Olivia de Lamberterie is a journalist and author of All my sympathy (Ed. Inventory) and How are people doing?, which has just been published by Stock as well. After studying literature, she joined the culture department of the Paris morningthen the magazine Glamour and finally the writing of She 25 years ago. She says she touched on all the subjects in this “very rich” weekly “except cooking and fashion”. Since 2001, she has also participated in Masque et la Plume on France Inter and is a columnist on Télématin on France 2. All my sympathy (Ed. Stock), a story published three years ago, which looked back on the life of his brother, who died suddenly, received the Renaudot prize for essays in 2018. How are people doing? is the novel about the mental burden of a generation of women struggling to care for their aging parents while their children still need them. Overwhelmed, they save themselves thanks to friendship and a few moments stolen from time.
your novel, How are people doing? is composed of a very beautiful gallery of female characters, can you describe your main character, Anna?
I wanted her to be a sort of mirror of my friends, who are women of today, whom I admire. She is 50 years old and a bit old and she finds herself in this new seasonality of existence, which consists of having to take care of her growing daughters and her aging mother. Before, because of the pace of life, perhaps because we had children earlier, women did not have this accumulation of care to provide to everyone at the same time. Anna also has a husband, who may not understand much about his wife.
Anna is overwhelmed by people, more than by events. Even if she has a profession, which absorbs her a lot, since she is an editor. Through the character of Anna, I liked to tell the evolution of this profession, which I have seen evolve a lot, through my own activity as a literary journalist.
Literature is a life companion, but who are your favorite authors?
I am a real classics reader, the type to read everywhere and all the time. There are classics that I love like Marcel Proust. But reading something other than classics is wonderful. One of my bedside books is Other lives than mine (Ed. POL) by Emmanuel Carrère. But also Birth of ghosts (Ed. POL) by Marie Darieussecq. I really like the work of Françoise Sagan too, who manages to talk about very serious things in a very light way. Because you have to have smiling despair. Finally, among the important authors for me, there is Jérôme Garcin with whom I work at Masque et la Plume.
To describe Anna, you write: “In the absence of her family, Anna staggers, in their presence, she loses her temper”, why?
It’s the paradox of so many women’s lives, which has been characterized by the phrase “mental load,” which I don’t much like. But it amused me to bring this expression back into literature. It’s not just war and major subjects that should be part of literature. It’s such a common experience: you get together with your kids and they’re unbearable, but as soon as they’re gone, you miss them.
“It’s the moms who smoke their mental load on the balconies”, you write, what do you mean?
If you walk around Paris at night, you see a lot of women smoking on their balconies. They decompress. Women’s lives lead to having to do everything at the same time. Anna’s generation grew up between the feminists of the 1968s, represented in the novel by her mother, Nine, and the feminists of today, including her daughter. It’s a generation that I call the “Wonderbra” generation, which had the illusion of being able to do everything and which, with age, is experiencing a nice backlash.
That said, we talk a lot about genders and we are probably right, but I see, and it delights me, that many fathers are becoming mothers like the others. There is a community of tasks being created. Even if on the balconies, it is always the women who smoke, because they are also struggling with aging, the experience of which is not common to men and women.
Indeed, Anna, the narrator, has a hard time getting old, why?
When Yann Moix declares “I tell you the truth. At 50, I am incapable of loving a 50-year-old woman. (…) I find it too old. When I’m 60, I’ll be able to. 50 will seem young to me then”, he is telling the truth in the sense that this is how society perceives women at this age. There is a madness of youth in our society. The injunctions that weigh on 50-year-old women are anvils to carry. Above all, don’t age and at the same time, stay natural, don’t do cosmetic surgery. How are we aging today?
Your novel denounces the way we treat the elderly today through the character of Nine, supported by an establishment, which considers her unmanageable…
The old – you have to say the old, as we say the young – and the way they were treated during the Covid crisis, for me, it is beyond indignation. A civilization that behaves so badly with old people is a crazy civilization. However, nobody, except exceptions, can say I will never be old, it is an experiment which will undoubtedly be very shared and in fact one acts as if that was never going to arrive. Like the end of life for that matter. We can’t leave people to fend for themselves with their beloved little old people at the end of a hallway. But it takes courage to respect the wishes of your parents. The daughters of Benoîte Groult, whom I mention in the novel, were brilliant, for example.
Anna’s children left childhood and fell into “this hard drug that is the smartphone”, you write…
What is interesting is that I have two children who are 20 years apart and I can measure the differences in terms of education and daily life induced by mobile phones and social networks. I never had the concern for my eldest son that I had for my youngest son. Society has become dangerous for children and much faster. And I who am very anxious, I admit that I always fear that the worst is lurking under the children’s bed.
But then, how do people do it?
People manage. I am against compulsory happiness. I find it insulting to people and impossible. But I am for a duty of good humor. Life is a game of looks. And reading and writing is for looking at what you don’t see. When I’m in a museum, I look at the paintings, but also at the people. As in Sempé’s drawings: we are an old lady, but we jump in the dead leaves. It’s those little things in life that you have to know how to catch.
You place friendship very high in Anna’s life, does friendship save you from everything?
Friendship comforts. The intimacy Anna has built with her friends is delightful. It echoes my life. I love texting, so I incorporated some into the novel to embody the conversations Anna has with her friends throughout the day. There is joy in allowing each other to be scruffy together. It’s the opposite of Instagram. With friends, you are allowed to be yourself. And to crumble. Even though I only have super brave friends.