Traversée des temps (Crossing Time)

Summary

In Traversée des temps (Crossing Time), Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has set himself a momentous challenge: to tell the history of humanity in the form of a novel. Scroll through the centuries, embrace epochs, feel the shocks: Yuval Noah Harari meets Alexandre Dumas! Schmitt has been developing this project for over thirty years. Bringing together scientific, medical, religious and philosophical knowledge and creating strong, tender and very real characters, he propels readers from one world to the next, from Prehistory to our own time and from evolutions to revolutions, while the past illuminates the present.

Paradise Lost is the first leg of this unique journey with Noam as its narrator-hero. Born 8,000 years ago in a lakeside village deep in a paradisal natural world, he confronts the tragedies of his clan the day he meets Noura, a capricious and fascinating woman who reveals him to himself. He is faced with a famous catastrophe: the Flood. Not only does the Flood place Noam-Noah on the stage of History, it determines his whole life. Will he be the only man to traverse the centuries ?

Reviews

Le Monde - « The Bible is a novel that is constantly being written »

The history of humanity in the form of a novel: that’s the challenge the author of La Traversée des temps (Albin Michel, 576p, 22.90 euros) (Crossing Time) has set himself. In it, he revisits humanity’s founding texts in eight volumes.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has a fondness for short formats and short stories. This time, in Crossing Time, he has produced a novel on a totally different scale, or rather, he has produced “novels”, because the series consists of eight volumes and clocks up a total of nearly 5,000 pages. That’s what it took him to face the challenge he set himself at the age of 25: to tell the history of humanity in the form of a novel.

Taking as his basis the founding texts of our culture, starting with the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh – which he revisits and updates --, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt explores the past to illuminate the present. Paradis perdus (Paradise Lost) is the first in the series. Using the Flood as the backdrop, he brings on stage Noam, a hero who becomes immortal and who will accompany the reader throughout this ambitious journey down the ages.

What persuaded you to take on a project of this magnitude?

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Painters say that the subject commands, they say it calls for a specific size of canvas. It’s the same in literature. I’m more of a scribe than a creator: I obey the subject that comes to me. This book came to me in a flash just after I’d completed my PhD in Philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. I had an idea for a mammoth book that would tell the story of someone immortal across the centuries, describe the events that founded humanity and show us how we came to be what we are. But at 25, I didn’t feel able to take on the project. So, I procrastinated for ages because I was afraid to launch in. The project turned into a plan, however.

What was your methodology in planning the series?

I spent years gathering sources. Everything I’d written was both an end in itself and a preparation that would enable me to develop my painter’s palette. At the narrative level, a massive design process was necessary before I could start. I built an architecture for the series to structure the entire plot. Once the tree of possibilities was in place, I began to write.

The influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh is clear in both the theme of immortality and the character of Noura, who’s not unlike the cheerful prostitute of the Mesopotamian text. Is it one of your bedside books?

Absolutely! The founding books of civilisations are tales that try to organise meaning and explain how we got here. In that sense, Gilgamesh and the Bible have tremendous interest for me. What I like doing, is suggesting a version other than the history that has come down to us. I want to show how people are linked by the common fictions they believe in.

What is your relationship with the Bible, given that Paradise Lost borrows from the episode of the Flood?

For me, the Bible is a novel that is constantly being written, a novel that is continued by critical commentary and which, even now, is perpetuated by scientific commentary because of the way scientific commentary questions its historical basis. I’m impressed by the capacity of the Bible to go on generating meaning and fiction, today just as it did yesterday. I’m inserting my own moment into this infinite novel.

I’m fascinated by the problems associated with the historical facts of the Bible. You can see that the Bible is a narrative in the making, that it has several layers of text, for example, in Genesis, and that people want to say different things in the text according to the era. I think the Bible is an education not just of people but also of God.

Progressively, it reveals the figure of a god who matches up to God. In the course of the narrative, you see how the idea of God, initially perceived as angry or vindictive, is refined and defined. I actually see the story of Abraham as an education of God and not of the patriarch. When Yarweh asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham seems to be telling Him, “If you are God, prove that you are equal to God and stop me!”

You say you had a mystical experience in the desert, which you related in La Nuit de feu (Albin Michel, 2015) (Night of Fire). Did that experience turn the atheist that you were into a believer?

These days, I prefer to categorise myself as a Christian. Reading the Bible certainly added something to the faith I received in the desert, which wasn’t linked to any religion. I came from an atheist background but at that moment, I had an experience of the Absolute, of God.

But because I became a believer in that way, virtually out of context – the desert was a pretty basic kind of context –, I found my way into many religions through my reading. All mystics are my brothers and sisters, whether they are Buddhists, Muslims, Jews or Christians: they describe the same chaos and, in fact, they don’t describe it well because no discourse can put words to the ineffable.

All the same, my belief took shape by way of the New Testament, which was defining because it proclaims the supremacy of love. Hegel said love is “unwavering”, that it can’t be the fruit of reason. It’s an affirmation, a kind of madness, an impulse.

To replace suspicion, fear and self-interest with love, the way the Evangelists do, was unheard of. For that reason, I call myself a Christian while at the same time assuming the heritage of Western philosophy, of course.

Are you practising?

