He lives in the 13th arrondissement; he’s just released his 13th book. But no one could think that the Paris-born novelist, screenwriter and director who convinced Audrey Tautou to play his everyday heroine is unlucky.
Straight off the bat, I accuse David Foenkinos of pedalling insipid Parisian cliché. In the 2011 film La Délicatesse (Delicacy), based on his novel of the same name and co-directed with his brother, one scene riled me. A glamorously windswept Audrey Tautou in chicest left-bank fashions is paraded in front of the Eiffel Tower at the moment its 20,000 bulbs are set to stun, lighting up the ideal woman for her male companion. It may as well have been one of her Chanel ads. I saw this on a flight to the French capital in 2012, I tell the man responsible — and felt nauseous, but not due to airsickness.
Foenkinos, a native Parisian, acquits himself admirably. “I perhaps didn’t completely succeed,” he says apologetically, “But you’re right that it’s a cliché. Audrey Tautou, the most famous French actress today, in a Sonia Rykiel dress with the Eiffel Tower glittering in the background: the ultimate Parisian cliché. But she’s with this Swedish guy, badly dressed, a bit fugly, who’s been planted or dropped in this scene and doesn’t belong there. The cliché would be that they kiss. But I wrote that scene to amuse myself with the cliché; it’s a parody, so he turns and flees the scene. It’s a bit of a gag.
“Apart from that moment, we didn’t film the most clichéd parts of the city,” he adds. “It’s not Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. There are parts in the 13th arrondissement, which can be a bit of a dump.” He’s talking about his own neighbourhood. And it’s here in a very unromantic spot in 13th that Foenkinos suggested we meet, at the hulking MK2 cinema complex across from the boxy towers of the Bibliothèque Nationale. It’s a location that conveniently marries Foenkinos’ dual successes as best-selling novelist (one of the top five in France) and screenwriter/sometime director.
He certainly has the bookish look down pat; with his sharp features, rectangular frames, well-trimmed goatee and springy dark curls, he looks rather like a professor awaiting his tardy student. (I’m three minutes late.) Rather than telling me off, he greets me warmly and we walk along a rather drab promenade to settle in at one of the soulless chain coffee houses lining the strip.
“What I love about this area is that it’s Paris, but without being Paris,” Foenkinos explains of our non-cliché rendezvous. “I love the Bibliothèque François Mitterand; I always dreamed of living next door, and now I live just in front, I see it every day.” It’s only a kilometre from the Butte-aux-Cailles, but seems a world away from that charming nook where the first scene of La Délicatesse unfolds in a café, Audrey Tautou ordering the fateful jus d’abricot that first attracts her future husband.
Meanwhile, Foenkinos is disappointed when our drinks arrive in plastic takeout cups instead of handsome ceramic mugs — such are the daily tribulations of a writer who has made a name for himself being attuned to the little details. I can’t fail to notice little details either, like his curious, birdlike habit of leaning forward to touch the lid of my tea, a gesture that punctuates animated yet thoughtful conversation in French.
I bait him a little — it doesn’t take him long to fall into the trap of talking about Paris in ghastly cliché. Writers, even good writers, are often the worst offenders… “Paris is like a complicated woman,” he waxes, not noticing me roll my eyes. “Exhausting, but whom we love deeply. We can’t leave her despite her faults. It’s not always easy,” he sighs. “There are lots of French who want to leave and live somewhere else; I couldn’t do it. I love Paris. I walk for hours at a time around the city.”
It’s no surprise to hear that Foenkinos is able to live in his favourite spot in Paris, following a string of successes that have brought him renown in France and abroad. Whilethe offbeat romcom La Délicatesse has become his calling card internationally and an entry point into a written oeuvre translated into some 40 languages, Foenkinos is far from resting on his laurels. He started the year with the publication by Gallimard of his thirteenth book, La Tête de l’Emploi; filming has just wrapped for the forthcoming adaptation of his Les Souvenirs, for which he provided the screenplay; and yet another book, about a man whose debilitating back pain forces him to shake up his life, has piqued the interest of filmmaker Luc Besson.
All this before the age of forty. So with the date looming, can we expect to find one of his next characters in the throes of a midlife crisis as a form of authorial exorcism? I search for a way to broach the subject with, well, delicacy, but Foenkinos is the first to bring up his age, while my tea is still too hot to sip.
“I was born here. That’ll be 40 years that I’ve been here, then. I’m rather content to be in Paris at 40. I travel all the time — I was just in China and Japan on a book tour — I meet lots of interesting people.” The crise de la quarantaine, he insists, is for “people who live quite a boxed-in life and need to shake things up. As a writer I have a life where I’m completely free, I’m lucky to be able to do what I like. I have a lot of free time.”
With a wife who casts a discerning eye over all his work and an 11-year-old soccer-obsessed son, he has an “anchor, a raison d’être, stability. I always want to come back home when I’m on the road. When we want to create, we are completely free, we travel, but it’s good to have a strong fixed point.”
He admits to “hiding” himself in his books — “You can have the feeling of getting to know me, to see my personality,” — but is adamant that he deals in fiction “without needing to feed into reality.” The novels often centre around age and experience: the young widow of La Délicatesse who throws herself into her work, or the 23-year-old dreamer Romain in Les Souvenirs, who searches for his grandmother, escaped from a retirement home.
