Financial Times - 2010 - "Mirrors take you by surprise"
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, 50, started his working life as a teacher of philosophy in Paris and is now among France's best-selling and most productive authors. Described as a "lucid moralist", his deceptively simple plays and novels have been translated into 43 languages. His latest novel is "Concerto à la Mémoire d'un Ange", and he has also directed two films. For the past eight years he has lived in Brussels and has become a Belgian national.
Your parents were gym teachers in Lyons. What was your childhood home like?
In the 1960s, when I was eight, my sister and I moved into the house outside Lyons my parents had had specially built. It was a vast two-storey house with a big garden and I had my own bedroom and playroom. I have tried to live in houses ever since. I don't like apartments - the idea of other people living, copulating and defecating above me - they make me feel as trapped as a slice of ham in a sandwich. When I was a student in Paris I always rented attics right at the top of buildings and as soon as I was making enough money I bought houses.
Do you remember your childhood home with nostalgia?
The garden in particular had lots of charm. There were big trees and I strung a hammock between one of them and a weeping willow and spent hours and hours lying there reading. I read the whole of Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu there.
I have a house in Brussels with a garden and another place in the countryside in Hainaut province with a larger garden. It's a 17th-century fortified chateau-farm with amazingly thick walls in the middle of a village. It was in good shape when I bought it but I fell so deeply in love with the place that I decided to undertake its complete renovation.
What drew you there?
It gave me a feeling of absolute harmony. It's as though it has two gardens - the earth-and-soil one and the sky that stretches like a plain above the ramparts. The ramparts cut off everything else. It's a very simple but beautiful blue stone building that is harmonious despite several additions over the centuries. There's even a bit of an 11th-century tower. I hope to be adding something of the 21st century. My three dogs love the place too. They go wild there. I feel this is a cosmological place of great wellbeing. I ascribe its euphoric affects to several water sources in the garden. When it's finished, it's going to be my ideal house.
What do you mean by your "ideal house"?
I kept the outside walls and broke down everything inside. There will be a huge living space on the ground floor with a kitchen, music room and salon with a huge fireplace, all linked by doorways. Upstairs there'll be the writing room looking out on to weeping willows and my very large bedroom. The top floor has wonderful roof beams and there I'll have a home cinema and a playroom with ping-pong and billiard tables, table football and card tables. I'll have an annexe for friends at the bottom of the building's L-shape.
Do you plan to live there full time?
No, just a few days a week - and the rest of the time in Brussels for its restaurants and cinemas. The Brussels house is a typical townhouse with a garden at the back. I've decorated it in a Zen style with soft colours like sand and pigeon-grey. I don't have much furniture but there are books everywhere, from floor to ceiling. I consider a house without books or a piano to be unfurnished.
What objects would you choose if you had to live in a small white space?
A writing table and a convertible couch because I move continually in and out of sleep when I'm working. It's as if sleep were a corridor to my imagination and my characters are at the end of that corridor. I used to be ashamed of my writing habits but then I realised that that was how I find my characters. There must be some neurological explanation but I think sleep is my way of withdrawing from worries and preoccupations. There would, of course, be a Bösendorfer grand because they're the best for medium-good pianists like me.
How long do your naps last?
I don't know because I don't keep any clocks in the house and I don't wear a watch. I don't have any mirrors in the house either. I find mirrors detestable; I dislike seeing myself. Of course, there's a mirror in the bathroom but it's a magnifying one for shaving. Photographs are fine but I don't like mirrors because they take you by surprise.
Do you have lots of art and objects?
I have some beautiful 20th-century drawings and a few paintings but I'm not a collector and I'm not particularly attached to objects.
Is your home a cocoon or a place to welcome friends?
It's a grotto; it's where the intimate side of my life happens, love and family. When I ask people home that really means something for me. It's typically Lyonnais, they never welcome people into their houses. I remember how neighbours would walk each other home and talk lengthily in front of the house without asking each other in. I don't approve of that but that's the way I was made.
MY FAVOURITE THINGS
The smell of lavender, particularly lavender-scented candles. They have to be constantly replaced and I like that.
Peonies, because they have a short season but they are generous flowers with dense petals and are wonderfully fragile to touch.
Mozart because he teaches joy. His music does more than console me, it brings me a sense of exhilaration.
Bread. I love the contrast between a thick over-baked crust and the middle of a loaf like the French couronne, with holes in it like a gruyère cheese.