I’m very happy to share my belief with other people, but I don’t need to be with other people to experience that belief. So, I’m not someone who attends ceremonies or rites. My belief is nourished by silence, meditation, prayer, an experience of the world and even the internal drive I feel inside me.

Did your examination of the historical truth of the Bible and the other religious traditions in order to write Crossing Time make you question your spiritual convictions?

Writing the book didn’t alter my belief, it contextualised it. I agree that, when you face the archaeology of your own beliefs, you can feel unhinged by the realisation that there are contingent aspects in the Bible, aspects that might have not been. If, in writing the story, I might sometimes have felt my belief faltering, I don’t feel like that now.

Like Bergson, I think that all the religions have the same heart: a heart of fire, a mystical heart. Religion is a way of putting words to the ineffable; religions are ritualisations, ways of behaving, institutions whose aim is to organise words and actions. Eventually, people move so far from the mystical heart that the whole thing ends up being cold, frozen even. In many cases, the important religious person is the one who gets close to the centre, who brings the fire back to the institution.

You write, “Only those who love and respect the laws of nature will survive calamities”. What made you place your book in the context of the ecological crisis we’re living through?

I see it as peculiar to the early 21st century that humanity has become aware that it is an excrescence. Humankind has become “master and possessor of nature” to the point of destroying it and possibly of destroying itself. Having revelled drunkenly in their mastery for centuries, contemporary human beings have got a hangover from the realisation that their super-domination is a dead-end.

The book is called Paradise Lost because there’s something lost in the life Noam lived in the Neolithic: animism, the idea that man is only a guest among nature’s guests with no special or superior status. He’s just a living being among other living beings. And living beings are not only humans and animals but also plants, stones, the wind and all the elements of the natural world. In animism, humans aren’t especially privileged with a mind: there are minds everywhere – the world is both completely material and completely spiritual.

But man has progressively appropriated the privilege of the mind until he thinks, like Heidegger, that he is the only “shepherd of Being”. Those Prehistoric men and women we look down on had a kind of wisdom and a way of being in the world that might be an inspiration for us. Because there’s happiness, exhilaration and even consolation in existing as a natural being among natural beings with no special status.

Immortality is often seen as the Holy Grail, but you say that the characteristic affecting your hero, Noam, is “a curse”. How do you perceive transhumanism, which endeavours to push back boundaries?

Science produces scientism and humanism has produced its opposite with transhumanism. It’s what you get when a process becomes fundamentalism and an autocratic ideology. Whereas humanism is an awareness of human vulnerability and the resulting morality of responsibility – with the idea that our mortality is the basis of our existence –, transhumanism claims to escape the human condition.

Apart from the fact that that utopia will never come to pass, it’s insane and a vector of war between rich and poor, between those who can access the technologies and those who can’t. So, the ideology produces the opposite of what it promised.

If life is endless, it ceases to have any meaning. “God or nature”, in the words of Spinoza, intended the species to be perennial and individuals to die. We receive life and pass it on, but it doesn’t belong to us: it is the property of the species. The idea that individuals might be more than the species is an outrageous existential and metaphysical rupture, especially because immortality isn’t the answer to everything. We would then be immortally ignorant.

While you’ve been working on the series, have some periods of history seemed more desirable than others?

No. I love the age we live in passionately, including with its faults. I find interest and things to nourish me in every age, but I never fall prey to nostalgia. You can wonder about it, of course, since the issue is “Paradise lost” but I think that, at the end of the day, no Paradise is really lost.

“No one exactly lives in his era”, Noam says in an aside. Intermittently, we all live through our dreams and aspirations in another time than the one we belong to. They’re the spaces provided by poetry and the imagination.

You said that working on this might sometimes have weakened your religious beliefs. Did it also sometimes weaken your faith in humanity?

Yes, absolutely! I get the feeling that, left to themselves, human beings don’t learn. Not that teaching history is pointless (on the contrary, I believe in it profoundly). But I realised that, although humanity sometimes does marvellous things, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.

In his essay, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Kant explains that humanity never wants good as such, it wants what is least bad. So, he foresaw that there would one day be a society of nations, because peoples would tire of war and want regulatory authorities. So, evil was what led to the advancement of good.

I am metaphysically optimistic but pessimistic when I look at society. I’m metaphysically optimistic because life is a sublime gift, but it’s what humans do with that gift that makes me very pessimistic. We don’t live up to the gift we’ve been given. I don’t myself feel I live up to the gift of being alive and being a human among humans.

“I am metaphysically optimistic but pessimistic when I look at society.” Is writing no consolation for that feeling?

Writing is a kind of self-care. It’s a time of retreat from immediate demands, from social life and from the norm, it’s a space where you can rebuild yourself and remember who you are – just like the space of dreaming at night. Michel Jouvet (1925-2017), a neurobiologist, observed that dreams re- individualise us, whereas society atomises us, pulverises us with its dictates. The time devoted to writing is also a time of re-individualisation, of recovery of the self. Writing is an existential project.

 

Virginie Larousse

Livre Hebo - « I feel as though I was born nostalgic! »

Marrying the major metaphysical questions with fictional expression, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has produced an eight-volume epic on humankind, La Traversée des temps (Crossing Time). Volume 1, Paradis perdus (Paradise Lost) launches the series of novels.

Where did such an ambitious idea for the history of humanity come from?

