"Why did they need to chop down the trees?"

An interview with Mavis Gallant

As an ex patriot in Paris, Canadian novelist Mavis Gallant experienced May ’68 first hand, keeping a diary of the events that was published two decades later as Paris Notebooks. In interview with her Russian translator, she bemusedly recalls the revolutionary fervour of the day.

Anna Aslanyan: In Paris Notebooks you enter the picture as an observer, who, instead of soaring above the battle, remains at its centre, poignantly interested in the course it takes and in its outcome. More than forty years later, how has your perception of the events of May ’68 changed?

Mavis Gallant: I hardly recognise myself in the book. Obviously, a great deal of time has passed, and the situation – in Europe and elsewhere – is different. I am not that person, really. Although I would probably do the same in similar circumstances – I would still do my best to talk to everyone. I have just finished going through Notebooks, looking up the entries you mentioned when we first talked. I had to read them in Spanish as I couldn’t find my English edition; I must have lent it to someone. It’s strange, but reading my old diary in Spanish made me see things in a different light. I kept feeling that it all happened even earlier, perhaps before the War. The distance that separates me from those days suddenly grew bigger, as if the notebooks belonged to a complete stranger. I don’t speak Spanish fluently, but I can read it, so it was very funny, digging up my book in a foreign language.

AA: Has the book been translated into French? Or did you produce your own French version? It is your second native language, after all.

MG: Yes, there is a French edition, but I don’t have a copy of it. Of course I didn’t do it myself – I’ve never translated my own books, how can one? It would be like eating cold soup, you know. Writers don’t do this, and if they do, it’s usually left to some unfortunate wife whom they marry just so she can translate their work.

AA: Going back to May ’68, you often emphasise your position as an outsider. Watching protesters in the streets, you don’t really belong there: a foreigner, much older than most students, not a member of any political party. Did those factors play any role in how you took the events?

MG: Well, you mustn’t forget that we are talking about France, a country very unlike any other, particularly in the political sense. For instance, in the introduction to Paris Notebooks I mention Occident, a far-right movement that existed at the time, in essence a fascist movement. A group of them gathered outside Nanterre, one of Paris universities, and clashed with some leftwing students there. The leftists were mostly Trotskyites – the Communists were keeping out of it, waiting for a real, big revolution; besides, they probably sensed some kind of competition. Then the police came and started to beat up the students. Amazingly, the rightwingers turned against the police, joining their opponents. It was an astonishing thing, but it didn’t last – they only stayed together for that one fight.

Of course, none of this could happen today – things have changed completely. You have to remember that in those days, students, young people, had a very different relationship with their parents. By the time they went to university they still looked about thirteen; they lived with their parents and, as a rule, were very dependent on their elders.

Yes, I was just an observer, and that had its advantages. But then, my background helped, too – I was a journalist in Canada from the age of 21 to 28, a reporter on a serious paper. That gave me the ability to see things more clearly: I never questioned anyone, I just spoke to as many people as possible. I’d wait till they get going and let them talk – in fact, it’s quite easy to do.

On the other hand, I can’t say I was totally objective, because at the time I was very much in favour of changes in France. It was a very contained, a very rigid society, and in some sense it still is. That is my view, anyway.

AA: So what changes did the events of May ’68 bring about?

MG: The relationship between young people and the older generation changed. The young became more independent from their parents and teachers. Also, teaching methods were transformed – university professors were no longer gods. Now, as we can see, things have gone the other way; it’s violence towards teachers that is the problem. Students bring knives into the classroom, teachers find it hard to conduct lessons. The government is thinking of creating a ministry especially to deal with violence in lycées. That would have been unthinkable in those days – students used to fight among themselves, whereas now adults are frightened of them.

Of course I can’t make any serious judgement today; I simply don’t know these kids. Back then, however, all my friends had children and I was very friendly with them. I was constantly talking to students, trying to understand them – that was the only way to find out what was going on.

AA: What were your political views at the time?

MG: My sympathies were with the young. But I didn’t approve of the destruction – that was completely unnecessary. With their relatively strict upbringing, the first thing the French did was chop down trees and burn cars. I couldn’t comprehend that, having grown up in Canada, in a much calmer climate. There nobody would think of setting cars on fire – it was just a stupid thing to do.

