'A Stone in the Global Edifice.' An Interview with Joseph Andras
A new interview with one of the most important and radical writers in French literature
Joseph Andras is the author of several books in French, including De nos frères blessés, Kanaky, and most recently, Pour vous combattre. Awarded the Prix Goncourt for a first novel for De nos frères blessés (Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us), he refused the prize, explaining that “competition and rivalry were foreign notions to writing and creation”. All of Andras’s books, from the story of a pied-noir pro-Algerian communist executed by the French state to the peregrinations of a young Hô Chi Minh through Paris, share a commitment to drawing forgotten or minor radical histories into the present: "I give History a push in the back,” he says, “I ask it to sit at the table of the present.” Drawing on the flexibility of literary form and experimentation, Andras’s writing weaves together disparate lineages of struggle and resistance across time and space–“red threads, continuums, secular groundswells”–in an attempt to keep these lineages alive. As he puts it, “I try to find the means to prevent History from settling into the imperfect tense." This is Andras’s first interview intended for an Anglophone readership.
Interview and Translation by Patrick Lyons
You have done several extensive interviews in French since the initial publication of Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us and your rejection of the Goncourt Prize for a first novel–on which we won’t waste time–but this is your first destined for an anglophone public. Their familiarity with your work will most likely be restricted to that first novel, so I want to briefly start there, eventually moving on to broader matters. Can you begin by describing how you came to write about Fernand Iveton?
To tell you the truth, it isn’t particularly easy for me to speak of Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us. It has been seven years since I wrote it. Maybe eight, strictly speaking, if you include the time for reflection which had to precede the writing stage. I no longer have an immediate connection to that text. I’d even say I consider it from a place of almost total exteriority – this seems to me a very banal phenomenon for writers. The small part of fiction in that book remains troubling to me, by which I mean that in my following books I found a narration more aligned with my mechanics. To be clear: I am not a novelist. But I will try to answer your question!
Iveton was first of all Algeria. It wasn’t the figure who led me to the country, but the reverse. I had been interested in the historical linkages between Algeria and France, and in independent Algeria itself, for a long time. I have spent time there on numerous occasions and lived with a person connected to that country. And like so many French, I have two or three family histories connected to the matter. So, this period and its geography were not foreign, abstract, or documentarian for me. But Iveton’s story remained little known in France, as was the main reference book on him (which is excellent). It’s very likely that I had come across his name–no doubt misspelled, “Yveton,” which is often the case–here and there in historically contemporary works. In Sartre, certainly, in one volume of his Situations.(1) Or in Camus. But I never paused on him. I turned the page without his name leaving an impression on me. One day on the internet I happened upon a photograph of Iveton accompanied by a short biographical note. There, a shadow surged forth! Compact, fascinating. I immediately started digging, read the book in question. From there was born the desire to take my own turn writing about this man.
You’ve mentioned this in other interviews, that you are not a novelist, but a writer. Can you elaborate a bit on how you conceive of this distinction? In your second book-length work, Kanaky: In the Steps of Alphonse Dianou, you situate the writer amongst “four brothers”: journalist, the historian, the militant, and the poet. What is the connection here to what you refer to as your “mechanics?”
I like the word “récit.”(2) For me, “novel” immediately evokes – not without historical complications –fiction and the imaginary, and what they entail in terms of effects, devices, lures, scaffolding, and magic tricks: intrigue, suspense, characters, endings, etc. This isn’t the type of literary possibility which grips me, as a reader. I’m not particularly interested in grand emotional constructs. I read “stories” only if their formal work makes me forget that they are, in fact, stories. For example, I’m incapable of following dialogue structured through hyphens: I close the book immediately. Writer, therefore; he or she that makes writings. That’s what suits me.
Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us follows the contours of the novel as a genre; everything that follows it does not. I didn’t abandon narration, the act of storytelling, creating a space of rational and affective exchange with the reader. I merely removed whatever was connected to invention. And I integrated tools and styles of language normally foreign to the novel – what you note in the opening of Kanaky. As a reader, it is evident to me–and quotidian–to move between disciplines. If I look at the books currently on my worktable, I see a collection of journal columns, an anthology of letters, an investigation, an autobiography, a book of poetry and another which presents itself as a “song,” some political and anthropological essays, a novel. Literary, academic, poetic, and militant languages all intermix intuitively in me: the demonstrative and the allusive, the analytic and the sensual. I feel constituted by all of these modes of expression. In more or less equal proportions – and, above all, in no particular order. I have no degree in higher education: I only know how to tinker (bricoler). And ultimately, as an author, I choose literature for its totalizing and artistic resources.
I’m not a journalist, but have an acute connection to facts, to precision, to detail. I’m not a historian but this trade accompanies me everywhere. I’m not a poet since – to put it briefly – I imagine my words spontaneously in prose; yet poets nonetheless inhabit each of my books. Militant, then: I lack certain elementary qualities to truly be one. If the term didn’t carry its slightly cumbersome connotation, I might otherwise identify myself as a “socialist writer.”
So, when I write, I’m caught within contrary winds: aesthetic and ideological. I must compose, traffic, and negotiate at each moment. Stylistic elaboration confines, detaches, excludes; refusing articulate narration or espousing virtuosic experimentation pushes away the masses. But politics is the masses in movement. There is, if not a contradiction, a certain tension here. Therefore, I reflect on ways to hold together formal adventurousness and factual intelligibility, rhythm and theory. I don’t want to sacrifice anything to the fact of saying or how to say it.
What you say recalls a very old issue concerning the relationship between literature and politics. How do you conceive of this relationship–if you believe it to exist–today?
I wouldn’t want to be peremptory here. To say, literature or art ought to be this and only this. I can understand how one wouldn’t want–or doesn’t know how– to work on the fusion of the literary and the political. And I can understand a wariness before a certain form of domestication, militarization, edification, or demagogy: “socialist realism” left behind rather few fond memories. I can understand that one assigns literature a privileged space of trembling, mistiness, and irresolution, while politics entails a “yes” and “no,” “allies,” “adversaries” and “enemies,” “lines” and “objectives.”
I have some esteem, admiration even, for certain nonpartisan works. Those of Nicolas de Staël, among others. But the thing is, I began writing to extend that which structured me internally. I do not “choose” “political subjects”: I can do nothing other than to seek out a literary form for the political framework and direction which orients me in my entirety. I wouldn’t be able to consecrate so much time, energy and, even, sometimes, pain, to form, style, or art alone. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze, as you say in English. I would tell myself it’s not worth the effort. It’s not justified. Literature which lacks attachment or real perspective is reduced, I would say, to leisure or pastime. I do not know how to write for writing’s sake, outside of national and international determinations, social and economic structures. Well, a few phrases, of course. I like describing the greenness of a mountain or desired hands. But a book is another thing. It’s a matter of daring to believe that there is some sense in adding one’s stone to the global edifice! That there exist reasons to divert readers’ time. This sense, these reasons, I cannot manage to find them outside of the idea that a creation might, among other things, in its proper measure, take part in retooling the order of things. That it might be a point of reference, an element of cooperation, a space of replenishment.
I have no illusions about what a book can do: almost nothing. Social upheavals are the affair of bodies in action. But everywhere and for all time, bodies are nourished by ideas. Either directly or in a more diffuse manner. And this, “almost,” for now, prevents me from succumbing to darkness.
I very much like this framing: bodies make politics, but they are inspired by ideas. What are the ideas that inspire your writing? For instance, your forthcoming book Pour Vous Combattre about the French Revolution opens with an epigraph by Daniel Bensaïd.(3) What are some of the books on your ‘worktable,’ as you put it? You sometimes mention Sartre, Césaire...
