Marc Levy Beyond the Walls
There is a small bookstore on the corner of 10th Street in the West Village. In this little shop so reminiscent of the past, old and new books squeeze together on the shelves and give off that special scent of cracked ancient floors and living pages. Just a block away, if you look up, you can see through an open window that belongs to the most widely read French novelist and storyteller in the world.
A conversation with Marc Levy usually takes place over a good lunch on the terrace of Sant Ambroeus café. But Sant Ambroeus is closed now, as is the Three Lives & Company bookshop.
We could have also dined on a dish he would have cooked. But Marc Levy is currently a recluse in his haunt, sitting at his desk, among his books, computer screens and ancient typewriters. Surrounded by his characters, he gathers the letters of the alphabet and creates stories, like the one he just published in Des Mots Par La Fenêtre.
(French Version here via Le Petit Journal New York)
Thank you for not inviting me to your house Marc! What do you see from your office, through the window?
The rooftops of the village and the foliage of the trees. My office is a small space made of glass and iron perched on the roof of an old house. I am lucky to have two views. One overlooks West 4th Street, a small street in the West Village. On the other side, you can see a cascade of roofs up to 7th Avenue and, further away, skyscrapers.
Do you spend a lot of time looking out the window?
It is one of the essential pastimes in a writer’s life. We didn’t wait for the lockdown to do it. That being said, I look out through the window less often because there’s not much going on there anymore.
Except when a woman decides to throw “a bowl of words” from one of her windows, which is exactly the starting point of the short story you have just published in a collection of stories compiled in a book available online, Des Mots Par la Fenêtre (which translates literally as Words Through The Window). Was it difficult to write in this unprecedented time?
Contrary to what one might imagine, writing is affected by this confinement. Imagination needs life, movement. Right now, my mind is consumed by the dramas unfolding around us and by a daily life that overwhelms me. However, this short story came to me spontaneously; the image created by the idea of throwing words out of the window made me laugh.
In French, the title is a play on the word “mot,” which means woes when spelled “maux.” This woman gets rid of all her ailments at the very moment when a man passes by her house and receives them on his head. He stops and calls her out.
So, to be honest, the play on words hadn’t yet invaded social networks when I started writing. I was imagining an encounter between a person who gets rid of words she doesn’t want anymore, words she’s tired of, worn-out words, words she is bored with; words that imply lies; but a man finds them all and thinks there are lots of beautiful things to rebuild with them. New sentences, new promises: in short, new tomorrows.
Fame is an illusion; the greatest man in the world is tiny in the arms of the nurse who cares for him
The proceeds of this book—published by Éditis in France—will benefit the Paris Hospitals Foundation. Your respect for the medical staff transcends the current recognition we have of them.
Do we own a more important capital in life than Life itself?
At the age of seven, already fascinated by the most beautiful and incredible of all machines—the human body, I dreamt of becoming a doctor. It didn’t happen because I was very bad at math. Instead, I joined the Red Cross when I was 18. I spent seven years there in a roadside extrication unit. We were in daily contact with emergency doctors, nurses, medical staff, regulators, not forgetting the maintenance men or women who mopped the bloody tiles of an operating theatre, sterilized it, and whose swiftness increased our turn-around to save another life. I had the chance to meet at a very young age these anonymous heroes who endure what few people could bear. I have always admired them and have never stopped paying tribute to them in almost all my books. I have often been asked what fame means to me, and for the past 20 years my answer has remained the same: “fame is an illusion; the greatest man in the world is tiny in the arms of the nurse who cares for him.”
You’re the most prolific French author. You’re also an adopted New Yorker.
I have a tenderness for this city, for its incredible resilience and its ability to reinvent itself.
A city that is constantly evolving.
The New York I knew in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s was much more vibrant than the New York of today. I may have also been more vibrant in my 30s and 40s than I was in my 50s… but there was still a New York that was a little crazier, a little more dangerous, a little more folkloric and colorful.
Today’s New York City is unheard-of, drowsy, sad and tormented. It is baring itself, revealing a frightening devastation. Do you think the city will be able to get back on its feet?
I have lived in New York through three periods of near bankruptcy. In the 1980s, long before the gentrification of the city, poverty reigned in many neighborhoods; the streets were rutted; and the infrastructure was outdated. New York drains not only an unparalleled energy and desire to live, but also phenomenal capital, which have radically transformed the city. New York survived the September 11 attacks and the 2008 economic crisis. It is a phoenix rising from the ashes but given the scale of the recession it is now facing; I don’t know how many years it will take to resurrect it.
Such a unique challenge in its history!
The city is facing an unprecedented situation: on one hand, a gentrified city, an impressive number of construction sites that have been halted, real estate developers who are benefiting from billions in tax breaks, and on the other hand, a bankrupt subway system and a gutted infrastructure. Will this situation finally give way to the urgent need to manage this city better?
The city is also over-indebted. How will it be able to absorb the sudden economic halt, which is based on permanent movement, unbridled consumption, the influx of tourists attracted by the many activities it offers: theaters, restaurants, exhibitions, and conferences? Through foreign investment in particular, knowing that foreigners are today stigmatized by the Trump administration? I have no idea.
