Oscar Coop-Phane’s Zenith Hotel packs more punch than one might expect from a novel of its brief dimensions. Telling the story of prostitute Nanou and her patrons through a series of densely textured emotional vignettes, the novel was awarded the Prix de Flore in Coop-Phane’s native France. Now its delicate prose is available in English, in a new translation by Ros Schwartz. We met up with Coop-Phane to discuss the novel, style, painting, and how places, families and poetic inheritances affect one’s writing.
What brought you to writing the first novel? Did you conceive it as fragments?
I first started with Emmanuel, the guy who works in a school. I wanted to do a novel about this practical guy, but after twenty pages I thought, maybe this is a bored guy and it’s a boring life. I thought: it will be too boring. I hope one day I’ll be able to speak about this kind of thing, but I didn’t have enough ways to say it. I’m a huge fan of Flaubert because he’s always speaking about his boring life, but I don’t have the way of writing Flaubert did, so I can’t do that. I was thinking of doing a few portraits – short stories – like this, and after a time I thought…I want to write a novel and not short stories. Because I had this thing: Ok, I want to be a writer, I have to write novels.
Where did the main character Nanou appear? If you could talk a bit about the point of view and her voice.
For me it was a challenge to write in the skin of a girl, of an old girl. It was so different, and it was really cool to pretend to be an old prostitute and try to find her voice. It was like a game for me.
We know that she’s old, but there’s a resistance. She doesn’t want to be reduced to a type, so there’s a spice to the typical prostitute narrative. What’s the difference between the first and the third person?
I was never able to choose when I start writing something whether it’ll be in the first person or the third. There are so many different possibilities when you’re writing in either, so I couldn’t choose, and I had this idea that I could do both. That’s what I did also in the second book, and the third one, and now I’m writing the fourth one, and I’m still doing that.
The third novel is the portrait of one guy and you kind of understand he will come on your side. Do you know the book Le feu follet [Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1963 novel, translated into English as Will O’ the Wisp]? It’s kind of a rewriting. I don’t pretend that I invented it. So I’m trying to tell the story of this guy with all his faults, but it’s written in the same way, in different persons.
You weren’t living in Paris when you wrote this.
It was easier for me – when I used to live in Berlin, I used to write about Paris. When I moved back to Paris, I used to write about Berlin. Because, maybe, I need to have a distance… you work with your eye, of course, when you’re a writer. There’s a quote I like very much from [Maurice] Pialat, the movie director, in which he says, ‘I have one eye and I use it.’ [‘J’ai un oeil et je m’en sers’]. But you also work a lot with your memories and what stays in your memories, what you forget. Sometimes there is something that looks like a meaningless fact but still it stays and stays forever, and I think you have to use that state when you’re writing.
Memory’s very interesting. Do you make notes?
Sometimes, but not always. I used to have a diary, when I was living in Berlin, because there was a really fast, speedy life and I was like, I need to write it down because I will forget it. After, when I went back to Paris and wrote the novel about Berlin, it was so cool to have the diary, because I’d forgotten everything. Now I’m not keeping the diary every day – ‘Dear Diary, today I ate a sandwich’ – but still I always have a pen in my pocket and every day I write a few thoughts. Sometimes it’s just one sentence.
How important was it that this novel be set in Paris?
It wasn’t a question for me. It was the only city I knew. There was a familiarity. I’m not really into adventure books, so I didn’t want to do research. One of my friends is a writer too, and he loves to do lots of research and go to huge libraries, but I don’t work in this way.
You work in a more psychological framework.
It’s more about understanding people or just seeing people. In Zenith Hotel, I wanted to write about the ordinary, normal guy. That’s the goal I had.
Lots of the characters in the novel have a mundane life. There is a resistance to sociability and the other person. Emmanuel doesn’t like his work and so on. What’s the relationship with resistance and being with others?
I think it’s the problem of the huge city. For instance, if you’re alone in hotels, you don’t really feel alone because it’s pure loneliness, but when you’re in cities – yesterday I walked around in London, I don’t know anyone in London, and don’t really speak English, and so I felt so lonely. Because there are people around. Are those people staring at me, looking at me because I’m alone? It’s artificial loneliness.
I think it’s quite new. In a big city with the way we live now, there’s a particular loneliness. I don’t think it’s the real loneliness, the ‘pure’ loneliness, but it’s perhaps the worst because it’s more difficult to deal with, when you’re lonely with people. I’ve always been like this. I’m scared about people but also I need them; so I wanted to write about that time. When you need them and you’re scared of them.
The lead female’s not scared, but none of the men seem to know how to live.