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Like a bolt from the blue that struck me when I was 25! I was just starting out as an academic in Besançon. I’d read nothing but the literature of ideas for my Philosophy PhD, and I was wallowing in an orgy of novels, rediscovering the joy of reading simply for my own pleasure. I was still imbued with the spirit of the encyclopédistes, notably Diderot who’d been the subject of my thesis and who himself is a borderline author between philosophy and literature, and the idea came to me of a man endowed with a characteristic most people would envy: he would never die. My hero would travel through time and show how today’s humanity was constituted. An anthill, a termite’s nest, a beehive... it hasn’t budged for thousands of years. The unique feature of human society is that it is not natural and it changes. Humanity itself is probably man’s creation. I wanted to explore the history of humanity, but I didn’t want to end up with an encyclopaedia. Instead, I wanted to write novels with all the force of fiction so that the story wouldn’t just be a skeleton but would have flesh.

Why did you give it a Biblical beginning with a protagonist called Noam, like Noah, and the episode of the Flood?

The Bible is a source of infinite inspiration. I’ll continue to talk about it throughout the series – not the Bible as a reference text but as one of the stories of History. In terms of the Flood, the original cataclysm diverted the course of mythical tales but also of scientific research, serious archaeology and every kind of exegesis. The story of the Flood continues in other episodes – I’ll show how, especially with the Mesopotamians and Gilgamesh. The Bible is a story, but it isn’t the only one: the story is constantly being rewritten, and the Bible itself is constantly being rewritten, in every age, through our interpretations and discoveries. References to it interest me when they relate to other stories.

Let’s get back to Noam/Noah. Why did you choose this ancestral figure rather than another Old Testament patriarch, or even the Greek Titan, Prometheus?

This first volume kind of sets the scene with a Neolithic backdrop. It’s the last time nature got the upper hand; after that, humans dominate. Noah finds himself at that pivotal point. Today, we live in a totally “hominised” natural world that’s been unbalanced by human activity – what’s called the Anthropocene. Noah wants to save the old world he comes from. He is in an environment that’s stronger than him where God, or Nature if you want to follow Spinoza, is everywhere and takes charge of lives. I saw Noah as having a formative role in History which, for me, starts after the Flood. Societies before the Flood were in a pre-larval state, because Prehistory was more about clans.

Do you mean that everything was “religion” in the sense of the connection between things, that everything was linked?

Yes, viewed like that, the world consists of a network of meaning, because man is not the keeper of meaning. According to monotheism, he received the Word (meaning via speech) from God and he is the only one to be able to give meaning to things, because animals don’t have the gift of speech. In animism, by contrast, spirituality is everywhere: everything that makes up the world both receives and gives meaning.

If this book and the next seven are supposed to follow the course of History, you’re playing with temporal distortions or uchronia, aren’t you, the way you did in La Part de l’autre (The Alternative Hypothesis) where you imagined that Hitler had embraced the career of a painter?

I liked the idea of defrosting Noam in the contemporary age. It was essential to use the past to shed light on the present and vice versa. When you look at the past, you see it through a window cut into the wall of the present. The past appears to us through contemporary preoccupations. We look to it for how the present can tap into it or contrast with it in order to understand it. It’s always the present with its modern anxieties, always present-day society with its contemporary issues, that digs into the past looking for roots or ruptures. In Paradis perdus (Paradise Lost), we witness a tipping point: the era Noam comes from is contrasted with our own to reveal a deep rift: we go from a man who is nature’s guest, a guest among guests without superior status, to an outstanding hero who completely subjugates nature to the point of destroying Her.

From the narrative point of view, that allows you to use a fair bit of irony...

Noam has the ability to hibernate, to spend time in a long sleep that distances him. In caves, in damp spaces like bellies, like a return to the womb, he escapes from other men and is reborn. Even when he’s wounded or actually destroyed, he can recover in that cavern. Every time he’s reborn, he will emerge endowed with an enormous baggage of previous periods but also with perpetually renewed innocence, like the Persians in Montesquieu.

The French title “Paradis perdus” is plural: why is that?

From the outset, I wanted Paradise to have multiple meanings. Paradise is firstly a historical time when human beings had not yet taken control of nature, when they were evolving equally among living beings. Next, Paradise is the time of poetic ecstasy with nature and also amorous ecstasy or mystical ecstasy. So, Paradise is in the plural, and they’re all lost because none of them exists any more. It’s something that’s always struck me, the impression of being nostalgic. In psychoanalytic Jungian terms, the lake is the mother – sleeping, soothing water from which we’ve been violently cast out.

In the beginning was the Flood. And also desire... Your Crossing Time is also a love story, isn’t it?

I wanted to tell a love story spread across centuries involving two characters, Noam and Noura, who think the same but never at the same time. They aren’t synchronised. You can be immortal with a completely different relationship to time. Noura doesn’t react like Noam because her body is a woman’s body, a body that can’t escape time and the rhythm of cycles; hers is a body that is not an end in itself because it is designed to give life. Noura might have received immortality but she develops a kind of frustration and impatience and sometimes an inability to enjoy happiness, a hatred of herself. She is such a complex character that I can deal with her for thousands of pages via Noam, whose fascination with her allowed me to itemise the thousand faces of love.

But you could have told an epic about humankind by writing about successive generations. Why did you use an immortal narrator?

