Month: November 2008

Beatrice Commenge: An interview

“I imagine, therefore I belong and am free,” wrote British expatriate novelist, poet and playwright Lawrence Durrell. Born in India (Jalandhar) in 1912 to British colonials Louisa and Lawrence Samuel Durrell, Durrell did his schooling from St St Joseph’s College in Darjeeling and was exiled to England at the tender age of 11.
But Durrell, a child of Darjeeling’s landscape, never liked England. He defined himself as “cosmopolitan” and eventually settled in Sommières, a small village in Provence (France). For French author Beatrice Commengé, who is in India to finish her research on Durrell (as part of her larger work on Anais Nin and Henry Miller, a French and an American writer respectively), it is hard not to draw a parallel with her own life. Born in Algiers, she was “driven away” from her home at the age of 12 to Paris. “I think there is a correlation there: the feeling that you have no home, no roots. I am pleased to go to Darjeeling as it is a trip Durrell couldn’t make. He didn’t want to. He preferred to keep it as a memory. And he was right,” says Beatrice.
Migration and rootlessness are forced by history and politics. And then there is
migration by choice. Algeria was a French colony from 1830 to 1962). And when Beatrice left her country as a child, the pang of leaving the land of her birth naturally gnawed at her heart: “May be I did suffer from leaving the country.” It was a pain, which Durrell, when he was sent from Darjeeling to London, sure would
have felt. Commenge says that over the years she has managed to make the inheritance
of loss “positive”. She says: “When I left Algeria, I thought it was a good age. My childhood was finished. And as a teenager, I wouldn’t like my childhood relations as I would be a different person, I’d be someone else. So, it’s good that my childhood was in one city and adult life elsewhere. As for the rest of my life, I didn’t know where would I spend that.” A different place for the different phases of her life appealed to her as a teenager. And when she grew up, it took another shape, triggering her extensive travel around the world. And today even though she has made Paris her home – “It’s my port, my harbour” – she always has a feeling, she has to go elsewhere. “I live near Paris. But the home I live in I’ve never felt it to be my home. What is belonging? I have books,” she says.
Beatrice, author of L’homme Immobile: Roman, La Danse De Nietzsche and Henry
Miller: Ange, Clown, Voyou, says in her latest book (on Durrell) she would like to go a little deep inside and explore Durrell’s “internal universe”. He had always said that he was a child of Darjeeling. “He was not born there, but in Jalandhar. But he said that the place of his real birth was Darjeeling. It’s Darjeeling’s image that comes back to you when you read his books and his interviews. And I’ve come to see the light of Darjeeling,” says Beatrice, whose favourite trips are when she follows the footsteps of writers: “It’s interesting to retrace the steps of writers.”
While retracing a writer’s footsteps is something researchers anyway do, Beatrice
clarifies that she is not a mere researcher: “My hope is to discover something else. And the book will be the correlation of Durrell’s memories of the place and my own trip,thanks to him, and our experiences of exile.”
Tracing her own eventual journey of a writer and a traveller, Beatrice says she wouldn’t have “written,” had it not been for Miller: “He is the one who helped me to dare say, ‘I can do it’”.
While Miller kept breaking from the existing literary forms in novel after “new” novel, a pot-pourri of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealism and mysticism like, (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring spring to mind), Beatrice had made her mind she won’t limit herself to a particular genre either. “When people ask me what do you write, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to say essay, novel or poetry. I would like my books to be all the three woven together. There’s always some kind of philosophical background to my writings. I work on both feeling and ideas,” says Beatrice. Also important for her are space and time as she thinks we are on earth in specific space and specific time. An example is her book about Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry.
“My book on Rilke spans eight days in Paris in 1920. In eight days, I relate his entire whole life and philosophy. I like to write books in specific space and time,” she says. Rilke’s poetry, says Beatrice, has a kind of authenticity. He couldn’t “love” the women he loved because he thought he had to dedicate himself fully to writing. Beatrice says she finds the poet’s idea of death – “not a sad death, but death as a part of life” – fascinating.
Beatrice’s galaxy of writers opened up with Miller and Durrell – she had met both and was s friends with the latter. “I also discovered writers whom I found to be so ‘full of life’ both in their expression and in their life. The problem is how do you succeed both in writing and in your life. Most writers, like Flaubert, go on their own and don’t see any other. But writer like Miller and Durrell had succeeded in ‘seeing the world’ and also to completely evolve with writing,” says Beatrice, who wrote her first book on her two ancestors who came from France to Algeria. She then did her Masters in dance. And went on to write another book on Friedrich Nietzsche: “I wanted to bring him to dance”.
Beatrice says: “I am neither a dancer nor a choreographer. And the book on Nietzsche is very important for me. It helped me to be known in France a little more, to be able to go on as a writer.” When Beatrice began to write, she also wanted to combine it with travel: “I had just two passions – be in the library and on the road”. And the choice of what she wrote about stemmed from a conundrum that most of Greek philosophers grappled with: How to live? “I wanted to write to know how to live. My book on Alexandria, the city, gave me an opportunity to combine my two passions: travelling and reading, being on the road and being with books,” she says. Beatrice follows her twin passions even as she travels from different zones in time and space. And this journey (to borrow Durrell’s own words), is like “artistes” for it is “born” and not “made”.