I also lived in Spain, during the Franco era. One of the reasons I came to Europe was to understand what happened in France and Spain during and after the Second World War. Ever since I was a teenager, I was hugely interested in that. Canada had a relatively small population, but there was a large proportion of people who opposed the Franco regime.

I am not trying to compare the situation in those two countries, in France and Spain; I’m just remembering what it was like when I first arrived in post-war Europe. I met people who were still fascists, despite the recent horrors; I met people who were violently anti-Semitic, as if nothing had happened in the preceding years.

AA: Let’s go back to the events in Paris. Would you say your views were influenced by geography? I’m talking about the Left Bank versus the Right.

MG: You mustn’t think I was spending all my time on the Left Bank. I did get around, went to demonstrations in different parts of Paris – I wanted to see everything and talk to everyone. I used to travel throughout Europe; often I’d go to a random city, rent an apartment somewhere close to the centre and stay for a couple of months, trying to learn as much as I could about life there. I went to Madrid, lived in Berlin when it was still divided. Paris remained my base, but my friends were not solely a Left Bank crowd. To be honest, I’ve never had much patience with French intellectuals.

AA: Still, I was going to ask you about that group and their role in May ’68. Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault – all of them, although not actively participating in the events, have commented on it. Did you ever have a chance to talk to them about it?

MG: I didn’t know Barthes, although I interviewed Sartre once. It was a long time ago, soon after the War, when he came to Canada. It was very funny talking to him: he kept using the word “liberals”, by which we meant people with leftwing views, whereas for the French, as it transpired, it was synonymous with “capitalists”. It was a dirty word in France and initially I couldn’t figure out what Sartre was implying.

But that’s another story. Going back to your question, I wasn’t part of that circle at the time. I didn’t need to talk to those figures because, when I first arrived here, I decided to be a writer, leave my journalistic career behind and simply write fiction. Of course, I would occasionally run into some people, but I never insisted on interviewing them, never introduced myself.

AA: In Paris Notebooks you mention that you had seen the French police attack protesters before. Are you referring to the so-called Paris Massacre of October 1961, when a peaceful Algerian demonstration was cruelly suppressed? Would you compare May 1968 to any other period in France?

MG: No, it wasn’t the Algerian demonstration I meant – I think that was quite different. The 1961 protests were a serious matter that had nothing to do with 1968. It was a crucial event for France – it signifies the terrible treatment of Algerian immigrants, which hasn’t much improved since. I am not French and I don’t get involved in their political affairs, but if I were to become active, the main thing I would point out would be their policy towards immigration. What is happening now terrifies me. For instance, the government recently wanted to deport a girl who was born in Morocco, but never lived there. She has no money, no close family there; in fact, her relations in Morocco don’t want her there – in their eyes, she has lived a life of sin here in Paris. The French are still extremely unfair to everyone whose skin is a wrong colour. They would get rid of them all if they could by pressing a special button. I can imagine their relief if all coloured faces were gone from their streets – no matter how or where to, so long as they are nowhere to be seen.

As for the atmosphere in those days compared to our current situation, I think people were very naive. I remember looking at that huge procession going down Boulevard Saint Michel, seeing some familiar faces, the young, the adults, and thinking: they are so naive! When I say “naive”, I primarily mean “bourgeois”. This status in itself brings certain naivety. You see, even their vocabulary reflected that; although it contained political terms, their meaning was generally misunderstood. And what about the Communists? When I first came here, the Communist Party won 25 per cent of votes in the election. Today it is impossible to imagine anything like that. Even then I found it astonishing, coming from North America, where Communists were a minority; there were a few in the United States, and in Canada we had social democrats, but it was negligible compared to France.

AA: There is a curious record in your diary, a conversation with a seventeen-year-old called Barbara, who says: “The German students are being deported. But we need them – they are organised, they can tell us what to do”. How do you interpret this comment?

MG: Oh, it was all to do with her parents, good friends of mine who were originally from Poland. They had been through a lot during the War. Barbara’s mother spent four years in concentration camps. They were extremely careful not to let Barbara become a victim of their past, prejudiced in any way against the Germans. That’s how they brought her up – she had always been told that the Germans and the Nazis were not the same thing. The parents even used to send her to a summer youth camp in Germany, so that she could make friends there. Still, that conversation, in the presence of the mother, struck me as ironic.