It’s never explicitly put like that. From book to book, there are multiple interpretations, but immortality will remain a gift, a mystery which struck the characters like lightning. Maybe I wrote this story about immortals to domesticate my own mortality. Maybe it was to tell myself, and readers, too: you know, it’s better to be mortal, better to shoulder the transitoriness bestowed on us only so we can inhabit the human condition. The further I get with the series, the more I realise that immortality is an absolute torment: Noura and another darker character called Derek are the

proof. Not only does perpetuity generate loneliness, but immortality produces non-meaning. Mortality includes us in the story of life which will go on without us. This life we’ve received only has meaning because we bequeath it in our turn. I don’t mean that just in the biological sense: the children of an artist are her compositions. The important thing is transmission.

Sean J. Rose

Le Figaro - « A superb novel »

WHEN Milton wrote his famous poem “Paradise Lost”, he was blind. He wrote, corrected and re- read his masterpiece from memory. Chateaubriand, who translated the work into French, was quick to praise such a “monumental effort of memory”, but he had even higher praise for Milton’s incantatory and divine writing. The genius of poetry -- from the Greek “poiesis” meaning “creation” – was certainly essential to tell the genesis of the world four centuries after the English epic poem.

None of that epic quality has been lost in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s Paradis perdus (Paradise Lost), a superb novel, the first of eight in a cosmological project born some thirty years ago.

As you can imagine given such a Titanic challenge, time is central to the series. For Schmitt as for Milton, the history of the world and the memory of the world are one and the same. By going back to the origins of a life – not “the origins of life” because this isn’t about Adam and Even –, Schmitt can rewrite what we call common myths and tales. Rather than a pagan, pantheist Bible dotted with scientific, religious and philosophical footnotes, this collection of novels turns out to be a proper adventure story.

A hellish present

It all starts with a shiver. A 25-year-old man is waking up. As he gets up, he hits his head on the walls of a cave. Are we in Prehistory? No, a cigarette lighter is pulled out. Moments later, the stranger plunges into the crowds of Beirut. Who is he? For now, all we know is that he is called Noam and that he is thinking of “Her”. Who is she? We don’t know that either.

The mystery continues as page follows page, while young activists take to the streets protesting against climate change. “During his hibernation, humanity had carelessly generated its extinction.” Noam senses that it won’t be long before the world ceases to exist. Is this a “collapsology”? Not yet. But, as fire engulfs the landscape, Noam sits down to write his story. Playing God in his text, Schmitt leaves nothing to chance. A setting nothing short of “apocalyptic” (from the Greek “revelation of God”) is required for Noam to unveil the story of the Creation. Thus begins the first part, written down from its creator’s memory. The man writing is 8,000 years’ old. “When writing was invented, I was already four centuries’ old.” Without expanding on his childhood – he is the son of the village chieftain, Pannoam, who was given a wife at the age of 13 –, he soon gets to the book’s subject: “She”, which is to say, Noura, the woman who brought him into conflict with his father for the first time in his life.

From here on, Schmitt constructs his tragic – and Biblical – plot. Love generates freedom and with it, revolt. Should he give in? In the course of his tale, another world, shaped by beliefs, emerges, a world where people live with respect for Nature and the Spirits that comprise it. But all that will change with the Flood. Noam/Noah recalls those bygone days, his sorrows and his regrets. Dante’s words come to mind: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy.” Since the Stone Age, Noam has lived in a hellish present. What has happened to him? Is he the only one to be living forever? Bring on the sequel!

Alice Develey

Le Matin (Suisse) - « Enthralling »

A man wakes up naked in a cave. He does not know who or where he is, nor what century it is. Once outside, he realises that he has fetched up in Beirut in the 2010s and is fascinated to discover mobile phones, climate crises, TV and the internet. His name is Noam, he is immortal and he is a healer, he has lived in several civilisations over the years and is preparing to tell us his story – a very long story beginning 8,000 years ago when Hunters fought Gatherers at the end of the Neolithic, and ending after 5,000 pages or eight volumes of more than 500 pages each, in the 19th century of Industrial Revolutions.

Along the way, Noam will have told us about Babel and the civilisation of Mesopotamia in La Porte du ciel (Heaven’s Gate), then about Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs, Ancient Greece, Rome and the birth of Christianity, Medieval Europe and Joan of Arc, the Renaissance and the discovery of the Americas. In every age, he finds his feminine alter ego in Noura, a beautiful, unpredictable and fascinating woman with whom he fell irreparably in love as the son of the village chief, beside a lake that became an ocean.

Ten thousand years of history in a novel

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has been incubating his saga for over thirty years, amassing a vast knowledge of history, science, religion and medicine down the ages, rereading the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh and building the architecture of his series a thousand times, driven by a single grand ambition: to tell the history of humanity in the form of a novel.

What might sound presumptuous – does the Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt we know and love really hold the truth to ten thousand years of the history of the world? – or arrogant – even Balzac and Zola in a hundred books of the Human Comedy and twenty books of the Rougon-Macquart series were only claiming to tell the society of the 19th century (Balzac) and the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire (Zola) – or outmoded: do we really need a novelist to understand History? – turns out to be a surprisingly pleasant read.

