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How you tell the story by Yasmina Reza

January 17, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Comment vous racontez la partie (written and directed) by Yasmina Reza. Not available in English. (yet)

It’s been a while since my last billet about theatre. I’ve seen a play version of Novecento by Alessandro Barrico with André Dussolier and it was marvelous. I’m still not convinced that Barrico is such an extraordinary writer as critics let us think but Dussolier on stage is a delight. The play holds together more by the obvious pleasure Dussolier experiences on stage than by the depth of the text. The fact that he was acompagnied by a jazz pianist didn’t hurt either. I’ve also seen Les aiguilles et l’opium (Needles and Opium) by Robert Lepage, a play that features a brokenhearted man from Quebec, staying in Paris to record a radio show about Miles Davis’s time in the City of Lights in 1949. It also displays Cocteau’s impressions about New York at the same time. I’ve rarely seen such a creative and poetic stage direction. Everything was perfect from the music, the lights, the decors bringing us from Paris in 1949 to Paris in 1989. If you ever have a chance to see these plays, go for it.

That brings me to the last one I’ve seen, Comment vous racontez la partie by Yasmina Reza. (How You Tell the Story.) I want to write about this one because it deals with literature, readers, journalists and authors.

Nathalie Oppenheim is a famous writer who won the Germaine Beaumont prize. Her last novel, Le pays des lassitudes (The country of wearinesses) has just been released. She accepted an invitation to participate to the literary Saturdays of the small provincial town of Vilan-en-Volène. She is welcomed by Roland, the manager of the médiathèque (multimedia library) and the meeting will take place at the community centre. Nathalie will be interviewed by Rosanna Ertel-Keval, a famous literary journalist who grew up in Vilan-en-Volène. As always in such circumstances, the mayor of the town attends the meeting and the inevitable subsequent cocktail party.

This is a funny and serious play because the characters are subtly drawn. Nathalie is comparable to many writers you see in salons, signing books and loathing it. Not that they don’t want to meet their public or that they don’t respect them. It’s just that it’s out of their comfort zone. Rosanna is the perfect polished Parisian literary journalist. The actress, Christèle Tual, played the smooth interviewer at perfection. She tries to ask deep and articulate questions while casually name-dropping to remind Nathalie that she’s friendly with major great authors. She speaks with that unctuous tone that literary journalists use on France Inter when they talk with writers. Roland is the perfect literary nerd you meet in mediathèques everywhere. He’s extremely literate, totally overwhelmed with meeting a dream writer and also well anchored in the community, creating bridges between books and people in his town.

Everything in the setting and in the characters rings true. The name of the small town sounds like a country town in Normandy. Germaine Beaumont was a writer and member of the jury of the Prix Femina. Nathalie’s book The country of wearinesses, sounds like a French contemporary novel. (Right in the never-forget-you’re-going-to-die category). Roland and the major look like and sound like characters you meet in small towns. The major is so proud of his community centre; he fought for it for three years to get it financed. Yasmina Reza could make fun of provincial life. She does – we laugh a lot, thanks to the text and an amazing direction – but we laugh with benevolence. In a sense, it is also a tribute to all the Rolands in France who do ground work to bring literature to people.

The serious part of the play is about the relationship of a writer with their books. Nathalie is not comfortable with reading out loud passages of her novel or discussing it. The more Rosanna tries to pull out commentaries about such or such paragraph, the more she dodges the questions and tries to derail her and talk about something else. Nathalie’s idea is that her book should stand by itself, that even if she put something of herself in it, the public shouldn’t imagine that she’s the character of the book. She doesn’t want to overanalyze her work. She’s caught between the need to promote her novel and her deep belief that she shouldn’t be discussing her book. She doesn’t want to desiccate her feelings or what she meant by this or that sentence. She refuses to compare the men of her novel to the men of her life, to assume that her character’s vision of men is hers.

Nathalie doesn’t want to overshadow her work. She’s private, she doesn’t want that her interview about her novel becomes a public shrink session about her issues under the (false) pretense of analyzing the hidden meaning of her work. Rosanna finishes her interview with a reference to Philip Roth. For me it’s not a coincidence. Exit Ghost deals with that question: what becomes of a literary work when its author is not there anymore to rectify wrong interpretations or to correct inaccurate biographies? What happens if the writer’s life appears more interesting than his work? What happens to a literary work if a scandal hits its author’s life?

Rosanna is only doing her job, in appearance. The problem lays in the particularity of being a literary journalist. The material you’re interviewing people about is not their political program for their next campaign or their strategy to develop their company or simply talking about their field of expertise. Literary journalists interview authors about works that come from their imagination. It’s their brain’s child. This is why some of Rosanna’s questions are nosy even if she doesn’t mean to pry. I felt sorry for the poor Nathalie squirming on her chair, trying to pick non-committal answers while not giving away too much. Otherwise, it fuels Rosanna’s questioning as she’s like a dog with a bone once she’s onto something.

The actors were on chairs on the stage, facing us, as if we were the public of Vilan-en-Volène. We were watching the play and participating to the show as the extras playing the attendance. We are also participating in this masquerade, in general, by reading interviews of authors and listening or watching literary shows. What’s our responsibility in this circus?

It’s a brilliant play that helps us readers live for a while in a writer’s shoes. It combines fun and serious and that’s for me the seal of a fantastic playwright.

  1. January 17, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    This is so strange. I just picked up Happy Are the Happy by this author. Wonderful so far…

    Like

    • January 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      It’s not the first time this happens. Weird. I want to read Happy Are the Happy too. She’s excellent, I think.

      Like

  2. January 17, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    Looks like I can get Art, Life x3, The Unexpected Man and Conversation after a Burial in Englsih

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    • January 18, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Her plays have been translated very early in her career and she’s very successful abroad.

