“The transgression is necessary but to make a religion would be a bug”
With his very oral written language Johann Zarca is a young novelist who has been able to ignore conventions, the art of speaking well and classic writing codes. Winner of the Prix de Flore 2017, this novelist and co-founder of the Goutte d’Or publications likes to venture into unconventional literary playgrounds. That’s why Bug Me Tender wanted to relay to him an essential artistic and creative question: Is anti-conformity a skid or on the contrary a saving bug?
A society is largely defined by its norms and rules that allow the majority of its members to live together. Anti-conformism is defined as a way of being on the fringes, outside the framework of the dominant reference model. Is it always a skid, a deviance or even a societal bug?
It’s a bit all of this at a time. A skid yes, that’s for sure. To go westwards, completely away from and never to return to the centre, it is a gap in a course.
And why should we return to the course?
This is not mandatory, but it keeps you in touch with reality. Then, you’ll ask me, why stay in touch with reality … I do not know. If we take another path, we will still remain in an alternative norm, but a norm, nonetheless. That’s why I see it more as a transgression.
Is this transgression not a saving bug necessary for fluidity and human creativity, this small extra bit of soul of our society?
I do not know if it’s saving. I think it’s necessary, but do not make it a religion either. This transgression makes it possible to modify the norms a little, but I do not know if we are getting things done by going out completely without ever coming back.
In your work as a writer, what are your questions that you ask yourself?
I do not necessarily ask myself questions, but I find that if I deviate a bit from the route, I still do it by the book by respecting the classic setting of the novel. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Potentially, I would break both morality and vocabulary by using slangs. I like to start from a base naturally defined by society and from there simply unscrew a small bolt without getting away from my contemporaries.
Can we say that anti-conformism is a bug that changes the rules by adopting the anti-conformist?
Anti-conformism is important, but there must be readers, recipients who can see these rules being changed.Unscrewing a bolt without having its base of readers is not saving it. It’s just a selfish little personal pleasure.
If anti-conformism is a bug, who are the biggest names in literature who bug?
There are many … They are all those who have style, all those who are not engaged in commercial aspect. When a so-called nonconformist literary product is highly marketed with adverts all over the metro, very smooth covers, it seems unlikely that this work is truly anti-conformist. Authors like Virginie Despentes and Michel Houellebecq are for me anti-conformists. They have a style of their own, an individuality, a quirk. They deviate from the trajectory, but only a little.
If anti-conformism can be a resistant to the dominant norm, what happens when it becomes a societal stance shared by all, a new way of being a sheep?
You answered the question by asking it, in this case there is no anti-conformism. If anti-conformism is conformism in reverse, i.e. positioning itself against something, we are already in an ideological position, therefore in a personal reflection. If the foundation of a society is the certainty of the existence of a common basis, a search for originality by the created mass of conformism by anti-conformism.
In modern or ancient literature, what role does this bug of anti-conformism play, be it rebellious or mutton?
Art in general is still a reflection of an era. As soon as we read a book, we will go into the author’s mind, in his individuality. But each individuality gives rise to a peculiarity. Anti-conformism is inevitably everywhere, since there are individualities. All authors can give a certain vision capable of modifying the state of mind of the readers a little.
Does anti-conformism produce the same bug that it is in Paris or elsewhere in France?
It is still easier in Paris and in all the other big cities to showcase individual freedom. Paris is a good place to claim one’s anti-conformism.
In literature, anti-conformists are often the ones who imposed codes that became norms afterwards, as for example Céline with her vocabulary, her grammar, her syntax. You yourself use a language that is very non-conformist, why is that?
To come back on your affirmation, there is also the counterexample of Proust who on the contrary has imposed the most literary, the most perfect and the purest. So, the classic conformists can also make their mark and impose their standards. Me, my language comes to me naturally, it amuses me. My writing has always been based on provocative research, with the primary aim of creating a reaction from my readers.
Do you have specific examples of old so-called nonconformist books that have remained fashionable and whose theme is still relevant today?
Yes, I’m thinking of a book by Peter Singer called ‘Theory of the Toothpaste Tube’. It was published more than 30 years ago but his theses are contemporary more than ever. They reconsider activism without falling into organised militancy.He ponders philosophically how a person can change the world alone, with specific examples.
But must one be nonconformist to create something new?
Maybe to make progress it is necessary to transgress norms, yes. Otherwise we stay on the same ground permanently.
Have you been surprised to be crowned with the Prix de Flore in 2017?
Not really because look who received this award. There was Despentes, Houellebecq or Dustan, who is really ‘hardcore’.I was not really the trashiest of Flore. In fact, this prize likes youth and impertinence, it is its positioning. There is a place for authors who are somewhat radical.
Johann, let's end with the two questions that always conclude the interviews of Bug Me Tender: first what is your personal definition of a bug?
For me it is a fly in the ointment, something that interferes to slow down or deflect a trajectory. When I think of bugs,I think first computer bug and then to the person who says nothing but who bugged.
And in your field, what is the biggest bug?
That of Romain Gary alias Emile Ajar. The guy proves that he can pick up the Goncourt even after changing his name is a huge literary performance.