Yasmina Reza: Drama queen
She is the most successful French playwright of her generation and her work is performed around the world. Lara Marlowe talks to Yasmina Reza, author of ‘Art’ and ‘Carnage’, about writing, working with James Gandolfini, and a rumoured liaison with disgraced IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn
France’s most celebrated playwright summons interviewers to the bar of the Hôtel Lutetia, which looks like a theatre set. Waiting for Yasmina Reza, I have the unsettling impression that I’m about to play the role of Rosanna, the literary critic who interviews a French novelist in Reza’s new play, How You Talk the Game.
Game is a biting send-up of journalists and literary festivals. Nathalie, the central character, is Reza’s alter ego. She doesn’t like discussing her life, feelings or philosophy, or commenting on her oeuvre. Nathalie has published a novel about a writer called Gabrielle, who has published a book titled How You Talk the Game – a variation on the sports saying that “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”.
The play is a mise en abyme, where each image contains a smaller copy of itself, like a painting by an old Dutch master showing two mirrors reflecting each other ad infinitum.
“My very first books arrived at home like dazzling objects,” Nathalie says in Reza’s play. “It was sad enough not to be excited at the idea of receiving this one, but I didn’t expect this feeling of total discouragement.”
Does she feel discouraged? I ask Reza. “You’re doing exactly like Rosanna!” Reza exclaims, referring to the prying questions posed by the literary groupie in the play.
A few minutes later, I quote Nathalie: “Recognising the central place of writing in one’s life is to recognise the insufficiency of life.”
“And Rosanna asks the question that you are about to ask,” Reza predicts. We both laugh, because I’ve been caught in the reflecting mirrors; we are writer and journalist, acting out the play. In Reza’s unbroken circle, art imitates life which imitates art.
Reza’s talent for stripping the pretence from human interaction has made her the most successful French playwright of her generation, and the only contemporary French author whose theatre is performed around the world. Whether she is writing theatre or fiction, acting or directing, Reza says it all comes from the same place. She published her seventh novel, Happy the Happy, this year.
Despite the title – a quote from Borges – it is a novel of desolation, its characters the prose equivalent of the isolated figures in Edward Hopper’s paintings. Twenty-one characters, all linked in some way, recount slices of their lives. A homosexual cancer doctor reveals his secret encounters with male prostitutes. A coquettish old woman , modelled on Reza’s late mother, flirts in the waiting room of the cancer specialist. When a married journalist takes his mistress to the family home while his wife and children are away, the emotional void is devastating.
“I don’t write about things going right,” Reza admits. “The core that motivates me, which makes me want to dig, to make something of it that is not solely desolation, is a core that is eminently sad.”