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      • January 18, 2015 at 5:58 pm

        I like the concept of interconnecting characters. I’m just reading one chapter (one voice) at a time.

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  3. January 18, 2015 at 10:28 am

    This sounds terrific, Emma. I’m aware of this writer by way of the Roman Polanski film, Carnage, the one based on her play God of Carnage. Have you seen either of them? While I liked certain aspects of the Polanski film, the story and staging struck me as being more suited to the theatre. I wish I’d seen the original play when it came to London. Hopefully this new one will make it over here too.

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    • January 18, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      I saw the original play in London with Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Greig et al …it was fabulous . Hooefully this playy will come to London eventually too .

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      • January 18, 2015 at 5:43 pm

        There’s a good chance it comes to London one of these days. The translator would need to adapt it to the British context but that can be easily done.
        Yasmina Reza directed the play herself for the French version and that’s a plus.

        Liked by 1 person

    • January 18, 2015 at 5:39 pm

      I haven’t seen God of Carnage. I’d probably like watching the play first; I just love going to the theatre.

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    • January 18, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      I saw the film of Carnage Jacqui. I thought it was very funny in a savage malicious way.

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      • January 18, 2015 at 6:53 pm

        Oh, you’re right. It’s very savage and Christoph Waltz is particularly good in it. I just wished I’d had the opportunity to see it live in the theatre as it seems perfect for that environment.

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  4. January 18, 2015 at 10:54 am

    I would have loved watching this play! I wonder if they will bring it to Beirut. I think, as readers, we are all quite familiar with these literary events but its interesting that the play packs some seriousness in it and is not locked on being excessively humorous, if I get your review right. I was nodding to the name-dropping bit and admit I fell to it when I would have a book signed by a writer: why is it that we must show the writers that we too know things 🙂 As for the work of an artist standing by itself in front of the world… I think I would like to pry into the mind of the writer, and might be tempted like Roseanne, to link faces or places in the writer’s life to her work.

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    • January 18, 2015 at 5:42 pm

      I hope it comes to Beirut too. She managed the right mix of humour and serious. that’s hard to achieve, I think.
      I’m not interested in a writer’s mind, like Nathalie, I think their work should stand by themselves. If I need pointers, then something is missing. Plus I like to build my own interpretation and not be railroaded into one. If the writer explains things, then their explanation becomes THE explanation.

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      • January 18, 2015 at 5:45 pm

        Yes that’s true. But doesn’t it comfort you to know that you got it right? Otherwise, each interpretation will be correct and for some reason this idea bothers me

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        • January 18, 2015 at 5:48 pm

          And if I got it wrong?
          I think everyone sees what they want in a book because we all have our filter and our history. We pick what we need, what we understand, what touches us.
          Being right or accurate doesn’t interest me in this case. I have enough of chasing accuracy in my professional life.

          Like

  5. January 18, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    Great commentary Emma.

    This sounds like a play well worth seeing.

    Before I even reached the point where you mentioned Philip Roth I was thinking about him. In addition to his rumination in Exit Ghost many of his other books dwell on these topics. I have a friend who is an artist who also wrestles with some of these issues in her work. They are well worth pondering.

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    • January 18, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      She’s an excellent playwright and we had a very good time.

      Like you I’m a fan of Philip Roth.

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  6. January 19, 2015 at 11:01 am

    How uncanny. I was going to review one of her plays these days. I love her plays and funnily I just watched Polanski’s Carnage yesterday – based on Les dieux du carnage. It doesn’t work as a movie at all. I wish – if anything – they had just filmed the play.I was also not keen actresses.
    This play sounds just as good as all the others. The one I really loved was Trois versions de la vie.

    Like

    • January 19, 2015 at 10:44 pm

      You too were around Reza at the same as Guy and I. She must send special waves or something.
      I’d rather watch plays than read them but hers are really good.
      It’s not easy to turn a play into a film. I’m not sure it loses the special pace you need for theatre.

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  7. January 19, 2015 at 11:03 am

    sorry I meant: not keen on the actresses. Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet are all wrong. The men are a much better choice.

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  8. January 20, 2015 at 5:29 am

    I saw a live production of ‘God of Carnage’ at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and I thought it was wonderful. Compared to the live version, the movie was somewhat of a disappointment. I will be reading ‘Happy Are the Happy’ as soon as it becomes available in the US.

    Like

    • January 20, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      It’s amazing how often her plays are seen abroad.

      If Guy’s reading Happy Are the Happy, then it’s available in the US.

      Like

  9. January 20, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Wonderful play review, Emma! I love your theatre reviews – I remember loving your review of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. I haven’t read or seen any plays of Yasmina Reza but like some of the others I have seen the movie version of ‘Gods of Carnage’. I loved the movie, but the story makes me feel that the play version would have been better. Yasmina Reza seems to be a very talented playwright. I remember wanting to read Reza’s novel ‘Desolation’. Have you read that?

    Like

    • January 20, 2015 at 10:50 pm

      Thanks to say you enjoy the theatre reviews. I never know if I’m right to write about it because it’s hard to share something readers haven’t seen and won’t be seeing. (or at least, not the same version as me).

      For books, anyone can pick them, it’s different.

      I haven’t read Desolation.

      Like

  10. Pat
    December 9, 2015 at 1:37 am

    Hey, I just saw Yazmina Reza’s Bella Figura in German, I’ll not go into detail here but an enjoyable evening, they’re touring in France from mid January if you get a chance

    Pat

    Like

    • December 14, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      Thanks a lot. I’ll check out if it anywhere near Lyon. Perhaps it’ll be in next season’s program.

      Like

  1. January 25, 2015 at 1:46 am
  2. March 28, 2015 at 10:17 pm
  3. June 21, 2015 at 9:37 pm
  4. October 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm

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