Watching running water. I know it's not ecological but I had a fountain installed in my Brussels garden and I really love that furtive, delicate sound like crumpling paper. I like the way it changes all the time - that Buddhist impermanence.
Weeping willows, because in the winter they're like an artist's sketch and in the summer they're a full and circular sculpture.
Le monde de l'éducation - 2008 - "Remembrance of Profound Solitude "
Fear of failure, happiness of taking them: the Baccalauréat exams are one of those moments that generate extremes of emotions
"At seventeen, I did my school work out of habit, absent-mindedly, the way you catch the bus. My passions were elsewhere: I listened voraciously to music, I practised the piano like a demon every day, I got through novels at a rate of knots, I discovered philosophy, I acted and I day-dreamed of steamy relationships that never came to pass. It was almost by chance that I realized, a few weeks before the exams, that I had to get my Baccalauréat Suddenly, I was scared: what if I failed? What if this passport to adult life eluded my grasp?
Naturally prone to excess, I reacted, shutting myself in my old playroom, a cool, half-forgotten bedroom, where I closed the shutters and refused to open the door to my family. "I'm revising", I announced to explain this change of attitude. I went from indifference to panic, I worked night and day, I lost weight, I was sick before the exams, I jumped from a moving car to try to get out of the written exams in History and Geography, with clammy palms I stammered and sweated my way through the obligatory orals.
As soon as the last exam was over, I turned my back on the diploma in exhaustion, not even bothering to make a note of the date the results would be out. Reading totally distracted me from the weeks of waiting: In Search of Lost Time revealed its pages to me. During that month of June 1978, Proust filled my days and my imagination. The effect was so powerful that I shut myself off from the world, but in a different way this time.
So mischte sich die Freude darüber, bestanden zu haben, mit Bitterkeit: Mir wurde bewußt, wie einsam ich war. Der vertraute Umgang, den wir jahraus, jahrein gepflegt hatten, hielt dem Neid nicht stand. Wenn sich auch niemand vorgestellt hatte, daß ich das Datum vergessen hatte - ich gebe zu, daß das unwahrscheinlich scheint - hatte mich deswegen doch niemand angerufen. Auf einmal über sie hinausgewachsen, wurde ich von den ersten Telefongesprächen ausgeschlossen. Damals ging mir der Unterschied zwischen Freundschaft und Kameradschaft auf: Die Kameradschaft hält nur in geteilten Lebenslagen, die Freundschaft aber besteht auch außerhalb bestimmter Lebenslagen fort. Die Kameradschaft wird durch Gleichheit genährt, die Freundschaft verkraftet auch das Außergewöhnliche.
The results were out on a Monday, but I was immersed in Albertine Gone and didn't give them a thought. The next day, I was woken by my grandmothers, uncles and aunts congratulating me for the grade "Very Good" which they had seen in Le Progrès, a Lyon daily paper that traditionally published the academy's results. At the same time as I learnt my result, I discovered my companions' attitude: they had not even bothered to tell me the previous day.
The joy of passing was tainted with bitterness: I realized how alone I was. So, our complicity during all those years was not proof against jealousy. No one had thought that I might have forgotten the date (I realize that seems unlikely), but none of them had called me, anyway. Because I had suddenly been catapulted above them, I had not been included in the first phone calls. I understood, then, the difference between friendship and companionship: companionship just comes from shared situations, whereas friendship endures beyond those situations. Companionship depends on equality; friendship persists in the face of success.
So, my success brought me no glory, I felt it was pointless to want to share it and stupid to seek compliments. I behaved as discreetly as if I had failed. That result was mine and mine alone, it would only affect my life; I did not have to boast or try to impress other people. That summer, when we were back in touch with each other, my companions said they thought me modest. They were amazed. And for that, I won their praise...
In reality, that modesty was an illusion. The Baccalauréat and a mighty dose of Proust had turned me into a lucid moralist: it is in solitude that a person gives direction to his life, and art alone can cure us of solitude; art, and true friendship, and the unlikely but sometimes genuine love story."
Lire - 2004 - "Philosophy on the sly"
We've had Buddhism, Islam and atheism: Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt now explores the links between Jews and Christians in a marvellous philosophical fairy tale.
Success is suspect in France - not because of the private instabilities that invariably accompany a great conquest, nor because of the sterile immobility that nearly always follows a triumph. No, success is questionable because it is sadly 'good taste' in the literary circles that influence popular opinion to burn what was formerly revered.