Turning the pages of Paradis perdus (Paradise Lost), the first volume of La Traversée des temps (Crossing Time) is like being welcomed on board the Orient Express, with personal service and chilled Champagne, for a long, comfortable journey. On board this saga, everything is done to make us feel at ease: the keen, experienced pen of a successful novelist and playwright, author of The Visitor, Oscar and the Lady in Pink or The Bible according to Pilate; his obvious enthusiasm for telling us this story; engaging heroes; the irresistible attraction of fictional machines that turn back time, and the gratifying impression that we are learning about everything while having fun.

A celebration of humanity

Schmitt’s method reaches its apogee here: he is a master at representing the grand philosophical, social and psychological questions with key, flesh-and-blood characters. Our relationship with nature; the complexity of passionate and family ties; what progress brings human beings and what it takes from them; the suppression of individuals by automation; the roots of racism; the infancy of trade; relations with the numinous and the gods, and the perception of our own emotions: these questions are personified in the first novel by Noam, ancestor of everyman, his father Pannoam, the giant Barak, his wife Mina, his son Cham, and Noura his unattainable love. This celebration of humanity has been the hallmark of the Belgium-based writer since his earliest books in the 1990s and it has been central to the unique rapport he has with his readership.

As the sage Tibor says to Noam – and maybe Eric-Emmanual Schmitt is confiding life’s great secret to us – “All living beings are survivors, Noam. The living survived birth, childhood illnesses, famines, storms, conflict, the cold, pain, separation, sorrow and fatigue. The living had the strength to progress.”

Isabelle Falconnier

L'Orient - Le Jour (Liban) - « A superbly crafted human adventure told with outstanding talent.” »

Novel, non-fiction, coming-of-age story, or fantasy tale? French author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, has rolled several genres into one in this literary phenomenon published by Antoine at a special Lebanon price.

Paradise Lost (563 pages, Antoine), a new novel with a Miltonian title by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is the first in a series of eight volumes brought together under the title La Traversée des Temps (Crossing Time) to appear over the coming years. Thanks to the publishing house, Antoine, it is available at a “special Lebanon price” (cf, the latest Amin Maalouf, Nos frères inattendus – Our Unexpected Brothers). Lebanese readers, labouring under the dictatorship of impoverishment and the spectacular fall of national currency, will not be excluded from culture. Put another way, hyperinflation will not have the last word where the word is king. A real door-stopper that defies categorisation, this ambitious literary work-in-progress encompasses literature, philosophy, history and the fluctuations of the human heart. For over 30 years, the prolific author, playwright, director and actor, with French and Belgian citizenship, has fostered a momentous project in his head and in his heart: to tell the history of humanity in purely fictional form, to enter history by way of stories.

For him, humanity as it is today began 8,000 years ago in the Cave of Jeïta 18km outside Beirut, now a failing and disintegrating city. But the author of Oscar and the Lady in Pink doesn’t see it that way, notwithstanding the darts he casts now and then at its dodgy electrics, flaky supplies and the hazardous pollution emitted by forests of power units.

In a lakeside settlement blossoming with stalagmites and stalactites, the immortal Noam comes to life aged 25 after a long sleep. The Cave of Jeïta appears as though seen through the lashes of his half-open eyes.

After the first shock of contact with the earth (he hits his head on the cave walls), Noam, the narrator, a fictional character and witness of the past and of the present, bounds out of an Edenic landscape of abundant vegetation, oceans, rivers, mountains and valleys, out into the wide world. His aim: to find the woman he carries in his heart and in his senses. Cue for a dizzying carrousel of excitement, wisdom, knowledge, sensuality, otherness and discovery that make for an enthralling quest. A natural catastrophe will turn his life upside down: the Flood. Noam-Noah becomes immortal and enters the History of Humanity. He narrates how he travels through time. Will he traverse the centuries alone?

Schmitt is like an indomitable magician and the novels in his Paradise Lost are like the elusive tapestry of the Thousand and One Nights, which cannot be contained in a casket or told in a single night. So, the reader is catapulted by this tousled narrative into a universal history that bestows so much on the rich and powerful (an odd observation in this first volume) and where Noura, the beautiful heroine and chosen heart-throb of the protagonist (who speaks over 20 languages!), appears in gorgeous finery, lingeringly described down to her sumptuous dresses and shoes.

Emphasis on the daughters of Eve

Good intentions abound among a cast of characters who are admirably portrayed, especially the women. Indeed, you’d say that the daughters of Eve, inspirational life-givers, take pride of place in this life-affirming work. There’s the intriguing and beguiling Noura then a delicious cast of female characters – male, too, of course. They are characters who are touching, spirited and funny with foreign-sounding names: Tibor, Ponnoam, Mina, Barak, Tia. There’s also Elena, an amazing mother --

how could it be otherwise, given Schmitt’s devotion to his own mother and the tributes he has paid her in more than one book and on several occasions?

The tribulations of this Neolithic era are uncontrollable if not entirely true to life. With bewildering agility, the novel cunningly conflates epochs, zooming in on the mobile phones, high-rise blocks and hectic pace of contemporary civilisation.

From love to jealously via fatherhood, life in all its complexity and paradoxes unfolds in the heart of a lush, virginal natural world where the lure of the verdant jungle is nevertheless deceptive. For the author interpolates his own reflections on wind turbines, the origins of aspirin and dental hygiene with perspicacity (im)pertinence and topicality!

