French Exit (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
French Exit (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
The film adaptation of 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers comes to US cinemas this month but the Canadian author is promoting his latest book, a surrealist comedy of manners set in Paris where a high society mother and son, beset by scandal, have fled. A comic ensemble cast, including their cat, which also happens to hold the spirit of their dead husband/father, joins them.
What is a French exit?
A French exit is when you leave a social function without saying goodbye to anyone. Highly recommended.
One by one a comic cast of characters enter the Parisian apartment where much of the story takes place. The Sisters Brothers has been adapted for the big screen but, as a kind of a tragic comedy of manners, could you envision a stage adaptation of French Exit?
I could see it as a play, or a film, yes. Actually I’m working towards a screen adaptation with Azazel Jacobs, who will direct. It seems that most of my work is a fair fit for adaptation because it’s so chatty, and the narrative is usually revealed through dialogue.
Frances is painfully wasteful with her money, believing the game is to get rid of it all before you die, and even resorts to flushing it down the toilet when she’s too depressed to go out and spend it. But when she gives money to the homeless and dispossessed she appears to be doing more than offloading it. Why was it important that she did this?
Toward the end of the novel, she tries to give her money away to a homeless migrant she’s seen in the park outside her apartment. She wants him to have it because she’s seen the man defending himself against police brutality in an earlier scene. Frances despises police, and she admires the man for standing his ground. She’s spent her life in a social strata that was not exactly overrun with admirable individuals, so this man’s behaviour was uncommon to her. It was important to me to show that Frances was not utterly cold-blooded.
The plight of migrants is echoed throughout the book – from the journey to France by boat and having to smuggle Small Frank over, to the migrant camps in the park near the apartment. Was the European migrant crisis at the forefront of your mind at the time of writing?
To me it offers an interesting contrast to the cushy problems of the Price family. I stayed in Paris for some months once, and there was a park just outside my window which inspired certain of the scenes described in the book. I was, at that time, struggling with a novel-in-progress and feeling sorry for myself. The park goings-on were a reminder to me of the relative insignificance of my concerns.
Is the surrealist strand of the novel a nod to the Parisian literary surrealists of the early 20th century, and does it make a radical point as it did then?
It isn’t, and I hadn’t even thought of that, but I like the idea. I don’t think of French Exit as being radical in any way, no. I present it to the world as an entertainment and nothing more.
Malcolm gives up books when he realises they are not a solution to his problems: “Books are about life, but they are not life.” It’s a despondent view for a novelist to take – do you believe it?
No, that isn’t my view at all, but Malcolm’s. I’d be completely lost without books.
Malcolm reinforces the stereotype of the strange man living at home with his mother but you can’t argue with him when he states: “We live together because we want to.” As young people struggle to buy their own homes and social care becomes less dependable, is this a stereotype we should challenge or is it always unhealthy?
I appreciate the question but you’re assuming I was addressing a societal phenomenon in Malcolm, and I wasn’t. My work always boils down to individuals, the small, lopsided stories we build and leave behind when we die.
As a Canadian living in America how do you feel about the apparent end of neighbourly relations between the two countries?
It’s an ugly, shameful thing to witness. And it’s a cold comfort, but I take solace in the thought that the situation isn’t permanent. I’m hopeful that Canada-USA relations can be mended once we’ve installed a new administration.
Patrick deWitt is in conversation with Luke Brown at Waterstone’s, Deansgate at 6pm on Wednesday 26 September. Tickets: https://www.waterstones.com/events/an-evening-with-patrick-dewitt/manchester-deansgate