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George Salis: Like Vladimir Nabokov, you’re a Russian who has switched his creative language from his mother tongue to another. In this case, French. Could you take a moment to compare and contrast the Russian and French languages? In what way is French more suited to your creative sensibilities?
Dimitri Bortnikov: I will answer this in one sentence. No, in four sentences! The Russian language is a whip; the French language is a foil. With a whip we catch; with a foil we pierce—to see right through. Russian contains; French overflows.
GS: Do you consider yourself an exile in Paris? What caused you to choose that city over all the wonderful cities in Europe (Prague, Krakow, Athens, etc.)? Are you a Francophile?
DM: In exile? Oh, no, not at all! I am not in exile. Neither me, nor my language… I could have written in Yakut, in American, in English, in Turkish, in Braille… Language is destiny. Country, land, all that—is destiny. Why some are born in Bulgaria and some in Moldova? And others in Congo? Is it just down to chance? But chance is the manservant of Destiny! And my destiny is French… I know my destiny. Yes. But this is a secret. And then, Paris is at the centre of everything. From Paris—everything is close by… Three flaps of a wing away, even for a one-winged crow.
GS: It has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. You’ve actually worked as a dance instructor in the past. Can you tell me more about this and your love of dancing? I’d also like to know if you think it’s possible to dance about writing, as it were?
DM: We can write about anything, absolutely anything! Music, dance, fishing, hunting, food, fleas—anything at all. And dancing about architecture—why not?! I have adored dance all my life. Classic ballet particularly, oh yes… And in Russia we were well served! Every time a member of the Politburo croaked—it was ballet on TV all day long. On both channels! There were only two channels anyway… And then—I was over the moon! And my father—in hell! How can this kid watch frogs hopping all day? The whole bloody day!
La Bayadère! Swan Lake! Sleeping Beauty! Spartacus! I adored all that. First, the ballerinas. Ankles! thighs!—more in one day than in the rest of the year! Second, the rhythm. The movement. Leaps! Pas-de-deux… Very studied and yet very spontaneous. In the evening, I would have my bath in a state of supersonic ecstasy. I would do things that even the most shameless devil would be ashamed of. This is dance for you… Sexual awakening that wouldn’t let you sleep for the rest of your life! And later, growing up, in the hospital where my mother worked—yes, she was a doctor, my mother, an obstetrician/gynaecologist—I danced for women who had just given birth, for those who were waiting, for the new-born babies, for the old nurses, for the doctors, the cleaning ladies… for everyone! I leaped like a cannonball in Austerlitz! And now—I crawl like one in Waterloo… I used to have a sort of crazy energy… Even though I was fat! You wouldn’t believe! It was easier to jump over me than to walk around. But I didn’t care… Everybody laughed, and I… I danced. A strange kid… Some mothers were even scared! So scared they got confused about which hole to put food in and which to give birth from… Never mind… I was harmless. And it was entertaining anyway to watch a fat boy dance instead of watching the rain fall. And count the droplets…
But to go back to ballet—I wasn’t an anti-communist, no. But I loved ballet so much that I wanted all the Politburo members to croak one after the other… That… yes.
GS: Aside from being a dance instructor, you’ve worked in a library. Like Borges, do you imagine Paradise will be a kind of library?
DM: I did work in a school library, just to earn money to pay my rent. Nothing more. Paradise for me is certainly not a library, oh no, not at all! What is my paradise? It is a sunset somewhere in the South of France. It is the Mariinsky Ballet company performing somewhere near. Yes. Something like that. And having a glimpse of a ballerina, and then staring into the distance. Another glimpse of ballerinas and the horizon again… And particularly silence. Yes. The silence after the fall of the angels… That’s my paradise. But if something needs to be amended—that’s alright, I’m easy…
GS: Considering the wide variety of jobs you’ve had, do you fancy yourself a polymath? And if you had to choose one passion to pursue for the rest of your life, which would it be and why?
DM: A polymath? Well, yes, maybe… Why not? In French we say “esprit universel”—“universal mind.” Funny, this word: “polymath.” It made me think of mathematics. I always loved codes, formulas, aphorisms. Mathematic formulas are sort of like aphorisms. And maths is like music. It appeases the soul. When we look at numbers, we contemplate an ideal world. No morality. No egotism. Even if the numbers 3 and 2 are in love with 5, they let 4 and 1 get married… Numbers aren’t jealous or crippled like us. They aren’t selfish… The Verb is jealous. The Number—never… I would like to become a number when I die, an “irrational” number, like Pi…
One passion to pursue for the rest of my life?… You know, the end of one’s life is already a full-time job. A real job. Old age has no Sundays… Illness… Solitude… Death… It’s a real job. It is Man’s ultimate job.
