Interview with Author & Translator: Arno Bertina and Laird Hunt

February 20, 2013 | By Rachael Small

Arno Bertina will be touring in the U.S. with his translator Laird Hunt in February and March of 2013 for the launch of Brando, My Solitude.  Conceived as a biographical hypothesis, the narrative stages a posthumous meeting between the author and his grandfather. The resultant exploration of an existence played out quietly across the 20th century, through provincial French childhood, war, colonization and provincial French retirement, comes to us as a composite—some remembered, some researched, some wholly imagined—of careful, longing glances.

Here, the author and his translator talk briefly about the book, contemporary American literature, and the impact of translation on the translated author.

Laird Hunt:  Why Brando?  What was it about this American film star that responded to the needs of Brando, My Solitude?

Arno Bertina:  The Marlon Brando in the title is a trap because the book really isn’t about him.  He’s a sort of horizon.  I tell the story of a French man who was born in 1910 and died in 1990.  A man who, by going to live in Africa, displays the same degree of independence from his family that Brando did from the movie industry, for example.  A man who, when he discovers Marlon Brando and his almost feminine sadness rather late in life, feels as though he’s created a kind of twin for himself.  A well of melancholy and a twin.  This discovery nourishes the leitmotiv at the end of the book, where it is often mentioned that his mental space was expanding.

LH: In addition to Sorrentino and Pynchon, who are the contemporary American writers who inspire/intrigue you?  Who are the younger French writers you think American readers need to be introduced to?

AB: Setting aside the classics and sticking to living authors, yes, I cite Pynchon and Sorrentino.  I find Don DeLillo extremely interesting (books as different as The Body Artist and Underworld), or the more understated and less epic Rick Bass, and the young Adam Levin… I’ve read a lot of James Ellroy… I have to mention R.M. Pirsig because I pay tribute to him at length in Je suis une aventure, as well as John Muir who I find to be definitively lively.  We don’t talk about J.P. Donleavy in France, but The Ginger Man is one of my favorite books, a masterpiece.  I must be forgetting some.  I really enjoyed Letters to Yesenin by Jim Harrison but I haven’t opened it again since…

LH: One could make the argument that the life of each of the siblings (the three brothers and one sister) in Brando, My Solitude, would have been worthy of the book's focus.  Did it occur to you to explore the life of Malo, for example, in greater depth? Have you thought of writing (and of course I'm thinking here of Pierre Michon) these other small lives?

AB: You are a fascinating novelist, Laird Hunt, and that’s doubtlessly what explains this authorial intuition.  You see, this is what I did – Malo is one of those figures from Le Dehors, my first novel, published in France in 2001.  And so Brando, My Solitude (which came out in France in 2008) can be thought of as an annotation or an outgrowth of my first novel.  On the one hand, we have a man (Malo) who attempts the same African adventure before he gets caught by his family; on the other hand, we have a man (“Him”) who will succeed at building a life for himself that defies his family’s expectations, displaying a degree of independence that is unusual in that he makes his decisions without ever using them to look down on his family, his community – without ever creating enemies.

If I’ve been bound to this format (a short book), it’s because I had a certain sentence rhythm in mind and a vision of the narrative shape (which would coil around itself, serpentine, unable to be geometrised).  In a way, it’s chamber music (but then this book only talks about adventure, about changes of scenery) while my other novels could be described more as symphonic music (orchestrating a number of figures and themes).  And it seemed difficult to bring this score (this sentence rhythm) to an entire book.  Sartre’s The Words is a masterpiece whose beginning is filled with a captivating music, but it becomes a bit tiring in the last quarter of the book.

LH: Talk a little about what it means to you to have your work published in the United States.

AB: It’s obviously a great pleasure – my library is so packed with American authors who I find fascinating (Salinger’s Nine Stories branded me, and the melancholy of A Farewell to Arms, and Faulkner, and the Miller of The Colossus of Maroussi or of Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, William Carlos Williams, the Kerouac of Lonesome Traveler, etc.).  To have a book published in their language brings a subterranean joy, the feeling that ones own body, one’s own experience, is connected to a whole continent.  And then I have an infinite love for San Francisco, where I lived in 2011.  And traveling all over the United States in 2007 was a fantastic experience.  Being published in the United States rekindles all of that.

Each experience of translation is a vertiginous moment.  I open a book that I have written in a language that, roughly, I can’t read.  It’s me and then it isn’t me.  It’s me and I don’t understand myself.  It’s a completely disorienting experience. 

And finally, there are contacts, meetings, friendships that come with each new book (and each new translation).

Arno Bertina is the author of Le dehors ou la migration des truites (Actes Sud, 2001), Appoggio (Actes Sud, 2003), Anima motrix (Verticales, 2006), and Je suis une aventure (Verticales, 2012). He is also a member of the collective editorial board of the journal Inculte.

Laird Hunt is an American author of six books: a short story collection and five novels published by Coffee House Press, including his latest, Kind One (2012). His writings, reviews, and translations have appeared throughout the United States and abroad in, among other places, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Bomb, Bookforum, Grand Street, The Believer, Fence, Conjunctions, Brick, Mentor, Inculte, and Zoum Zoum. Currently on the faculty of the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program, he has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. He and his wife, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, live in Boulder, Colorado. Brando, My Solitude is his most recent translation. See

More info on Arno Bertina's U.S. events:
SAN FRANCISCO: Tuesday Feburary 26, 7pm
DENVER: Thursday, February 28
CHICAGO: Saturday, March 2, 1pm
BOSTON: Friday, March 8, 2pm: AWP Book Fair, Counterpath Press table


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