French Author Dominique Barbéris on the Mysterious Power of Boredom

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A Sunday in Ville d’AvrayCourtesy Daunt Books Publishing

The acclaimed novelist talks about her new novel A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray – a rich, nuanced study of time, longing and forgotten desires

Dominique Barbéris is not well-known in the world of English-language literature. In her native France, however, she’s a highly respected author, with nine critically acclaimed (and prize-winning) novels to her name and a teaching career at the Sorbonne. Her lack of renown in the UK perhaps says more about us than it does about her: Barbéris’s books tend to be fleeting, subtle studies of feminine desire – more like short stories or novelettes – with a focus on style and mood rather than plot.

Barbéris’s latest novel, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, is her first to be translated into English. Set in the remote rural suburbs of Paris, it tells the story of two sisters: Jane, who is hardworking and cosmopolitan, and Claire Marie, who is more passive and provincial. Over the course of 150 pages, the pair reflect on their lives; on the differences that separate them, the violent flow of time, and the unshakeable sense of longing that underpins their existence. For Claire Marie, this manifests more tangibly: much of the book is her recollecting a mysterious encounter from her past, and the missed opportunities that still haunt her. “On Sundays certain things come back to you more than on other days,” she says. “On Sundays you think about life.”

In Barbéris’s world, danger is a temptation and domesticity is a monotonous prison. These are women yearning for “something else”, like bees “buzzing against a windowpane”. Looking back on the last 18 months, with its endless lockdowns, these metaphors feel gloomily relatable (a bee woozily throwing itself against a closed window? Mood). For Barbéris, though, they remain eternally relevant. In the days after the novel’s release, we spoke to the Paris-based author about her inspirations, including time, longing, idealism and the underrated power of boredom.

Dominique Sisley: You work as a university teacher, as well as a writer, and you’ve dabbled in other careers throughout your life. Did you always want to write?

Dominique Barbéris: It took a fairly long time for me to be published and to get readers, so I have always taught at the same time because it’s very difficult to earn a living just writing in France. Especially as I write short novels which tend to be more about atmosphere [than plot]. I’m a stylist, I like language, and it’s more difficult to make one’s way like that. But I did it little by little.

DS: What were your experiences with trying to get published? Why was it such a challenge?

DB: I finished my first novel and gave it to a publisher when I was 25, but they refused it. I was so disappointed because I thought it was going to be easy. So I had to find something else to do for a living, and for a few years I didn’t write. It wasn’t [until I was 38] that I wrote my second novel, [La Ville], which ended up being the first to be published. Even with that, I had turned it into a lot of different publishers and got no answer.

DS: How did you come to write A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray

DB: I like to just start stories with no plan. I often have no idea of where I’m going when I start. With this book, I had the title first – A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray – so I decided to write something that could work well with it. I didn’t know exactly what the book would be about, but then a publisher friend of mine approached me about contributing to a short story collection she was putting together. The theme of the collection was “Encounters”, so I decided to do a short fiction novel inspired by that idea; an encounter between a woman and a strange man.

“But they didn’t just dream about love, they dreamt about the landscape, about the night. Sometimes language is so powerful it can help you open up and escape the world you’re living in” – Dominique Barbéris

DS: Did it feel like you were in similar territory to your previous novels? You seem to be drawn a lot to the idea of feminine longing.

DB: Yes. In my novels, women are dreaming about something. But they’re also frightened. It’s the same with this novel: there is something strange in the atmosphere.

DS: You reference Jane Eyre a lot in the novel, particularly the now legendary love affair between Jane and Mr Rochester. The protagonist seems to be longing for a passion like that, or for a romantic experience like theirs. Why do you think people are always so drawn to these stories; to these unattainable ideals?

DB: I love Jane Eyre for its literary qualities. But I have to admit, I also love it because of Rochester. He’s a fascinating character for women and it’s not surprising: he is a man created by a woman, so he corresponds to what women are waiting for. I think we need these stories to lead us from despair. It is similar to Wuthering Heights and the Brontë sisters: their lives were so terrible, they needed literature as a way to cope with it. But they didn’t just dream about love, they dreamt about the landscape, they dreamt about the night. Sometimes language is so powerful it can help you open up and escape the world you’re living in. Most of my books speak about boredom and the way people try to escape from it.

DS: What do you find so compelling about boredom, and particularly the way women experience boredom?

DB: Even just 40 or 50 years ago, women were mostly stuck at home doing domestic work. They were waiting for something which always came from outside. They were waiting for their husband to come home or their children to come back from school. I saw it with my mother; she was always waiting for something to happen in her life. I guess it’s different now because women work, but I still think we are sensitive to that feeling, and that we still experience it. Of course it’s not specific only to women, but I think it’s something women – and also artists – feel a lot: that sense you are waiting for something, that you are never satisfied with what you have.

“Not all your life can be about boredom ... but sometimes it can be good for you. It can make you confront your life, and the meaning of it”

DS: Claire Marie in A Sunday in Ville d’Avray feels this boredom and longing too, despite having a seemingly perfect suburban life.

DB: Yes. She has everything, so she’s looking for danger and meets a man who represents that danger. It makes her life interesting. In the book, her sister Jane [who lives in the city] feels jealous, to a certain extent, because she understands that she will not have the same experience. She is too busy in her life; she doesn’t pay attention, she’s always moving, always working. But when you are forced to sit still and wait – to get bored in the countryside – you can experience something much deeper. The inaction might be unpleasant, and Claire Marie may seem a little old fashioned by having such an ordinary provincial life, but she’s experiencing things on a deeper level. 

DS: So do you think that boredom is actually a good thing?

DB: One thing I write about a lot is the feeling of passing time, which is frightening. You don’t feel it if you are always moving; days and hours whizz by, time lapses. But if you stop for a moment you can feel it pass. It’s an important feeling, but it’s very uncomfortable. Of course, not all your life can be about boredom – you have to fight against that – but sometimes it can be good for you. It can make you confront your life and its meaning.

DS: Given that A Sunday in Ville d’Avray is about the passing of time, what do you wish you’d known when you were younger? What advice would you give to other young women today? 

DB: I would advise them to be themselves and not to conceal their moments of sadness or disagreement. There is no advice I can give about the passing of time; everybody has to cope with that, but when you are young you are not that bothered by it. It becomes worse as you get older, as you feel more aware of it. But I also think you must try to find some beauty in it. You have to try to be in touch with all the beauty there is in the world – even sadness is mixed with beauty. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A Sunday in Ville d’Avray is published by Daunt Books, and available now.