toi parce que tu es toi, je suis moi et tu es toi. Si, en revanche, je suis moi parce que tu es toi, et si tu es toi parce que je suis moi, alors je ne suis pas moi et tu n'es pas toi." (If I am me because I am me, and you are you because you are you, then I am me and you are you. But, if I am me because you are you, and you are you because I am me, then I am not me and you are not you.)

-- contributed by Éloi Laurent