An array of unhinging and arresting subjects in this mix of cultures, knowledge, science and erudition add to the poetry of pure, majestic, sovereign nature, which comforts those who listen and is friend to those who respect it. For nature provides nourishment and perennial wisdom.

Schmitt’s Paradise Lost shuttles seamlessly between Prehistory and modernity with scholarly and subtle interaction. And therein lies the originality that characterises this ground-breaking work. Its beauty, fluidity, precision and masterful use of language are incomparable and never for a moment flag or fail.

From its joyful opening, the successive volumes of this magisterial and ambitious work-in-progress should be welcomed with deference, delectation and pleasure, not least so that we can revisit a timeless fictional series offering an encyclopaedic breadth of knowledge, a plethora of lessons for life and, above all, an exhilarating account of the human trajectory.

Seizing the reader and propelling her beyond the familiar purr of fiction, this is a universal history that breaks the codes of conventional narrative, stirs the imagination and feeds the mind through a myriad of voices and layering of civilisations. Combining philosophy with passion and an endless source of knowledge, Paradise Lost is a superbly crafted human adventure told with unbounded talent.

To say, “we look forward to the sequel” pales into euphemism!

Edgar Davidian

France Culture - « A talented story-teller broaches a grand literary project »

“Yuval Noah Harari meets Alexandre Dumas...” With this first volume, the supremely talented story- teller broaches a grand literary project: to tell the history of humanity in a novel. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt begins his epic project with Noam as its narrator-hero.

Albin Michel published Schmitt’s La Traversée des temps – Paradis perdus (volume 1) (Crossing Time – Paradise Lost (volume 1)) in February 2021. This is the first volume in his fictional and epic history of humanity, a massive literary undertaking, matured over a period of more than thirty years, to tell 8,000 years of history in 5,000 pages.

Schmitt’s unique telling of human history traces the adventures of Noam, a character reborn in every era. When he arrives in the contemporary world in Beirut, he experiences climate catastrophe and the sense that the world is about to end. Cue for a description of one of his previous lives, when a vast flood marked the end of an era and renewal. He decides to write down his histories in The History of Humanity.

Noam acts as a kind of witness and is sometimes an important player on the stage of humanity. He offers a bird’s eye view of our history, noting the differences that characterise each era but also humanity’s steadfastness. He observes our present with detachment and wisdom: how often has he heard talk of the end of the world in centuries gone by!

Olivia Gesbert

Psychologies - « I’m an optimist out of pessimism »

In his new novel, the Franco-Belgian writer and philosopher has embarked on a series of eight volumes devoted to the history of humanity. Here is a man full of appetites and energy.

Psychologies: How did this colossal project come about?

EES: I was 25. I’d just finished at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and got my PhD in Philosophy, and I’d finally started reading again – when you study Philosophy, you don’t have time to read anything other than philosophy! I was deep in Marguerite Yourcenar, especially her Memoirs of Hadrian, and also Mika Waltari. I was fascinated by the power of a novel to capture intimate History and provide access to epochs other than our own. It was then that I had the idea of a healer possessed of immortality who travelled through time. The project scared me, but it turned into a plan of action. It gave me an appointment with myself, according to the dynamical principle that you have to surpass yourself to gain knowledge. The challenge stayed with me for decades, and in the meantime, I produced other work that helped me build up my writer’s palette. I needed to increase my lung capacity.

Was this “total world” about getting to the essence of human nature?

EES: Yes, it’s a novel by both a historian and a philosopher seeking variables and constants. On the one hand, I’m doing philosophy and anthropology, trying to update what, in the human condition, always leads to the same needs, difficulties and questions, whether in the Neolithic or today; on the other hand, I identify the transformations that made us what we are: the events and the technological, climatic and sociological changes.

So, what do you see as intangible and inherent in human nature?

EES: The need to question! Humanity is a fretful consciousness that doesn’t adhere to the world like melted sugar in a cup of coffee: people question their presence in the world. Having a mind turns out to be a fundamental discomfort: we know that we’re fragile and that we’re mortal and alone. We ponder this life that is given to us and that will be taken away. The stamp of humanity is the ritualisation around death. No animal buries its dead. That existential alarm generates most of our behaviours, our beliefs, our customs, philosophies and our sciences and technologies. It has allowed us to dig the world and to build civilisations. In this hollow, humankind has taken his fill.

You also emphasise in this first volume and probably the next ones, the growing importance human beings give themselves in the world...

EES: Human growth is the other constant that History reveals. In this novel, Noam, the hero, is simply one among other natural beings; he doesn’t see himself as above them. That’s why I called this first book Paradise Lost. Humankind hadn’t yet turned itself into, as Descartes said, “master and possessor of nature”. Later, Noam wonders at the domestication of flora and fauna, at domination to the point of destruction.

Within these two constants, there are others, like love...

EES: Absolutely! Love is desire, the vital spark. Noam, my hero, is revealed to himself by a woman, Noura. Encountering other people, especially in the context of love, is one of the grand principles of individuation. Over the course of the volumes, Noam will hold on to his capacity for wonder.

Is Noam a part of you?

