By Sebastian Galbo
Assistant professor at the University of Florida
Novelist, short story writer, and translator, Camille Bordas, was born in France. She’s the author of three novels, the first two written in her native French and the third, How to Behave in a Crowd, in English. Her writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Chicago Magazine, and LitHub. She currently teaches creative writing and translation at the University of Florida’s MFA program.
The following interview discusses Bordas’ recent short story, “The Presentation on Egypt,” published in the May 20 print issue of The New Yorker and annotated in the LitMed Database. Bordas’ story, which the author reads here, explores the interrelationships among grief, family discord, and truth-telling.
The springboard of your story is the suicide of a brain surgeon, Paul. Why did you choose this particular medical profession for this character? Why does this character need to be a physician, a brain surgeon specifically?
To me, writing stories, writing in general, is not only arranging words in a way that is hopefully smart, or moving, or entertaining (or, ideally, all three), but also solving a puzzle as I conceive of it. It’s part of the fun. Therefore, I never know in advance of writing a story what the different parts that compose it and make it work will be. I truly believe that the act of writing is discovering what you’re writing about as you’re writing it, rearranging the whole as you go. In the particular case of “The Presentation on Egypt,” I didn’t know before I started writing it that Paul would be a brain surgeon. I didn’t even know that Paul would be in the story. Originally, it opened on his wife, Anna, discovering his lifeless body in the laundry room. Paul wasn’t supposed to appear, to have a voice. But then, as I was writing the story of their family, I asked myself why Paul would decide to hang himself at home instead of, for instance, at his place of work. He didn’t seem to me to be the kind of person who would risk having his daughter find him and traumatize her, so I had him do it in the laundry room, where she never goes, but still. If he’d done it at work, he wouldn’t have had to traumatize his wife either. So I had to think of reasons why he wouldn’t want to do it at work. And I thought: he doesn’t want to do it at work, because there’s a chance that people will find him before he’s dead, and that whoever finds him will try to rescue him, and know how. I had to think of a place that is busy day and night, and where people would know how to save him. I decided he had to work in a hospital. Then, because his family seemed financially comfortable, I gave him a high-paying hospital job. That’s it. But once I decided this, of course, it opened a million other doors. Hospital workers, be they surgeons or nurses or morgue employees or janitors, deal with the issues of life and death every day, so having someone kill himself who’s seen a lot of bodies shut down…it gave the story a different kind of weight, aimed it in a new direction. Now, I had to have Paul speak, to explore his state of mind a little more. His profession, which at first wasn’t going to be mentioned, which I didn’t know I would even have to think about, ended up being a big part of the story.
Hours before Paul’s suicide, he expresses frustration with a patient’s wife who is struggling to decide whether to end her husband’s life support: ‘He was the surgeon, not the organ-donation person, not the social worker, not a friend. His job was to say it once.’ The utterance he refers to, of course, is the notice he gives families that a loved one is ‘brain-dead.’ Your description of Paul suggests a variegated character—on one hand, he is an exhausted and seemingly stolid physician, uneasy with the emotions of patient interaction; on the other, he sits with the woman after she makes the decision to remove her husband from life support, noting that ‘He would even have taken her hand, had she expressed the need.’ What accounts for these contradictions? What kind of physician is Paul, and does this have any bearing on his suicide?
I wrote this part, the one that opens the story, rather late in the process. Paul is exhausted, you’re right, but I already knew at that point, because I’d written what comes next, that he was ready to give up, and was in a way relieved at the thought that after this one patient was gone, he would kill himself and be free of everything that weighs on him. That’s what allows the breach that lets empathy through. He’s able to sit with his patient’s wife because he knows that he won’t ever have to do it again. You get the sense that maybe he’d wanted to do that before, earlier on in his career, but protected himself from having to do it. It’s unclear if he thinks about his own wife then, but I think he does. In my mind, he does.
I think he’s a good physician, though it would appear his bedside manner leaves something to be desired. I know it’s a cliché, the cold, overachieving surgeon, the highly-respected doctor who has trouble communicating with “lay people.” I don’t mind using clichés once in a while (they exist for a reason), but I like to play with and scratch at them to discover layers under the surface, until I come up with a full-on human character. I wanted Paul to be good at his job, but to have grown tired of it, even though brain surgeon might be one of the most respected professions out there, even though the necessity of its existence would never come into debate (contrary to many other contemporary jobs, the jobs anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” which leave a significant percentage of the population feeling useless and depressed). It is supposed to be a satisfying job, rewarding, important. What happens when you stop seeing its significance? The story also ends up focusing on the question of career, vocation, choices that you make when still young that end up dictating and shaping the rest of your life. Paul seems dissatisfied with his choice. Danielle, his daughter, is paralyzed at the idea of deciding on a profession for herself. He’s someone who might have gone into medicine for the social prestige of it, and ceased to see the interest of it.
