The Writer and the Debater
Maria Agostinelli | 25-11-2007 | ENG
(Translated by Antonino J. Scoppettuolo)
The unpublished, or almost unpublished, Turkish adventure of Georges Simenon. As Paris-Soir's special envoy, the Belgian writer tells of his encounter with Communism.
It was 1933 when Simenon interviewed Trotsky. Fascism in Italy was celebrating its first decade, and European States where starting to gather into two coalitions which - despite not yet being party to hostilities - were heading to opposite sides of the front. Russia's Stalin had frozen the magma which Trotsky himself had contributed to releasing into the shape of a dictatorship. Following solitary confinement the restless communist "rebel" was forced into exile on the unsettlingly calm island of Prinkipo, Turkey. That is precisely where he was to eventually meet with Georges Simenon.
"During those years Trotsky" - says Fabrizio Denunzio, who conducted this little known interview, published in Italy by Oedipus in 1998 - "is out of play, but is involved in tireless attempts to reorganise a resistance of sorts to Stalin. In a sense, the interview was part of the groundwork for his stay in France. France remains, to this day, the cultural home of all Trozkists".
It was precisely then that the Paris based daily Paris-Soir handed Simenon - a writer, traveller and subeditor in his thirties - to sign his name on the front page of History. Simeon set off for his interview after prior submittal of his questions - three in all - to Trotsky, who in turn, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, provided a written response for each. The result was a success, a veritable scoop.
Upon arrival the Belgian writer was somewhat dazed by Turkey's beauty and sun-blessed landscapes. Simenon shortly set aside his role as a report and briefly lapsed into pure narration: "Here, one shore is called Europe and the other Asia. [...] Shutters are drawn shut, while gardens are filled with roses of a size akin to obese. The background provides a glimpse of the flat blue sea. [...] Everything is so calm, so still - the air, the water, the leaves, the sky - as to lend one the impression that mere movement should break the sun's rays".
Simenon immediately draws readers into a realm of mixed realities: though clearly an interview with Trotsky, Simenon's work is also his own literary rendition of Trotsky. It is both journalism and story-telling. Europe and Asia. The Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It is about Turkey, but it could also be about France. Why not, after all? Simenon merges domestic with exotic, construing a dream world, whereby Turkish ferries transform into barges on the Seine and the white houses on the Sea of Marmara reveal outlines of the Cote D'Azur. "In order to meet with Trotsky, here I stand on a bridge more crowded than the Pont Neuf in Paris, which joins today's Constantinople and that of old, Stamboul and Galata. Why do I surrender to impressions of a fair-weathered Sunday on the Seine, in the whereabouts of Saint Cloud, Bougival or Poissy? That I do not know".
It's anything but mere nostalgia: Simenon knows that he is to convey to France, to the French, the idea of a man - Trotsky - who rather than being a stranger ought to be familiar. So much so, that even Turkey should feel like "home". Drawing on his talent for reporting and creating atmosphere, he makes a head start and tweaks his narrative engine. He leaves the reader hanging, on hold, conveying a sense that the upcoming encounter is about a mysterious - albeit famous - politician whom revolutionary history placed 'on hold'. While leading the reader to thinking "he must be here! I am are ready. I want to meet him", Simenon veers towards a presentation of his bodyguards, his guests, his personal assistant, his home, his sailboat. He is still toying with providing a feel for the atmosphere that ultimately conjures man.
"And so, finally, here he is: Trotsky at last", Denunzio continues. "Come to think of it this gradual approach feels very much like a long take; the field is narrows in from the initial long shot and gradually leads us to the main character. Simenon's labouring on the establishment of a suitable atmosphere for his character is such that ultimately - and paradoxically - the interview proper becomes accessory".
Trotsky himself is not, in fact, subject to description. He his suddenly placed before us, half knowingly, fatefully. We hear his words (they, clearly, are paramount), but see nothing of his eyes. He features like dust among Verb. Out of an interview total of twenty-seven pages only seven actually feature direct quotes of his, or submit his spoken thoughts. Yet he is all-present. Besides Simenon's mythopoeia, Trotsky's thoughts - insofar as they are straight to the point, analytical and, essentially, scripted - afford the latter greater impact, as if they brought through swathes of time or from another dimension. An heroic dimension befitting those who have already left their mark in history; yet now...