Is this the reason Schmitt has chosen voluntary exile from France, first in Ireland, then in Belgium where he now lives? His first play, Don Juan on Trial, was received to uninimous critical acclaim and established him as an author to look out for. That was in 1991. Two years later, the former Philosophy teacher won two Molières (French equivalent of Oscars) for his The Visitor, a superb dramatisation of a meeting between Freud and God. A first novel, The Sect of Egoists, followed, and sceptics were at last convinced. 'Schmitt is a popular intellectual,' one literary critic enthused during a no less popular radio show. This potentially double-edged compliment is indeed a compliment. Schmitt is a 21st-century Diderot, a serious thinker who doesn't take himself seriously. At University, he completed a doctoral thesis on Diderot and later wrote a play about this libertine aesthete who dared to claim, at the height of the Enlightenment, that he wrote popular philosophy.
Audiences have not been wrong. Today, Schmitt's plays are staged the world over while his novels make stupendous sales, with 200,000 copies of The Gospel according to Pilate, for instance, and 400,000 of Oscar and the Pink Lady. He is studied in schools, there's already a corpus of secondary literature on his work, and an American study in Publishing Trends places him among the 15 most read writers in the world - the only French author on the list.
What has changed between Don Juan on Trial and Noah's Child? The themes are the same but the writing has developed. 'It's true,' admits Schmitt. 'I began writing like a scholar, but I'm now trying to escape my ENS heritage and find the right language, write without artifice. Writing for me is a language.' One starts to see the bridge forming between playwright and novelist. 'All my life,' he goes on, 'I've been told that I didn't write the way one should, starting from when I was at primary school, then in the theatre and now in the novel.' And it's true, it's hard to keep track: endowed with both depth and a fiercely caustic hedonism, his books waver between philosophical treatise (The Alternative Hypothesis) and farce (When I was a Work of Art). They fit no particular genre of fiction. The short books of the 'Mystic Cycle' ('Cycle de l'invisible') are a good illustration.
Noah’s Child is the fourth part in the cycle. On the face of it, it looks pretty transparent: a seven-year-old child, Joseph, is caught up in the Occupation and taken in by a priest who hides him in a Catholic school and teaches him Hebrew. There’s a tender-hearted brute, a good Father quietly carrying out his own private Resistance work, and a crypt that’s been turned into a synagogue (‘a real-life element’, Schmitt interjects). With a setting like this, one fears the worst. But that would be to reckon without Schmitt’s prodigious talent. It’s highly topical to question the great religions, but to bring out their contradictions without sinking into proselytism is a job few writers have tackled. Thoroughly versed in Diderot as he is, Schmitt has used the form of a philosophical fairy tale to write about the religions from which God is absent. From the Buddhism of Milarepa, he moved on to Islam in Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, and then to atheism in Oscar and the Pink Lady; in Noah’s Child, he explores the links between Judaism and Christianity. The essential variation he provides is that whereas right-thinking parents explain the religions to their children by providing answers, Schmitt imagines the opposite: children are his surveying instruments; questions outnumber answers. But his children are never twee or politically correct. Neither Momo (the Jew who hangs around the Arab grocer’s), Oscar (who lives in a hospital and is fascinated by the Pink Lady) nor Joseph (a Jew disguised as a Christian to escape deportation) are religious, of course, but their position as outsiders who must learn serves only one purpose: to emphasise the idea that each of us in this life is responsible for his own creation. This point is forcefully made by the Priest in Noah’s Child, in a tirade worthy of Pascal and far more effective than any Sunday school teaching: ‘Human beings hurt one another and God doesn’t get involved. He created free men […]; there ended God’s task. Now it’s our turn. We are responsible for ourselves.’ Father Pons thinks he is doing good through Christian charity; the child Joseph leads him to discover that he is not good but right. In a few resounding lines, Schmitt describes the nature of this essential, Sartrian opposition.
In these fairy tales (minus the moral at the end), with their keen, muscular dialogue, Schmitt suggests more than he depicts and invites readers to look beyond first identities. Father Pons is a figure of hope, who discovers spirituality from a starting point of reason. Noah's Child is a haunting evocation of occupied Belgium. Once again, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt confirms his strengths as a writer and juggles with styles by inventing philosophy on the sly.
Le Figaro - 2003 - "The Boy From Elsewhere"
He has always lived in a world of his own invention, a world in which music and philosophy are key elements.
