Yasmina Reza, who lives in Paris, is probably the best-known playwright and novelist in France today. Her novels, such as "Desolation" and "Adam Haberberg," and her plays, such as "Conversations After a Burial" and "The Unexpected Man," have received critical acclaim in France and in other parts of Europe.
They have been translated into more than 30 languages.
It came as a surprise to most of her friends when they learned of her latest project, "Dawn, Dusk or Night: A Year with Nicolas Sarkozy," a book based on the year 2006 that she spent with Sarkozy, who at the time was campaigning to become president of France, a position he holds today.
When she requested that she be allowed to travel with him and observe him every day on the campaign trail, it was her turn to be surprised he responded with an unqualified yes. When asked why he would do so, during a charming phone interview from the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, Reza quickly said, "Maybe he fell in love immediately!"
Then she chuckled and corrected herself, to make sure there was no misunderstanding "No, I'm joking."
Although Reza speaks fluent English, she is humble about her expertise, and so we spoke on speaker phone, enabling Ellen Snooks, her interpreter, to fill in a word or two that confused her. It worked beautifully.
Reza also said that she considers Sarkozy to be a person "who likes excitement. He wants life to be a little dangerous and spontaneous. He was also excited about the novelty."
She is convinced that he would not have agreed to the same arrangement with a journalist. "He didn't know me, but he knew some of my plays were successful abroad, and he was flattered I would ask," Reza said. "He didn't ask if I supported him politically. He always assumed I was not in his camp. In fact, I was in no camp at all but I never intended to shoot him down."
She considers herself to be apolitical and therefore able to comment on the candidate and the campaign with a certain amount of objectivity. She intended to write "an existential portrait of a politician. He didn't expect this book, though, I think. When I finished it and sent him a copy, he took a month and a half to call me. He said he didn't love the book. In fact, he didn't say much about it at all."
Reza remembers a journalist for "La Monde" telling her, "Your book is the only one, because you were so close to him, and were not trying to judge him."
Yet the playwright said, "It would be pretentious to think a simple book could do anything to affect his career. But it is very controversial in France. Some who supported him said if they had read the book before the election they would not have voted for him, yet others said it helped them vote for him."
Reza is happy she wrote the book. "It excited me. I loved it. I loved the whole campaign and the people I met. The secret was him and the feeling of danger in the experiment that made it so interesting. I loved being around a man who was looking for power."
She wrote the book in French, then she and Pierre Guglielmina translated it into English. "We worked very hard on the translation. Those who have read both versions think there was not a lot lost. But the English language is very difficult for me to translate. German and Latin are much easier."
The book is a wonderful collection of Reza's thoughtful, literary observations. She frequently quotes the candidate, such as his complaint that he may lose his favorite speech writer, Henri Guaino. "Guaino, he's difficult, but he's a genius. They want to take Guaino away from me. But I need Guaino. I need people like that, who aren't soft. I like freaks, they reassure me."
As he and Guaino go over a speech, Sarkozy changes a phrase that has him saying, "I'm not going to cry with you because, here, nobody ever cries."
He changes it to "I'm not going to cry with you because true pain, one keeps to oneself."
She quotes one of his aides speaking like a politician, saying, "Reality doesn't matter. Only perception counts."
Sarkozy complains that the worst thing he has to endure is "the advice. Anyway, I don't listen to them. They brutally tell you it's too early, and then, no less brutally, they tell you it's too late. The advice always adds up to: not right now."
Sarkozy hears of a poll that puts his candidacy at 51 percent. He responds, "Keep your cool. It doesn't mean a thing. Just as unreliable when it's positive as when it's negative. Getting excited achieves nothing."
Reza sees her relationship with Sarkozy as strange: "The usual codes of conduct could not be applied to our relationship. We were not friends, we were not lovers, I was not a political supporter I was just a woman in the plane, in the cab, in the room with a notebook. He let me see him in every circumstance."
As a result, she witnessed him losing his temper, using his considerable charm and trying to be humorous. "He was very free. He was not afraid of me. I'm grateful for that. I think he's a lot of men, maybe one of the most sincere political men I have ever seen. But that is not a compliment. Being a lot of people is not reassuring."It was after Sarkozy became president that his wife asked for a divorce, and then only recently that he married a popular ex-supermodel, Italian-born Carla Bruni. Reza asserted that she was not surprised by his divorce: "The seduction carried out by a politician is typical of any politician, in your country, too, right?"
E-mail: [email protected]