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“The Atelier du roman (Novelist’s Workshop) was born of a love for literature”

Couverture du n°76 de la revue L'Atelier du romanThe Atelier du roman1, a quarterly review devoted to the novel, was created in 1993 by Lakis Proguidis, the author of several essays on the novel. Each issue is organized around a series of articles on the theme of a novel, a novelist, a country, or a literary question. The review also features regular columns (“A la une” and “De près et de loin”), critical articles, creative texts in “Les cahiers de l’Atelier”, interviews with novelists, and chronicles. With issue 76, the review celebrates twenty years of existence. Our thanks to Lakis Proguidis for granting us this interview and for taking the time to read it over.
Dominique Dussidour.


DD: Lakis, can you explain how the Atelier du roman, the only review to my knowledge entirely devoted to the novel, was born?
LP: After I turned thirty I fell in love with the novels of Witold Gombrowicz. And as happens to all those who fall in love with an oeuvre, I immediately became interested in the author’s life. It was then that I learned, among many other interesting things of course, that Gombrowicz considered literary cafés to be essential places for literary life. In his Diary he comes back to this question several times. He frequented the literary cafes of Warsaw before the war. He tried to start a few in Buenos Aires during his Argentinian period. When he came to settle in France in 1964, he discovered, to his great disappointment, that the era of literary cafés had come to an end.

In 1987 I started to write an essay on Gombrowicz’s novels2. It was while working on it that I felt that I should do something—yes, love comes with duties—to remedy Gombrowicz’s disappointment. Do what? Start a literary café? I was in love, but I wasn’t crazy… Suppose I created a literary review infused with the spirit of the literary cafés of yesteryear, a review that would function like a literary café? That was the initial idea.

What is a literary café? It’s a place where people come together regularly to talk, exchange ideas, catch up with one another, laugh and joke, while drinking wine and smoking cigarettes with their colleagues, in this case writers. The Atelier du roman was born of this desire to create a space where practitioners of the novel could meet.
To create a literary café, there must be regulars. On this point, I was lucky. From 1981 to 1993 I took part in the seminar on the Central European novel (Kafka, Broch, Déry, Gombrowicz, Kis…) that Milan Kundera gave at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales. In 1992, when, with the help of Yves Hersant, Director of Studies at the Ecole, I took the first steps toward finding a publisher, I also shared with Kundera and four students my intention of founding a review devoted to the novel. Their enthusiasm and support were immediate. Thus was born the first nucleus of contributors and friends of the review, a nucleus that is still active. Since then, it has been considerably enlarged. Today nearly five hundred writers from around the world have published articles in the Atelier du roman.

DD: Why this title, the Atelier du roman?
LP: We use the word “atelier” (“studio” or “workshop”) for painters, but what word should be used for the place where writers work? Gombrowicz is the novelist who pushed me to become an essayist, and in the first part of my essay, I speak of his “workshop.” The idea was not to “study” his oeuvre in the context of Slavic literature—which is what is almost exclusively done—but in the context of his art—which is what we always do with great painters, great musicians, and so on.

Using the word in the title means first and foremost that, in this review, the novel is not treated as an object of study, the way it is at the university, nor as a product of the literary market, as is done in the literary pages of the newspaper. The “workshop” of the novel is a place where the novel is treated as a living universal art, namely an art that has a past, to which we always come back, a present, which is always mysterious, enigmatic, and a future, which is always risky.

DD: And why the novel?
LP: Because the questions tied to the emergence, history, aesthetic, and current overproduction of novels are so vast and so exciting that in my opinion the novel deserves to be treated independently.

At school we are taught to recite poems, to perform plays. In this way we experience, materially and physically, for ourselves and in front of others, what the act of poetry is, what the act of theater is. But where the novel is concerned we experience nothing. We read excerpts of novels, we take them apart, we analyze them, we interpret them… we circle around them, and that’s all. And yet the novel is an art unto itself, just like poetry and theater, an art equal in importance to the poetry inaugurated by Homer, to the tragedy inaugurated by Aeschylus. It is at once a historical creation and an aesthetic conquest that has formed the imagination of the world that has come out of the Modern Era. The novel has not always existed. It is not anthropologically innate to man, it did not appear spontaneously at the dawn of civilization. It was preceded by other artistic forms. At a certain moment it appears in the history of a people, of a country, to which it attaches itself and in which it is founded as a narrative form. The novel is something that must be learned, worked on, for the novelist and for the reader. Why don’t schools and universities decide to consider the novel in its artistic specificity?

