The author of the famous novel The French Testament which has won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis was invited to meet with the Kyivites during the week of French language and the Francophonie in Ukraine. The event was made possible through combined efforts of the Duh i Litera Publishing House, Embassy of the French Republic in Ukraine, French Institute and the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
A novelist by trade and a philologist by training, Makine started his speech with a self-presentation, gazing in admiration at the ceiling mural of the Ukrainian Victory Museum time and again during it, showing his appreciation for an eternal artwork. He was born in Krasnoyarsk, but requested political asylum in France in 1987 when he was 30 years old, and has lived in that country for 25 years. He calls himself not an author (ecrivain in French), but a writing person (ecrivant in French, making for a fine play on words). Makine quotes from Proust, Plato, Sartre, Spinoza and Balzac freely, which is not surprising, because he has been speaking French ever since his French-born grandmother taught him the language as a child. On a few occasions, he began to respond automatically in Russian to the questions from audience, but switched back to French in a moment, explaining: “You know, I heard Russian is somewhat unpopular with the Kyivites nowadays.” Ultimately, Makine said, his priority is the language of poetry.
We offer an excerpt from this discussion to our readers below.
What is your assessment of cultural and historical identities in the post-Soviet countries?
“The empire imploded, giving birth to the new independent nations. We had a messianic approach to the mankind in the Soviet time, calling for new people to be created, as befitted the new age. It collapsed totally, and now everyone is looking for their own localized identity. They look for ethnic background to build new social and historical identities upon. One should distinguish between ideological and cultural identities. The first is often used by the government that skillfully plays on the ethnic feelings and divides the citizenry into arbitrarily chosen ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups. Therefore, I believe the best people are those best able to entertain the guests at a party they stage.”
What do you think about the Soviet influence on the literary process?
“In the Iron Curtain era, the West had two cores; the economic one centered in the US, while the cultural one was mostly French. For all its shortcomings, the pre-revolutionary Russia was open to the world. For example, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy were free to travel and interpret what they saw. It is known that the author of War and Peace once went to France just to describe the guillotine. Therefore, a question arose in the Soviet period whether the country’s culture would survive such an intellectual isolation it was in. I am convinced it did survive, as can be seen from works by Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Dovlatov. It depends on the individual. Some people could create great texts while imprisoned in a small cell, while contemporary authors have the opportunity to see the world and visit every corner of the planet, but still write shallow books.”
How would you formulate the concept of beauty? Why do you see the beauty’s current situation in France as tragic?
“The beauty is like the idea in that it can be not just put through one’s mind, but also sensed by the individual. Such a sensual definition of beauty is reflected in the Platonic idea of the soul falling and entering the sinful flesh. The artist’s work is such a fall. Art can be in a tragic situation, too, when it becomes obscene. We are seeing an ideology of ugliness imposed on us. The beauty comes only with tremendous efforts. Only highly cultured audience understanding the historical context of a beautiful thing’s creation can perceive it correctly. Meanwhile, the ugliness we are seeing in the contemporary art is dumbing down the tastes and cultivating mindless consumption. For an artist who understands the beauty, this invasion is a veritable tragedy.”