“I love literature because life is not enough”: Guillaume Musso back with “L’Inconnue de la Seine”

The Covid did not slow down Guillaume Musso, on the contrary. It was during periods of confinement that he imagined the intrigue of The Unknown of the Seine (Calmann-Lévy), his new novel available this Tuesday. Roxane, his heroine, is a young cop assigned to the Office of Unconventional Affairs, a brigade which investigates mysteries on the border of the supernatural.

As soon as she arrived, she inherited the disappearance of a young woman, found naked and with amnesia by the river brigade. Things get complicated when she discovers that her DNA matches that of a famous concert performer, who died a year earlier in a plane crash …

The Unknown of the Seine is a variation around a news item that has marked the history of literature. When did you find out?

I remember that at the French baccalaureate, I had an Aragon novel on the program, Aurelian, in which he writes that Bérénice resembles the mask of the stranger of the Seine. I remember that I had gone to see what she looked like and that gave me the idea of ​​a woman who would be found naked and amnesic nowadays in the Seine. The story of the real drowned woman dates back to the end of the 19th century. She is taken to the Paris morgue and the employee who takes care of her is captivated by the beauty and serenity of this woman passed from life to death with a rather strange smile. So much so that he decides to take the imprint of his face to make a plaster mask that will be duplicated over the years to become a kind of literary icon that we find in the bohemian Paris of the years 1920-1930. Later it will also serve as a representation for the American rescuers who train to catch mannequins with the face of the stranger who will be said, with a formula that almost became the title of the book, that she was the most embraced by the world.

No allusion to Covid-19

Your heroine, Roxane, works for the Office of Unconventional Affairs. Is it a brigade that really exists?

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No, this service does not exist! In the book, it was created in the 1970s to deal with business that could not be explained by rationality. It does not exist but it could have existed because, during that decade, certain institutions seized on UFOs, paranormal phenomena. The novel almost took place at that time, moreover, I wanted to do a sort of X-Files French-style. For various reasons, the intrigue is today but I do not exclude to recount one day the beginnings of the Office of unconventional affairs, its creation, its first investigations …

In L’Inconnue de la Seine, there is a lot of reference to current events. The novel takes place in the Paris of Anne Hidalgo towards which the characters are quite critical …

It’s a novel that I wrote during the health crisis, in a rather sad Paris, but on arrival I think it’s one of its strengths because the action is focused on few places, in five days before Christmas… Paris and me, it’s a bit of a thwarted love story. There are a lot of things that I like here and others that I like less. But that’s no way to get a message across. I am always wary of these kinds of novels. There, we see the whole book through the eyes of a cop who has just spent some difficult years and who feels a certain anguish to live in the capital for confused reasons. We also visit beautiful places but it’s a contemporary Paris that I tried to make quite realistic.

A nod to Belmondo

On the other hand, there is no reference to Covid-19. Was it a deliberate choice?

Clearly. I didn’t want to spend twelve hours a day in a world filled with constraints. The mask, the gel… I didn’t find it sexy and on top of that it seemed a little artificial to me. Murakami says a book can sweat the news without talking about it in a direct way. So I think this novel is rooted in its time, by its location, the way people behave, the mentalities in a city like Paris.

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Without too much spoiler, the book pays homage to Jean-Paul Belmondo. The coincidence is amazing, isn’t it?

This is not the first time that I speak of Belmondo. I met him twice and he told me that he had been told about my reference to the watch he wore in Fear over the city in one of my novels. It’s a movie that scared me when I was little. It was one of those first French urban thrillers with a serial killer, rapist, with a glass eye… Another Belmondo film that meant a lot to me is The magnificent. I was already winking at his character, François Merlin, in The secret life of writers.

I always try, within my means, to write the book that I would like to read as a reader– Guillaume Musso

The girl and the night is being adapted for France 2. Is this a project that was close to your heart?

Yes because it’s a novel that takes place in the place of my adolescence, in the South of France, in the high school where I later taught. I’m happy because the adaptation is shot in English, which is quite consistent since the students are on an international campus. This is also why there is a mixed cast, with Anglo-Saxon actors like Ioan Gruffud and Rupert Graves and French people like Grégory Fitoussi and Vahina Giocante. I saw the first rushes and I was really won over.

Did you work on the adaptation yourself?

It was offered to me, yes, but the days having only 24 hours, I am more absorbed by new projects and I accept without any difficulty that an outside person proposes his version of the original material, on condition that he respects its spirit.

And write your own series?

It is a desire, yes. But now is the right time. Above all, I have to have the impression that this work is not going to be empty, or at a loss. That’s the big difference there can be with that intoxicating freedom that you feel when you write a book. You can have any setting, any cast. You are the only master on board. Afterwards, it’s interesting to work with constraints. And then after 15 years of writing alone, for 10 or 12 hours a day, you may want a more collaborative project. I think it’s maybe a little too long since I’ve been alone in my cave. Which also explains why I came to meet you today! (to smile).

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For 10 years you have been the French novelist who sells the most books in France. How to stay motivated before getting back to work?

I need to distract myself. I always try, within my means, to write the book that I would like to read as a reader. Even more during the pandemic: it was a pleasure to flee in a parallel reality where there was no Covid, where people could go for a drink on the terrace … I love literature because life is not enough . She is too corseted, sometimes too painful, sad, predictable. And I need to tell myself that there is this rail, outside of life. I am often told that my books are entertainment, believing to hurt me. On the contrary ! I love that word, entertain. Etymologically, it means to go outside of oneself. And what I like, when you read my books, is that they tell me: “I was somewhere else for 2 hours, I forgot everything. I was entertained, I was someone ‘other. I lived a bit of a life that was not mine. It is the strength of books. And I don’t think it will change the author-reader experience that much is something intimate.

>> The unknown of the Seine by Guillaume Musso. Editions Calman-Lévy. 432 pages. 21.90 euros

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