Lenka Horňáková-Civade: From time to time history comes into the kitchen

Lenka Horňáková-Civade, photo: David Vaughan

Milan Kundera is not the only Czech novelist who has chosen to write in French. The writer and painter Lenka Horňáková-Civade has been in France for the last twenty years, living for most of that time with her French husband amid the beautiful countryside of Provence. The landscape and people of the region have inspired her to write several books in Czech, but she decided to write her latest novel directly in French, a language that she only learned as an adult. Paradoxically, the book takes us not to Provence, but to Czechoslovakia, telling the story of the lives of four generations of women in one family. In Czech Books, Lenka talks to David Vaughan.

Lenka Horňáková-Civade,  photo: David Vaughan
Lenka Horňáková-Civade grew up in Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, but she always felt drawn towards France, even when in the days of the Cold War it was no more than a place of dream. With the fall of communism, Lenka did not follow that dream straight away. Instead she took a slightly less romantic path, studying economics in Prague.

“This choice was to escape from Moravia and to be in Prague.”

So you’re not a Moravian writer who identifies deeply with the strong folk, literary and lyrical tradition of Moravia?

“I think I am in a sense, but maybe I discovered this very far away from Moravia – that I am Moravian.”

So you had to go to the other end of Europe to realize what you had.

“Maybe, but I think now I am not only Moravian but first of all a European. I feel this very strongly.”

You are not just a writer but also an artist. Were you equally interested in both things from the start?

“I think that at different points in my life I have been more a writer or more a painter. I am always balancing between these different ways of expression. I think that one thing drawing and writing have in common is the line. It’s the first means of expression. Also the subject is important. I really love to draw and paint women and movement, and in this first novel in French my main characters are women.”

Before we talk about the novel in more detail, can you tell us how you became interested in the French language and France and ended up moving there?

“In my early childhood, I think, in literature, I had my first contact with France – with a dreamy France, not the reality, because of course we couldn’t travel, and then I fell in love with my husband. I studied the language with him, living in France.”

So you didn’t actually speak French when you first met him? And this was in the early 1990s?

“Yes it was in 1992 that I met him. I didn’t speak it. Maybe I had just ten words in my French vocabulary, but like this I was very quickly submerged in the language. I absorb language very quickly and it took me about a year to speak good French and be able to read. Now, after twenty years living in France it feels normal for me to write in French also.”

Photo: NLN publishing
But you first started writing in Czech. Tell me something about the things that you have written in Czech while you have been in France.

“The first of my books has a story based on my experience in France and the second one is a short novel about life in Provence. The third book is a correspondence with a French writer, Anne Delaflotte Mehdevi. She lived in Prague for eighteen years so we exchanged letters – she in Prague and me in France. This book exists in a Czech and a French version. My fourth book in Czech is made up of short stories, also in Provence, but written from the point of view of painters and writers living in Provence or whose lives touch Provence.”

You started off in Paris and you studied art at the Sorbonne, but Paris never really became your home. You escaped to the south.

“I love Paris, of course, but I love it like something I can visit and where I can stay. I had a beautiful time there. Studying at the Sorbonne was a very good time, but I’m not Parisian.”

And you threw yourself so much into the life of rural France that you and your husband actually bought a falling apart chateau and renovated it.

“Yes, it was a very crazy project, but at the end of the 1990s we bought a ruin and we spent three or four years rebuilding this castle. We had a project to organize some theatre and painting workshops there.”

You wrote about it in one of your books…

“Yes. The first of my books is based on this experience. It was a very beautiful period of our lives.”

But you decided not to carry on with it.

“We didn’t decide. I think it was a ‘paper wall’ that decided instead of us, because we just couldn’t overcome some problems…”

Bureaucratic problems with the authorities?

“Yes, that was it.”

But it didn’t make you give up on Provence. You stayed there.

“It was just a lot of stones. The castle is nothing more than that. It was much better to preserve our lives and our energy for other things.”

Lenka Horňáková-Civade,  photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry
So, you now live in a much more normal house?

“Yes, in a much more normal house!”

Tell me about Provence as an inspiration for you as a writer, because most of your writing has been inspired by Provence?

“Yes. A lot of things were inspired by Provence. It was strange. In my painting first of all it wasn’t Provence at all. It was as if I was defending myself from painting the countryside and the light. It was as if it was untouchable.”

It is hard to compete with Cézanne…

“It’s impossible, of course. Maybe that was why I started to work Provence by words. But of course the country is so strong that you can’t live there and just say that it doesn’t matter that I live there. You are influenced by it.”