EES: I put a lot of myself into him. He is a lot like me, except that he has very long, very beautiful hair (laughs!). He has a talent for happiness, emotions, observation and deep-rooted love. Through this story and all its characters, I’ve expressed the tenderness I feel for certain beings. I don’t judge people. Neither does Noam. Evil is never seen as such: it’s the response to pain or humiliation.

Did the crisis we’re experiencing come into the design of this novel?

EES: Of course! The past is always viewed through the window of the present. There’s no other vantage point. I consider the past through the current destruction of the planet, for example. I discuss the Flood, which was a natural disaster independent of men, but now we’re the agent of annihilation. The impoverishment of the environment and global warming belong to contemporary anxiety. The loss of our autonomy is the other side of progress. We are interdependent and live in universes that are increasingly connected.

Do you think the catastrophes we’re in, including epidemics, will give us the impulse to change?

EES: I’m pretty Kantian. Kant said that humanity only improves by virtue of catastrophes. Evil is necessary for humans to produce what is good. Optimisation is always a reaction. We do better not because it’s good but because things are so bad they have to change! An example would be international regulatory authorities. I believe that humanity makes progress on the back of bad things. That’s what makes History accelerate. I’m an optimist out of pessimism.

But you’re still very optimistic: here you are at 60 launching into a project that’ll take decades!

EES: Yes. I shuddered when I started out, but I told myself, “Whatever happens to you, you’re giving yourself ten years of life! You won’t be able to be ill, you won’t be able to falter.” I am espousing momentum.

You’re talking about strength of mind...

EES: Exactly! Desire keeps us going. When a person is gripped by a desire, when you’ve got a reason to get up in the morning, when you agree to be tired because you know why and you’re happy to be, you’re embracing life! Tackling this project makes me feel a lot less old. I’m where I need to be, where I wanted to be. These moments of matching up to yourself are very powerful. I had to be ever so slightly crazed to embark, but once I’d begun, I realised that the whole novel was there and I just had to sit down for it to emerge. I’ve got thousands of pages in my head.

Does this project help you to be more yourself?

EES: That’s right. There’s a huge sense of fulfilment in the thought that you’re doing what you’re here for. You know, I’ve always flirted with the Encyclopaedia. I did my doctoral thesis on Diderot, someone who was passionate about the Encyclopaedia, who was as interested in technology as he was in spirituality. He was like a mentor for me. I realise that the periods where I went off in other directions expressed the same impulse and led to this project.

A way of fulfilling your calling in life...

EES: Every person wonders about what’s constructed in her and what’s revealed to her. On my way, there are choices that reveal construction – studies, a career – but there are also revelations. As we move forward, we discover what we are for, just us: we find out what we can contribute that no one else would. I think, as Marguerite Yourcenar wrote, that we don’t change: we become more profound. Become what you are, once you’re aware of it. And become really good at it. That’s how to find peace with yourself.

Isn’t that a bit megalomanic?

EES: You need to distinguish between ambition, which is a form of humility – surpassing yourself – and megalomania, which is the conviction that you’re superior. Confusing them is pretty serious. I’m someone who’s riddled with doubt, I’m always ready with admiration and I’m definitely not megalomanic.

Where does this appetite come from?

EES: I see myself as curiosity on legs! As a child, I frightened my parents because I used to take objects apart to know how they worked. Then it was the same with music, then philosophy... I continually quivered with a passion to understand! I want to enjoy things, but I enjoy them even more if I understand. I’m made of curiosity and desire.

It’s the same thing!

EES: Yes. And curiosity constitutes the first manifestation of tolerance.

What would you say to all those people who are anxious and depressed at the moment, in particular, young people who are in despair?

EES: Life is a journey that lets you find your place among other people and be yourself. Sometimes, circumstances conspire to delay or inhibit that project, but the project remains. You’ve got to seek it out, not forget about it and cultivate it. Let’s sieve our days and pick out what gives us strength, what seems essential to us and what heightens our vital spark. Is society atomising and dispersing us? Then, let’s dream! Dreaming brings us back to ourselves. It’s not easy, living, but what an adventure! Lockdowns and restrictions will come to an end.

Christilla Pellé-Douël

La Tribune de Genève ( Suisse) - « A bestseller that will last »

A Zen colossus of exquisite delicacy and debonair erudition, at 60, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt crosses every literary genre in Paradis perdus (Paradise Lost). The novel launches his eight-part series, La Traversée des temps (Crossing Time), which sets out to recast the world. From Neolithic Hunters and Gatherers down to the Industrial Revolution(s) of the 19th century, its hero Noam, possessed of immortality, will traverse some 5,000 pages.

You’ve taken on a literary decathlon, haven’t you?

You’re right, I wanted to bring together my literary output: novels, plays, film scripts, and so on. But above all, I wanted to change centuries... and bodies. Immortality can only happen in fiction and no academy can alter that. When I’m involved in an adventure story, I make sure to keep only a loose grip on the reins: I walk on the crest of the paradox between knowledge and surprise.

Isn’t it always a question of the innate versus what’s acquired?

That question is central to my project: what is humanity? The product of nature -- i.e., the innate -- or the product of human beings -- that’s to say, what’s acquired? To my mind, natural things don’t have a history. An anthill is like an anthill 100,000 years ago. On the other hand, human thought has evolved. I wanted to track that manufacturing process from human to human.

But without falling into an abyss of documentation. Why was that?

