|Maylis de Kerangal, photographed in Highbury, London |
Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Guardian
A LIFE IN WRITING
‘What is a heart? You have an organ in your body and you have a symbol of love’
Maylis de Kerangal, the French author and winner of the 2017 Wellcome prize for writing, on grief, heart surgery and surfingClaire Armitstead
Friday 28 April 2017 11.00 BST
f there was ever a novel that offered a metaphor for its writer’s life, Mend the Living is it: it opens with a towering evocation of the surfing life and Maylis de Kerangal herself is on the crest of a wave. The French novelist was in London last weekend for a series of talks to celebrate the shortlist of this year’s Wellcome prize for writing that encompasses medicine, health or illness. After a dash back to Paris to be with her family for the results of the first round of the French election, she returned to London on Monday to discover that she had become only the second novelist to win the £30,000 award. Four days later a film adaptation of the novel was released, directed by Katell Quillévéré with a high profile cast headed by Tahar Rahim and Emmanuelle Seigner.
Mend the Living (Heal the Living in the film version) is the story of a heart transplant, which cascades with the irresistible impetus of an Atlantic roller from the death of a teenager in a van accident as he returns with his friends from an early morning surfing session, to the implantation of his heart into a middle-aged woman. “From its glorious 300-word first sentence to the stately canopic imagery of its climactic scenes, Mend the Living mimics the rhythm of the processes it depicts – the troughs and peaks of grief and protocol, of skills utilised and acceptance finally achieved,” wrote Guardian reviewer M John Harrison.
The journey of Simon Limbeau’s heart is crowded with strangers with whom, through the briefest of sketches, we become intimately acquainted. They range from the intensive care consultant who declares Simon brain dead to the young nurse who tends to his still warm body. Along the way we encounter the biomedical agency officer responsible for matching donors and recipients, the transplant surgeons and the presiding angel of the story, the organ donation nurse who talks Simon’s parents into making available their son’s heart, liver and kidneys, guards his body as medical teams from all over France descend for the “harvesting”, and then returns him to his family, washed, reshaped and sutured, 24 hours later.
It is a harrowing story, involving a boy the same age as one of De Kerangal’s own sons. It ambushed the mother-of-four after her own father suffered a fatal heart attack while she was working on a different novel. “I stopped writing that book … couldn’t go further … couldn’t act as if nothing had changed,” she says.
“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”
It helped that her brother is a cardiovascular surgeon, who was on hand to advise on such intricacies of transplant surgery as the colour of a body that is in the process of being harvested (is it red or blue?). Mend the Living reflects two aspects of De Kerangal’s own family biography: firstly that she comes from a medical dynasty that now extends to four generations, and secondly that they are “a family of the sea”.
Born in 1967, she grew up in the northern French port of Le Havre, one of five children of a teacher and a naval officer, who was away at sea for months at a time. Her three brothers were all surfers, in honour of which familial obsession their father nailed a plaque to the garden gate that read: “On the seventh day God went surfing.”
De Kerangal herself was an all-rounder, who left school for universities in Rouen and Paris, to study history, philosophy and ethnology. In her early 20s she landed a job with a publisher, where she spent five years editing travel guides, returning to university as a mature student to take a further degree in anthropology. “I can’t say I always intended to be a writer because when I was young I was very ‘dispersée’ – I wasn’t a steady person with one vocation. I loved history, anthropology, theatre …”
It wasn’t until she had given birth to her first child, and put her career on hold to travel to Colorado with her engineer husband, that she began to write. “That stay in the US was very important to me. It was when I was separated from my country and my language for the first time,” she says. “But it was also a revolution for me because it changed my impression of time and space: I discovered the open prairie. It was a completely different life and, after growing up in a house full of people, I was alone. In the first week I thought I could write something about my previous years as a travel editor and I did it.”
She returned with a first novel published in France in 2000 and (like all except her two most recent novels) as yet untranslated, but also with the ingredients of a later work that would mark her breakthrough on to the international stage.
Birth of a Bridge is the story of a vanity project conceived by a hubristic politician – the construction of a six-lane suspension bridge in a fictional US town. Published in French in 2010 and in English four years later, it introduced Anglophone readers to her signature style of free-flowing sentences studded with technical vocabulary, and a chorus of characters who serve a monolithic narrative structure.