Lending Paul’s suicide its unexpected shock, in part, is its matter-of-factness. It has an unnerving quotidian quality, buried in the banalities of everyday routine, as though his final moments were recorded by a medical scribe. Why and how did you come to write of Paul’s suicide this way?
As I said, I never make decisions in advance about how this and that situation should be described. Scenes come out a certain way, and their imbrication, the way they connect, ends up being what dictates the direction of the piece. I think one of the reasons why the writing in this particular story ends up having this “medical scribe” quality you mention is partly a very trivial one, which is that this is the first piece I ever wrote in third person. It automatically created a distance that I used to be a bit frightened of, as a writer, but ended up enjoying tremendously. I wanted to play with points of view, to jump from one person’s interiority to another, and evidently, this trick gave me a lot of freedom in terms of storytelling, but might have come at the expense of giving characters specific voices, (but not at the expense of warmth, I hope. I don’t think I would ever want to sacrifice that). There is a narrative voice in the story of course, but it’s not that of a character, and I’d never written like this before. I wanted to try to create emotion out of a voice that is not incarnated, for a change. I’ve always been fascinated by third person novels and works that manages to create a lot of emotion without seeming to try. I’m a big fan of this novel, Europeana, by Patrik Ourednik, for instance. It’s a retelling of all the events, big and small, of the 20th century, but told by a narrator that almost sounds like an alien summarizing human actions over a 100-year period. Everything is kind of put on the same plane, Nazism and the invention of the bra, eugenics and the commercialization of toilet paper. That flatness ends up creating a lot of tension and horror and emotion. I really like that.
Paul’s wife, Anna, decides instantly to shield their daughter, Danielle, from the truth of her father’s death, choosing instead to attribute it to a heart attack. In an interview with The New Yorker, you remark that, whenever you have been informed of someone’s death, you felt ‘a lot of respect for the person who broke the news’ and that you were ‘interested in exploring what would go through one’s head in a moment like this.’ You’ve written a story, however, that explores just the opposite, that is, the costs of imposing a lacuna on a narrative. What, then, urged you to write about the inability to articulate a factual account, about when, if ever, it is permissible to deliberately obfuscate the facts concerning a loved one’s death?
Exactly! I wanted to do one thing and ended up doing the exact opposite. When writing, I often end up, not always willingly, giving voice and stage to certain fears of mine, facing my characters with said fears to explore different ways in which different people would react, and I think having to ever announce someone’s death to a person who loved him or her is one of the scariest things I can think of. So it was interesting to me to do this, except I guess even fictionalizing it was not enough of a shield— even my characters couldn’t deal with it. This is going to sound weird, but when I was a child, I watched ER, I remember, in France, every Sunday night, and I always felt more tension and sadness when doctors had to announce the death of someone to their family than when I’d seen that same character die on the operation table. I don’t know if it’s a normal attitude, but from a very young age, I thought of death as a horrible thing, sure, but that the worst part of the phenomenon was not for the person experiencing death but for the people that the person left behind. Death is death. It was terrifying to me, but it was final (it was the finality of it that was terrifying, of course—I definitely didn’t grow up religious). The person that is left behind, however, that’s the real unknown to me, how they’ll react. They’re the ones who can still break. Or deal with the news a million unexpected ways. I was surprised that Anna went with lying, but it did make sense in the end, so I followed the trail.
Sometimes, when I think to myself that I should’ve done something more useful with my life and been a nurse or a doctor (two careers I considered, as a younger person), I remind myself that even if I’d made it through med school (a big “if”), I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the emotional heaviness of it all. I’m a bit of a coward, and I don’t do well in high-stress situations, either, so it wouldn’t have worked.
Deborah Serani, Psy.D., states that, when a loved one has died, ‘Part of the experience is finding ways to express what’s happened, to make sense of what’s happened, and finally, to accept what’s happened.’ Anna never tells Danielle about her father’s suicide. Most readers will likely view Anna as a deficient mother who, in repressing her own grief, deprives her daughter of the truth. Although you have commented before that you want ‘readers to be able to develop their own ideas,’ do you want readers to condemn or sympathize with Anna? What good, if any, stems from the lie she has perpetuated?
I always want readers to sympathize with my characters, even the unsympathetic ones. Sympathizing not in the sense that they would want to have a beer with them, necessarily, but in a way that means: their actions are understandable, so the reader is able to sympathize with them on some level. I don’t believe that condemnation of a character’s behavior and sympathy for her are mutually exclusive. What’s important to me, as a writer, is that the actions of my characters are understandable. If they’re understandable, they stand a better chance of being sympathetic to the reader. Understanding someone’s reasons doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in agreement with them or would’ve done the same. I use the verb in a wider definition: something is understandable because it makes sense. Anna’s lie is reprehensible, it is selfish, in part (in part only—she thinks she’s protecting her daughter), but the reasons why she lies are understandable. She’s complicated. She doesn’t feel good about the lie at all. We know, as readers, that she shouldn’t have done it, but she’s suffering as a result of it as well, everybody’s paying for it, so it’s hard to fully condemn her. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m very wary of fiction, of art, in general, that is too sure of its moral grounds.