I never know how to respond to questions like this. It would be obviously reductive to make a list of five or six names. You speak of ideas, so therefore not of writing or literature in themselves. In a broad sense–but you will have understood this–I can say that the theoretical backdrop to my work takes root in three currents: the revolutionary French 18th century, the European socialist 19th century, and the global anticolonial struggle of the 20th century. I say “global,” but naturally certain regions are more familiar to me than others: the Middle East, Latin America, Vietnam, Algeria and Kanaky, notably. Curiously, Gandhi appears in several of my books, though I do not possess a detailed understanding of Indian political history. My major issue, since you evoke Sartre, is that "only one movement [which] impels the exploited to claim for themselves and for all the possibility of being men fully and totally”: “the socialist movement taken as a whole.”(4) I’ll go even further, as I draw upon a number of reflections on “the living” which have since flourished out of ecological and animalist fields of study, and which question the narrow character of humanism. So that’s the general framework. We could go into more detail, for those who might be interested.
You also evoke Bensaïd, an article of whose I cite in the opening of my forthcoming book on the French Revolution. Bensaïd is one of the best-known names in French Trotskyism, but a quite particular Trotskyism at that: melancholy is a central motif in his thought, which draws on a somewhat heterodox lineage of figures including Benjamin, Péguy or Blanqui (he even adds Joan of Arc!). His is a revolutionary, internationalist, socialist thought which, despite the vast desert of the 1980s and 1990s, maintained the idea of a “hole in the wall.” Working to make this hole larger, that inspires me. I don’t define myself as a Trotskyist, but I find that tradition rather accessible. For example, I place The Distant Southern Sky (5) under the patronage of Victor Serge, a very dear figure to me. I have a portrait of him which as accompanied me for years, on the walls of my successive living spaces. Kanaky, in a similar way, moves under the aegis of the anarchist Louise Michel( (6). And So We Wage War on Them rests upon reflections by the feminist Séverine, by Adorno, and by Levi-Strauss. I’m currently working on a manuscript which builds off Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Crisis of German Social Democracy, which she wrote in prison at the beginning of World War I. This is a way of responding to your question. A familiar constellation takes shape throughout the pages of these books, directly or implicitly. But fundamentally, I have no taste for orthodoxy, obtuse doctrines, or parochialism. Rather, it is primarily this “movement,” with all the ecumenical scope of Sartre’s formulation–independently, however, of all his positions–which holds my attention.
In reading your forthcoming book on the French Revolution, I was struck by a remark that you make about History. Specifically, you’re addressing the supposed animosity between Danton and Robespierre, but it seems as though this remark resonates throughout all your books. You write: “History will build them into fierce rivals, but History is never anything but a means for the powerful to continue to steal from the pockets of the dead.” This reminded me of Benjamin’s phrase that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” How do you conceive of the historiographical aspect of your books?
The “critical success”–to use the current vocabulary–of Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us had, to a certain extent, an impact on my connection to the writing of History. Besides Valeurs Actuelles–a French fascist journal, much appreciated by President Macron–, it seems that no one critiqued either the book’s aim or the true story that it brought to light. I found this suspicious. One must be attacked by the dominant media. A communist worker who plants a bomb, that’s not the type of story which ought to create this type of consensus. The novelistic form and the story’s past character had played into this. The word “novel” on the cover, smooth, polite, even; the dated, passed, and settled character of a story renders it easily pleasing, appropriable. This is a well-known fact. Liberals love Mandela, yet the same Mandela who was classified as a “terrorist” by North America until 2008. The Mayor of Paris–liberal to the bone–poses with photographs to celebrate the Commune and then vomits all over the contemporary anticapitalist left. The past offers cheap thrills. A barricade, a martyr, a black and white photo and a few words about justice: the scene is set for a “powerful” and “engaged” history. This is one of the reasons which led me to integrate myself as a narrator in some of my books: by forcing myself to say “I,” I give History a push in the back, I ask it to sit at the table of the present. Of “current events,” even. In this way, the page is not turned. There persist red threads, continuums, secular groundswells. I try to find the means to prevent History from settling into the imperfect tense. I don’t recount the life of a young Hô Chi Minh so that readers will marvel at the endurance and rectitude of this curious vagabond; I recount it in a Paris which, as I was writing that book, was rising up against the power of Macron, with barricades and a “violence” that the dominant media had, of course, immediately and unanimously condemned. I establish a block, thus: from 1920 to 2020, there is not narrative break. When I write about animals, I am careful to conclude the book on a contemporary story, in an ordinary city in France, with the most common of animals: I do this in order to obstruct any sort of literary escapism. These events take place here. Now. And when I recount the production of a revolutionary journal between 1793 and 1795 (Le Vieux Cordelier), I write each line with a full awareness of what the word “republican” has become. Writing of the War in the Vendée, the Montagnards or sans-culottes, I write to my time. I wish to say to it: look at what “Republic” once meant. A terrible, brutal, struggle for social justice. Against the powerful. It didn’t mean policing the dress of Muslim women on school outings or at the beach. Gramsci wrote in the Prison Notebooks that “history is always contemporary history, that is, politics.” I take these words to heart. I’m not speaking so much about “memory.” I don’t believe in the “lessons” of the past. Even less in the “never again.” No. If I call so much upon the past, it is to draw out the long thread, to prevent others from snipping or camouflaging it, to preserve the idea of consistency, in fine, to leave ajar the possibility of other futures.