What strikes one most about the man himself is his gentleness; Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt exudes gentleness, though this is somewhat at odds with his physical appearance. Built like a rugby player complete with broken nose (from a boxing match), dark, deep-set eyes in a full face beneath a high forehead that's getting higher as the years pass, he has all the features more usually associated with someone capable of wielding awesome authority. Yet Schmitt is one of life's sensitive souls, to the point of vulnerability, and he fully accepts his nature - proof that you don't need to act the heavy because you have the body of a weightlifter.
In one sense, however, he is most certainly a 'heavy': an intellectual heavy. But he wears his learning lightly without a trace of arrogance or superiority. In his private universe of music and philosophy, ordinary appearances have no place. His world, or more accurately, his heaven, is azure blue with constantly shifting, fluffy clouds and starry skies where the stars rustle like satin. If only there were known photos of him as a boy, he would surely resemble Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince.
Not surprisingly, a fairy godmother once appeared in this fairy-tale sky. She was tall, beautiful, kind and radiant, and her name was Edwige Feuillère; she has long since disappeared but probably still hovers in the wings. It was she to whom Schmitt sent his first play, although he knew her no more than through having seen her at the cinema. In Schmitt's Don Juan on Trial, Feuillère, with her wonderful understanding of others and sensitivity, recognised the signs of a work of art. Though she had neither magic wand nor secret remedies, she had a heart and she was brave, and she hasselled theatre directors who had been slow to read the play. Who could resist the persuasive powers of such a beautiful patroness? The play was put on at the Maison de la Culture in Loire-Atlantique, then managed by Jean-Luc Tardieu, who directed Micheline Presle, Danièle Lebrun and Mathieu Carrière in the first performance. The production ran again at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées. Its reception was mixed. Today, Schmitt laughs it off: 'The critics weren't wrong, it wasn't the best.' Still, the cast wasn't bad for a first play, and top actors from France and the whole world have been keen to act in his plays ever since. 'Among all the things that make me happy,' he says, 'that is probably what brings me most happiness.' For someone who has known so much success, Schmitt remains disarmingly unaffected.
Scene One, however, goes back to his school days when he was a serious seventeen-year-old. Already, the boards were calling to him. In the school drama group's production of Jean Anhouilh's Antigone, he made his first impact: he made people laugh. The sound did not fall on deaf ears. Despite his latent sense of tragedy, Schmitt likes nothing better than to make people laugh. 'I'm very aware that you sometimes gain more respect for depressing people than for amusing them and that you don't always get away with giving people something to laugh about…' He knows, too, that some delicate flowers took offence at scenes in The Libertine and that Gabriel Aghion's film of the play shocked the odd over-protected viewer.
Schmitt has moved on in the meantime, adding colour upon colour to his palette and showing an astonishing capacity for thinking up new stories and new ways of telling them. 'It's a funny thing,' he notes, during a brief trip to Paris where he is hoping to move back for good, 'the public has no trouble following the circuitous paths a writer takes, but professional judges have a hard time keeping up. They want to put you in a box and keep you there, even if it means you write the same play or the same book and just give it a different appearance by sleight of hand.'
But that is not his way. A product of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris (the equivalent of Oxbridge), Schmitt was awarded his PhD in 1983 for a thesis on the philosopher Diderot. If he has a model, it is Diderot via the Age of Enlightenment and the Encyclopedia, plurality and anyone who ventured on to less well-signposted paths. 'There are days,' he says, just back from Libya where his Enigma Variations, first produced in France starring Alain Delon and Francis Huster, is on tour, 'when I have a sort of sense of schizophrenia. I live in Dublin in a Victorian house with a garden I never go out into. That's where I write. It's my cell, my workshop. I go back to it between trips abroad - which have increased in the last few years because my plays are put on in 35 countries and I like to be there when they're staged, sometimes in the most unexpected places. But I'm not at home there, and I feel this deep-seated, age-old sense of not belonging to any place or country.'
He was born on 28 March 1960 in Sainte-Foy-Lès-Lyon where he grew up and which was the inspiration for his book Guignol aux pieds des Alpes (Punch at the Feet of the Alps), a delightful evocation of the region's landscape and moods. As a child, he already felt different. 'I was looked on as a foreigner. I thought of myself as a sort of mix, from Martinique, Vietnam, or even the Caucasus. I was from somewhere else.' He believes this is where he gets his sense of humour. 'I felt in exile. And the first exile is the body. I had trouble getting used to this body… That's exactly what When I was a Work of Art is about. Maybe that's where my plays come from, from the feeling that I want to put words in the bodies of other people.'
