Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has had a bad night. He’s fallen foul of a rotten cold and is hoping to be well enough to play Momo, Ibrahim and other characters in the one-actor stage adaptation of his famous novel, Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran tonight. “If I have to cancel, I’ll be in an even worse state than if I perform!” he sighs down the phone, between coughing fits. His determination is no surprise when you know his commitment to communicating with the audience in order to brighten up their lives. “We live in societies that are stamped with the seal of misery. But misery is related to absence, and once you nurture it, there’ll be no shortage of things for it to feed off, because you can always spot the absences in your life: the people you’ve lost, the time you’ve wasted, the money you don’t have … Whereas joy is related to plenitude. It’s about the ability to enjoy relations with other people, about taking pleasure in the ability to do things and in the things you’ve done. Every life is full of joy and misery and it develops according to the light that’s cast on it,” adds the writer who, in a delightful and accessible way, tackles major existential issues, such as faith and the search for happiness. And that is his recipe for global success.
Testifying to that success are his twenty-odd plays, which include Enigma Variations, The Visitor and The Diary of Anne Frank, all performed regularly in 50 countries, while an array of best sellers, such as Oscar and the Lady in Pink, The Alternative Hypothesis, Odette Toulemonde and Other Stories, and more recently, Night of Fire and The Man Who Could See Through Faces, have been translated into 44 languages. The result is that this doctor of philosophy, who grew up near Lyon in France, has, in less than two decades, become one of the most widely read French-language authors and one of the most frequently performed in the world. “That instant success gave me wings. The fact of being wanted gives you amazing energy! I sometimes think my work would be less interesting and less prolific if I hadn’t entered into this contract with my audiences … But then again, what do I know?” ponders the Academician, who also writes graphic novels, adapts opera libretti, produces films and directs and acts in plays at his own theatre.
Open your eyes
How to explain such creative bulimia? “When I write, I feel I’m giving life. It can happen on the page or on stage. Writing is first and foremost about attending to the world in immense detail. I’m someone who pays attention to my characters and to their imaginary stories. Basically, I’m a smuggler of lives!” concludes this writer built like a sportsman, from the manorial farm in Belgium where he lives. “This historic monument south of Brussels dates back to 1601, and it’s where I feel at my best … As I speak, I’m surrounded by my three dogs: Fouki, the mother, and her two puppies, Lulu and Daphnée. I love animals and I’m terribly fond of them. They have the same importance in my life as people.” And that’s the only intimate detail he discloses in our interview, because Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is extremely discreet on the subject of himself. “I have my moments like anyone else, but I don’t want to talk about them. By remaining silent, I keep my balance and I’m more productive as a novelist and a playwright,” he emphasises, with a smile in his voice, implying, at the same time, that his vibrant humanity can best be discovered through the words of his characters. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see him at the National Theatre in Montreal (or anywhere else in Québec) in Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, his mythical ode to tolerance and friendship, can vouch for that. Schmitt says he has wonderful memories of his performances there: “Honestly, it was like a honeymoon with Montreal audiences! They roared with laughter, at other moments they were in tears ... It was one of the highlights of my life!” raves this artist whose creative spark never seems to wane.
Nevertheless, he would be the first to admit that he doesn’t have the key to unlock personal creativity. “I don’t hold the key for the simple reason that, when it comes to creativity, we’re not all talented in the same way. But opening your eyes and arms is something we can all do. We do it spontaneously when we’re children because a toddler’s brain is keen for knowledge and new sensations. Then we stop when we grow up, because we have the illusion that we know, that we’re mature and that we possess truths. But that can inhibit our action and our engagement with society, maybe even our impulse to reach out to other people. In short, it can have a totally paralysing effect. And once you start to suffer from it, it’s a disease that’s worth treating.”
It was in that spirit that he took on his latest work, When I Grow Up, I’m Going to Be a Child, a series of frank interviews with the journalist Catherine Lalanne. In the course of the exchanges, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt goes back to the garden of childhood and the sources of his artistic inspiration with an inspiring optimism. In the first lines of the preface, he writes, “I haven’t had the same childhood all my life,” before saying, later on, “We have several childhoods in a single life, which vary according to the age at which we tell them.” From the creator’s point of view, “we always see the past through the window of the present. In troubled times, for instance, we look for the roots of the conflict. Whereas in calmer times, we discern the origin of that tranquillity.” So, how does he regard his childhood from his current perspective? “I’d say the same as I describe in the book. I’m at peace, I’m steadfast, and I’m grateful to what I was given by the people I had around me.”
In saying that, he naturally thinks of his grandfather, François, the wise and mischievous artisan jeweller and stone-setter, the memory of whom is still very vivid and who features strongly in the book. “I’ve paid tribute to him by dispelling the cliché about old people. Thanks to my grandfather, I see the aging process as a guarantee of liberty. That’s when we can break the rules, weigh anchor and stop caring about gossip!” In truth, Schmitt is indignant about the generally reductive attitude towards old age. “Aging isn’t about shrivelling up, it’s about growing up!” he quips with an energy that contrasts with the general tone of the conversation. “At 20, I was blasé; at 50, I’m astonished by people’s diversity. As a young adult, I could only see what people had in common; I saw them as archetypes. The more I discover people’s complexity (there’s no single way of loving, desiring or living), the more I marvel. These days, I tend to look for the specific rather than the constant,” admits the philosopher, who also sees this book as a manifesto against the cynicism and disillusionment that are too often spread around our world. “In all my writing, there’s a will to share joy, confidence and optimism with my readers. Even if my native joy has often been put to the test by deaths, illness or injustice, it’s nevertheless grown stronger over time. And it’s become deliberate. I nurture it and I cultivate it.” For the eternal philosopher in him, joy and optimism don’t mean he denies that life can be difficult, but they give one the strength to overcome life’s obstacles, to turn them into something useful and positive, for oneself and for other people.
We’re coming to the end of the interview, but I can’t leave Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt without asking him to elaborate on a sentence at the end of the second chapter of his book: “Love is earned.” It’s a deceptively simple sentence that’s pregnant with meaning, especially at a time when effort isn’t much in vogue. “I’ve always felt that you have to be lovable to be loved. That doesn’t include the love of a parent for a child, who may or may not incite it, but being prepared to give another person the best of oneself is an excellent attitude. I’d go so far as to say that a person should give the best of themselves to life. If you don’t work on yourself, if you nurture bad moods and impose them on those around you, if you hide the treasures of goodness within yourself, what right do you have to ask anything of life and of other people? You’ve got to be a bit consistent!”
Schmitt goes on to talk about the future, although it seems a bit premature to be taking stock just yet. “I don’t know what the future holds for me. Will I live out more of my childhood in the years to come?” he laughs. One thing’s for sure, Schmitt the thinker hopes one day to rediscover the contemplative nature which he believes characterizes childhood. “I’d like to relive the magic of those times. Maybe I’ll manage it when I feel that my task is accomplished …”
For the record, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt got over his cold and was able to perform that night, to his own delight and the great delight of his admirers!