The novel won prizes in France and Italy – and its reissue in paperback at a time when the US is grappling with the consequences of Donald Trump’s victory and Marine Le Pen has reached the final stage of France’s election –seems more than a lucky coincidence. It has a deep but understated political intelligence and is populated with just the sorts of put-upon people that have brought such mavericks to power: blue-collar workers, itinerant tradesmen and first nation drifters hired as footsoldiers in an international project dreamed up by “the Boa”, who is determined to put his town – and himself – on the world map regardless of the cost to the environment or to the indigenous population.
It isn’t until well over halfway through the novel that we get the full measure of the Boa, in a single paragraph outlining his arrival on the political scene: “He causes a stir – he is the reform and the new – and by bypassing the elite, supplanting the local heirs, and using surprise, he creates a tactical advantage that lasts until his election. During his final campaign speech, he presents himself as Prince Charming, called to wake Sleeping Beauty. The one you’ve all been waiting for to begin living again.”
De Kerangal shrugs off the topicality of the character she transported from the US in the early 2000s and incubated for more than a decade. “I wanted at the time to do something that could resolve the sense of globalisation, and I thought that Boa would be the kind of person who could incarnate the desire for power but who has no education for it. He is a small person with huge ambition and no background.”
Mend the Living also carries a topical frisson at a time when traditional concepts of the sanctity of life are facing ever more technical challenges. Her ICU surgeon, Pierre Revol, was born in 1959 which he likes to consider a critical year: “Triumph of the Cuban revolution … filming of Godard’s Breathless, release of Burroughs’Naked Lunch and Miles Davis’s mythical Kind of Blue.”
More significantly, it was the year in which the concept of life was changed for ever by two French doctors, Maurice Goulon and Pierre Mollaret, who informed the 23rd International Neurology Meeting that their work with patients in deep coma had demonstrated that “the heart stopping is no longer the sign of death, from now on it’s the cessation of brain function … In other words: if I don’t think any more therefore I am no more. Deposition of the heart and coronation of the brain – a symbolic coup d’état, a revolution.”
The novel dramatises this altered reality in a devastating scene in which a young nurse is scolded by Revol for talking to Simon as she tends to him, as if he was alive. He’s dead, says the doctor, and to behave otherwise will merely confuse his parents.
It’s a mark of the resonance of the novel that, besides the film, it has already had two stage productions and two versions in English. The US version, translated by Sam Taylor, was titled simply The Heart, while the Canadian poet Jessica Moore was responsible for the version published in the UK and Canada as Mend the Living.
Both highlighted different aspects of the novel, says De Kerangal, but Moore brought to it – and to Birth of a Bridge – the ear of a poet. Moore in turn describes De Kerangal as “a brilliant but difficult author”, writing that “everything about [her] writing pushes the reader (and translator) to widen her thoughts, to stretch her use of language. Nothing is banal or by rote.”
There are hopes of a translation of her fifth novel, Corniche Kennedy, an “epic chronicle” of a group of young divers from Marseille who become fascinated by a girl from a higher social class, which was published in France in 2008 and made into a low-budget film in France earlier this year.
Teenagers hanging out in coastal towns are a recurrent presence in De Kerangal’s novels, though she herself now lives the life of a full-time writer in Paris – working in a housekeeper’s attic a few Métro stops from the apartment in which she and her husband have brought up their four children, aged between nine and 23.
Her writing and her life are inextricably entwined. “I am the sort of writer who needs another form to tell me who I am and what has happened to me,” she says. “I think all my novels are self-portraits, but there’s no one character who resolves me, or catalyses me, or is me.” In Mend the Living, she can be glimpsed in both Marianne, the mother whose benediction allows her son’s heart to go on its journey, and Claire, the mother who receives it.
In the film, Claire is portrayed as the ex-lover of a musician in the soft-focus of a lesbian love story that doesn’t exist in the novel. De Kerangal made Claire a translator, a role that sums up her attitude to the relationship between fiction and reality, language and the life that it articulates and represents. “For me she couldn’t have been anything but a translator because translators keep within their language room for another. They can give hospitality to other languages.”
The novel is framed by a translation: a line of dialogue from Platonov, an early drama by the physician playwright Chekhov. To the question “What shall we do?” comes the answer “Bury the dead and mend the living.” The word “mend”, De Kerangal points out, suits her project better than “heal” – it suggests a tough and practical approach to the philosophical and spiritual questions of human existence. Like Birth of a Bridge, it holds the concrete and the conceptual in suspension, enacting and interrogating each other through the agency of fiction.
• Mend the Living is published by MacLehose.