There’s a little family of writers, not really even famous in France, from the 50s — Emanuel Bove, Henri Calet. A few of them were translated into English, but they’re not very famous. It wasn’t a literary movement, but they were reading each other’s work, and they were trying to speak about finding your own place in the world and your own shit; where you are. I wanted to do that, because when I read them, I was like: ‘Yeah, that’s the point’.
It seems that they’re talking about the same questions as Celine, perhaps, but operating on a smaller scale.
I love this ‘little’ way to write. Simple language. I love the poetic, simple words. Like a Beach Boys song, or the Beatles. Everything looks so simple but it works.
For instance, the first novel I wrote was when I was seventeen. I tried to write a nineteenth-century, huge novel and it was all about real loneliness, I want to die, stuff like this. I read it a few years after and it was crap. So I tried to write about simple things, and maybe because of that Zenith Hotel is a small book; I tried to reduce the thing to a few details, because that’s real life.
You have a tradition of brevity in France: Beckett and Duras.
There was an interview where Beckett was asked, ‘Why do you write?’ and he just answered, ‘It’s the only thing I’m good at’ [‘Bon qu’à ça’]. Three words. Sarah Kane did that, too; she was the new Beckett.
Families, in Zenith Hotel, seem quite important. There’s a kind of cruelty and neglect in the family situations.
Maybe it’s because my family is like this [laughs]. I didn’t grow up in ‘the perfect family’. My wife’s got this huge family. Last Christmas, I met everyone and everyone was so friendly and so cool, and they were having this huge dinner for Christmas, everyone so happy together, and I was like, ‘I want to live this way – I never knew that.’ So maybe the idea that I have about families is more about conflict and escape.
In the male characters’ destinies there’s definitely escaping.
That’s what I loved when I moved to Berlin. I have friends in Paris, but when I was in Berlin — of course I missed them, but it was so cool to be without them because I was able to build a character of myself. I thought I could be more funny, or something. You can be completely anonymous.
I have this problem with my life, running away all the time ,and that’s why I’m thinking about it. But you have your own background, and every time you always fall back into it. I’m not really on the side of Sartre, or the side of ‘truth’, I don’t believe in God, but I’m sure there’s this destiny. When I was sixteen, I used to believe more in choice, but now I think maybe you don’t have it. Maybe you can try, sometimes go across, but there’s this fatality. I think it’s more depressing.
But what offsets this in the novel are the relationships between people. All the characters seem to return to caring. Why?
I don’t know. Because I think it’s the usual way to do it. Me, for instance, if I didn’t have books to read I would be completely lost. You have your crutches – I have a tattoo of a girl with crutches because of that – and you need something to work with: it can be a dog, it can be drugs, it can be alcohol. Everyone needs something like this.
Also, I didn’t want to be bad with characters. What I did was to treat it with lots of tenderness because I think I’m not a bad person. The idea was not to say, ‘Oh, look at this guy’, the idea was more like, ‘ok, look at this guy, and that’s all. That’s what we are’.
And that’s definitely something that we see in 1950s and 60s French writers, the small ones. You said you don’t want to treat your characters as bad people, but what about resignation and on the other hand, the hope of keeping alive?
[Nanou] always sticks to her point. I’ve met lots of people who say, ‘I’m not happy with my job; I wish I could do something else, I’m not happy with my wife…’ Still, you stay in the same place. Maybe because we’re too scared of doing something else, because it’s so scary to say, ‘I don’t want this life anymore, I will start a new one,’ – that’s huge. You have your little thing and even if you’re not happy with that you stay with it.
Maybe something to do with habit. Beckett writes about that in relation to Proust, who blasts through habit. Maybe the encounters with Nanou are the rupture that shocks her clients from their habitual life?
Even me, for instance, when I’m writing, I need a routine – I’m waking up, I’m having an orange juice, a cigarette and a coffee after I put my record player on – and ok, now I’m able to write. I always have the same pen, always the same notebook, because I feel secure. You need this working way of life, like a clerk.
One friend told me, ‘Oh, it’s so romantic to write,’ and I said, ‘Yes, at first I thought that too, but in fact, you’re at your little table, with your dictionary and your little pen and you’re always doing the same thing. It’s not an artistic or bohemian way of life.
I have a daughter now, she’s three months, and you can see it with babies. They need to wake up at the same time, to eat at the same time, and if you change something, they feel completely lost and — ‘Where am I?’. We always stick to this point.
