Of course the restaurant doesn’t have my reservation, but a table is found on the enclosed veranda. Mere minutes after the agreed time — early for Paris — Leïla Slimani strides into the Marco Polo restaurant. Everyone had warned me she was beautiful. She is also supremely, Parisianly elegant, her scarf wound so precisely it looks like a catalogue photograph. She kisses the Italian restaurateur and shakes my hand. We’re sitting downwind from a smoking couple, but Slimani is unbothered. “I adore Italian cuisine,” she sighs.
This is Paris’s sixth arrondissement, so around us the French publishing industry is at the trough. Slimani, 36, is its new star. Her first novel, about a nymphomaniac, did well. Her second, Chanson douce (Lullaby in English), about a murderous nanny, won the Prix Goncourt in 2016, has sold more than 600,000 copies in France, and has been translated into about 40 languages. Its opening sentence, “The baby is dead”, is already famous. Last year Slimani published a nonfiction book about sexual repression in her native Morocco. Meanwhile President Emmanuel Macron has made her his personal representative for promoting the French language. And she’s become a global feminist voice.
Slimani takes the briefest glance at the formule, the day menu, then remarks, “Et voilà, I have chosen”: tomato mozzarella salad, followed by spaghetti vongole. I opt for prosciutto, then the vongole. The waiter initially accepts this, but soon returns to suggest I change to the cheaper day menu. He doesn’t even bother explaining why. It’s simply the way you should always order in Paris: the formule is cheap, fresh and easy on the kitchen. I copy Slimani’s choices. Meanwhile, the textbook FT Lunch opening gambit has failed: Slimani rejects my suggestion of wine. “I’m looking after my children this afternoon,” she smiles.
She grew up in a big house in the Moroccan countryside. One grandmother was a French Alsatian who had met her Moroccan husband when (clad in magnificent north African costume) he liberated her village from the Nazis. The other grandmother was an illiterate peasant. Slimani’s mother was one of Morocco’s first women doctors, and her father a banker who served two years as economics minister. But a financial scandal landed him in jail and broke him, although he was posthumously exonerated. Slimani also had an illiterate nanny, who (along with the British nanny Louise Woodward, and New York nanny Yoselyn Ortega who killed two children in her care) inspired Lullaby.
The household was mostly francophone. “I feel I belong to many cultures,” says Slimani. “My grandmother spoke German, my parents spoke Arabic and French, I heard a lot of Spanish. I don’t feel I was raised in French culture. I feel I was raised in la culture, the world of culture. I read Russian novels, English novels, French novels.” Now that she represents la Francophonie, she’s practically legally obliged to have lunch in French, but her English is near-perfect.
“Francophonie shouldn’t place itself at war with English. I find that ridiculous, tacky. English is necessary. Above all it’s a beautiful language, which opens up to a marvellous literature, culture. One should speak French and English.”
The waiter brings the tomate mozza, and she thanks him with a flurry of grazies and mercis. A publisher and his guest have taken the next table, barely a metre away and are delighted to find themselves beside Slimani.
She arrived in Paris after high school knowing nobody, to attend a classe préparatoire, a crammer for France’s grandes écoles. One day she saw a photograph of a beautiful Simone de Beauvoir drinking coffee in Café de Flore — an unthinkable act for a woman in Morocco. Slimani went to a library and with great embarrassment asked for de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, thinking it was an erotic text. When she discovered it was feminist instead, she was initially disappointed, then captivated.
Did Parisians treat Slimani as a north African immigrant? “No, because I did my prépa over there (she points right), then studied at Sciences Po (she points left), then I worked in central Paris. I never encountered anyone who insulted me. I’ve never been a victim of racism. Or [it was] of such a ridiculous kind that I don’t even remember it.” Is that because she’s from a high social class? “Obviously. I know the codes.”
But she insists that her parents gave her “codes that work everywhere. I am friendly with grocers, I can spend my afternoon smoking fags with them, or I can spend it with the boss of a big French publishing house. I don’t enclose people in a social class.” Or rather, she explains, it’s as if she can film people using two cameras: with one, she sees the person, and with the other, class. Hence the acutely observed nanny-employer class struggle in Lullaby. Slimani entered the battle that is Parisian life with another social asset: mastery of language. She speaks as she writes, in complete pellucid sentences, with a very French precision about emotions. When I say she exudes certainty, she nods: “I was like that even when I was small. I’ve never been shy. I always knew how to talk. I realised that just by speaking you can do many things: you can transform something, move someone from one idea to another, seduce, teach, transmit. Knowing how to talk is a great power.”
In 2008 she started covering Morocco and Tunisia for news magazine Jeune Afrique. In 2011, she witnessed the Arab spring in Tunisia. “It was beautiful. Tunisians are adorable people. Tunisia is a guiding light for the Arab world.”
My grandmother spoke German, my parents spoke Arabic and French. I don’t feel I was raised in French culture. I feel I was raised in ‘la culture’
And Morocco? “Unfortunately, the Islamists are in power. People vote Islamist, voilà.” Has her international literary fame given her any influence in her native country? “Not at all. Intellectuals don’t have anything like the power in Morocco that they had in France. People there read very little.”
