In my MFA Program, there was a clear divide in the student body: those who hated the literature requirement and those who did not. Those who did were in the majority. We’re here to be writers, their argument went. Why would we waste time in lit classes, writing academic papers and talking theory? Fair enough, but nevertheless I was with the minority. I got that lit crit had little to do with my aspirations to be a fiction writer, but on the other hand I had not become a serious reader until I was in college and even then had read almost exclusively American and British literature. Compared to many of my peers, I felt woefully underread—and I was. While my creative work tended to feel alternately thrilling and futile, attending to my literature requirements felt like an unambiguously useful way to be spending my time.
When I look back on the three years I spent in graduate school, there was another clear divide: me before I took a course in the contemporary French novel and me after. In short, it was one of the most beneficial classes I ever took as a graduate student—or anywhere else. This is long enough ago—2007-ish—that I can’t remember the specifics of our conversations or the papers I wrote or the theorists we read. I have some dim memory of reading Heidegger and feeling confused about time and kind of wishing I still did drugs, as I suspect being in an altered state might have helped me grasp “Being and Time.” But the novels. The novels I remember like I read them yesterday.
An incomplete reading list from that class: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers, André Breton’s Nadja, Hélène Cixous’s The Third Body, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Jean Echenoz’s Piano, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Marie NDiaye’s Rosie Carpe. These books served as not only my introduction to the contemporary French novel, but also as my introduction to literature in translation, experimental approaches to novel writing, and a particular brand of surrealism—I’d later come to think of many of these novels as “existential detective stories”—that would prove to be enormously influential in my writing and reading life. That is a great many introductions for a single class to make for a student.
I did not love everything I read. I found Nadja grating. Reading Cixous was like being slowly filled with helium. The books I loved, however, I loved with stark-raving-mad abandon. Piano initially purports to be about the midlife crisis of a pianist, but then kills the first person narrator off in the second chapter and takes the reader on a tour of the afterlife. The Bathroom is the engrossing—truly—story of a man who is unable to leave his bathroom. The fragmentary style of The Lover was a revelation, as was its ability to be at once savagely clear-eyed and unafraid of melodrama. The Erasers singlehandedly reconfigured my understanding of the detective novel. These books were mysterious, but they did not treat the mysterious as being particularly unusual; rather it was a fuller embrace of mystery, where the unreal was every bit as actual and consequential as the real.
Almost right away I felt the impact of this class in my reading life—more weird French novels, more literature in translation—but it wouldn’t be until after the class and my MFA program were behind me that I would feel the impact in my writing. Nationality aside, one thing that united all the books I’d read for that class was this: none of them did what you expected them to do. They posed questions and then turned away from those very questions, in pursuit of different truths. They created a road and then leapt off the side of it, into the brush. They were not afraid of risk or the ridiculous (A man who lives in a bathroom! A journey through the afterlife!) or bald displays of emotion (the end of The Lover: “he still loved her, he could never stop loving her…he’d love her until death”) or not making sense or an absence of conventional resolution or likeability (there was, in fact, a stark absence of conventionally likeable characters). They all looked into our human mess tried to find something unexpected and deranged and true and hoist it to the surface in an artistically interesting way: that was their gift to the reader. In the midst of this class, these novels, because I had never encountered anything quite like them, often seemed so alien to me, and yet I knew that one day, one day, I wanted to try to write fiction that did something like that.