About The Author
Muriel Barbery is the author of two previous novels, The Gourmet, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was shortlisted for the 2010 IMPAC award. A former philosophy lecturer, she has lived in Japan and the Netherlands.
Her new book, The Life of Elves, opens on a snowy night in Burgundy and the discovery of an abandoned baby. Hundreds of miles away in the mountains of Abruzzo, another foundling, Clara, astonishes everyone with her extraordinary talent for piano-playing. But her gifts go far beyond simple musicianship. As a time of great danger looms, though the girls know nothing of each other, it is the bond that unites them and others like them, that will ultimately offer the only chance for good to prevail in the world.
Below, Muriel talks about the beauty, harshness and poetry of the Burgundy region, the influence on her writing of country folklore and how and why her writing has changed since her first two novels.
Questions & Answers
What drew you to set The Life of Elves in France and Italy? How did these cultures influence the characters and the story?
When I was a young teacher I lived in Burgundy's countryside, where part of the novel is set. I've been durably impressed by the beauty, harshness and poetry of the region. Winters are rough, summers are lush, the land is fertile but asks for hard work - it's also a region of fine wines and food. It has taken twenty years for the memory of this enchanted country, which mixes simplicity and unpretentious refinement, to blossom in my writing. It's probably because I am more and more eager to be in touch and in tune with nature. But it was also a way to get back to my childhood and French identity, after travelling all around the world and living in foreign countries. I grew up in a similar countryside and could experience the glory and magnificence of nature when it is both demanding and benevolent towards human beings. It has shaped me more than I thought.
I have loved Italy for a very long time as well. But I had never heard about Abruzzo before meeting an Italian cook in Amsterdam. He gave me one of his books on Abruzzo's cuisine. I couldn't read the recipes, which were in Dutch, but I became fascinated by the pictures of the region and I sensed that it could be one of these rare places which have been preserved from the disenchantments of contemporary life: remote, harsh and poetic as well, where one can get a sort of primitive feeling of the world. I went there; I fell in love with the mountains and with the countryside. I also had a few wonderful encounters there that were the inspiration for some of The Life of Elves characters.
How and where do you write?
I write at dawn, with green tea, cats around and a fountain pen. I need the innocence of early morning, each time a new world and a new birth. And I need the material gesture of writing, the beauty of black ink on white paper, to be able to put together my mind and my emotions, my soul and my body. I couldn't write directly on the computer, I would lose the sense of both earth and beauty that is essential to my writing process. As regards to green tea and cats, they are the meditative elements of the session; they teach me each day that beauty is to be found in slowness and contemplation.
The adventures of Maria and Clara continue in the next book - can you give us a clue as to where their story goes from here?
The second book will talk about the war. But it will also reveal the world of elves and the mysterious world of mist that is only heard about in the first book. I've conceived The Life of Elves as a long meditative and slow introduction to the explosion of war. Now, action - but still poetry, I hope!
Where did you find inspiration for the world and the magical elements you created in The Life of Elves?
I’ve never been keen on realism. My tendency towards the unbridled imagination was already apparent in my second novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, in which a girl of 12 speaks like a Secretary of State. I’ve always felt that the most extraordinary thing about fiction is that it broadly expands the range of possibilities, and that it values not likelihood but pertinence, not cold reality but metaphors or poetry that convey a unique perception of the world.
As for my sources of inspiration, they are everywhere. If you think about it, we live among fictions; we are surrounded by fictions that exist to explain who we are and where we belong in the world. Magic is just one layer. Can one imagine fiction more complex, sophisticated and full of magic than religions?
That said, the magic of my elves comes from the legends and stories of my native culture. First came the desire to write a novel in which nature is a character in itself. I’ve been asked many times about the link between my elves and those of Tolkien, and I’ve always answered that I consider The Lord of the Rings to be a masterpiece about nature, about the end of an enchanted world in which men and the cosmos breathed together. Elves are the embodiment of that aim. They are the realization of that inspiration.
The magic of my little grannies comes from country folklore, from the popular belief that there is a side of this world that cannot be grasped by our rational captors. It is from the tales of my childhood, from extraordinary books like The Tales of Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card or Un roi sans divertissement by Jean Giono. In both stories, the realism of the country people is fundamentally enriched by the combination of imagination and poetic language, lending the reader a sense of deep understanding of nature’s greatness.
How has your writing changed since The Gourmet and The Elegance of the Hedgehog?*
Something fundamental has changed: this new book is written in the third person, which was not easy, but which gave me the greatest satisfaction of my writing life. It allowed the use of very diverse registers of language, and also allowed for an approach to storytelling that I had never had a chance to explore. Building a story has become as important to me as maintaining a poetic or earthy language. In my former novels, I didn’t go as far in poetic experimentation, and I had no ambitions to tell a complex story.
Although literary fiction readers are predominantly adults, you made your protagonists young girls. Why did you choose that age in particular?
Well, adults were first kids and teenagers, while the opposite isn’t true. When a grown-up inhabits the perspective of a child, the innocence and enchantment of childhood mixes with the experience of maturity. As a result, we may hope to arrive at a wisdom that embraces both candor and introspection — that is to say, a very powerful wisdom.
The age of 12 seems to me especially crucial: this is the moment when childhood ends and children must confront the compromises reality requires of them. Will they keep dreaming and inventing their life, or harden themselves instead? Will they resist the new role they must fulfill, will they build walls to protect themselves, or will they keep alive their openness to enchantment? In the end, I think that the girls in my books are rebuilding something I lost at their age, something that I now reclaim through fiction: the belief that everything is possible.
Part of this interview was carried out by Europa Editions for the US publication of the book in February 2016.