author of Couple Mechanics
Other Press: Couple Mechanics is your second novel, and the first to be translated into English. Was there a difference in process or approach between writing the two books? How was the experience of having your work translated? Did you work closely with the translator to maintain certain aspects you set out to establish in the French?
Nelly Alard: My first novel, Le Crieur de nuit, is a family story that takes place in Brittany and was very much inspired by my own childhood. It’s a short, intimate story, written in the first person but to me it is a modern tale, inspired by the old Celtic myths. I don’t know why it hasn’t been translated into English. I think it would appeal to all people interested in Celtic culture—besides being the (unfortunately too common if not universal) story of an abusive father.
Couple Mechanics is a more traditional work of fiction, written in the third person, and its themes are (maybe more) evidently universal: love, marriage, betrayal. Its originality lies, I think, very much in style and treatment. Which makes it tricky to translate. It mixes very casual dialog with the flows of Juliette’s inner thoughts. In those, the music of the words, repetitions, punctuation (or absence of) were very important to me. Also her dark humor and irony, which is the hardest thing to get across. So yes, I worked closely with Adriana Hunter to get it right and as fluid as in French, and we often preferred to cut off expressions or metaphors that didn’t work in English instead of keeping something that would have felt awkward. Thankfully, Adriana is a great translator and she had immediately captured my “voice,” so it was mostly adjustments.
OP: You were awarded the Prix Interallié for Couple Mechanics, the first woman to win the award in more than twenty years. Do you think there’s any significance to your winning it, when the novel presses questions about the contemporary state of feminism?
NA: Not only was I awarded the Prix Interallié—whose jury is entirely male—for Couple Mechanics, but I also had been awarded the Prix Roger Nimier, whose jury is also entirely male, for Le Crieur de nuit. So I received the two most misogynist French awards!! (I’m kidding here. But it is true that those two prizes are the only two French awards to only have men in their jury…) So I guess my way of writing appeals to men…
More seriously, it is true that many men have identified strongly with the character of Olivier—even though they were the first ones to call him a coward and condemn his lies and his weakness. The book in France was, I think, equally well received by men and women, and that made me happy, since one of my goals was to demonstrate the many contradictions in women’s demands today and how difficult it was for the most feminist, well-meaning men to satisfy them. Olivier, for sure, makes mistakes and acts inconsequently. But he’s a nice guy. And then he finds himself trapped between these two strong women, and at the end he is the real victim.
OP: The story of the woman who discovers her husband is having an affair is such a classic. Why did you want to tell this story? What did you want to bring to the literature?
NA: In short, I wanted to rewrite The Woman Destroyed, by Simone de Beauvoir, some fifty years later, after feminism has drastically changed the relationships between men and women, and see how this story would unfold in a modern couple, with new forces in balance.
OP: Couple Mechanics is remarkably detailed in its depiction of Juliette’s psyche and the decisions she makes in the face of her husband’s affair. Do you think it will be difficult for your readers to inhabit that space in Juliette’s head? Do you have any favorite novels that asked you to immerse yourself in an uncomfortable experience?
NA: Well, I would say almost all novels make you inhabit a space inside the main character’s head—and that’s what we love about literature: being taken away from our own lives and experiencing others’—and at the same time recognizing familiar situations or questions or thoughts that make you think about your own experience. Sometimes you identify with the character, sometimes you’re irritated by him/her, it’s all part of the fun!! While writing Couple Mechanics, I was reading and rereading Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, and I immersed myself completely in Patty’s very uncomfortable experience…
OP: In the novel, Juliette believes that society has a “very clear idea of how a betrayed woman should behave,” a script, in essence, perhaps similar to the rape script. Do you think Juliette’s actions are feminist? Do you think a feminist act can be considered otherwise depending on the circumstance?
NA: I am not sure I understand the question. Juliette considers herself a feminist and she lives her whole daily life as a feminist. But does she react to her rape, to her husband’s betrayal, to Victoire’s harassment as a feminist? I don’t think so. She reacts out of her sense of survival. She tries to protect what’s most important to her: her life, her love, her kids—and she doesn’t care whether her actions are “feministically correct” (I know this word doesn’t exist, I’m inventing it!) or not. She resents people telling her what she should do or have done, but more than anything else, she resents women like Victoire who claim to be feminists and at the same time play on all the old stereotypes, pretending to be victims all the time. The bottom line being that the purpose of feminism, I think, is to give women the right and freedom to make their own choices, and not be judged for it.
OP: The intensity of Olivier’s relationship with V is surprising considering that at the beginning of the novel he’s been seeing V for a mere three weeks. Do you want your readers to see Couple Mechanics as a critique of marriage as an institution or as an exploration of passion?
Absolutely not. “The intensity of Olivier’s relationship with V” is entirely Victoire’s fabrication. Olivier started this relationship almost casually, and he is at first surprised, then flattered, then more and more terrified by Victoire’s manifestations of passion—in the form of hysteria. In the French version, three chapters were written from Olivier’s point of view, and maybe it made this clearer. If Olivier had had a sexual passion for Victoire, he couldn’t have ended it so quickly. Seducing Victoire was for him more of a reassurance, at a time when he started to feel very insecure in his marriage, and that Juliette was slowly drifting away from him. Of course he is attracted to V but more than anything else he likes the adoring way she looks at him, especially as Juliette seems always so dissatisfied with him. Also, men easily mistake hysteria for passion, and he likes the intensity of the drama, somehow…until he realizes, unfortunately very late (maybe too late?), that the one who really suffers most because of him is not V, despite all her fits and threats, but the one he really loves—and that’s Juliette, his wife.