Zenith Hotel a literary novel: Henri Calet is mentioned explicitly and Nanou’s name is close to Balzac’s Nana. One of the girls, Bouboule, instantly brings to mind Maupassant’s Boule de Suif. Also, Nanou hates ‘literary people’. Characters reflect on writing — Robert tries to start a novel, and Nanou talks about writing herself (‘it churns me up. It soils me from the inside’). Why is it important to have them, especially her, discuss their writing?
I hate novels about writers. Proust can do that, but the new ones, it’s always – there’s a 30-year-old writer, and his wife is cheating on him. I didn’t want to write about a writer, because it’s like watching a movie about an actor. Sometimes it works, but I want to ask, ‘Why didn’t you choose a painter?’ You could’ve said the same thing about a painter.
But I now live with books. When I want to think, I go to books; when I want to relax, I go to books; when I want to be stressed, I go to books; when I’m sad, when I’m happy, everything. I’m always thinking about books. So sometimes it just appears. But the literariness: that’s the only way I wanted to write books.
What I want from a book is for it to be well written. You can speak about anything, I don’t care – I just want it to be well written. Maybe when I read reviews now, no one is speaking about the way it was written, the style – but I think that’s the only thing that matters. I don’t know in England, but in France there are just a few guys who are talking about it and it’s so small compared to the huge literary scene but they’re never, never speaking about literary style.
Well, if France is not concerned with the literary qualities, the world is fucked. I had my hopes up for France, but what you say sounds like we might as well give up. Maybe it’s also a point of being entertained.
Or that shouldn’t be the first goal. When I discovered Proust, for instance, I think he changed my life and not because of entertainment or hobbies. I hate those writers who say, ‘I always have this hobby to write’ – fuck, it’s not a hobby!
So what is it, instead?
Maybe it’s more like.. you have to do it if you’re writing in an honest way, and the honesty is the only thing that matters. I read about an American writer, who advised his class that they shouldn’t write to be cool, sweet, and nice. You can’t be sweet with anyone if you’re a writer. If you decide to write, you have to deal with that maybe your mother will never speak to you again. Maybe you’ll find you’ve lost your job, your girlfriend, but you have to be ready for that, when you start to write.
And maybe I’m too romantic and French, but when I started writing, it was like, ‘anything else doesn’t matter – if I have to lose everything I have to be able to write, I will, definitely.’ There’s a religious element to it. But I’m not saying I’m writing good books. I’m saying I want to do that, no matter the price. Maybe I will succeed, maybe I won’t, but I’ll try anyway.
What’s the relationship with other arts? You left home to become a painter.
I left home when I was sixteen, also for this reason. I really wanted to be a painter, because it was so romantic for me. But it wasn’t my thing. I love paintings, but I can live if I don’t see any paintings for one month – sometimes I forget to go to a museum and it doesn’t matter — but I can’t live without books.
In the writing process, then, do you start with the visual, perhaps, or with the auditory?
I think I’m more of a musician. I tried to explain it to a friend, because he tried to write something – in fact, it was a script for a movie. He was like, ‘How can you choose, for instance, that this table will be black?’ I said, ‘In fact, I don’t think about that.’ If it sounds better to say ‘the green table’, I will say ‘the green table’. It’s part of the rhythm.
That’s why I feel a bit scared about translation – I’m very trustful to the translator, but when I read it, even if I can understand the story, I can’t feel the rhythm. All the work I try to do is trying to deal with sentences.
Zenith Hotel’s translation reads very well. Do you collaborate?
I read Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler in a very academic translation at first, an old one, and I felt I was in front of a huge book… but I read another translation, and I was like, ‘that’s it’. Sometimes you have to deal with two translations. It’s a good point when writers are still alive.
We emailed with Ros [Schwartz, the translator of Zenith Hotel] and she sometimes asked me questions, and whether certain things really mattered for me, or whether she could change them. I was really glad that she was always wondering about little things. I was really impressed. It even felt like it wasn’t mine anymore.
How does it feel to talk about it now, revisiting the book?
I’m so glad when the publishers ask me to go into bookshops in the countryside in France, and I’m on the train going, ‘Crap! That’s so cool that someone invites me to talk about my own work.’ You’re at the bookshop and there are twenty people, just waiting for you to talk and you’re like ‘Crap! That’s so cool!’
I’m definitely happy. But it’s still weird to talk the book because I wrote it four, five years ago, and so, I wouldn’t write it this way now. I think if I had to do the same book now, it wouldn’t be anything like this. When you’re thinking about your old book, you always see, ‘Ok, I forgot this, I didn’t punctuate that,’ so you’re like, ‘Oh, crap, now it’s printed, and so I can’t change anything.’ But I think you have to accept that it was three years ago, like a girl you used to love. You still love her, but you can live without her.
Zenith Hotel is out now from Arcadia.