Violaine Huisman’s debut novel, The Book of Mother, tells the story of a 20th- and 21st-century Parisian woman’s life and legacy. Part One is told from the perspective of Violaine, the younger of her two daughters, who is ten when Maman—her beautiful, charismatic, and wildly excessive mother—suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized. Part Two traces the arc of Maman’s, aka Catherine’s, life—from the emotional penury of her hardscrabble, working-class childhood; through her early success (earned through the harshest discipline) as a dancer; to a second marriage that finds her navigating a high-wire act between her life as a woman and the demands of motherhood, while feeling entirely out-of-place amidst the gauche caviar of upper-class Parisian intellectuals; to the betrayals of her third husband, which lead to her undoing. In Part Three, her daughters, now grown women, deal with Maman’s complex legacy.
I lived with the novel’s larger-than-life characters for months while translating Huisman’s winding, revved-up (and at times, improbably comic) Proustian sentences. I heard their voices and felt the shadow of history and the Shoah hanging over them as they breathed the heady air of Paris in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with its boutiques, salons, and swinging night clubs. More recently, I sat down with Violaine, who had returned briefly to New York—her home for the past 20-years—in the midst of an extended sojourn in France, to talk about The Book of Mother. The conversation that follows, over lunch at Café Sabarsky, has been edited and condensed.
In all our discussions about the book while I was translating it, I never asked you, how did you come to write The Book of Mother?
There were two moments of genesis. Ten years before the book’s publication in France [in 2018], I wrote my mother’s life story, but as a monologue, using only her voice. It was similar to the voice that I use in the novel for her tirades and harangues—that long, digressive, angry, wild tone.
I showed that manuscript to a publisher who admired it and gave me some suggestions, but I couldn’t find a way to revise it. Then, one year later, my mother died, and it became impossible to revise it. And then, two years after my mother died, I had my first child, and two years later, the second one.
So there was all this time of, literally, gestation. I realized that becoming a mother gave me a completely different perspective on who my mother was. I started understanding the conflict that she had faced, between her womanhood and her motherhood. So that was a huge turning point for me.
And then, days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth to my younger child, with the baby on my lap, I read 10:04, Ben Lerner’s second novel, and I had this epiphany, which was that in fiction—whether you are writing about your own stories or those of others—facts don’t matter. Facts are only relevant when it comes to history. I realized then that I had to distance myself from facts in order to give shape to my mother’s story, to create a coherent narrative. That’s something that Ben Lerner writes and talks about very beautifully, that fiction is the imaginative power to give form to the real, to make sense of the chaotic nature of living.
Because life makes no sense.
Life makes no sense. And the truth is, my mother didn’t know, my father didn’t know, why things happened that way. But fiction has the ability to create logic where there is none, to give coherence and stability to the story in a way that feels very powerful and personal.
And then, when the structure of the novel came to me—its organization in three parts—I knew even before I started writing exactly how it would be laid out. And that’s how I was able to write it.
Link to the rest at Vogue