Why do you talk about the “challenge” of Jerusalem?
Because Jerusalem challenges us to do something we find difficult. It’s a city that contains three monotheistic religions and which says to us “understand one another”. It asks us to go from fratricide to fraternity. I think brothers are being fratricidal, not fraternal, when they forget where they come from, when they think that they’re at the start of their own history and not the result of History. So, it’s a place that’s unique in the world, a place that incites the different ideologies to keep their individuality but to get on with each other.
Was this trip the realisation of a desire you’d been harbouring?
To the extent that I’m a philosopher in search of meaning, I needed to see this city. I knew it had something to tell me or, at least, that’s what I hoped. I hadn’t rushed to go to the Holy Land because I had high expectations and I was afraid of being let down. But the visit lived up to my expectations.
What did you take away from it?
I was already a believer, but I wanted to confront my faith, and it became definitively Christian in Jerusalem. I felt it physically. It was like an incarnation.
You write that we travel in order to grow…
Yes, because we’re not like the pilgrims of the past. We already have images before we leave home; our imagination has been saturated. So, we’re not entirely setting off into the unknown, but the journey involves the body and demands its contribution: there’s the fatigue, all that walking about, the thirst, but there’s also extasy… We add the body to what our digital world allows.
Tell me about the faith that suddenly hit you in 1989, which you describe in Night of Fire (La nuit de feu).
I was on an expedition to the Sahara Desert. We’d set out from Tamanrasset to follow in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld. I’d been asked to write a play about him. I got completely lost in the rocky desert on that journey, and I spent 32 hours totally at risk with nothing to eat or drink. During that night under the stars, I had a mystical experience. Pascal, who himself was a convert from atheism, experienced the same thing. He called it his “night of fire” and I used the same term. But my experience was spiritual not religious.
Is it true that your parents sent you to Sunday school to understand art?
Absolutely! My parents were atheists. The only meaning Sunday school had was as a tool to decipher the Christian civilisation I lived in. You also discover the artist’s faith when you say that his ideas and novels already existed somewhere… That’s more Platonic than mystical but it’s a bit how the creative process appears to me: as though the characters and stories were already there and I just have to notice and listen and then write it all down. That’s how I experience my artistic activity. I don’t always feel like a creator, more like a keen observer.
Is this the first time you’ve opened up about your writing processes?
You talk about rereading as a painstaking tidying-up business, which prompts you to say “my novels are my tyrants”…
I’m telling you, they really are (laughs)! I feel as though I’m a slave in the service of the novel. But I’m a slave who consents, all the same.
Is the direct link with an audience crucial?
That’s probably true for most writers. I can test the link in a different way, however. I started out writing for the theatre, so I’ve always been used to having an audience in the auditorium to check whether what I thought was funny really is funny and what I thought was sad is really sad. Unlike a novelist, a playwright gets to test out his intentions every evening.
You’ve also launched the saga Crossing Time (La traverse des temps), which you say is your life’s project…
Yes, because it involves a huge preparatory process beforehand: the appropriation of history, of religions, of technologies … I’d probably have done those things anyway because I’m naturally inquisitive, but I did them with this project in mind. You’ve got to have the gravitas and the confidence in yourself to write a novel that’s going to end up being 5,000 pages long. Actually, the whole thing made me hate myself in recent years, because I thought I was ready then I realised that I wasn’t! It’s only in the last three or four years that it’s finally coming to fruition.
The central character crosses time with a kind of immortality.
Yes, he has the ability to repair himself which at first seems like an advantage but then becomes a heavy burden. He travels through history and his own story is the history of humanity with all the historical pitfalls of technology, climate change and other upheavals.
Is it also a way to express your love of nature?
In Book I, Paradise Lost (Paradis perdus), yes, of course! When you think that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, there weren’t very many of them and they lived in a verdant world where they were outnumbered by animals, and when you compare that to our planet today and the ecological anxiety that’s strangling us, I was keen to trace that trajectory. So, Book I was indeed a hymn to nature, absolutely!
Does the saga give you a sense of immortality, too?
When I’ve put the last full-stop on the final page of the series, I think I’ll be like the reader and say to myself, “What a relief it is to be mortal, at the end of the day!” (Laughs.) My character is increasingly going to experience his immortality as a curse, something that cuts him off from his fellows. When he loves a woman, he sees her die in his arms, the way we do a pet animal. He’s open, sensitive and caring but immortality weighs heavily on him. So, I think I wrote this book to make my own mortality more palatable rather than to make myself immortal.