A life's profession, as Pavese said. Schmitt knows he is only at the beginning. Twelve years' work in the field, 42 years of age: life is before him. 'Writing is a destiny. It's a marathon you run at sprint-speed. I often just pretend I'm living. To write is to stay outside life, even if it means your whole life is just turned into ink.'
La Croix - 2000 - "My Writings Come From Outside Myself"
Schmitt started his career as a philosopher. Very quickly, he became both a successful playwright and a novelist. In his latest novel The Gospel According to Pilate, also very successful, Schmitt dares give us his version of the Holy Sciptures. Bold, undoubtedly, but closely linked to the spiritual journey he experienced eleven years ago in the desert.
Interview : A. LESEGRETAIN (7. Oktober 2007)
AL : WHEN YOU WERE WORKING ON DIDEROT, DID YOU HAVE ANY INTUITION THAT HE WOULD LEAD YOU TO METAPHYSICS ?
EES : Not in the least. I have always been passionate about the beautiful French language, so I never imagined myself working on a foreign philosopher; and when I compared Diderot to other philosophers, most of whom are extremely didactic, I could not help liking this humble, paradoxical man who used to admit that as far as ideas and causes were concerned he would go to sleep for but wake up against. Along with Montaigne and Lucretius, he belongs to that bunch of philosophers I call "The Knights of the Uncertain". They are in my opinion, the most honest and reliable intellectuals to be found. Diderot was a libertine but in the philosophical sense of the word: he flirted with ideas without espousing them. And last but not least, when I got to Paris IV University, I asked Claude Bruaire (who died in 1985) if he could supervise my thesis, not only because he was a brilliant philosopher but because he was a Christian, which is quite rare among philosophers. Working with him on a materialist thinker was a bit of a provocation. Diderot always refused the very notion of God, since for him, as for most of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the notion of metaphysics did not exist.
AL : WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT FROM DIDEROT ?
EES: Freedom and the virtue of insolence. To make other people think in order to open a conversation with them. My plays have no other aim. It's one reason I like to end a play thumbing my nose at somebody: to force the audience to doubt and start talking.
AL : YOU ALSO MAKE YOUR CHARACTER DOUBT…
EES : I enjoy having philosophers face their shortcomings. In The Visitor, Freud is forced to experience doubts about his atheism. In The Libertine, Diderot is hampered by his inconsistencies and cannot finish his article for the Encyclopedia. These great philosophers used to upset and confuse me… Well, now it's my turn to upset them!
AL : HOW DID YOU COME TO WRITE "THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO PILATE" ?
EES : I worked on it for eight years, but I was never satisfied with the results. Then in January, my computer and all my disks were stolen. All of a sudden, there I was in a situation of absolute urgency. So, I started writing the novel all over again without a backwards glance. In two months it was finished.
AL : WHAT WAS YOUR GOAL ?
EES : I wanted to write about the two pillars on which Christianity rests, the incarnation and the resurrection. In the first part of the book, I consider the question: did Jesus know he was the Messiah from the day he was born, or did he only gradually became aware of it? A question that has been hotly debated by theologians for centuries. But by making Jesus speak, I was able to show the different stages that led him to discover his fate. So, I did not have to spend pages and pages dealing with the Annunciation and Mary. I could show a man suffering because he only speaks of love and all he gets in return is hatred. I wanted to stress his courage, not only because he had to endure the suffering on the Cross, but also because he accepted his mission right to the end.
When Jesus says: "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" you can sense the infinite agony of someone who has met so many fake prophets and who no longer knows if he is a real one or a fake one. To the end, Jesus remains filled with doubt. In that way, the incarnation is not an enigma with a solution but a real mystery.
AL : WHY DID YOU CHOOSE PONTIUS PILATE TO DEAL WITH THE THEME OF THE RESURRECTION IN THE SECOND PART ?
EES : Because he is so much like us: each of his thoughts is about the state and each of his reactions is about safety; and most of all because he does not want to be disturbed by the whole business. He was the best choice to launch the enquiry on the disappearance of Jesus' body.