In the West, the novel emerges as an autonomous art of major scope around the 16th century. It inherits elements from the “mysteries,” the “liturgical dramas,” from the Song of Roland, from courtly literature… from the whole history of the literature that preceded it. But it is not, so to speak, the logical, expected outcome of those artistic forms. And then, it is not born everywhere at the same moment and it develops at its own pace, in England in the 18th century, in Russia in the 19th, and so on. The novel appears at a certain epoch in a group of countries whose societies experience the same historical, political, and cultural development. The novel is not the result of an individual who discovered a particular aptitude for a new form of narration. It responds to the desire of a society that needs that form, the novelistic form, to express itself, a society that wanted its story to be told in that way, by means of the novel, even if before it wasn’t clearly aware of this. And it responds to certain civilizational, socio-political, and socio-economic conditions. The novel speaks with a collective voice, the voice of a society composed of free subjects such as begins to take shape with the Modern, or Post-Renaissance, Era. The novelists are the bards that the people of those societies want to hear, to whom they grant their trust because the novelists are able to tell their story. This element is more important and more interesting than the individual, psychological experience of such and such an individual who writes. No novel arrives alone. From the moment the novel is truly constituted as an autonomous art, other novels are written. A novelist arrives at the same time, or almost the same time, as other novelists, he works in their company and his work is an echo of theirs.

DD: What do you mean by “the form of the novel”?
LP: When I am asked this question I often respond provocatively that the character is the very form of the novel and that each novel experiments, creates its own form. The act of Raskolnikov killing an old woman—I am young, she is old = her time has come—is a unique novelistic experiment. Without Dostoevsky’s novel we would know nothing of the rationalization of life that in our day and age is assuming the proportions of an anthropological catastrophe. Dostoevsky recounts a human experience set in the Russia of his era. And yet that experience is premonitory with respect to the future. It heralds our era’s utilitarian conception of time, of nature, and of our fellow human beings. A character like Don Quixote exists even for those who have not read Cervantes’ novel. The characters in novels never die, even when they die in the novel they remain living. For the novelist and then for the reader, the novelistic experience is a “living with” such and such a character, “living with” Raskolnikov, Emma Bovary, Pantagruel, novelistically sharing their experiences, their adventures, their worldviews, of which we would know nothing without the novelists who created them, without the “form of the novel” that transports them and causes them to be lodged deep within us.

There are then as many particular forms of the novel as there are characters who inhabit our imagination. What they have in common is that all of them refer back to the same art.

DD: Three issues of the Atelier du roman take as their theme: “Does literary criticism need novelists?” This question reverses the usual image of novelists in search of critical legitimacy, and recalls what Döblin says when he speaks of an “act of legitimate self-defense” to refer to novelists reflecting on their own work.
LP: Yes, that’s exactly what it is, “an act of legitimate self-defense” [laughter]. Issue 6 focused on criticism of a so-called scientific tenor and vocabulary, issue 27 analyzed the literary supplements of three daily newspapers (Le Figaro, Libération, Le Monde) which in fact take interest only in the latest releases, and issue 46 addressed academic criticism. A fourth issue is in gestation. It will reflect on the time of creation and the time of criticism. One senses that society is making it harder and harder for each of us to find time to pursue “irrelevant” activities. Everyone complains about this. We no longer have time to read, to write, to create, to reflect. The time of artistic creation constitutes a little island of resistance against the frantic pace of the global market, it’s a time for active research and not a time for passive consumption. Similarly, those who practice the profession of literary critic don’t seem to have any more time to read and reflect on what they read. One book supplants another, books keep falling into cultural and publishing oblivion. They are connected to nothing, as if each book issued from itself, without a past and thus without a future. But the past is not past, it belongs to the present, which it infuses and nourishes. To ignore this is to banish human experience from its own history, that is to say from that which constitutes humanity, historical time.

DD: The review regularly takes part in the debate about the relationship between the novel and the other arts of language: the novel and poetry with regard to the beautiful, the dialogue between the novel and philosophy, which you speak of as a “missed opportunity”, the novel and theater and the notion of character, the “elective affinities” between the novel and the essay.
LP: The curiosity of novelists is one of their most remarkable qualities. These dialogues are necessary because of the novel’s immense capacity for integrating, absorbing all sorts of language: poetic, philosophical, theatrical, and so on. Alas, these other artistic and intellectual domains do not seem interested in this kind of dialogue which, in any case, concerns the novel. Such dialogues provide elements for the definition of the novel by helping to delimit its specificity as an autonomous art.