Your attachment to this city is frequently described in your novels. Let’s just mention here the romantic comedy A Woman Like Her, which is published on May 12. The main character of this story is an antique New York elevator in a building on 5th Avenue, near Washington Square, that only an operator can manage, a relic of the past and a stunning contrast with the new Hudson Yards neighborhood, Calatrava’s oculus and this tower, straight and square, the tallest apartment skyscraper in Manhattan, 432 Park Avenue. Above all, this is a story in which one person silently witnesses all the interactions between the residents, the visitors, the delivery people and other handy people.
Three hundred sixty communities and ethnicities live together in New York City and forge its identity. The New Yorker is not exclusively American: he is French, Italian, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Spanish, South American… In short, this person is from every country in the world and often defines him/herself first and foremost as a New Yorker.
New York, is the city of all immigrants, of all possibilities; it is a city that punches, that one loves passionately or hates, that either carries or destroys you; it is the very symbol of this American dream (before the Trump administration and the horrible Stephen Miller made the commitment to destroy this nation’s unifying dream). What a strange paradox for us hardened Gauls living here to have become hardened New Yorkers, absorbed into its fabric like so many other communities.
It’s no coincidence that the book you’re recommending at the moment is a New York story. Nuit d’Eté à Brooklyn by Colombe Schneck.
In August 1991 Crown Heights, a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn, a Jewish man accidentally runs over two black children playing across the street. One of them is killed instantly. This neighborhood, where the two communities have difficulty living together, is soon filled with fire and blood; the streets resound with cries of “Death to the Jews” and “Long live the Nazis;” shops are looted, and cars burn. While the police are reacting too slowly, Rabbis, Reverends, mothers, journalists and ordinary citizens confront each other, looking for fault and violence in each other’s eyes.
Esther, the hero, has just finished her studies in journalism. She is doing a three-month internship in New York and meets a literature professor, a specialist in Flaubert, married, father of 15 year-old Lizzie. Esther becomes his mistress. He is black; she is white, Jewish, Parisian, and much younger than him. The love affair between Esther and Frederick will not survive the events that oppose them. The life around them is stronger than they are. This book is the story of Esther’s quest to answer the question asked one day by her lover: ‘why can’t we love each other?’
Written with an alert pen that always hits the nail on the head, Colombe Schneck’s novel, which she draws from these very real events, conveys as much as it questions the sadly current themes of racism and anti-Semitism, yet always talking to us with the universal language of love and hope.
Where do you spend most of your time these days?
In my office.
What does it look like?
Red brick walls; old, wide-slatted floorboards; and two canopies on the west and east sides. I find it has a little shop side look. Metal shelves anchored in the brick, where some photos and objects are stored, along with model airplanes and my collection of old typewriters. And an old trunk converted into a small side desk for my visitors. It’s a simple place, but it’s my lair. I miss it every time I walk away from it.
An immense love story, as immense as life itself: that is all I wish for us
If this is a time to throw words out the window, should we, too, take the time to write and describe how we feel?
Everyone has their own mode of expression. For some, it’s a guitar, a piano, a paintbrush, or plastic art… For others, it’s the stove. There are a lot of activities that have a liberating power, because we don’t think while we’re doing them.
When I cook or garden—two of my preferred hobbies—I don’t think about anything. It’s jubilant.
But when I write, of course, I think. I think about my characters, about what they do, what they say; how to untie the thread of the story, the choice of words.
But shouldn’t we make the most of these confined days?
I was talking this morning to a friend of mine who is a bookseller, and he said to me, “You see, at the end, we would have spent two months in our house; now we’re going to be de-confined, and I think that later on, we will regret not having made the most of that time.” That’s one point of view, but I suggested that he should not feel guilty; there is after all a certain logic in not “enjoying” a moment of death and suffering. I can’t do it. I find it difficult to concentrate when I read.
What do you do then? You’re a recipe enthusiast. Are you spending a lot of time cooking?
At the moment, I spend all my time trying to write.
Yes, and I’m also working on two series.
Romain Gary is the writer who made me love, read, and dream to write one day
Being a writer, you are after all an expert in imagination. If reality has caught up with fiction in the most violent way, does that already inspire you with characters, dialogues, romances that would superimpose on this open book we are living?
It’s too early for that, and my characters have never been immobile and contemplative. We first have to come out of this period, to adapt to the way of life that will follow, and to understand what will result from it. Will this inspire many authors and attract as many readers as well? One might have thought that no one would want to relive the horrors of the Second World War in a movie or in a book, and yet there have been so many films about that period. Will the situation we are living through feed literature and cinema abundantly, from testimonies to fiction? It is very likely.
You own a collection of works by Romain Gary, a writer and director who we share a passion for.
Gary was permeable to the world around him, to its joys as well as its pains, which affected him in the depths of his being. He is the writer who made me love, read, and dream to write one day. He is the writer whose pages I reread at every moment of doubt. He is the oldest friend I have ever met.
What would he have thought of today’s situation, he who had lived through so many other tragedies, including the Second World War?
Gary’s work focuses on one theme: the whole humanity contained in one human being and the relationship that this human being entertains with others. To read: Clair de Femme, White Dog, Promise at Dawn and Beyond This Limit, Your Ticket is No Longer Available.
Which of his books would he have written today? I am thinking here in particular of his last novel, Kites, which explores the power of imagination as it confronts reality, the ideal of fraternity between men and women, and the very way adversity reveals to us the most beautiful or monstrous sides of ourselves.
Perhaps The Life Before Us, it’s an immense love story, as immense as life itself: that is all I wish for us.