The Great Interview Experiment!

As part of my involvement with Citizen of the Month’s “Great Interview Experiment,” I have interviewed Lauren Elkin, author of “Maitresse.” Her blog is the height of class, due as much to Elkin’s extensive travels as it is to her fine taste in literature. Although my French-lit experience is confined to translations of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, I’ll be continuing to read Maitresse. It is just one more reason I’ve had lately to start learning a new language.

In the meantime, enjoy the interview!

DAVE X: You split time between New York City and Paris, and apparently have some rather long stopovers in Tokyo and Venice. How much of your day do you spend grinning from ear to ear?

MAITRESSE: Correction: I live in Paris, and from time to time have to go live in other
places. The time I spend grinning is inversely proportionate to the time I am away from Paris.

DX: I enjoyed your series of entries, “On Books as Sweaters.” As a host of a radio program featuring avant-garde music, the feeling that many fine works are passing the general public unnoticed is not an unfamiliar one to me. Complain as we may, it seems strategies must be formed to engage the readers (and listeners!)… What actions have you taken in
this regard? What have been your successes?

M: Well– I’m no activist, but I am a literature professor. Every time I go into the classroom I’m bringing my enthusiasms about reading and spending much of my energy throwing it out to the students and creating activities that will hopefully allow them to catch some of it and harness it to their own reading. I feel I’ve done at least part of my job right when I’ve turned a few kids on to a new writer, or made the kid with the bad attitude kind of like something he’s read, or lit up the kids who liked to read before they got there but just had their reading placed into a whole new framework.

And judging from the comments that I get on my blog, to a small extent I’m also turning that audience on to writers they didn’t know, didn’t get, or didn’t like. So between the teaching and the writing, I hope I’m helping in some way.

DX: I have to ask an American on the ground in France– and hopefully, you saw the film– how much of Michael Moore’s “Sicko” documentary was true in regards to France? I’m having trouble reconciling his portrayal of a magnificent health care system with the nation that allowed over 14,000 people to die from heat back in 2003.

M: I didn’t see the film but I live with the French health care system and am very grateful for it, especially as a graduate student and freelance writer. In the States I had pathetic coverage and I paid an inordinate amount of money for prescription drugs. In France, however, a certain monthly prescription of mine costs only 2€50. I don’t think it’s an ideal system, I just think it’s so much better than the American system that it looks great in comparison.

I can’t say much about the heat wave in 2003– I believe it was mostly elderly people without air conditioning who died– but I think it’s more a reflection of the government’s failure to adequately respond to a natural disaster (sounds familiar, no?) rather than a failure of the health system to care for those people.

DX: At the popular level, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love between the France and the United States. In my experience, this is usually due to simple misunderstandings, or different ways of looking at the same thing. What have you discovered that Americans would be surprised to learn? What have you been able to teach the French you encounter?

M: Both countries have preconceived notions about the other country’s relationship to work, pleasure, and morality. Perhaps Americans would be surprised to learn that France has a corporate culture in which people work far more than 35 hours a week. And the French need reminding that not all Americans are nationalistic undereducated Puritans. More than once when I’ve met a new French person, they say to me “Mais vous êtes très cultivée pour une Américaine!” (“You’re very cultured, for an American!”) I tell them there are plenty more like me back home, but that doesn’t do anything to destabilize their prejudices.

DX: In the same way that I don’t QUITE understand an English lit student studying so many French texts, I feel that I’m missing some key understanding of your Catholic/Jewish existence. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on it, another entry will appear contrary. Are you just sort of dabbling in both?

M: What can I say, I’m impossible to pin down… When I had to choose a PhD program I hesitated between English, French, or Comparative Literature. My advisors at the time advised me against Comp Lit, because jobs are apparently scarce in that discipline, and then I figured since I wanted to live in France I’d probably have more luck finding work teaching English to the French than teaching French to the French. But really, academic
departments are much more interdisciplinary than you might think, and no one thinks it odd that I do comparative work. My doctoral advisor is appointed to the English, French, and Comp Lit departments of my school and she never remembers which department I’m enrolled in. I have masters degrees in both English and French literature. In addition to the French orals list you see on my blog, I am doing lists on British Modernism and Gender Theory. My dissertation is on both English and French texts.

As for my religious background– my mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, but his father was Jewish and his mother born Catholic (she converted to Judaism). My sister and I were raised Catholic with Judaism always at hand, and I was never much interested in either. Then in college, I began to study Judaism more formally, and by the time I graduated I considered myself to be Jewish, and I still feel that way.

Looking back over the blog now, I see it’s chronicled a few years in my life when I’ve learned how unimportant it is to define yourself by a religion, and I’ve come to terms with the ambiguity of my religious background, to the extent that I’m comfortable forgetting it’s Chanukah, dating a goy, and all the while hosting yearly passover seders. If I make it to shul for the High Holidays, or don’t, it doesn’t make me more or less Jewish, it makes me more or less observant.

DX: How about some more Dada to fill out that category? ; )

M: Ok! This one is from an article in the Financial Times. It’s called “Opening
enthusiasm cools down at close.”

US trading of amid staged
off siasm of broad-based enthu-
as higher nasty nomic although
led markets about close rally
Japan no Asian cuts surprises
recession optimism a buying the drew
eco- interest investors sprang figures
already further Tokyo region a possibility
in early about the nervous on rate stock
batch yesterday trailed to a as a

3 Responses to “The Great Interview Experiment!”

  1. Citizen of the Month » The Blogger Interviews (The Great Interview Experiment) Says:

    […] DaveX interviews Maitresse […]

  2. Caleb Deupree Says:

    Interesting interview, and a pointer to a very interesting blog. Thanks!

  3. Alice Says:

    I’m a big fan, and luckily also a friend, of Maitresse’s, and as always, I really enjoyed her responses! Thanks for sharing the interview.

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