Dreams, and the peculiar agency dreaming sometimes affords, figure prominently in the story. Dreams are first mentioned when the patient’s wife notes to Paul that her husband looks like ‘he’s dreaming.’ Paul reasons that if he is dreaming, it might be a bad one, asking ‘Aren’t most of your dreams horrifying? […] What if your husband is stuck in a bad one? What if you could free him from that?’ At this point, in reference to being mired in a bad dream, Paul seems to presage his own eventual escape from a dream, or life. Later, Danielle recalls when she and her father laughed at the ridiculous specificity of dreams and their portents defined in the Egyptian Dream Book (‘dreams of measuring barley, dreams of slaying hippopotamuses’). What role (or roles) does dreaming play in this story? Is dreaming, in any way, related to the pattern of lies that propel and shape the story’s plot?
I am not sure. I didn’t think of it that way. At first, I mostly thought of sleep, the form of escape it offers, as the propelling force for this story—Paul looking for eternal sleep, final escape from a depression that didn’t even leave him alone in dreams anymore. I think it just came from having very boring dreams like the ones I describe in the story myself. I think I woke up several times from nights of dreaming of achieving such boring tasks that I thought “If I dreamt of this every night, I would never want to go back to sleep again.” And sleeping is one of my favorite activities, so it was a very sad thought. Anyway. Sleep constitutes a third of our lives and one can’t deny that the quality of it shapes our waking hours to some degree. It’s a territory I’m sure medicine and science at large have explored, but the humanities have sort of left the field to psychoanalysis, and I happen to not have a lot of faith in the interpretation of dreams it offers, so I wanted to look at it from another angle. I read a very interesting book by a French sociologist a couple of years back, called L’interprétation sociologique des rêves (The Sociological Interpretation of Dreams), and I found it interesting as a survey, as a confirmation that people from the same place and same time tend to have the same dreams. Which the Egyptian Book of Dreams also confirms: it describes a few topical dreams that were dependent on a time and place and climate and that our contemporaries don’t really have anymore. That’s a source of joy for Paul, reading what ancient people considered nightmares. But in the end, I guess one of the things that interested me with this story was to have depression and sleep, both considered as entities that by definition don’t produce much forward movement, be a motor for a story that sparked some and moved fast.
One intriguing facet of Danielle’s character is her childhood penchant for swallowing small objects, such as a miniature cigarette lighter (which belonged to her father), three Lego pieces, a marble, and a key-chain flashlight. Anna assumes it is an expression of grief. These items are discovered in Danielle’s stomach during surgery to remove the lighter. Its known clinical term, foreign body ingestion, does not seem to concern the surgeon: “[…] I’ve been retrieving foreign objects from people’s insides for the past twenty-eight years. More often than not, they seem mentally stable. As far as I can tell, they just think it’s fun.” Medical research attributes foreign object ingestion to various factors: attention-seeking behavior; suicidal behavior; developmental delays; and even a mode of protest. According to Dr. Pamela Cantor (Cambridge Hospital, Department of Psychiatry), swallowing foreign objects may be a form of self-harm: ‘Self-injury is an attempt to reduce anxiety, or it could be used as an attempt to draw attention to their psychological pain.” None of these reasons, except perhaps for anxiety, seems entirely compatible with Danielle’s character or the reasons why she ingests objects. Why did you include this medical condition as a part of Danielle’s character? What is the significance of object ingestion?
I’m obviously no medical specialist, and in general, I don’t do a lot of research before writing fiction. I just make sure I’m not saying anything outrageously wrong or inaccurate as I go. In college, I remember reading quite a few books about Don Quixote by scholars attempting to diagnose the Quixote’s precise brand of mental illness. I read these books because I had to write a paper about medicine in the 16th century, but I struggled a bit, if we’re being honest. At many points, I wondered if Cervantes had himself spent any time defining the Quixote’s exact illness as he wrote the character, or if he’d “just” gone with situations that allowed him to say what he wanted to say, or simply write scenes to have fun with. I’m not comparing Danielle to the Quixote of course (and myself to Cervantes even less), but your question reminded me of those books about diagnosing him. Anyone can try to diagnose Danielle, but the deep meaning of her swallowing small objects is not something I spent a lot of time thinking about. To me, it was just what you said: intriguing. It’s there to be discussed if people care to discuss it, but when I wrote it, I thought that she might be seeking attention from her father (who collects miniature objects), but didn’t explore it too much. She thinks to herself, after having swallowed her father’s lighter, that he will have to open her up to get it back, and it seems that the possibility scares her, but maybe it doesn’t that much. When I wrote that part, I thought “maybe she wants him to open her up and sew her back together.” Maybe that’s how she imagines she can spend some time with him, becoming her patient. Something that might support this hypothesis is that once her father is dead, she stops swallowing anything.