Richard Bato
Philippe Claudel

Acclaimed French novelist Philippe Claudel says that he "hates" Paris. "The people there are very strange."

He says he is much more comfortable living in a suburb of Nancy in northeast France, where there are only 10,000 people.

As for his writing, inspiration comes "from a picture, a word, a sound or some music," Claudel said by phone from Knopf Publishing headquarters in New York City. Then he tries "to follow those first impressions."

In the case of his prize-winning novel "By a Slow River," Claudel said he was thinking of John Everett Millais' famed painting "Ophelia," of a young woman floating in the river. "It is strange, because we have the impression from the painting that she is asleep."

Based on a character in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the woman in the painting is alleged to be singing while floating — just before she drowns. Millais did his work along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Greater London. Elizabeth Siddall, the model, almost died from a fever when the painter became so engrossed by his work that he forgot to replace the candles that were keeping the water warm.

Claudel's "By a Slow River" was originally published in France in 2003 under the title "Les Ames Grises (The Grey Souls)," and he won the prestigious Prix Renaudot.

In the book, the counterpart for the young woman in the painting is Lysia Verhareine, a young, pretty schoolteacher who enchants an entire French village when she comes to teach while pining for her lover, a soldier fighting on the Western front, not far away.

After she learns of the death of the young soldier, she kills herself and is found lying in her bed, her hands clasped on her chest. She is wearing a dress the color of "vineyard peaches" and brown shoes the color "the earth turns when crackled by the sun, when it becomes silky dust."

Claudel's book begins as a crime novel, centering on the murder of a 10-year-old girl, "Belle-de-jour or Morning Glory." But then there are two more deaths, of the young schoolteacher and the narrator's wife. "I try to work on the border of crime fiction and metaphysics. My right foot is in crime fiction and my left foot is in metaphysics.

"That is because I want to explore humanity. I try to approach the human being and understand the mystery. I hope the reader will be different after the reading — that he will see the world with different eyes."

Although he deals with death in his novel, Claudel said, "Death is always in the background. It is an important presence, but I hope there is also light, like a star in a dark sky. I think the mission of the writer is to open the eyes of the reader."

According to Claudel, only one character in his novel, an old woman named Josephine, is based on a real person, someone he knew as a child. "The others all come from my fantasy."

When told his writing seems poetic, he says, "In my writing, I try to touch the feeling of poetry. I play with words as in poetry. For me, poetry is like a door, and on the other side of the door there is a fantasy of dreams and truth."

The style of writing is more adventurous and colorful than Claudel's last novel, "La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh (Mister Linh's Grand Daughter)." "In that book there are only two characters, a Vietnamese man and a little daughter (Claudel's own daughter was born in Saigon). It is a very simple style. I try to explain that one in a very few words."

Writing, Claudel said, is "like a deep voice. I'm very influenced by music. When I write a novel, I feel in the same position as that of a musician. I don't have a guitar or a piano. My instrument is language, and it is a beautiful instrument."

Asked about the quality of the translation of his novel into English, Claudel said, "It is difficult for me to know the quality of the translation, because my English is very bad. I hope the translation is a good work. My books (15 in all) have been translated into 25 languages. Sometimes a translator calls and asks for a clarification of a word."

Otherwise, Claudel said he does not follow the translations closely. "In general, the novel is a shadow of reality. It's a cultural screen, a cultural paradox."

In addition to his writing, Claudel continues to teach one class a week in French literature at the University of Nancy. "Teaching is a pleasure for me, and it is important for me to have a 'real job' in addition to writing. I love writing and do it everywhere, because I have my laptop. It is my own personal universe."

E-mail: [email protected]