Books

Hervé Le Tellier: Literature Is Child’s Play

Hervé Le Tellier won the 2020 Prix Goncourt for The Anomaly, published in English this week, and has written 38 novels, plays, and poetry collections. Translated in the United States since 2011 (The Sextine Chapel, The Intervention of a Good Man, Enough About Love, Electrico W), this former mathematician and science journalist has also been named the new president of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “the potential literature workshop”), after being a member since 1992.
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© Francesca Mantovani/Gallimard

In just one year, Hervé Le Tellier has become a publishing powerhouse. One million books sold, forty translations along with sales in countless countries, and a series project under development with diplomat and author Antonin Baudry, founder of the Albertine French bookshop in New York City. Never, since Marguerite Duras’s 1984 The Lover, has a Prix Goncourt laureate enjoyed such success. “The Anomaly is both funny and defined as literary thanks to its inclusion in the Blanche collection by Gallimard,” says the novelist, sat in the office of his Montmartre apartment – his base when he isn’t on a train, a plane, or at his vacation house in the rural Drôme département. “I wanted to write an entertaining novel in the noble sense of the term; I constructed it to provide the reader with enjoyment, playing with the codes of American best-sellers by Stephen King and Michael Crichton, although without poking fun at them.” Rarely has a book been so aptly named. Truly ambitious and devilishly efficient, this novel bound by discreet constraints blends metaphysics, science, and pop literature, making it an anomaly on the French literary scene.

The plot features eleven characters and is a thought experiment based on a theory from Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom: What if we were all living in a computer-generated simulation? On March 21, 2021 (slightly later than the time of writing), an Air France Boeing 787 takes off from Paris and lands in New York after flying through a violent storm. The passengers include a contract killer, a Nigerian pop star, and a discreet French writer, Victor Miesl, who has also translated Gontcharov and American crime fiction best-sellers. A month after returning to Paris, Miesl commits suicide, leaving behind him a feverish treatise entitled The Anomaly, described as “Jankélévitch on LSD.” Three months later, the same plane transporting the same people crash-lands on a New Jersey military base. Summoned by the American authorities, two experts in probability and topology are asked to give their opinion on this anomaly – or distortion of reality.

A Taste for America

While writing a short story in which a character came face-to-face with their double, Hervé Le Tellier had the idea for this story starting in flight AF006 from Paris to New York. “This is a symbolic flight for the French people of my generation who were teenagers in the 1970s and 1980s, but it no longer has much meaning globally. I used it as a game, interplaying my own memories and the American collective imagination.” An avid reader since he was a child, as he recounts in All Happy Families, Hervé Le Tellier confesses to having a longstanding obsession with America and a closeness to the English language. “I have read a lot of Philip Roth, Richard Ford, and Jim Harrison; a whole generation on the brink of disappearing. I lived in England and changed languages from five to nine years old. English was a maternal language in which I could dream but not count, so I am not really bilingual. But if I am dropped into an Anglophone environment, it all comes back.”

While he was a teenager, and until he was 22 or 23, he devoured American science fiction, including Isaac Asimov, Fredric Brown, and Daniel Keyes, the author of Flowers for Algernon. After falling in love with noir fiction, one of the many genres he plays with in The Anomaly, he also developed a passion for Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, and Mickey Spillane. In the early 1980s, he worked as a server at La Bonne Soupe, a French restaurant in Manhattan, and was hired for a month by a gay bar. “It was before AIDS; I was French and the nicest guy in the bar. Everyone made fun of me because I was the only heterosexual.” As a mathematician, he also briefly covered a number theory class at Berkeley. “Mathematics is a global language, so I only needed to learn a single word in English: hence!”

Following in Queneau’s Footsteps

Sonates de bar (1991) was his first book published in France, and the prolific author of novels, poetry and plays joined Oulipo the following year. This gathering of “mathematicians and writers,” founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, tried to develop literature by inventing constraints (such as writing without using the letter “e”). The group offered him a family, “strong bonds,” and a similar relationship with language. “When I was their guest of honor, before becoming a member, I realized that I shared the same references as everyone around the table. At the age of 15, I courted a girl by writing 15 or 20 invitations to dinner, each in a different style. In reply, she gave me Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which had just come out in paperback. Perec came later; I discovered A Void at 19 or 20, and started reading Things when I arrived at Oulipo. We share a taste for bad jokes and spoonerisms; it comes from our childhoods. Children realize they can speak in Alexandrines and they think it’s funny. You then keep a playful side, or not. I’ve kept mine.”

If there was something that bound this seemingly disparate life’s work together, it would have to be a taste for playing, coupled with nostalgia. “They both go together. Nostalgia creates pathos and sadness, while playing creates a certain distance and pathways where nostalgia will never venture. I also have strong ties to memory; I came up with the idea for my next book by looking at the wall in my country house, where a young man, a twenty-year-old Resistance fighter killed in 1944, had written his name.” Much like Perec and the other Oulipo members, Hervé Le Tellier loves lists. “It’s a way of not tidying things away, and if we don’t tidy them away, they appear as infinitely logical.” Another anomaly?

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The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated from French by Adriana Hunter, Other Press, November 23, 2021.


Article published in the November 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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