With Chaleur humaine, Serge Joncour offers a sequel to Human Nature, the beautiful novel that earned him the Prix Femina in 2020, the year of confinement. It is precisely this period that serves as a framework: faced with the threat of the pandemic, the dispersed family of Human Nature – the peasant parents, Alexandre, the eldest son, who remained with them, the sisters who made their lives in Paris, Toulouse and Rodez – find themselves reunited in spite of themselves in the farm of origins. The opportunity for the writer to orchestrate a closed door in the open air, while delivering a striking photograph of the France of the countryside (but also, in hollow, that of the cities) in a twenty-first century where ecological issues now occupy the center stage.
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See alsoHuman Nature by Serge Joncour: the law of the seasons and those of men
Madame Figaro. – What does the Lot represent for you, who seems to be a full-fledged actor in this novel?
Serge Joncour. – My companion comes from the Lot, and I have been going there for thirty years. Knowing that my parents live in the Nièvre, which is a little similar in that it is about territories that we do not talk about. There is a shortage of doctors and hospitals, there is no TGV, and taking seven hours by train to find your family is not trivial when you can, today, reach New York in the same period of time. It is a place that exists, but that the French do not know well and, outside Cahors or Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, we imagine green hills, good food, a kind of fantasy ... It is a preserved rural territory, with the sounds of tractors, two-horses and mopeds that constitute for me a timeless soundtrack; an intermediate territory, hilly without being mountainous, agricultural in the valleys, wilder on the hills and very green in the North, where we are on the border of Corrèze. By its syncretism, it was the dream projection of what rural France is, what I wanted to stage.
I am an outsider writer
Did the gallery of family portraits you paint also refer to society as a whole?
Yes, if only through the profession of the sisters, a teacher, a shopkeeper, one who works in new technologies. I also located them in Toulouse, Paris and Rodez, three types of cities in a country where the capital crushes everything, which is often experienced as domination and arrogance. One is divorced, another is still married... Basically, all this is copied from life! For the husband, who is first a "yellow vest", but who is also a shopkeeper at the head of a café wanting business to resume, I started from close people. There was such a burning anger and, at the same time, such a need to find oneself... The movement of the "yellow vests" has sometimes turned to charity, like Emmaus, sometimes to the uninhibited revolutionary impulse. Anger was once channeled through strong ideologies. We must remember the anti-nuclear movements in the 1970s and 1980s that blew up PS offices and EDF offices... This violence is now diluted, more universal and less sharp. In the 1980s, voting for Mitterrand or Chirac made sense, they were the bearers of a social project. Today, there are no ideologies or salient figures to embody them. As a result, everyone thinks that it could be him, and there have been as many leaders as "yellow vests"...
Cover of Chaleur humaine, the book by Serge Joncour. Press
The novel is a precipitate of reality, life and history
What does the character of Alexander represent in this context?
A class anti-defector, unlike his sisters, and someone who allowed me to evoke the way we look at farmers in the broadest sense. They were first pequenots, then welfare recipients who took all the money from Europe, with CAP subsidies, and then, at one point, because we started talking about global warming, then we remembered, with the pandemic and the rush for pasta, that we needed wheat and that this wheat was produced by farmers, The point of view has changed. This summer, we talked again about water problems and drought, whereas twenty years ago, opening a 20-hour news on wheat that does not grow was unimaginable... The profession of farmer has been put back at the heart of our concerns, and Alexandre is emblematic of this phenomenon, which sees the way his sisters look at him evolve.
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Doesn't the novel also bear the imprint of your ecological concerns?
I am a writer from the outside. At Laurent Mauvignier, we can go outside, as with Continue, for example, but it's real reinvented. Its primary purpose is not to report sensations experienced on the spot, whereas I want to be precise about how, for example, cows behave once they are only on grass and no longer in stalls, as on the nature of the meadows where they graze, or the way the soil carries them according to humidity. Simply because I observe, and report what I observe. By having land in the Lot, we see landscapes and vegetation transform, foliage become less dense, birds become rare. Reading IPCC reports on global warming tends to make ecological disasters abstract. But when we see boxwood, symbols of immortality because they are always green, die by the thousands because of a moth from Asia... In Human Warmth, I placed my characters outside, on a farm with three hundred hectares around; I put them in an ecosystem. The coronavirus reminded us that we were one of the actors of this ecosystem in the same way as the bat in the depths of Laos... We are dependent on this environment that we have changed so much that we are facing serious problems – there will be other pandemics – and these are things that I have to take into account, unlike those who might be called writers from within, who have less to worry about it...
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Could it be said that you write to document the world?
Yes, to fix memories when we tend to forget everything. Take the statements of Florian Philippot (former number two of the FN, Editor's note), who now says that it was a serious mistake to confine, while at the time he kept tweeting that the government was lax, infatuated to confine, and that it was a scandal. I have kept track of it because I am the procedural type, and it is from this type of trace that I develop books. Only novels can truly record the narrative, the real. Of course, we have the newspapers and the INA, but no one is going to look for the 20 p.m. news of July 13, 1978... The novel is a rush of reality, life and history. One could say that I do in docufiction, with attention to language also out of personal desire and aesthetic research, but without this research being a priority. It's just the least we can do. And then, sometimes, for certain images, to depict goldfish at the bottom of the water where the cows will dip their heads to drink with the sun that is reflected, you have to work the case. When we make a documentary, we record images; We must describe, suggest, chisel...
Chaleur humaine", by Serge Joncour, Éd. Albin Michel, 352 p., €21.90.