AL : IT TAKES CONSIDERABLE NERVE TO USE THE FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE WHEN JESUS TALKS AND TO PUT GOD ON STAGE. AS IF BEING AN ALREADY POWERFUL WRITER, YOU MISSED THE POWER OF THE ALMIGHTY…
EES : I'm not interested in God's omnipotence; what interests me is his impotence. God suffers because Man chose Evil instead of Goodness. And you must not forget that I never choose my topics. They force themselves upon me and even if they frighten me, I can't do anything but accept them. I'm only an eardrum vibrating to its time.
AL : YOU SPEAK OF AN IMPOTENT GOD WHO FINDS IT HARD TO BE LOVED. IS HE THE ONE WE NEED TO REDISCOVER ?
EES : I don't know… Let's say that with this novel, I wanted the figure of Christ to become a personal topic for atheists again. I wanted them to be forced to take sides, like Pilate. I wanted to express my vision of Christianity through the mirrors of fiction.
AL : I'VE BEEN TOLD THAT YOU WENT THROUGH A STRONG AND SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE IN THE DESERT. CAN YOU TELL US WHAT HAPPENED ?
EES : I had gone into the Ahaggar desert with some friends. We had climbed Mount Tahar, the highest peak, and I wanted to be the first to go down the mountain. I soon realised that the path I was following was the wrong one but I kept going and I found the idea of being lost irrisistible. When night fell, it started to get very cold, so I buried myself in the sand since I had nothing with me. I should have been frightened but in fact I felt quite the opposite: the lonely night under the starry sky was absolutely thrilling. I experienced the feeling of the Absolute. I became convinced that there is some Order or some Intelligence protecting us. Our being wanted and then created belongs to that Order. The same sentence kept coming to my mind over and over again: "Everything is justified."
AL : HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND THIS SENTENCE ?
EES :It was an answer to all the questions I'd been asking about Evil. I was no longer shocked by what I could not understand. I was at last able to accept the notion of Death as a good surprise. During that night, I experienced eternity. That moment of expansion made me incredibly strong. From now on, I knew that inside myself there was even more than myself, to quote St Augustine.That mystical night remains for me a defining experience.
AL : CAN THIS BE COMPARED TO THE IMAGE OF THE "INNER WELL" TO WHICH YOUR HERO JESUS GOES TO TOUCH BASE WITH HIMSELF ?
EES : the image of the well we all have within us certainly seems to describe such an experience. But actually, I only started talking about it a short while ago. I should add that I met up with my friends the following morning but they had all been very concerned about my disappearance, and I felt so ashamed that I did not have the courage to share my joy with them.
AL : DO YOU REMEMBER THE DATE OF THAT FAMOUS NIGHT ?
EES : It was February 4th 1989 and from that day on I was able to write. Until that date I kept feeling that what I had written sounded useless and hollow. A few months later, I had finished my first play, Don Juan on Trial and I haven't stopped writing since. That night in the desert revealed to me what I was really destined to be: a scribe.
AL : SOMEONE WHO WRITES SOMETHING AT SOMEONE ELSE'S DICTATION ?
EES : Let's say that what I write comes from outside myself.
AL : BEFORE THAT DEFINING NIGHT IN THE DESERT, WHAT HAD YOUR RELIGIOUS EDUCATION BEEN ?
EES : I was baptized only out of social conformity but all my family were atheists. However, when I was eleven, my parents enrolled me in Sunday school. "It's important for you to know that story," my parents told me. The chaplain who taught at the middle school was called Father Pons (nothing to do with my Pilate whatsoever) and he would ask us to think and discuss social issues. For the first time, I found myself facing a grown up who respected my opinion. He undeniably instilled in me a taste for philosophical dialogue, even if after a year I had not understood much about the Holy Story. Those early Sunday school lessons were exploded when I started reading Nietzsche, Sartre and Freud… Later still, when I discovered Descartes, Kierkegaard, Leibniz and most of Pascal, my atheism was completely shaken up and I became an agnostic.
AL : YOU HAD ALREADY GONE SOME WAY…
EES : I was obsessed by the question of the meaning of it all: why am I here? Why is there so much evil? My reason was the only tool I could use. So, of course, I used to stay on the edge. I knew that to believe was possible but what annoyed me most was the apparent elitism of the faith that went against the universalistic ideals of a philosopher (which were mine).
AL : AND TODAY, CAN YOU BELIEVE ?
EES : Yes, I can. I dare say so, even if the number of writers who believe is dwindling: I do believe.
AL : IN CHRIST ?
EES : Ja, ich wage es zu sagen, auch wenn die gläubigen Schriftsteller immer seltener werden: ich glaube.