Tell me about some of the things that you have written about Provence for your Czech readers.

“I wrote about inspiration. I tried to capture the light, the feeling, the sounds, the smells. I think most people are completely charmed by Provence. Why? There is beautiful countryside in many other places, so it means there must be something more. Maybe it is in the equilibrium of all these things. There are very magic and mysterious things about this countryside.”

Isn’t there also a danger of sinking too much into cliché or escapism?

“Yes, of course that is a problem. It starts to be a question of style. You have to find a style and also what is behind the cliché – the people, the history and the relation of the local people with their country, with their earth. And this is very interesting – how strong this country is, which people live there and which stories happen in this country.”

And one thing which absolutely fascinates me is that your latest novel is set in Czechoslovakia over a period of sixty years, but – although you didn’t speak any French until you were in your twenties – you’ve written it in French.

“Overall, I’ve been living in France for half my life. France gives me a lot and the language is in a very important place. It’s a bit like a second birth for me to write in the French language. I discovered a new liberty to express things in this language and I discovered how to think, how to build a story, how to tell the story, how to exist in this language.”

Even the title, which in French is “Giboulées de Soleil“ which could be translated into English as sun showers, or showers of sun, is a play on words in itself. You’re enjoying the language.

Photo: Alma Editeur publishing
“Yes, it’s an oxymoron. It plays with the language and with the sense and it’s a very high level of understanding the language. When you arrive at this degree of liberty in the language I think it’s amazing.”

Did you find you could only write the book in French, that it just came to you in French and you had to write it in the language?

“I think this novel couldn’t have been written in any language apart from French….”

And that’s even though the three main protagonists and narrators are Czech women.

“Yes. It’s very strange but the story came in French and it was very clear in my head. So I had a subject, I had a tool and there was no doubt how it had to be done.”

Tell us something about the story.

“It’s a story about four women, from grandmother to great-great-grandchild, and the particularity is that they live without fathers, or without known fathers.”

The term you use in the French is “bâtarde” – bastard – which pulls no punches.

“Yes. Bastard is the right expression because that is how society sees these women. But they refuse to live like bastards, because they say, ‘We don’t want to feel your pity and we don’t have to be ashamed to be here.’ But they have to fight with themselves and with society about this feeling. It’s not something easy to live with each day. The second subject is a history of Czechoslovakia, which means that I want to say that we can’t escape from history, from politics and the historical context. We live at one moment and this context is very important in our life.”

And how did you manage that? There’s always a certain tension between a very personal story and the “big” history that is going on around, which can often get in the way of the story – and vice versa.

“The book is written in three parts and each part is written in the first person. There are three voices of three women. Each one just tells her story, but from time to time big history comes into their kitchen and changes their life completely. It was the only way I could manage the big story and the little story – history and the little story.”

It’s interesting that in your painting you’ve focused particularly on the female form. You have four female characters who are prominent in the book. Is this something that you might describe as a theme in your writing? Are you particularly interested in telling women’s stories, or did it just happen that way?

“I think it just happened. I don’t believe in female or male writing. I just think that a book is good or not, that the painting is good or not. I don’t like separating male or female thinking or writing or creating at all. But I think that from father to son is something easy to understand – I wanted more to explore the relationship of mother to daughter in this book.”

Lenka Horňáková-Civade,  photo: Czech Television
You’ve written the book in French. Is it going to come out in Czech as well and if so, will you translate it yourself?

“I would be very pleased if the book could exist in the Czech language, but the question of translation is a very hard point, because it’s the question as to whether I will write a new book or translate my book, or if I just give these stories to someone else, to let him create again my story. This is a very hard point and I still have no answer for the moment.”

And what sort of reception has the book received in France?

“For the moment I have some reactions from libraries and readers. They are very happy about this book and I am very happy about these reactions. But I think it’s still quite early because it’s only been on the market for two weeks. I’m quite impatient to see the next reactions, because I’ve been invited to a ‘salon de livres’ and I think that is where I will really meet the readers of the book and have a conversation about how they read it, which story they find in this book.”

There is quite a lot of interest in France in Czech and Czechoslovak history, isn’t there? If we look back to the period of the First Czechoslovak Republic in the 1920s and 30s we can see that this link goes back a long way. In the first half of the 20th century there was also a lot of interest among Czech writers in French literature and painting. Does that special cultural relationship still survive?

“I think so – fortunately – because I think it is by culture, by literature, by paintings and music, that Europe will continue its construction and the people will continue to want to live together. I think that’s the most important thing.”