DD: The Atelier du roman dialogues with other literary reviews published in Europe, in Canada, and other issues are devoted to a country: Portugal, Iceland, Ireland, Latin America, Quebec, Romania…
LP: In twenty years the review has published texts by nearly five hundred writers, half of them French writers, the other half francophone writers writing in French, such as Massimo Rizzante in Italie, Marek Bienczyk in Poland, Isabelle Daunais in Canada, Boniface Mongo-Mboussa for Congo-Brazzaville, and so on. The idea is not to promote national literatures but to understand, to approach what is specific about the novelistic art in such and such a country. The word novel is not translated the same way everywhere. In Polish, it includes the idea of “catch-all,” of bits and pieces of disconnected remarks, without “poetic” ambitions. In Romania, one hears the snicker of self-mockery. A general definition of the novel should include all of these “national” specificities.3 And we should not be satisfied with saying, as it was said when they won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that Naguib Mahfouz is “the Zola of the Nile,” that Ivo Andric is “the Balzac of the Balkans,” as if Egypt and the Balkans had simply borrowed a literary tradition foreign to their own history.

As for the thorny question of French in the world, the Atelier du roman is committed to the defense of Francophony not as a geopolitical territory—without denying that this territory exists, of course, and that it results from a long history of wars and colonizations—but as a geoliterary space where individuals, independently of their national affiliation, use French to create and to comment on the work of their fellows.

DD: Greece often figures in the table of contents…
LP: Three Greek novelists have each been the subject of a series of articles in the review: Papadiamantis4, Kiourtsakis, the second volume of whose trilogy has already been published by Verdier5, and Kazantzaki, who is the only one to have an international audience but who remains, in the domain of the Greek novel, an isolated case. I have just said that not all countries enter the epoch of the novel as an autonomous art at the same time. I do not believe that Greece has entered that epoch. There are many excellent authors of short stories but no novelist has yet served as the “locomotive” for a generation of novelists. Greece is above all a country of poetry. A collection of poetry can easily be printed in batches of two thousand, for a country of ten million people that’s incredible!

DD: For fourteen years the Atelier du roman organized the “Rencontres de Nauplie” (“Nauplie Meetings”). Writers came together around a theme defined in advance and their presentations were later published in the review. These meetings came to an end after fourteen years in existence. What happened?
LP: It was a political act. Europe is now divided into two spaces: countries that are the masters and decide everything, and countries that are slaves and have no other choice but to submit. The European Commission is the “back room” where the decisions that organize the lives of European citizens are made. The Nauplie Meetings were born of an immense hope for cultural exchanges among equal partners, among free people who, each in his or her own way, could contribute to the construction of the communal European house. But in a framework like today’s where countries that impose their will coexist with humiliated countries, what good is there in furthering the illusion of intellectual exchange? It would be tantamount to accepting and camouflaging this state of affairs. That is why we decided to put an end to the meetings. But they will no doubt start up again elsewhere, in another form, a form in response to the anti-democratic trends in today’s Euruope.

DD: And for the twenty years to come…
LP: The Atelier du roman has a long-term approach. Its themes are developed through reflection, reading, and group discussions that take place for at least five years before becoming the subject of an issue. It happens like this: someone convinces us that a novelist, an oeuvre, or a theme is important to talk about… so we read, we reflect, we talk it over. In the years to come, I would very much like us to explore the novel in Africa.

L.P. and D.D.
January 15th, 2014
Translated by Trevor Merrill


[1] The Atelier du roman is published by the French publishing house Flammarion.
[2] Lakis Proguidis, Un écrivain malgré la critique. Essai sur l’oeuvre de Witold Gombrowicz (Gallimard, 1989).
[3] ssue 22 (June 2000), entitled “Il était une fois l’Europe” (“Once Upon A Time There Was Europe”) devoted a series of articles to this theme: “Roman: un art, plusieurs noms” (“The Novel: One Art, Several Names”).
[4] See La Conquête du roman. De Papadiamantis à Boccace by Lakis Proguidis (Les Belles Lettres, 1997).
[5] Le Dicôlon by Yannis Kiourtsakis was published by Verdier in 2011, Double exil was published in 2014 by the same publisher.


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