“I’ve done everything the other way round,” declares Foenkinos. “I’m starting to feel younger now that I’m older; I had the mentality of an older person when I was young.” In fact, he trained as a jazz guitarist, playing professionally and teaching during his early twenties (an education that would come in handy when overseeing chanteuse Émilie Simon’s quirky soundtrack and songs composed for La Délicatesse). “At the same time, I started to write. Sometimes I sensed that music wasn’t my destiny. I tried to start a band and couldn’t find a bassist — that’s why I became a novelist! Life always has this complexity.”
How does he account for his early success? He shrugs, sips deeply from his plastic coffee cup, smiles serenely. “If I had an explanation, I would have done it sooner. There’s no recipe.”
Undoubtedly, he has a knack for names. His third novel, Le Potentiel Érotique de ma Femme (The Erotic Potential of My Wife), garnered a major prize from the Fondation Hachette in 2003. “Everyone told me it was a terrific title!” he gushes, as if he thought of it yesterday. Monikers are equally important, with many francophones finding the names of these characters somewhat antiquated. The author himself claims that once he has come up with a name, eighty per cent of the character is drawn — in the very first paragraph of La Délicatesse he states that his heroine’s lack of sentimentality is surprising since “Nathalies tend towards nostalgic feeling.” He “hates” his own first name, but readily embraces the enigmatic Greek touch of Foenkinos befitting a writer.
It was with Nathalie and La Délicatesse, his eighth book, that Foenkinos became essentially a household name in France. Nominated for the country’s five major literary prizes, it went on to sell more than one million copies. And if you’re a successful novelist, it can’t hurt to have a brother who works in the movies. A second Foenkinos in the mix doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Coen Bros (“And we don’t have their talent!” David laughs) but Stéphane had worked in casting from Woody Allen to the Harry Potter films, and felt it was time to turn his hand to directing jointly with his brother. “Working as a writer is a lonely profession,” concedes the latter, “I wanted to collaborate with people.
“I’d had other books that were going to be made into films and I didn’t want to get involved in turning them into scripts,” he adds. “With La Délicatesse, for the first time, when I finished the book I felt that I wanted to stay with my characters. What was strange was that I knew that I wanted to write a script, to continue with this story, to live with these characters. Reinvent them. Because to adapt a book into a script isn’t a copy-paste job; you have to really reinvent the story to make it cinematic. I started to get a taste for it with La Délicatesse.” In keeping with the theme of reinvention, David asked all the actors not to read the book.
The film might have had a modest indie success, but Audrey Tautou’s decision to take the lead role brought with it star visibility — and funding. “We dreamed of an actress like Audrey Tautou,” David muses. “I thought of her because she has a side exactly like the character; small and fragile but at the same time an incredible strength and power. She receives mountains of scripts; we thought she would never accept.”
The next ten minutes of our interview are given over to a stream of adjectives like “magnifique, exceptionnelle, intelligente, drôle and magique” to describe Tautou and the process of working with this “grande actrice”, not to mention the frisson of red carpet appearances with her during the world tour that followed.“She put a lot of trust in us,” Foenkinos concludes. “She to work on someone’s first film, and for her it was perhaps the first time she really played the role of a real woman, in real life. It’s as if we took the imagery of Amélie Poulain, but she’s all grown up in the real world.”
Hearing him speak so directly about one success after the next, it’s hard not to return to my initial cynicism. I find romcoms revolting; chick-lit makes me chunder. Is there anything truly compelling behind the sparkling Eiffel Tower, the sparkling saucer eyes of Tautou and the fleeing Suede?
I go back to the book, in French. It’s witty and insightful, straightforward with an understated elegance that I come to appreciate even more in text than on screen. The characters mull over a text message with the same gravity I would. On their first date; rising awkwardly from the restaurant table, the central couple is compared to figures in a Magritte painting. There’s even a short chapter laid out like a screenplay — cheeky bastard was already practising. There are whimsical asides and philosophical musings, from the recipe for a risotto consumed by the protagonists on their first date, to a list of possible last words casually whispered to Nathalie by her husband just before his death — she will never know what he really said, and nor will we. As Foenkinos points out, “La Délicatesse was the first of my books that was a meeting point between drama and comedy. It’s the story of grief but at the same time it’s treated with humour.”
As for the next film, Les Souvenirs, Foenkinos has passed the reins and the script to another director, Jean-Paul Rouve. He’s not precious about it. “It’s my book, it’s my script, but it’s his film. When you give over your work to another director, you have to have confidence in his work. Some writers are afraid that an adaptation will be a betrayal of their work. If the film is good, that’s great; if it’s not good, it’s not a big deal — the book is still the book. It’s when I make the film myself that I worry!”
Les Souvenirs (Memories) will be released in French cinemas around the same time Foenkinos’ next book hits shelves in September — something completely different, on the German artist Charlotte Salomon who died aged 26 in the Auschwitz death camp. After all, he is a serious writer. There’s a lot more to David Foenkinos than I thought.