“How many empty rings spin on the curtain rod?” asks Don DeLillo, the author of Americana and Underworld, of Florence Noiville. “Remember: Anthony Perkins walks towards her, with his crane-like neck and profile. The tip of the knife sticks into the dripping body of Janet Leigh. She grabs onto the shower curtain and pulls it down with her. And all that is left is the knife, the silence and those curtain rings spin around forever. But how many are there? Four, five, more?” It is unexpected, tangential detours like these, an ear for the uncanny and a distilled, bare-boned way of writing, which makes Literary Miniatures by Noiville, author and editor of foreign fiction, Le Monde des Livres, the French paper’s literary supplement, a real delight to read. It’s a slim book of profiles (or ‘portraits’, as she likes to call them) of 28 world-renowned authors, many of them Nobel winners, from Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison and Javier Marias to Mario Vargas Llosa, Kazuo Ishiguro and John Le Carre. Here, the American literary giant DeLillo, 74 at the time of the interview, is awestruck by a video work, 24 Hour Psycho by Douglas Gordon, where Hitchcock’s cult film is slowed to last 24 hours (look it up on YouTube, it’s pretty trippy).
Noiville says that after an interview, she thinks of a ‘dominant colour’ for the portrait, like Andy Warhol used to, which could be an emotion or an attitude—like the fear of flying for Llosa, Milan Kundera’s revulsion to being photographed—that becomes the guiding force. She insists on meeting the authors in their homes. Even Saul Bellow, who jealously protects his address, which is a cottage at the end of an unmarked dirt road in rural Vermont in a lost corner of New England, has to let her into his world and who tells her when they are discussing J.D. Salinger (“who lives on the other side of these hills”), “Don’t worry about insulting me. I am an old oak who isn’t bothered by nails”.
Noiville’s idea of a profile is very un-American or Un-British in template and style. It’s never predictable, always effervescent.
The Chinese novelist Yu Hua, whose Brothers (2005) sold over a million copies, talks about his later book, China in Ten Words, saying, “I wrote this book like a bus driver who always returns to his starting point. My bus, filled with stories, will leave from the Everyday Life of the Chinese and make stops at Politics, History, Economics, Society, Culture, Memory, Feelings, Desires and Secrets. Some stores will get off along the way, others will get on....” A bit like the authors and writers in this collection—there is Canadian writer (and Naipaul’s nephew) Neil Bissondath with his ‘secrets’, there is Uruguayan writer Carlos Liscano who has spent 13 years in prison in Montevideo for his involvement with the guerilla movement in the ’70s, and there is also Herta Muller, German writer and Nobel winner who had wanted to be a hairdresser, not a writer.
Noiville’s idea of a profile is very un-American or un-British in template and in style, so it’s never predictable, always effervescent. She is also the author of two novels, The Gift and The Attachment, so the portraits are more writerly than journalistic. The book came out a few months ago and is a bit tough to find in bookstores, but is available at online shops.