PHILIPPE BESSON: ‘Looking back, I think I write to talk to people who have died, to repair the injustice of their absence.’ (photo credit: MAXIME REYCHMAN)
PHILIPPE BESSON: ‘Looking back, I think I write to talk to people who have died, to repair the injustice of their absence.’ (photo credit: MAXIME REYCHMAN)
Award-winning French writer Philippe Besson bares his soul at this year’s Tmuna Theater Festival

The Tmuna Theater certainly likes to spread things around. As befitting a venue that hosts events from wide disciplinary domains, this year’s festival celebrates numerous artistic areas, including – naturally – theater, and also dance, performance, music, literature and the plastic arts. 

All told, the 11th edition of the festival for independent artists, which kicked off earlier this week and will run through to December 16, incorporates 20 works from across the above disciplinary spectrum. The program takes in a broad sweep of local productions, and an intriguing show by German-based sociopolitically-leaning dance group Flinn Works, called Global Belly, which examines the delicate issue of international surrogacy and adoption. 

Acclaimed French writer Philippe Besson is also on the festival bill and will sit down, on Friday, with award-winning Israeli actor, writer and director Shlomi Elkabetz as part of a gay literature weekend agenda. Their tete-a-tete, with support by the French Institute, will be followed by a performance of a play based on Besson’s 2017 novel Arrete avec tes mensonges, which came out in English as Lie with Me, two years later.

Besson has produced nine tomes to date, since deciding not to pursue a legal career for which he trained. He got off to an impressive start taking his literary bow, in 1999, with En l’absence des hommes (In the Absence of Men) which won the prestigious Prix Emmanuel Roblès.

The 55-year-old author’s literary aspirations were fueled by a distinctly pre-Internet era activity. “I started by writing letters at the age of 20. I really learned to write through correspondence,” he explains.

It was romance, or rather the ensuing pain, that provided him with the impetus to take things more seriously. “At 32, I started writing my first novel. I was dealing with a breakup, living in Canada, jet-lagged from France, in a hotel room. I thought: this is the moment. The first sentence came: ‘J’ai seize ans, je suis né avec le siècle’ (I am sixteen years old, I was born with the century). It became the first sentence of my first book, En l’absence des hommes.”

Besson’s new professional die was irretrievably cast. “I couldn’t stop. I understood that this was my life, that everything would revolve around it from then on. It struck me as obvious.” 

Over time he also gained a sense of healing. “Looking back, I think I write to talk to people who have died, to repair the injustice of their absence. My existence is haunted by the dead. I belong to a generation where people died young,” he says. Considering the tragedies our own regional violence continues to inflict, perhaps more of us could benefit from getting feelings down in writing, in a realistic or artistic form.

It may have taken some courage to abandon a more dependable means of making a living, in law, for the far more precarious breadwinning creative pursuit. Then again, gaining official recognition for his first fruit must have been a welcome pat on the back and, presumably, helped to convince the then-twentysomething Frenchman that he had made the right career decision. 

In fact, Besson is not particularly enamored with official kudos, preferring to keep tabs on his progress unaided. “I don’t feel very strongly about literary prizes. It makes me feel as if we writers are looked upon as racehorses in a competition. That’s very far from me. And while I respect some literary jurors, I am indifferent to the judgment of others. I like to keep my distance.”

Details on Besson's life

THAT MAY be so, but Besson seems to have few qualms about airing intimate details of his life in public, through his books, plays based on them, and on discussion panels. That includes his homosexuality. It has, he says, been something of a slow burner. 

“I hid who I was for a long time, not out of shame, but out of a desire to muddy the waters and because I am, above all, a novelist: someone who invents stories. In fact, I began writing as a way to live lives other than my own, to play roles different from my reality. And, in fiction, in the midst of lies, it is easier to move forward wearing a mask.”

Eventually, reality smacked him in the face and a change of tack became apparent. “And then, one day, my past, a secret from my youth, caught up with me in a violent, unexpected way. I felt obliged to write about my own private truth, without polishing it or editing it. The result of this process is Arrete avec tes mensonges. As soon as this book was published, it was a point of no return, there was no way to change or hide from the truth. But I have no problem with that. The question is rather: do those who read or listen to me have a problem with it?” 

Good point, which begs questions about how the world has progressed with accepting homosexuality as normal, and that a person’s sexuality is their own prerogative. Besson is upbeat on that score. “Yes, considerable progress has been made. In France, in 1982, homosexuality was decriminalized. Since 2013, we have had the right to marriage. And the younger generation does not ask moral questions about homosexuality. It is integrated into their everyday life.”

However, not all is well, not by a long shot, he says. “Homophobia remains, it manifests itself at the slightest opportunity. The bigots, the reactionaries are still there. And above all, in many countries of the world, people can still be sentenced to death for homosexuality.” 

While millions of soccer fans revel in “the beautiful game,” Besson points out that there is a darker side to the sport’s showcase event. “This is the case in Qatar, for example, where the World Cup is taking place. We must therefore remain vigilant and continue the fight. 

“As we have seen with abortion in the US, all progress can be called into question, especially when the far Right allies itself with religious groups, for example. We should not have to discuss people’s sexuality. And I would remind you that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is not a choice.”

Besson believes that practically anything and everything can serve as the raw material for literary exploration. “I believe that artistic freedom should not be restricted,” he states, “that we should be able to talk about everything. The only limit is the law, the respect due to people. As for the rest, nothing should be forbidden. You know, if people are shocked by a film or a book, they have the possibility of not going to see it, not reading it. It’s as simple as that.”

HIS BOOKS, over the past two-plus decades, have been well received and there have been more awards along the way. Clearly, Besson’s craft is well and truly honed. He says he is now more adept at getting down to the nucleus of the matter at hand, and conveying that to the reader succinctly. 

“My writing has become simpler, it has moved toward bareness, nudity; it focuses on the essential. I have removed everything that weighed it down, everything that cluttered it up. There is less carelessness too; I have become more serious, more deliberate.”

Besson says he is looking forward to making his first trip here, and having his work performed on the Tmuna Theater stage, even if he won’t be able to judge the Hebrew dialogue for himself. 

“I am delighted by it, even if, no, I don’t speak the language. But you can’t imagine how proud I am to hear about Barbezieux, the little town where I grew up, on a theater stage in Tel Aviv. Even in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have imagined that.”

C’est la vie, in the happiest sense.

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