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The Waterstones Interview: Eric Vuillard

Posted on 3rd October 2019 by Martha Greengrass

Waterstones' Book of the Month for October, The Order of the Day, is an audacious exercise in blending fact and fiction. A mordantly funny and darkly disturbing novella that traces Hitler's manipulative, insidious path to Austrian invasion, The Order of the Day presents numerous real-life figures through the prism of fiction. Here, the book's author, Eric Vuillard, provides an insight into his writing process and the challenges of fictionalising authentic historical events.

What was it about the story you sought to tell in the book that made you opt for the blend of fact and fiction that characterizes it?

The Order of the Day opens with a secret meeting of primary importance. This meeting really did take place, on 20th February 1933, at the moment when the Nazis had assumed power. It was then that twenty-four of the most prominent German industrialists met with Göring and Hitler. Yet it was not the scene of confrontation that one might imagine; on the contrary, the scene unfolded quietly, in a perfectly cordial, ordinary manner. It was regarding funding the campaign for the next election, which would in fact turn out to be the final election, as it allowed Hitler to dismantle the Weimar Republic.

But in order to grasp the nature of such a meeting, in order to fully comprehend that it was ultimately just about fundraising, it seems to me that one must follow as closely as possible the protagonists of history. Hence in order to capture the interconnectedness, the relation between the coup d’état and the financing of the election, I had to abandon the idea of producing a report, I had to tell the story.

But the term ‘fiction’ must be stripped of its apparent straightforwardness. Some months ago, I visited an exhibition of works by Vivian Maier, that great American street photographer who died an unknown and was discovered recently. One photograph made an immediate impact on me. It shows a gentleman with a large paunch, sat in the front of a parked luxury sedan. The door is open, and the man is extending his leg out of the car. His foot rests on the pavement where a young boy of about ten shines his shoe. The scene is arresting. We know it well, we’ve seen it a thousand times in photographs or on film, but each time it makes us uneasy. The scene symbolises misery and contempt.

But what struck me was how far Vivian Maier’s photograph instantly seems satirical. One might call it a pastiche of a Daumier. It is not, however, staged, she didn’t rent the sedan, she didn’t hold a casting call to find the fat gentleman and the small boy. It is a reportage photograph, a cliché captured in the street after a chance meeting. It is a scene from real life.

However, this photograph immediately brought to mind an image from Chaplin. I straight away thought of one of Chaplin’s films. Thus, between a documentary photographer and a frame from a work of fiction, one finds profound similarities. Which means that Chaplin’s films tell us something true, that their sentimental and comedic tone is also proof of veracity, that The Kid documents life in 1920s America more faithfully than reports from the time. Satire is not only an exercise in mockery, it is also a way of knowing something. The status of what we call a document is something more fragile and more problematic than we often think, and art is more serious means of knowing than we imagine.

How would you describe your approach to researching the book?

In his writing on art, Alfred Döblin, the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, says that as soon as we set about documenting ourselves, as we begin consulting archives, ‘the great act of composition begins’. Which is to say that there is no such thing as a neutral description, that a body of archives, even if it is complete, does not complete the research. The act of writing consists of sorting, distinguishing, imposing a hierarchy, interpreting. There exists no empirical, impersonal, objective platform to stand on. Writing is nothing more than the burning path forged by a subjective point of view through the entanglement of facts.

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