Move mountains

We can sometimes see him, on social networks, in the company of the traveling writer Sylvain Tesson, harnessed on a cliff, in a corridor, on the mountainside or stepping over a balustrade on the facade of a building, with a smile on his face. .

He is a man of a thousand lives. Doctor, pioneer of the NGO Médecins sans frontières, cultural attaché and ambassador of France, academician (since 2008 in the chair of Henri Troyat), successful novelist, he also cultivates a not very secret passion: the mountains.

It is not surprising that Jean-Christophe Rufin makes the high mountains the setting for his 18e roman, Stone flames, and that this passion be also the subject of a collection of interviews with Fabrice Lardreau which has just been published, Human mountains.

If the mountain has inhabited it for a long time, the writer had never made it the subject of his books before. “I could not find the form to talk about that”, confides Jean-Christophe Rufin, caught in Paris after a stay in Mexico in connection with a next book. Proof that his passion for the mountains is sleepless: the writer took the opportunity to climb the Iztaccíhuatl, a dormant volcano which rises to 5215 m above sea level.

“The great heroic era of the Frison-Roche [guide de haute montagne et auteur célèbre de Premier de cordée] being a little distant now, he continues, the mountain literature of recent years has been more devoted to accidents, people falling into crevices, etc. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to show only the tragic side of the mountain. And I have never done a feat either. Finally, I had to wait to discover this story so that it served as a support to talk about the mountain. “

Discovered at 19, when he was a medical student, high mountains slowly became a real passion. But it is at home, he explains, a passion that he has kept to reasonable dimensions. “I mean, I haven’t gone mad, at least I don’t think so,” he laughs. “There is reasonable passion, if you will, and there is one that kills you. And that, fortunately, I was preserved. “

Based in part on a story a friend once told him, Stone flames is a rather fine love story between two beings that the mountain brings together and moves away at the same time.

A mountain guide in Chamonix, in the heart of the Mont-Blanc massif, Rémy has a series of romantic encounters. Like a sort of “snow gigolo”, he prefers easy (and seasonal) conquests, but also frequented routes – unlike his brother, a high-level mountaineer. Until the day he falls in love with Laure, a neophyte client who works in Paris in high finance.

It is a gulf that separates the two lovers. Stone flames explore the rocky path they will have to make towards each other.

“To talk about the mountain and especially the relationship we have with the mountain, I told myself little by little, continues Jean-Christophe Rufin, that the best way was to talk about it through a love story. And I found this romantic form, because deep down, it’s a three-way story. »A man, a woman and the mountain. Their relationship between them and the one they have with the mountains evolve in parallel.

And we sometimes have the impression, over the course of the novel, that the passion for the mountains and the passion for love can be as dangerous as the other. “In the mountains or in love, if you are sincere, you are completely committed”, adds the 69-year-old writer, who also emphasizes that “committed race” is called a mountain race which deprives you of any possibility of retirement. . Which is never without risks.

Born in 1952 in Bourges, in the flat expanses of the former province of Berry in the center of France (“The flat and often misty countries are my natural ecosystem”, he admits in the interviews), it is after the attribution of Goncourt to Brazil Red (Gallimard, 2001) that the writer acquired a chalet in Saint-Nicolas-de-Véroce, near Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. He now spends half the year there and writes most of his books there.

The view he has on Mont Blanc is breathtaking, epic. “I love the mountain landscape,” says the author of Abyssinian, the effect of being cut off from the world for part of the year. There is also this very, very strong rhythm of the seasons with hot summers and very cold winters. This is something I need. “

“I feel both at home and far from my origins. This renewed feeling of astonishment, this profound otherness give a particular charm to my stays there “, he tells Fabrice Lardreau, evoking a” renewed feeling of astonishment “in front of this landscape which changes all the time.

“I have been imbued for years with these places, these atmospheres and these lights. And this whole novel, if you will, is a pretext for making a sort of song, a tribute to the mountains. It comes from everything I have around me. “

In his eyes, it is a setting that offers the “extra soul” that is needed, from a literary point of view, to turn a subject into a plot. “The mountains confront you with very deep things,” acknowledges Jean-Christophe Rufin. Death, danger, deprivation. We can be hungry, be cold, be thirsty. All these things that are pushed aside by the usual world, the city world, if you will, are there. In the face of that, you feel your vulnerabilities. You situate yourself better in the universe, in the world. Because you no longer have the illusion that social life gives you of controlling everything, of being immune to everything. When you are in these mountaineering worlds, the soul is bare in a way. She is tested all the time. “

Somewhere in the novel, a character speaks of the mountain universe as being that of “absolute freedom”.

“I think it’s one of the last places where, indeed, our societies allow a freedom that goes as far as voluntary risk-taking,” believes the novelist. Everything is done to protect us, even against ourselves. There are very few places where you accept the idea that you can simply take responsibility for your life. This freedom, it perhaps only exists at sea and in the mountains. “

Stone flames

Jean-Christophe Rufin, Gallimard, Paris, 2021, 352 pages

Human mountains Interviews with Fabrice Lardreau

Jean-Christophe Rufin, Arthaud, Paris, 2021, 192 pages

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