Julia Kerninon is a French novelist from Brittany, whose first novel Buvard (2013) won the prestigious Prix Françoise Sagan. A Respectable Occupation is her most recent work to be translated into English, and falls in the category of autofiction/non-fiction – a book about a life lived within books. As the foreword by Lauren Elkin notes, this involves both deep pleasures and deep anxieties; at what point can you start calling yourself a writer and claim writing as your occupation?
Kerninon writes about reading as a family concern, and she shows this for the gift that it is – through the meanderings or perhaps flaneurings through family histories, her parents hitchhiking bookless, or a childhood visit to Shakespeare and Co, which serves as a holy place in the family imaginaire. We see a childhood where reading was not only encouraged but required, where time was made for daily reading, where writing was the most respected of activities. There are conversations about the content of books, and it is expected that the wider world be interpreted through books, and through the interactive activities of reading and writing. It is easy to be envious of writers who are independently wealthy, but the richness that Julia Kerninon reveals here is worth much more.
To be a writer one must be a reader first – to quote Elkin in the foreword ‘you breathe in words, you breathe out words’. One of the interesting things about Kerninon’s book is that instead of giving us a formative reading list, we are presented with her relationship with books: how to build a life around the daily consummation and production of words, and the visceral satisfaction that this provides. Life-time events are presented in terms of how they provide opportunities for writing: a year in Budapest, or shorter visits to Paris or Rome or Devon, only seem to matter for where she wrote (on an armchair, next to the radiator) or when (in the mornings, or after a menial day job), or what (this novel or that). The work of writing is taken seriously – as work, as something which requires time and money, and for which sacred duty sacrifices must be made.
Yet Kerninon’s writing itself demonstrates what is learned through these daily habits; her prose is sharp and thoughtful, with pockets of rich insight scattered throughout breathless, cascading sentences. You know you should pause, that there are thoughts here worth uncoiling, but the text also wants you to rush along with it, and who can argue with that. There are digressions – added narratives, memories, arguments – and throughout, a constant never-to-be-fulfilled hunger for books. If you have it, you will recognise it, and find in this book strategies for assuaging it.
Reviewed by Jennifer Sarha
A RESPECTABLE OCCUPATION
Written by Julia Kerninon
Translated by Ruth Diver
Published by Les Fugitives (2020)
Jennifer Sarha leads an exciting double life: she’s a researcher of obscure European history by night, a wrangler of research funding applications by day. In her remaining free time she is attempting to learn all the languages in the world. Her Twitter handle is @necverbum and she blogs on https://necverbumverbo.blogspot.co.uk/
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