There was also a certain degree of truth in Barbara’s words. German students were more politically literate than the French. We’ve been talking about the infantile behaviour of the young, but many of them were trying to break away, become independent. Barbara was like that – her ideas were very different from her parents’, she was all for student solidarity. Her parents escaped from the communist regime, and the last thing they wanted was something similar to happen here. However the daughter didn’t support the Communists, she was part of the student movement, fought for the rights of the young. Yesterday, as I was re-reading the book, I remembered her saying to her parents, I might be late tonight, don’t worry. The girl was going to the barricades, quite composedly, but her parents thought they would never see her alive again.

AA: Another passage that catches the reader’s eye is your description of the occupied Sorbonne, strewn with the “revolutionary” paraphernalia of that day. “Everything tatty, a folklore now – China, Cuba, Godard’s films. Our tatty era”. Can you describe the scene in more detail?

MG: There, in the Sorbonne courtyard, they really had a vast display of tatty, second-hands souvenirs. They were selling a book by Mao, the little red one, which I bought because I wanted to read it, but never managed to finish – it was awfully boring. They were trying to persuade you that things were great in China. Some people were wearing those Red Army caps. Talking about naivety, that’s one example for you. Also, the way those people talked! Their vocabulary was so twisted, many words lost their meaning altogether. What else can I say? That epoch is long gone. I was writing things right there, on the spot, and that was it – I rarely go back to reflect on it these days.

AA: And yet, when keeping the journal, you probably didn’t rule out the possibility of its publication?

MG: No, I did it for myself – I’ve always kept a diary. When the turmoil started I was in London, waiting for a flight to Paris. I bought a paper at the airport and saw a short piece about student riots. Back in Paris, I went to the streets the very next day. I was, after all, a reporter, that’s the only thing I was trained to do.

I kept a diary in those days as I’ve always done. Of course, my notes often have a political flavour, and so it was back in May 1968. I have no special interest in re-reading those notebooks years later, it’s all in the past. But then it was happening right in front of me, I was walking around, feeling amazed at the pace of the developments. Life in the whole city was paralysed within a couple of days. You couldn’t post a letter, take a bus, use a car – everything was shut. Shops started running out of goods, too. It was funny, the way the French began stocking up on provisions at the first signs of troubles. Sugar, for instance, disappeared from the shelves pretty quickly – Parisians were buying it by the sack. The young, everyone under twenty, took to the streets. I still fail to understand, to this day, why they chopped down the trees – was that really necessary?

AA: Do you think a similar revolution, even if never fully realised, could happen today?

MG: Oh no, no! Do you see any new revolutionaries around? Although the French are, of course, very keen to go on strike, whatever the occasion. That was another thing that’s always amazed me. For example, there used to be electricity strikes. The first started without any warning. Electricity was cut off everywhere, even in a hospital where they had children with “iron lungs” – those who suffered from paralysis and couldn’t breathe. When it happened, the nurses had to manually pump up those lungs to save the children. I was horrified when I heard the story. How can you do it, how can you not care for other people to such an extent!

Speaking of the revolution that never was, I must admit I was naive, too. I thought something was definitely going to happen; I didn’t necessarily approve of it, but I wanted to witness it, to be on the streets when it came. I wanted to see changes, whatever they might be; I had high hopes. But of course, I realised that it could never happen – for a revolution to go ahead you need the army and the police on your side.

There is something else I mention in my introduction to the book. At some point, when the events were in full swing, President de Gaulle suddenly vanished. Later we learned that he went to Baden-Baden, to consult his old enemy General Massu, the commander of the French forces in Germany. De Gaulle was considering bringing the army in on the side of the government. Massu – who was, it must be noted, extremely rightwing – told the president that he wouldn’t fire at his compatriots, especially unarmed civilians.

If we return to the revolution that never happened, it can be looked at from a different angle. After all, history has taught us that revolutions, when they happen for real, rarely lead to something good.

Published 13 October 2010
Original in English
First published by Neprikosnovennij Zapas 72 (2010) (Russian version)

Contributed by Neprikosnovennij Zapas © Mavis Gallant / Anna Aslanyan / Neprikosnovennij Zapas / Eurozine


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