Author Q&A:
Delphine de Vigan

Loyalties, Bloomsbury (£12.99 hardback, £8.63 Kindle)

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Thirteen-year-old Théo and his friend Mathis secretly drink. Their teacher, Hélène, suspects something is not right with Théo and becomes obsessed with rescuing him. Cécile, mother of Mathis, questions whether she has ever truly known her husband. Their stories wind tighter together in this lean, gripping novel of loneliness, lies and loyalties that also illuminates class and workplace relations in modern France. The book is translated from French. De Vigan’s original answers in French to our questions are also included here.

How did the idea for the novel come to you?
The idea came to me with the realisation that I, personally, give a lot of thought to question of loyalty. Am I being loyal? Would it be loyal if I did this or did that? My parents separated when I was very young and this separation is still acrimonious. I think that this triggered the importance I give to loyalty. I wanted to write about it from all angles, both personal and in a wider sense. The novel follows four characters for whom the question of loyalty comes up and needs to be addressed immediately.

L’idée est venue du constat que j’accordais moi-même une grande importance à ces questions de loyautés. « Suis-je loyale ? » « Est-ce loyal si je dis ceci ou cela ? » « Si je fais ceci ou cela ? » Mes parents se sont séparés quand j’étais très jeune et cette séparation est restée très conflictuelle. J’ai pensé que l’importance que j’accordais à la loyauté venait de là. J’ai eu envie d’écrire sur ce sujet. Mais de l’aborder sous toutes ses formes, à la fois intimes et sociales. Le roman met en scène quatre personnages pour lesquels la question de la loyauté se pose de manière urgente, cruciale.

The chapters are titled according to the character at the centre of them but sometimes they are in the first person and sometimes in the third person. What did that technique allow you to achieve?
I wanted Hélène and Cécile, two very different women, to speak and make their voice heard. They tell us their story and reveal little by little their own secrets. Théo and Mathis are 13 years old and I wanted to be able to say things about them that they couldn’t analyse themselves. They are too young to understand what is happening to them and that’s why I chose the third person narration.

Je voulais faire parler Hélène et Cécile, ces deux femmes très différentes l’une de l’autre. Et faire entendre leur voix. Elles nous racontent leur histoire et dévoilent peu à peu leurs propres secrets. Pour Théo et Mathis, qui ont 13 ans, je voulais pouvoir dire à leur sujet des choses qu’ils ne savent pas analyser eux-mêmes. Ils sont trop jeunes pour comprendre ce qui leur arrive. C’est pourquoi j’ai eu recours à la troisième personne.

Cécile, from a lower social class than her husband, used to “eat her tea every evening”, just like someone from northern England would say. Could you tell us something about how you collaborate with your translator George Miller?
George Miller is an excellent translator who knows my work very well and who has translated my novels since the beginning. He understood that Cécile is speaking in a certain way and that she has learned to speak in a way which is not her own. She has erased any language which may betray her social background. I play around with these two different registers in the novel. George has adapted French expressions to make them English ones. When necessary or if he isn’t sure, he just asks me.

George Miller est un excellent traducteur, qui connaît très bien mon travail et me traduit depuis le début. Il a compris que Cécile s’exprime d’une manière particulière, qu’elle a appris une langue qui n’est pas la sienne. Et qu’elle a gommé, dans son propre langage, tout ce qui pouvait trahir son appartenance sociale. Je joue de ces deux registres dans le roman. Georges a adapté les expressions françaises aux expressions anglaises. Quand c’est nécessaire ou qu’il a un doute, il me pose des questions.

Do you see similarities in the importance of social class between France and England?
I don’t really know the subtleties surrounding social class in England. But in France, even though social class evolves and is maybe less distinct, it is still something important and strong.

Je ne connais pas bien les subtilités des classes sociales au Royaume Uni. Mais si elles ont évolué, et que leurs contours sont probablement plus flous, les classes sociales demeurent une distinction très forte en France.

Although Théo has his dark secret, he seems more capable of protecting his father than vice versa, and he pursues his terrible ambition with adult-like determination. How fully formed are we by the age of 13?
I believe children have a tireless loyalty towards their parents. This makes the job of those who want to help them even more difficult. It is not easy for a child to betray or report his parents, even when he is in danger. Children don’t like to take sides. Thirteen is the age of secrets and opacity, where we are able to hide the most terrible things.

Je crois que la plupart des enfants ont une loyauté sans faille vis-à-vis de leurs parents. C’est parfois ce qui rend si difficile le travail de ceux qui tentent de les protéger. Un enfant a toujours beaucoup de mal à trahir ou dénoncer ses parents, même quand ils sont en danger. Les enfants n’aiment pas prendre parti. Treize ans est pour moi l’âge du secret. De l’opacité. C’est l’âge où on est capable de cacher ce qui vous arrive de plus grave.

Hélene steps outside the terms of her job and risks losing it in her concern for Théo, but ultimately one of the boys turns to her when help is needed. Are teachers like Hélene sufficiently prepared for the non-academic, pastoral side of their job?
The different loyalties make this, for me, the story of a rescue. Hélène is reaching out her hand to a child. She doesn’t want to give up. She embodies this adult look, this “other person” who can change your life. Hélène follows her gut instinct, at the risk of losing her job, both out of loyalty to herself and to the promises she has made to herself. She is wrong and she is right at the same time. In France, teachers are not well prepared or trained for this part of their job. Most of the time they face these things alone. I guess that it is very difficult. After the publication of the novel in France, I received messages from several teachers sharing their experiences.

Oui tout à fait. Les loyautés est pour moi l’histoire d’un sauvetage. Hélène tend la main à cet enfant. Elle ne veut pas renoncer. Elle incarne pour moi ce regard adulte, cet « autre », qui parfois peut changer le cours de notre vie. Hélène va au bout de son intuition, au risque de perdre son emploi. Par loyauté vis-à-vis d’elle-même. Par fidélité aux promesses qu’elle s’était faites. Elle a tort, mais elle a raison. En France, les professeurs ne sont pas du tout formés ni préparés à ces aspects de leur travail. Ils sont même souvent très seuls face à ces situations. Cela est sans doute très difficile. Et compliqué. J’ai reçu plusieurs témoignages de professeurs après la parution du roman en France.

Cécile discovers something horrible on her husband’s computer. Has the digital age increased the degree to which people like Cécile feel they never really knew their partners, or is it just unknowability in a different form?
Indeed. Cécile discovers that her husband isn’t the man she thought she had married. She discovers his dark side. As Cécile says (she’s read it in books and magazines), the other one in a relationship is always a stranger. The anonymity of the internet and social networks allows people to express their worst side. And this no doubt enables the evil within them to grow and most shameful things can now be made public.

Cécile découvre en effet que son mari n’est pas l’homme qu’elle croyait avoir épousé. Elle découvre sa part obscure. Comme le dit Cécile, car elle l’a lu dans les livres et les magazines, l’autre est toujours un inconnu. Mais internet et les réseaux sociaux permettent à certaines personnes d’exprimer, sous couvert d’anonymat, le pire de leur âme. Et sans doute de nourrir le démon qui sommeille en eux. Et de rendre publique ce qui est inavouable.

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