An Hour with Florence Noiville

Our first Masterclass. With Florence Noiville. An author. An editor of foreign fiction for Le Monde des Livres. A journalist.

On my way, I notice the huge hoarding with the latest Amul advertisement. It’s in many shades of black, blue and grey. The Amul girl is standing in an offensive (or is it defensive?) stance, holding a pencil and a paintbrush, in front of a terrified looking Eiffel Tower. The tagline in black and red, ‘PARIS IS REELING!’

I think again. Florence Noiville. A French journalist working in Paris. And Paris is reeling. And she will be talking to us. ‘Should be quite a class!’ I say quietly to myself.

Saturday morning. At Seagull Books (and in the Seagull context—we know it by now!) the class actually means an informal chat with our guest. As expected, the main and recurrent topic of discussion happens to be the recent attack on (and killings in) the office of French weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. Florence talks about the horror of reading the running strips of breaking news on television. Then, about her perspective on many related issues—a journalist’s responsibility (or a writer’s/artist’s), especially in a volatile, zealously sensitive (for all the wrong reasons!) and aggressive world of today, as well as, freedom of speech and expression, with all its dilemmas and delusions. I think about a journalist’s job. Simply put, it is to question, analyse/criticise and present the truth. A political cartoonist does the same with caricature and satire. I ask myself (and this is not the first time!)—Is it at all possible to critique without hurting someone or the other? In the room, the conversation is going in the same direction. What does a journalist/artist (or anyone of the so-called free world) do when counter-criticism is replaced by guns?

The discussion veers towards the many ironies of France—historical, political, social, and how everything may be (sometimes are) related to religion. Florence speaks candidly about curious contradictions still prevalent in France, in its treatment of minorities/the ‘others’. We talk about some of our own—India and her curiousness-es, especially recently. Florence recalls her grandparents in the 1920s, and how different communities (practising different religions) managed to live in harmony. Then she fast-forwards to 2014/15 and wonders aloud, ‘Are we going backwards?’ (Clearly a rhetorical question—both for France and India!) I am drawn to the photograph hanging on the balcony. A fraction of the sky from the crater created by tall buildings. Through the oculus, that’s all the sky you are allowed to see in 2014/15. The sky must have been vaster in the 1920s!

We now talk about books. The potential role of books in bringing about essential change in human beings; the significance of books (particularly foreign/translated works, Florence adds) in a global and multicultural milieu, at least in demystifying the ‘other’, and perhaps in instilling tolerance. Books that give us a glimpse of what has been and what could be. History is supposed to teach humility, she says. But everyone seems to dismiss theirs as past and disconnected, as if there has only been a movement towards enlightenment.

She also talks about her books—novels—one on mental illness, and the other about a socially (and/or morally?) unacceptable love story. Both tabooed topics in France, she explains to our surprise.

Our first Masterclass. Florence Noiville is blatantly honest, a person of reason, and a pleasure to talk to, and she has a very hectic schedule. So, ends the ‘class’.

‘Sure was quite a class!’ I say to myself, out loud.

Smita Abraham

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