GS: What is a novel you’ve read that deserves more readers?
DM: Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov. An astounding novel. Absolutely.
GS: Your prose style in Repas de morts (Soul Catcher), as translated into English by Svetlana Pironko, has been compared to Céline, Calaferte, Beckett, and Joyce, but who I’m most reminded of is Gertrude Stein. Do you admire any of these authors and have they had an effect on your own writing or is it coincidental? If not, how did you develop your writing style?
DM: I have never read Ms. Stein. Never. Céline? I have heard a lot about him – yes, but haven’t read. Calaferte… Heard less and haven’t read either. Beckett—the same. But Joyce… Yes, I admire him infinitely. Joyce—yes. But one has to go farther. Always farther than the shadow of the writer one loves. Particularly someone sensitive to cold, like me! In the sun! Farther and farther, and more and more alone…
I extracted my style out of myself, like sweat. Style comes from the body of the artist. And a body… A glimpse in the mirror and it becomes clear. The body… that weird thing… Isn’t it a strange boat, an enchanted vessel that gets bigger, changes… Gets covered in marks, wrinkles… Its skin dies, flakes and falls like invisible snow, and the soul stays under the snow of the skin waiting for spring. This body, this vessel that carries me on the waters of Time, for so many years, is it—me? Always—me? Once ruined, toothless, bold, will the shadow of this mysterious vessel allow the one who’ll be looking through my eyes to see ad infinitum?
GS: If you could have one of your works translated into all languages, which would it be and why?
DM: Into all languages? Really? Then it would be my latest novel, L’agneau des neiges (Snow Lamb). And translated by Svetlana Pironko! Into all languages, patois and dialects! Even into sign language! I trust her absolutely…
GS: The original title of Soul Catcher, translated from the French, is Supper of the Dead. Other titles include Facing the Styx, Purgatory, etc. Even your latest French-language novel, The Snow Lamb, is about sacrifice and death. Is this obsession, this literary thanatology, an attempt to understand it, ward it off, or something else? Is death more comprehensible when viewed through the lens of mythology?
DM: Ah, it is a real splinter! It’s a wise man who could draw it out of my heart’s soul… Find that man, and I’ll grow my eyelashes long enough to sweep the ground before him for the rest of my life!
I will answer you with a quote from Soul Catcher…
Death, who can stop you… The elephant stops before the fire. The fire yields to the rain. The tiger backs off before the elephant. Death, who can stop you?… The warrior lingers before the splendid body of a girl. The girl stops before a crying child. The child backs away from his shadow… But Death! Who can stop you?…
What I have always found fascinating is the moment when language stops. And what obstacle can stop its flow? Only one. Death. The human verb stops before it. And that’s all. It is before Death that true art emerges. In silence… And then all gets going again, yes, and language becomes—literature.
Editor’s Note: A huge thanks to Svetlana Pironko for making this interview possible and translating it from the French.
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Dimitri Bortnikov is a Russian-born French writer. Born in Samara in 1968, he had a rather eventful youth: his medical studies were interrupted by the then-mandatory military service in the Soviet Army, and later by the fall of the Soviet Union, he had worked as a nurse, a librarian, and a dance teacher, before leaving Russia to join the French Foreign Legion (for a short while) and finally settling in Paris and working as a cook for an old Russian countess. Bortnikov has lived in Paris since 1999, where he is a full-time writer.
His first novel, Syndrom Fritza (“The Fritz Syndrome”), was published by Limbus Press, Saint-Petersburg, in 2002 and won the Russian Booker Prize and the National Bestseller Award. His second novel, Svinoburg (Amphora, Saint-Petersburg, 2003), was translated into French and published by Le Seuil in 2005 to critical acclaim. His third novel Spiaschaya Krasavitsa (“Sleeping Beauty”) came out from Prestige Kniga, Moscow, in 2005. In 2008, Bortnikov published his first work written in French, a novella titled Furioso (Editions MF). In 2011, Editions Allia, Paris, published Bortnikov’s first novel written in French, Repas de morts (Soul Catcher), unanimously hailed by the critics. In 2017, Bortnikov released a second novel in French, the epic Face au Styx (“Facing the Styx”) and won the Best French Novel of the Year Prize from Lire Magazine. Soul Catcher is the first English translation of his work.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.