AL : An Christus?
EES : My spiritual experience was only about God. But all its ramifications were just a meditation on Christ. Christ as a "cipher" to use Pascal's formula, which means a key to decipher everything. But, sometimes, in a single day, I can feel impulses that make me adhere and others that make me step back and deny them. I'm absolutely horrified when I see our world as it is today: how can we accept that all the holy commandments are still not completely respected? How can we accept that a country which declares itself to be Christian can still impose death as a punishment ?
AL : BUT THAT FAMOUS PASCALIAN WAGER… DID YOU REALLY TAKE IT UP ?
EES : No, not really. There are still two layers in me: on the surface, there's the philosopher who doesn't believe, but deep down it's the believer who drives, who leads everything as far as the story is concerned and who asserts his convictions. If I doubt, it is within God and never outside Him. I feel reticent in making the big leap because of the Word. The "Word that is to be shared" of the philosopher is not the "Word that bears witness" of the mystic. And I find myself caught between these two tensions right now. And it is because Pascal remains a philosopher that I can still go along with him: "MAYBE, I AM GOD"
Extract from The Visitor.
The action takes place during the night of April 22nd 1938.
Austria has just been invaded by Hitler and his troops.
Freud is about to leave for Paris. His daughter has been taken away by the Gestapo.
God (maybe) pays a visit to the famous psychiatrist.
Freud : You are play-acting. How could you have told me what I experienced when I was five ?
STRANGER : Some people have the knack of telling stories which everyone thinks are unique to them. They're called writers. Perhaps I'm not… God… but only a good writer? No doubt you're not the only little chap who realised he existed one day (…)
How old were you when your father died ?
Freud : Forty.
STRANGER : Come on. Don't pretend not to understand: how old were you when he died… for you… in your mind ?
FREUD (not inclined to answer) : It's such a long time ago.
STRANGER : Let me guess… You must have been thirteen. After thirteen years on this earth it suddenly occurred to you that your father could be wrong. And that even when he was wrong he persisted in his error and that what you'd taken for a wise man's authority was in fact a foolish man's insecurity. And you saw that he had weaknesses. That he was frightened, that he would avoid difficult decisions, be afraid… of his neighbours, even his wife (…) In short, on that day you discovered that your father was merely a man
Freud : And that was the day I grew up.
STRANGER : You think so? That was the day you turned to God. You wanted to believe, but only on the rebound. That's what children do. They want to replace their natural father with a supernatural one. You took him up and plonked him in the skies.
Freud : But…
STRANGER : Don't deny it, Sigmund, it's in all your books. It's called projection. According to you, that's where the idea of God came from. Man wants to believe in him so much that he exists. The need creates the object. (Loudly) So I am only a figment of your imagination. A metaphysical fantasy. (Shouting) Isn't that right ?
Freud (weakly) : Spot on.
STRANGER : Well then, if I'm your fantasy, you're dreaming. You're old, you have a grown-up daughter who they've taken away, but they're also after you, so you're a little boy again who needs a father. For the first stranger who turns up at your house and is a little bit spiritual, a little bit obscure and, let's face it, a little bit incomprehensible, you throw out everything. Everything you've ever believed in, everything you've ever denounced.
Le Figaro - 1998 - "Theatre Most Gifted Contemporary Author"
Interviewing Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is no easy task: when you know the starting point of his latest play Enigma Variations, you may well think the mission perilous. It concerns a meeting between a Nobel Prize-winner of Literature, a misanthropic and violent character, with a journalist who has come to interview him. An unpleasant star with an aversion to interviews - a nightmare for anyone in the business. If Schmitt is a good deal more cordial, his mind and soul are not so easy to penetrate. The enigma in all of this is Schmitt himself. And yet, he is immensely talkative, not about himself but about the play, about theatre in general, about the first production, at risk of becoming a bit theoretical.
What do we know about Schmitt? He is 36 and has already written three plays that have been performed internationally. Alain Delon and Francis Huster (no less) have both agreed to appear in his fourth play. "Although Delon had only appeared twice on stage (in the 1961 production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore' directed by Lucchino Visconti, and in a play by Jean Cau), he was the one I had in mind when I wrote Enigma Variations and he immediately accepted saying that it was the most beautiful love-story he had ever read". He plays Abel Znorko, the trigger-happy Nobel Prize-winner, while Huster is Erik Larsen, the journalist, a complex character who uncovers a formidable romantic intrigue. Between these two men is the shadow of a woman, Hélène Metternach, Larsen's wife to whom Znorko's last book is dedicated. A series of dramatic turns, in which Hélène, the perfect "dea ex machina", is the central character, will turn this confrontation into a thrilling dialogue about love and passion.
