If Émile Zola had told the Second Empire in twenty volumes through the fate of a family, The Rougon-Macquart, Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt took on the challenge of telling the story of humanity in an epic of eight volumes in the footsteps of an immortal man, Noam, who is reminiscent of the Old One’s Noah Will.
“Yes, yes, I don’t want to tell about a society, but several, and not to tell a nation, as historical romantic cycles often do, but several. Yes, yes, it’s pure madness, but sometimes, you have to follow your madness rather than your reason when you are a creator ”, confides the novelist joined at his home in Brussels.
Born in the Neolithic era in a lakeside village, Noam, son of Pannoam, “magnificent narcissistic pervert”, wakes up nowadays in Lebanon where he soon joins a group of survivalists. Some eight thousand years ago, Noam had become immortal, like Noura, the love of his life, and his half-brother Derek, humiliated and abused by Pannoam.
“Generally, immortals in literature are more like monsters, vampires. Noam is a man who discovers himself with human desires and almost a sense of his finitude. Noura will be affected when she finds out that she cannot give birth, but no matter what time she lives, she will escape the conditioning imposed on women. As for Derek, he’s a victim turned executioner. Of course, they’ll first be happy about it, and then eventually, immortality will prove to be a very, very heavy burden, even a condemnation. I’m writing this whole big novel to tame my mortality and bring the reader to also tame his or her and to say, at the end of these thousands of pages, that finally, it is a chance to be mortal . “
In addition to the tale told in the present by an omniscient narrator and the memories of Noam told in the past, there are important footnotes that should not be ignored. In these notes as fascinating as his own story, Noam recounts his encounters with the great of this world, including Aeschylus, Plato, Diderot, Rousseau, Einstein.
“I make a few appointments there for the future, that is to say that I have built a novel of 5000 pages with ramifications. I hope that I will manage to get all the details together. These notes, it is Noam who, having crossed the centuries, takes a step back, meets us or shows us what becomes of an idea, an object, etc. It is very enjoyable to write these notes. “
It was also while writing his doctoral thesis in philosophy on Diderot and metaphysics that he wanted to embark on this crazy epic on humanity.
“This idea crosses me at 25, it’s the age in which I froze Noam, but at 25, I realize that I am capable of having the idea but unable to carry it out. . Basically, this idea has become a program. A life program. On two levels. On the one hand, there is the study of history, economics, sociology, etc., to get to have an overview and a taste for certain details that would be revealing for an entire work. purely intellectual. On the other hand, there is the work of a writer, of an artist to develop one’s breath, to be able one day to take that deep breath and to start off in a 5,000-page novel, to gain confidence in my pen. Ultimately, every book I wrote was, of course, an end in itself, but it was also a stepping stone; each time, I told myself that I widened my palette a little. I was a bit like an athlete training for the big event. “
Travel through time
In the first two volumes of The passage of time, “Lost Paradise” and “The Door to Heaven”, Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt revisits parts of history that have been transmitted to us not only by historians, but by the books of the Old Testament, that is to say – tell about the flood and the construction of the Tower of Babel.
“Our mentalities were shaped by these mythological structures in the Bible, such as enemy brothers, human excess, cataclysms. They are prototypes of our thoughts. For me, it was very important to go back to the roots of that time because telling history is not just about telling historical texts, technical inventions and the development of civilizations. Telling history is also telling the story of ideas, how they are forged, how stories become founders and target individuals and societies together. “
In this way, Crossing the time becomes a form of duty of memory towards these sacred texts which are less and less read or consulted from one generation to the next: “For me, it was very important to tell in a different, more materialistic way, biblical events. For example, the flood, I make of it the historical flood which took place when the Mediterranean overflowed into the plains of Ukraine and formed the Black Sea, which undoubtedly traumatized the populations of the time. The texts on the flood that there were in Mesopotamia with Gilgamesh and those in the Bible are undoubtedly echoes of this. People are ignoring the Bible more and more, whether we disdain it religiously or spiritually, it is everyone’s freedom, but we cannot disdain it culturally, we are made of it. The Bible is a novel that continues to be written. Here with Noam, another editor. “
As he accompanies Noam through the centuries and millennia, Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt recalls that each discovery or each invention comes with its downside.
“I’m always on the cutting edge when it comes to progress. On the one hand, there is progress, on the other, there is abandonment. Each invention changes the human map with good and bad. Everything is terrible and wonderful. The originality of this journey through time is that I look at our present from a very distant past to reveal moments when certain structures that occupy us have taken root, and then perhaps also say that we lost things. It is true that I am a bit of a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “
Rousseauist or not, the novelist and philosopher is certainly not nostalgic or backward-looking.
“In the following volume,“ The Dark Sun ”, which will be devoted to ancient Egypt, I resonate the transhumanism of Silicon Valley with the death rites of the pharaohs, this obsession with survival. Until the end, I will be amazed and marvel at modernity and human genius. In fact, I want to be from all eras, not from an era, ”he concludes.