Now there's Hitler. Only years later Simenon's much loved Parisian boulevards would bear swastika flags. At the time, neither could have foreseen the full extent of the coming bloodshed, however Simenon's first question carries dark forebodings on the prominence that racial issues acquired in later political developments and subsequent conflict. Trotsky answers: "With today's 20th century Nazis proposing that we should turn our backs on history, social dynamics, civilisation and revert to "race" issues, why not take things even further. After all, anthropology is - is it not? - but a mere branch of zoology. Perhaps, in fact, racists should look to our anthropoid ancestors for a higher, incontrovertible source of inspiration in aid of their creative endeavours". His thoughts are clear. Poignant. Ironic, despite himself. Simenon urges him on. He follows up with questions on the nature and duration of European dictatorships and, yet again, the unflappable Trotsky answers: "You wish to know my thoughts on whether dictatorships are episodic or temporary? Shame! I couldn't possibly subscribe to such an optimistic outlook. Fascism is anything but the result of a psychosis or hysteria (as armchair theoreticians such as Sforza take comfort in believing), it is the outcome, instead, of the deep economic and social crisis which is mercilessly - and above all else - sapping European society".
And what of democracy? Is there nothing in it that can challenge dictatorship? According to Trotsky it is merely acts as "a switch and insulator system against any excess current generated by national and social conflict. No other age, no prior time in human history, has ever been as imbued with antagonism as ours. [...] Excess 'tension' generated by either class or international conflict democracy's switches either melt down or glow white hot. Dictatorships cause such short circuits".
The plane is one of pure historical discourse. Trotsky's words seem to bear no connection with the truths simmering below the surface of the Old Continent. Yet it is precisely such detachment that ultimately lends even greater clarity to his thoughts when he subsequently predicts Europe's abrupt economic swings, the demise of medium-sized business enterprise and America's eclipsing of European leadership. Despite his cynicism he is to far-sighted in his response to Simenon's third and last question, on the likelihood of war. War is a foregone conclusion to Trotsky and he all but predicts the date of outbreak. Neither a matter of months, nor one of decades either: "I feel that the full extent of such danger is largely underestimated. [...] I believe the outbreak of war waged by Fascist Germany to be entirely inevitable. This very issue should prove decisive in shaping future Europe". He also adds: "I have no doubts as to the fact that mankind will ultimately finds its way. The past testifies to that".
Those were the last words of the official interview. Simenon attempts to question Trotsky further on the likelihood of his return to the USSR, but his counterpart's mind is already elsewhere. One can almost picture the contented Belgian writer as he folds his interview papers away in a briefcase, bids his host farewell, takes one last look at the surroundings and heads home to Saint Cluod, Bougival, Poissy.
The end result is an interview characterised by oscillations between verbal and written qualities. Between Russian and French. History and storytelling. But it is also a document, it acts as proof, it tallies with history. It is also a clash between Titans, between two different worldviews on "fellow man": Trotsky's anonymous masses on the one hand and Simenon's rowdy, incumbent and urging masses on the other. Denunzio adds: "Though we might have a sense of history in the making being brought to bear via a figure whose scale is historical - namely Trotsky, whose answers, however, are political, clean-cut and analytical -, we are also afforded a view of that very same figure which is literary [...] Simenon always a master in handling and uses of haecceity". By referring to haecceity (a term borrowed from Deleuze) Denunzio describes Simenon's talent for representing the "here- and-now" through a "inner mood", namely "all things belonging to a person's environs and to which one necessarily associates; all such defining details as do contribute to what we think of as a unique moment".
Paris-Soir rejoices: the paper gets its scoop and Simenon, a writer, succeeds in making a politician as "awkward" as Trotsky - both loved and hated - palatable to its readers (effectively the masses). Trotsky submits no shortcuts, delivers no reassuring portrayal of his times. He is a Marxist theoretician as well as a revolutionary. As a political figure he does, however, want to reach the "masses", and does so through Paris-Soir and the author-journalist who, ultimately man, follows in tow with the dreams of the masses: "Mankind will find its way. The past testifies to that".
It is unfortunate that the Simenon-Trotsky combination is effectively unobtainable: the only copies available prior to this Italian edition - published by small publishers Oedipus with only several hundred copies distributed in Campania - were issued by a group of Swiss Trotskyites. Is it a mistake? Is it forgetfulness? Is it deliberate? "There might not a specific reasons for it" - Denunzio suggests - "it is typical of certain traces of our culture that they should lie suspended, in wait. The ultimate value of this interview lies with its having ever having taken place at all, and with its comparison of separate planes of thought: the imaginary and the political, narrative and history, the novelist and the revolutionary". Simenon e Trotsky, in fact.
(November 25, 2007)