Precisely because I wanted to sediment culture, hence all those years to ruminate! (Laughs.) I wanted a voice to talk to me, not to be thumbing through catalogue cards! I’m a terrible example of the academic confraternity! But there you are: the words I write have to grow organically.

Hence the free sentimental extrapolations, too?

I see the immortal Noam’s love-life as an exception which could be glorious and is going to be painful, because his condition sets him apart. The first volume merely scratches the surface of an awareness: he senses that he’s not ageing and that’s already unbearable, like an odious betrayal, an eternal flight. Look at when he sees his son growing old...

Is that your way of domesticating death?

Probably. Maybe with the ambition for wisdom that writers cultivate, namely, to convince my readers that, given the plague of immortality -- the curse of bearing the same sorrows and ignorance --, it’s better to embrace mortality with humility.

It’ll go on for centuries. You’re like Noam, aren’t you: always out of step?

Doesn’t desynchronisation characterise all love stories?

Is love the main point about being human?

For Noam, it’s revelatory, certainly. It’s the catalyst for his filial, tribal and sexual identity. Love wrests him from his ego but reveals him to himself at the same time.

Why don’t you talk about homosexuality?

Actually, I’ve saved that chapter for the next volume in Mesopotamia and later on, more broadly, when Noam discovers Ancient Greece. But, anyway, no spoilers...

How did you find a balance between the subjects?

It was important for me to talk about women right from the first volume. I believe profoundly that humanity set itself a trap by becoming sedentary. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors practised equality between the sexes. It was when they settled that communities assigned women the roles of maternity and housekeeping. My female hunters don’t live like prostitutes in a brothel but as free Amazons.

What’s your favourite period on this world building site?

As a Hellenist and a Latin scholar, I’ve always had one foot in Athens and one in Jerusalem. I surprised myself by the pleasure I derived from talking about Prelapsarian man out in the wind and the natural world. A whole awareness specific to the 21st century came to mind: the presentiment that humans were causing their own exclusion from this planet. It seemed obvious to counter that with our ancestors’ animist way of life and their refusal to make divisions between so-called “intelligent” living beings. The Neolithic way of life has been considered perfunctory and childish but I see it as holding true wisdom.

After me, the Flood!

Novelist, playwright, film maker... “and screen writer!”, exclaims Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, who can add philosopher and theologian to that combination of talents. Crossing Time – Paradise Lost functions through a kind of alchemy. Schmitt appropriates humanity with ease, according to his method. And after him, the Flood! Or so it seems, when we see his hero Noam’s emotional life struck by J.-J. Annaud’s Quest for Fire or appeal to the Elves’ tragedy in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The writer adds still more weight to his baggage with considerable metaphysical expertise tinged with his own mystical insights. From the Bible to Gilgamesh, Kant, Spinoza and others, his prowess certainly keeps his promise. For all eternity, never give up.

Cécile Lecoultre

Blogs reviews

MademoiselleLit - « A literary masterpiece. 10/10 ! »

What a thrill to be able to introduce you to this writer’s latest book! For anyone not in the know, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is the author who initiated me into literature nearly a decade ago. Since then, I’ve not missed a single one of his new books and await the next like the Messiah! After several light-hearted short stories, Schmitt has embarked on a mind-boggling adventure: to tell the History of Humanity, from the Neolithic to our time. La Traversée des temps (Crossing Time) is in eight volumes, the first of which, Paradis perdus (Paradise Lost), has just come out.

At his birth eight thousand years ago, Noam could never have imagined his future destiny, viz, immortality which would take him through every period and face him with multiple tragedies. The first is critical and will have a lasting effect on him. His father, Pannoam, the village chief, decides to take a young woman, Noura as his second wife and Noam falls madly in love with her. The young man then witnesses the collapse of his father (to whom he was completely devoted) as a result of this betrayal and the disillusionment of the village, now on the verge of demanding a new representative.

With Paradise Lost, which runs to over 500 pages, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt offers readers a superb saga... and a daring gamble to take the reader on an endurance test of literary fiction of a length unlike his usual and most popular books. The author has raised the gauntlet. Now, he presents a cast list of loveable protagonists and a gripping story. Noam is the kind of hero literature loves: intelligent, talented, sensitive and terribly human. His faults make him appealing and we delight in his victories. Obviously, the myth of Noah underpins the character of Noam. Schmitt uses the Flood as the book’s main event. We learn about, and are enriched by, the Neolithic and Biblical part of our History. The hazards of that time are reflected, too, in a fine comparison with the contemporary world.

Aside from the historical era covered in Paradise Lost, the fictional world is surprisingly inventive. Schmitt’s unique creative talent, so often demonstrated in his short stories, is in evidence here, too. His imagination is limitless and never ceases to amaze, right up to the last paragraph. The trials of Noam and his associates keep us in suspense.

The author’s words and voice raise the whole thing to the level of a literary masterpiece of exceptional quality and power. I defy anyone to claim that Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is becoming “commercial”! His skilful use of language proves that the exact opposite is true. Playwright, novelist and director, he has pulled off, without faltering, the finest performance of his life. Crossing Time is the culmination of over thirty years’ thought and research. Paradise Lost comprises a sublime introduction and appetiser. Make haste, Mr Schmitt: we await the sequel!