Since rehearsals began, Schmitt has remained in the background leaving his actors completely free: 'The text is only 20 percent of the play. The rest is up to the director, the actors and their interpretation, and it is they that will give the text its final depth.' He altered some of the dialogue in the course of rehearsals. 'For example, when Delon refused to say: "In the animal kingdom, there are two races that are particularly dull: men and dogs!" Delon wanted me to put "cat" instead of "dogs". But Leonard, my cat would never have forgiven me! We finally agreed on "fish"!' On the evening of September 24th, Schmitt will be standing in the wings (as though 'in the corridors of a maternity ward') with all the skill of an experienced playwright but with the stage-fright of a novice.
Theatre critic, Pierre Marcabru, summed up the situation: 'Here is a young man who is singularly in need of inexperience!' This is the problem with the former students of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (the top French Humanities college): they know how to do everything right from the start. Schmitt's CV resembles a 1930's profile: the Ecole Normal Supérieure; the agrégation (the highest teaching qualification) in Philosophy; plays, novels, triumphs. It sounds like the biography of Giraudoux or Sartre minus the political commitment. And as any ordinary Normalien, he freely and easily combines a sense of humour with a skilful and agile handling of ideas. On the subject of his sense of humour, he smiles and confesses he has written parodies of Othello in the style of Molière, Guitry and other playwrights he admires. As for philosophy, he wrote his thesis on Diderot whom he refers to constantly, because he is soon to publish an essay on Diderot and the philosophy of seduction. Besides, he is currently working on his next play in which Diderot, who invented the paradox of acting, will be one of the characters.
'When I was at the Ecole Normal Supérieure' he recalls, 'we all wanted to become writers but we used to ask ourselves the wrong question: "How does one dare to write a novel after Robe-Grillet or a play after Beckett?"' Schmitt did not spend very long on this question. He read Shakespeare, Euripides and Anouilh. How can one write after Anouilh? Simple: you teach Philosophy in the morning to get rid of general ideas, and you write in the afternoon. In 1990, he sent his first play to Edwige Feuillère who liked it at once and recommended him to several directors.
In 1991, Don Juan on Trial was performed at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées with Danièle Lebrun, Micheline Presle and Mathieu Carriere. His first steps in the world of the stage were very promising at an age when all the young men and women of his generation aiming at a literary career dream of winning the Goncourt Prize (for fiction). 'I was attracted by the stage long before I was attracted by novels, because I saw great plays before I started reading great novels. Like Obelix, I fell into the cauldron when I was 8. Jean Marais was appearing in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Théâtre des Celestins in Lyon and that was it!' He determined to become a playwright and nothing else. For him, the theatre remains the noblest form of literature: 'Everyone in the Académie Française has a play in their bottom drawer that has never been performed and never will be.'
After Don Juan on Trial, there was The Visitor for which he was awarded two Molières for being the theatrical revelation of the year and best playwright. According to him, with The Visitor was a final departure from the theatre of the '70s. In a contest of eloquence, Freud faces God. The latter wins by KO: 'Until this evening, you used to think that life was absurd. From now on, you know that it is a mystery!' Mysteries and love in an unexpected guise are recurring themes in Schmitt's plays. Enigma Variations is no exception. It was written with astounding ease over ten days… although Alceste is right when he says that 'time has nothing to do with it!
It took Schmitt a few years to come to the throne with boldness and grace - the throne that had been left empty by other contemporary playwrights: 'Playwrights are an endangered species; for thirty years, directors have been managing everything so that their own success would not be tarnished. That's why they prefer to stage works by dead authors!'
Schmitt burnt his fingers with the recent failure of his last play but he is nevertheless full of plans and ideas for the future: to write a play for Michel Serrault or Suzanne Flon. And like everyone in the world of the theatre, he acts a little when he speaks of his profession: 'I go to the theatre once or twice a week. But the plays of my contemporaries, especially those which are successful, give me the blues.' Shaw was right when he said, 'There are two sorts of playwright: those who succeed and those who don't!' Schmitt appears to belong to the first category. Certainly, he is doing all he can to be there. '
Etienne de Montety