It had to be a novel. The only form that could hold the multitude of ideas that Noémie Lefebvre set out to explore is the one elastic enough to make room for a circular, stream-of-consciousness exploration of history, math, philosophy, war, national identity, and love. L’autoportrait bleu, which was published in France in 2009, has been translated by Sophie Lewis and published as Blue Self-Portrait in the United Kingdom last year and in the United States just this month. A resident of Lyon, France, the 54-year-old author is widely educated, having studied music education, political science, and the national identity of Germany and France, before becoming a political scientist at Sciences Po Grenoble. Lefebvre brings this varied expertise to a novel that operates like a slim sieve for her multivalent interests. In the time since Blue Self-Portrait’s release, she’s already written three more novels, but it’s her debut that has most tantalized the anglophone world.
In Blue Self-Portrait, a woman who’s just met a pianist in Berlin is flying home to Paris and spends the hour-and-a-half flight in a rambling, repetitious, almost frenzied state of thought that’s transmitted to the page in the style of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—feelings and thoughts becoming one in the same. The traveller reflects on the cinemas and cafés she visited, her lack of education, her failed marriage, and the wisdom contained in the correspondences between the author Thomas Mann and the philosopher and social theorist Theodor Adorno. She frequently reflects in shame at her social failings, working in, for equal measure, the shameful thoughts of Germany and France’s collective history—a tightrope balance between the political and the personal that’s walked so delicately it comes to seem that the individual really could be the collective. In Lefebvre’s hands, the “history of me” becomes the “history of us.”
The book’s structure functions much like a piece of music by the composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg, with whom both Lefebvre and her narrator are obsessed. Repetitions of ideas and words and the identification of far-flung connections arise between characters and ideas across her book. “The conviction that I have written nothing I should be ashamed of forms the foundation of my moral existence,” said Schoenberg in 1931, and it becomes a phrase that repeats throughout the short novel, encapsulating the themes of shame, German moral failings, and the narrator’s love for music—a thematic Rosetta Stone of sorts.
I recently spoke with Lefebvre, a woman of particular reticence and modesty given her genius, during which she discussed shame, memory, Schoenberg, circularity, the relationship between content and form, and the ways in which a “novel of ideas” is understood in fundamentally different ways by different readers, different cultures, and different societies.
Cody Delistraty—In a note at the end of the book, your English translator writes that “Lefebvre’s dominant key is absurdity.” Is that right?
Noémi Lefebvre—Absurdity might be a dimension of my work, but I can’t say it myself. Only the readers can. Her feeling as a reader doesn’t seem absurd to me. But, in terms of literary movement, no, I don’t feel a tie to absurdism, even if I like some writers that are in this movement. I think those who are considered to belong to this category—and we may include my book in it—attempt to show that the world isn’t absurd but that it’s also not necessary.
Cody—Who or what do you align yourself with then?
Noémi—Without belonging to a particular category, for a first novel, some relationships with other writers are often important. They serve as references. I’m thinking about Thomas Bernhard, but also some writers I mention in the novel: Adorno, Thomas Mann. I feel close to them even if it’s not a direct filiation.
Cody—Shame is fundamental to your narrator in Blue Self-Portrait, but itseems to have a particularly modern twist in its conception.
Noémi—It’s mostly a feeling of guilt, which is especially present in continents where Christian history is important. Shame is built of representations tied to this distant, yet still present, history of Christianity and Catholicism in particular. Shame, in this novel, is psychological. It’s a reflection towards yourself like confession is in the Catholic world.
I started to see shame as a political feeling, as well, and this political feeling often touches upon social groups who should not be feeling shame. Not so much those who are stronger or in a position of domination. I’m trying to work on this in particular, to think about this pivotal moment when it’s no longer possible to behave in a brutal way, to lie or to abuse people, because it’s shameful. That’s how some political practices disappear. They become shameful. And in this novel, it’s the opposite: shame remains on the side of the victim, of the one who couldn’t resist history.