French writer Marie Darrieussecq’s first novel, Pig Tales is a radical novella about a woman working at a massage parlour who, as a result of the constant male gaze, slowly begins to transform into a pig. It’s a novel where Darrieussecq deftly shifts between political satire and the oddity of everyday life and creates a world which is bizarre yet believable. Pig Tales has till date been translated into 41 languages, across 44 countries besides English, and the French edition, which was first published in 1996, has sold over 600,000 copies. Marie has authored many other novels that have been translated into English such as My Phantom Husband, Breathing Underwater, and A Brief Stay with the Living, among others. She is also a translator and has translated Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own into French.
Your book Pig Tales is about a woman working at a massage parlour who slowly begins to metamorphose into a pig. How did the concept occur to you?
I was a student, a young girl in Paris and constantly interrupted by men in the street. There was no word or concept at the time (the 1990s) for street harassment, nor for sexual harassment. It was like a “state of nature”. And I could dress like this or like that, it didn’t change anything. I was not harassed because I was wearing a skirt; I was harassed because I was a girl. I started reflecting that if men saw me like a pig, with pig eyes (there was no name for male gaze either) I may as well turn into a pig. I was living in a suburb of Paris and one day in the window of a massage parlour disguised as a perfume shop, I saw “my character”, a young woman tightly corseted in a white blouse. It started like that, but most of all it started with a little sing song in my mind, the voice of my character, apparently candid and naïve. Her ignorance makes her the butt of much of the book’s humour. She’s not even aware that she’s a prostitute.
Pig Tales is as much a satire on society as it is about female sexuality. What was the political scenario like in France when you wrote the book? Did any social or political event affect you, and did it make its way into the book?
The political scenario in France in 1996 was the rising of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The president in the book, Edgar, is very recognisable for French people as Le Pen. It was the first book that was so deliberately critical of the extreme right in France. But then, in 2010, when a play was adapted from Pig Tales in a theatre on the Champs-Élysées by Alfredo Arias, the public recognised Edgar as Sarkozy himself. The excess in speech, the “Ministry of national identity and immigration”, the top model as a wife, the holidays on a yacht as soon as elected, the illegal immigrants flown back on planes, all this was part of Sarkozy politics. Of course, in the novel I exaggerated things a bit like in a fable, but reality was copying the novel in a way! As a young woman I felt violated by those extremist ideas. I was like a sponge, feeling and perceiving my time through my skin.
You keep your protagonist unnamed, but you assign names to her boyfriends — Honoré and Yvan. Was it a conscious decision to do so?
It was. Women have no name. They have their father’s name, and if they get married, they switch to their husband’s name. We only have surname, in this patriarchal system. My most solid name is Marie, Darrieussecq is the name of my father, and I have a wife name in the administrative French system (which is not so bad sometimes when I want to separate my day-to-day life as a mother and ordinary citizen from my novels). I was reborn through writing.
In the book, you explore two significant facets associated with the female gender – diet and sexuality – both in their extremity. What are your thoughts about both these facets in the current times?
Instagram in an extraordinary playground for a novelist. I post videos where I read some pages of my books, in French for the moment, in English someday. But most of all, I “travel” through social media and try to thwart the algorithm to explore many sorts of women (and men, sometimes! and cats!) Everything is about diet and comparing bodies. There’s a pretence about accepting our differences, different bodies, etc, but the norm is still impossible to live in. I love saris, and dresses in general, because they are welcoming to female shapes. Jeans are injunctions to adapt your shape to the clothes, while the clothes should adapt to your body. Alas dresses around the world are often used by the patriarchy to limit our freedom. In France, George Sand and Joan of Arc used trousers to be freer to walk, ride and even fight. When I write I always wonder how my characters are dressed, even if I do not always mention it.
What does it entail to write a feminist novel?
Strength better than rage, probably. Or rage turned into a good book. There are too many feminist books that lack a collective perspective and turn to self -development. Humour helps too. I love Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, for example.
There was a failed attempt at the film adaptation of Pig Tales – why did it fail? Has there been interest in the book from Hollywood or OTTs like Netflix, BBC or Hulu?
Jean-Luc Godard bought the novel rights as soon as it came out, in September 1996. We started working together. I was very impressed, too young. He showed me some of his movies in his house, pacing back and forth in the hallway smoking cigars… He wanted to adapt the novel into a kind of animation, like Alice in Wonderland. This idea pleased me a lot. He even wanted me to act in the film – I wasn’t quite sure how to take that… And then he disappeared for several months. It’s quite a long story! Later, he declared to the magazine Lire, with great elegance, that Pig Tales was “too good a book” to be adapted into a film, meaning that it didn’t lack anything. After that, the bar was set very high for me, and I refused some other projects. And some interesting ones are still pending. It’s not an easy book to be adapted. The subjective narrative point of view is so important, so ironic, that a film would necessarily be very different from the book.
If adapted into a film in English, who do you think would be ideal to play the protagonist?
In the 2010’s, when Floria Sigismondi bought the rights of the book, there were talks of Scarlet Johansson. She would have been great. There will probably be a French adaptation in the coming two years. I hope! Marion Cotillard would be a dream.
You’re a translator yourself, and most of your books have been translated into English. What is the most important aspect of translation that stays true to the voice and narrative of the book?
The most important aspect of translation is to catch the rhythm, the melody, the musical harmony of the voice that speaks in the book – first person or third person, it doesn’t matter. Translating Virginia Woolf anew (A Room of One’s Own), I was trying to find, in French, her dry humour and her voice – sharp, balancing between hope and despair; smart but never too explanative. I loved it.
What are you working on next?
As usual, I have many books in my mind. One is a tender autobiographical book about my father as a true macho man of the 1980s. Another one is about a young student harassed on social media. The third is a science-fiction novel about human beings living on another planet and getting addicted to sex as a desperate attempt to live. And the last one is a prequel to a saga I’ve been writing since 2011, a book in between All the Way (2011) and Men (winner of the Prix Médicis, 2013) dealing with teenage – one of my favourite topics.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.