Marie Darrieussecq greets me at the door of her fifth-floor apartment in the 14th district, barefooted and wearing a pink and white summer dress. Perfectly normal most years, except that it is six degrees outside and I’m clad in a jumper and long wool coat. The apartment is super-heated to indulge Darrieussecq’s fantasy of springtime. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. I woke up this morning and said, ‘enough!’,” she says. One of France’s leading contemporary novelists, Darrieussecq is playful and determined.
I have come to discuss “love and hurt” – the theme of the Franco-Irish literary festival that will bring Darrieussecq to Dublin from April 19th-21th. But the conversation veers quickly to desire and its brazen manifestation: sex. Darrieussecq opens a window onto the attitudes and mores of her generation of French intellectuals.
“Love is very different from desire, in my opinion,” she says. “When love and desire are conjugated, I think those are moments of grace, more than something normal. One of the keys to happiness is knowing that these moments of grace are rare, and that you have to stop looking for them every day.”
Darrieussecq's wholesome, girlish face belies the matter-of-fact, humorous and emotion-free portrayals of sex in her novels. Whether it's the naive narrator of Pig Tales; a Novel of Lust and Transformation (1996), her best-selling first novel, or the teenage girl in All the Way , the 11th of Darrieussecq's 12 books and the one most recently translated into English, her characters do not confuse sex with love. Their adventures are propelled more by animal instinct than romance or feeling.
In Pig Tales , an ignorant young woman prostitutes herself in a perfume shop, without realising what she is doing. She wants to please the director and the clients, and is disturbed as her body begins transmogrifying into that of a sow.
Desperate to get rid of her virginity, Solange, the teenage heroine of All the Way , wavers between the boys at school, a fireman she meets at a discotheque and the next-door neighbour, her erstwhile babysitter. "These two novels explore the abyss between love and desire," Darrieussecq explains. "In both, desire and love are totally separate."
Darrieussecq (44) says her own experience was similar to Solange’s. “Wanting to get rid of one’s virginity at any price, historically, sociologically, it’s a completely new phenomenon,” she continues. “Before, the goal was to remain a virgin until marriage. But after [the advent of] contraception and abortion, it’s not so much that one wants to lose one’s virginity; one is almost forced to. It’s a new conformism.” In the Basque village where she grew up, “A girl who was still a virgin at 20 was a puritan, a silly goose, a dummy.”
Teenage girls may still believe they have to lose their virginity to be “cool”, Darrieussecq says, “but they seem to do it in less disorderly fashion. In our time, it was total confusion. Our parents didn’t want to know about it. The boys were completely lost with these new girls. Some took advantage. Some didn’t know what to do. Some couldn’t do it. I think it was paralysing for the boys.”
The French, Darrieussecq admits, just don't see sex the same way English-speaking people do. "My American and English girlfriends, especially the Americans, their goal is to find a man for life," she says. "They seem to pose the question of life-long desire less than French women do. Among my French friends, that is the big question. You can love for your whole life – but desire the same person your whole life? That's a 19th-century myth. They tried to make women believe they'd have a husband for life and, and physical love too. That's impossible . And it makes people very, very unhappy to keep looking for that, because it's simply impossible."
So how long does desire last? “It depends on the couple,” Darrieussecq laughs. “And on their neuroses too. I remember Carla Bruni saying that for her, desire lasted five weeks. That was before she met Sarkozy. Five weeks is not a lot. But she had the courage to say it. Well, I don’t know, perhaps a few years. I like marriage. I like the idea that it lasts a long time. But it’s a very complicated construction.”
Their detached and cynical appraisal of the ephemeral nature of desire means the French have fewer complexes about fidelity than les anglo-saxons , Darrieussecq says. "It's relatively normal to have adventures, as long as one is tactful. I think that's what counts for the French; keeping up appearances. I remember my husband telling me that a certain person would do better to hide his attraction for me. It wasn't someone who really mattered to me," she recounts in her habitual mischievous tone.
"What bothered my husband was that he wants people to be polite; they shouldn't come after me under his nose. You don't do that. He said it with a great deal of humour, because I married someone who is very funny. He's an astro-physicist. Mais voilà ," Darrieussecq says, outlining the basic requirement: "Good manners. A little elegance."
If marriage is doomed to infidelity, why marry? “People get married because they love each other, all the same,” Darrieussecq admits. “They get married because at that moment they desire one another. I married out of love. Afterwards, you have to find arrangements.”
But don’t such “arrangements” invariably lead to the breakdown of a marriage? “The bet I’ve made, concerning my husband and myself, is that it’s been 15 years and I haven’t found anyone better than my husband,” Darrieussecq laughs.
They have two daughters and a son, aged four to 12. “It may not seem like much, but it’s a great declaration of love! Because in 15 years, the people I meet through my work, I haven’t found anyone better. Of course, there is always the risk. For him too.”
Do Darrieussecq and her husband tell each other about their amorous adventures? “No, no. No, no,” she says in a scandalised whisper. She mentions two famous French literary couples, Alain and Catherine Robbe-Grillet and Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva, who recounted in writing how they told spouses about their sexual experiences. “I think that’s a real love-killer,” says Darrieussecq. Kristeva has spoken of the suffering it caused her. “It’s not simple. Jealousy exists. Possessiveness.”
Describing sex for one's readers can be nearly as perilous as burdening a spouse with true confessions. The most accomplished writers can sometimes write excruciatingly bad sex scenes. "One way to do it is to adopt a comic voice," says Darrieussecq. It was an easy technique to use in All the Way , because inexperienced teenagers can be clumsy at love-making. "To describe a scene that is full of desire, of eroticism, of love; that is much more difficult."
Darrieussecq's 12th novel, Il Faut beaucoup Aimer les Hommes , will be published in Paris in September. It's a love story between a black man and a white woman. "A great love story. A very great love story," she says.
“I hinted at things, and that can be very erotic, just hinting. The two characters go at it, and it stops and you move on to something else. It can be very beautiful. You have to know where to suspend it.”
Darrieussecq is annoyed by what she describes as American cliches about France being a spent cultural force. “It’s completely false and extremely arrogant,” she says. “Because the US and Britain are the countries that translate the least in the world. In Germany, the country that translates the most, 45 of every 100 books sold have been translated. There’s an incredible arrogance in saying, ‘French literature is over’. They don’t read it. They know nothing about it. The publishers take no risks. They’re not curious enough to find out. I find French literature is incredibly vibrant.”