You refer to “the narrow character of humanism.” Humanism has long been a complicated issue on the left…I’m thinking in particular of variations of “Marxist humanism” in France, which might include the Sartre of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, or of Fanon’s “new humanism.” Are you connected at all to this tradition?
What Fanon calls for at the beginning of Black Skin, White Masks I can unconditionally support. Fanon wanted to move beyond a Eurocentric humanism, one which sings the praises of the Enlightenment on the one hand, and ravages villages in foreign lands on the other. He wanted the Black man to be held as fully human, and that humanism would no longer simply mean a white humanity. When Sartre invokes the creation of a “true humanism” in the Critique, welcoming the workers struggle to “take  away from the bourgeoisie the privilege of stating the truth of man for all,” it is immediately seductive.(7) I understand well the will of the dominated to revindicate their full and entire humanity, an equal humanity. By this gesture, they reestablish their dignity–diminished, murdered, negated–in the heart of a precise, and thus desired, framework: the species, Homo sapiens. But when I speak to you of narrowness, I place myself on a different terrain. A one of its congresses, the USSR proclaimed “All for Man” as the order of the day. This “deification of the species,” as Proudhon put it, is a problem for me. Such a humanist–which is nothing other than an anthropocentrism–morally, juridically, and practically the hierarchization, and thus the depreciation, of all other species of animals. Their unnecessary killing, for example. Their quotidian torture. I don’t believe that the fight for a good life should be limited to a single variety of primates. This framework seems extremely restrictive. It says nothing of our common habitat – which makes human life possible –, nor of different modalities of being in the world. The ecological crisis is now widely understood we cannot respond to it by continuing to idolize a dissociated and supposedly self-sufficient human species. The persecution of animals is drawing more and more attention: we cannot put it to an end if we continue to measure our dignity against theirs. Let us widen our gaze as much as possible. Extend our will for justice. Everyone will benefit.
Patrick Lyons is a PhD candidate in the Department of French at UC Berkeley. His recent writing and translation work can be found on Viewpoint and Sidecar.
1. The book is: Einaudi, Jean-Luc. Pour l’exemple, l’affaire Fenand Iveton. L’Harmattan: 1986.
2. The word ‘récit’ resists direct translation into English. In the history of French literature, it tends be defined against the novel, referring to shorter literary works in which the act of writing is foregrounded and self-referential. Maurice Blanchot famously defines the récit as: “is not the narration of an event, but the event itself, the approach to that event, the place where that event is made to happen-an event which is yet to come and through whose power of attraction the récit can come into being, too.”
3. “The Republic only lives from a continuous source of revolution, from its permanence.” Bensaïd, Daniel. “Républicans, encore un effort.” Lignes, 37.2, 1999, 95.
4. Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Ghost of Stalin. Trans George Brazillier. New York: Braziillier, 1968, 4.
5. Au loin le ciel du sud. Paris: Actes Sud, 2021.
6. Ainsi nous leur faisons la guerre. Paris: Actes Sud, 2021.
7. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Critique of Dialectical Reason Tome I. Trans. Alain Sheridan-Smith. London: Verso, 2004, 801.