She quit journalism to write novels. Her first unpublished attempt was, she says, awful. In 2013 her mother and husband gave her a Christmas present: a place in an amateur writing workshop at the publishing house Gallimard. Her teacher, the editor and novelist Jean-Marie Laclavetine, provided a blinding insight: “He said the problem was that I asked lots of questions about the psychology of characters — what they think. But a novel is above all actions. It’s characters who do something. And I was also influenced by existentialism, by de Beauvoir, by the idea: we are above all what we do. I have never been interested in who I am. Identity, for instance, doesn’t interest me.”
Disappointingly for those who read her nymphomaniac novel as autobiographical, Slimani doesn’t write about herself. Some of her main characters are Parisian women of north African origin, but that’s almost incidental. The novels go elsewhere. She says, “I think you need to have been a writer a long time to be able to write about yourself. It’s the most difficult subject.” In this sense, the lunch companion is like the novelist: Slimani, armoured by her perfect style, doesn’t do self-revelation. Normally when you eat with someone, barriers fall, but not today. We address each other throughout with the formal vous.
Did she foresee Lullaby’s success? “Not at all. I thought it was a book that would pass fairly unnoticed... I thought it was a staging-post towards my next book. I’ve found an enormous number of flaws in it, which I hope to eradicate in my next books.”
But it’s such a confident novel, I say: with every sentence you seem to know where you’re heading. “When I was writing I didn’t know. I knew the start, and the end. There had to be a murder. Because it was hard to construct a novel about the relationship between a couple and a nanny without something at stake. I wanted to mix the thriller, tragedy, fairy tale, the contemporary novel.”
I say Lullaby has traces of Georges Simenon. I earn the briefest smile: “He’s a great writer of detail, of atmosphere. His descriptions of Paris influenced me.”
Simenon wrote about the mostly working-class eastern Paris of the 20th century. Today those same buildings are inhabited by the well-off urban caste known here as “bobos”: bourgeois bohemians. Lullaby captures the tribe marvellously. On a dinner party: “They talk about their jobs, terrorism, real estate. Patrick describes his plans for a Sri Lankan holiday.”
Does Slimani identify as bobo? “Read Stefan Zweig on Vienna, when he writes about cafés. A lot of the people he describes are the bobos of their time: open, attached to culture, travel, cosmopolitanism. And they were Nazism’s first victims. I mock bobos a lot, because there are some slightly ridiculous things, but what they represent as a way of life is largely positive. For Trump and Marine Le Pen, their enemies are the ‘shit bobos’. Because bobos incarnate everything the identitarians, xenophobes, populists detest. And it’s what I am.”
Lullaby also captures the tedium of modern parenting: long freezing afternoons in desolate playgrounds, the ceaseless tasks, incomprehension between parents and children. I mention a passage in which the mother reflects that freedom is freeing yourself from others.
Slimani nods: “There’s a sentence of Proust’s: ‘I am true only when alone.’ That’s why I adore Chekhov. He describes that constantly: that human relations are false almost in their essence. We can’t express our solitude.”
Family routine is the reality for most people in mid-life. So why is it so often boring to read about in novels? “Because it is very boring! It’s a repetitive banal life. Yet these are also the greatest pleasures: being with people you love, Sunday lunch in a beautiful place.”
Is it hard to toggle between a Chinese book tour, advising Macron, then coming home to a boring evening en famille?
“Personally, I don’t get bored with my family. I laugh a lot with my children. What I like most is being at home, seeing nobody, watching films, [TV] series, telling my children stories.” Even as a mother she reveals no imperfection.
Our spaghettis are perfectly OK, but Slimani leaves half of hers uneaten. She pre-empts the waiter’s dessert suggestions by going straight to coffee.
Actually, she reflects, despite her fondness for the private sphere, there is one public cause that inspires her. “Feminism could be a great collective adventure. Maybe it already is.”
I ask her about the French version of MeToo: “Balance ton porc”, or “Betray your pig”, a social-media campaign in which women publicly named their sexual harassers. “I experienced it as very good. OK, ‘balance ton porc’ isn’t a very elegant formula, but sexual harassment isn’t very elegant either. Rape isn’t elegant. I think women are living in an extraordinary moment of liberation of speech, of collective feeling.”
Then: “Would you permit me to smoke?” Our neighbouring publisher lights her cigarette, and reminds her he noticed her when she was “young and talented”. “That’s true,” she replies.
The waiter brings us complimentary biscuits and chocolates. She thanks him but doesn’t touch them. By now it’s nearly 3pm. Marco Polo is still packed with digesting publishers, but Slimani has to go. She rewraps her scarf just so, produces a leather-bound smartphone and orders an Uber. Her life is currently a whirl of interviews and public talks. “I think France is fairly exceptional in its relationship to literature. You go to a small village and there are 300 people come to hear you talk about literature.”
But she says fame hasn’t changed her. Her father’s demise taught her (and Lullaby reaffirms) that everything earthly can be snatched away in an instant.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.