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Daughter comes to grips with towering father
2013-03-13
By Qu Zhi

Marie Nimier was only aged five when her father, a distinguished French author, playwright and intellectual, was killed in the crash of his Aston Martin DB5 along with his mistress.

She had never seen much of him - her parents were married because her mother Nadine was pregnant. The day after her birth, he had even expressed the desire to drown her in the Seine, she says. As soon as the marriage formalities were completed, he abandoned his wife on the steps of city hall.

A quiet child, she had little communication with the dominant man of letters. In fact, she was so quiet and reticent with him that he wrote her a postcard bearing the words, "What will the queen of silence say?"

That question - she calls it a "entangling" question - would haunt and inspire the woman who went on herself to become a prolific, award-winning novelist. Over the years, the 55-year-old Parisian, now living in Normandy, has indeed answered that question in around 10 novels and emerged from the shadow of her father.

Roger Nimier became famous overnight with his debut novel "The Blue Horseman" when he was just 25. He worked with director Louis Malle on the screenplay of "Elevator to the Gallows" (1958). He was leader of a group of anti-existentialist writers.

Ever-present father

That question also became the title of her 2004 memoir and meditation "What Will the Queen of Silence Say?" winner of the Laureates Prix Medicis and the Grand Prix de Literature de I'Academie Francaise. Nimier has written around 10 novels. "Queen of Silence" was published in China in 2007.

It is perhaps Nimier's best-known work and she discussed it at the ongoing Shanghai International Literary Festival and in an interview with journalists. It's available in Chinese but has not been translated into English.

Nimier says her father never spent much time with her but when he died "he never actually left."

She builds an image of her father, at times using stream of consciousness to describe her relationship with him. It is a private work. "What is the role of my father in my life?" Nimer keeps asking in her novel.

"I use the image of a ghost to write about my father to imply a matter of emptiness, void or disapproval. For me, my father is in a wispy distance. I can never get rid of him but have to keep delving into this emptiness, and that's is attractive for me," Nimier told Shanghai Daily.

Roger Nimier was a man his daughter loved to hate.

She said she cannot find the words to describe her father, "so I can only write about him."

The book is her eighth novel and for the first time she mentions the tension and conflict in the family.

"Before I had hoped not to mention him and to establish my own writing system, but it seems a necessary path for every writer to have one or two works about their own life and family," Nimier said.

In writing, she made a conscious effort to exclude her father's influence and as a self-described "left-wing" writer, her values also differed.

"I think the only thing in which I am getting closer to my father is in the vividness of language," she said. "I believe imagination can save the world."

"The Queen of Silence" has been described as having universal significance in its messages about inheritance, love for a father, and the relationship between parents and children.

"I got letters from readers all the time about introducing this book to their children, saying the parenting part (was important) and it helped communication," Nimier said.

As a female writer, Nimer says social constraints on women are still pervasive, and not only for writers. Though most of her readers are women, most of those who decide which works to publish are men.

"After the radical feminist wave of the 1970s, there was huge development in women's rights socially and in literature, but after that, it entered a period of stagnation," she said.

Nimier used to think that so-called "female writing" itself meant limitation as a writer, but she has come to accept its validity. Over the past 40 years, more and more female writers in France have been writing about the feelings associated with their bodies to discuss social reality.

Male violence

Her latest book "I Am a Man" is narrated by a misogynist with "comic sarcasm," she said.

The book, which is now being translated into Chinese, deals with domestic violence, among other issues.

"In our society, the most dangerous place for a woman is her own place," Nimirer said. "On average, 2.5 women die every day from domestic violence. I am writing not simply to attack this problem, but more to delve into the reasons behind it. What is a man thinking when he hurts a women? Is it natural instinct or are there social factors?"

She quotes Simon de Beauvoir as in "The Second Sex" saying that a woman is not born a woman but becomes one. Nimier herself says that a man is not born a man, but becomes one. "Man is violent, nevertheless, he is also the victim of violence," she said.

Nimier said she began reading a collection of short stories by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan when she arrived in Shanghai. She has also read works by Chinese writers such as Yan Lianke, Fang Fang and Liu Zhenyuan.

She noted that in one short story the narrator takes an entire page to explain the protagonist's name.

"It is a vital pattern of literature, indeed, that you should name the facts and name the world," she said.

Nimier observed in a group interview that the majority of reporters were women, saying that would not be the case in France and calling it a good sign that the city of Shanghai is indeed booming.

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