Lauren Groff at Literaturhaus Zürich
The audience chuckled when Lauren Groff thanked us all for being at Literaturhaus on a Friday evening instead of out enjoying Zürich’s nightlife. But I have no doubt our time with the American novelist on September 16, 2022 was far better than club hopping!
Miriam Japp read from the German-language version of Matrix (Groff’s 2021 fictionalization of Marie de France’s life). Groff read a section in English. And the interaction between Groff and moderator Priya Basil was electric. If Gesa Schneider from Literaturhaus hadn’t mentioned that Basil and Groff had only just met, I would have thought they’d been collaborators — and probably friends — for years. Basil’s thoughtful, sometimes pointed, questions delighted Groff, who mused that she’d like to carry Basil in her pocket for future interviews.
Early in the evening, Basil asked Groff about previous comments that historical fiction was literary tourism: “I’ve come full circle and now I think it’s a revolutionary art form.” Groff continued: “It’s possible to write so the past and the present sing together.”
It’s possible to write so the past and the present sing together.
The author shared she started writing Matrix in the early days of the Trump presidency, when she was angry about the state of US politics and mulling what the country could have been like under Hillary Rodham Clinton. In Matrix, Groff melds a recognition that power would likely corrupt female leaders (women are human!) with her long-standing love for Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine (whose exile of Marie from court is the starting point for the novel). Despite being the first female poet published in French, the details of Marie de France’s history were not deemed worthy of conserving. But Groff centers Marie and her flock of 12th century nuns. She cited Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments as also sharing stories from people who are rarely seen or remembered.
Groff further clarified that Matrix was not meant to represent a feminist utopia. Marie maintains the class structure and hierarchies of the time, even as she transforms the impoverished abbey. And feminism in this context is not about equality; it’s more about considering the needs of the collective above those of the individual.
“If the book were about anything, it would be about power,” said Groff. She leaned into Eleanor’s more traditionally feminine means of control and Marie’s hyperintellectual and more masculine ways of exerting power to show the frenemy-ship between the two women.
In Matrix, Groff uses sensory details to connect readers to unfamiliar environments and times. She noted, for example, that readers wouldn’t know what it’s like to eat silently in near darkness with a group of nuns, but could relate to holding a handmade blue pottery bowl filled with steaming hot porridge. That said, Groff did spend time at Regina Laudis, a Benedictine abbey in Connecticut, USA, while researching the novel — and cheekily suggested writers tap into the spartan sleeping quarters and simple meals of Benedictine hospitality.
As she wrote, Groff paid attention to Marie’s body and the bodies of the surrounding nuns. “We tend to intellectualize and forget that we are all animals,” she said. Groff aimed to allow readers to “access the book through the body.” She further noted the importance of creativity, saying, “You can’t animate research unless you have imagination kindling it.”
Politics for the people
As the discussion wound down, Basil introduced Anna Della Subin’s idea of mythopolitics — that power is rooted in myth. Groff agreed the concept forms the spinal cord of Matrix.
She reiterated that history doesn’t adequately reflect the importance of individuals whose lives aren’t picked for preservation. “This is the story we’re not always told. We’re the ones who make great changes. It’s not the great men, it’s the common people. It’s us.”
We’re the ones who make great changes. It’s not the great men, it’s the common people.
Books, books, and more books
Plenty of titles were dropped throughout the evening. Matrix by Lauren Groff and the German translation from Stefanie Jacobs, along with Groff’s Fates and Furies (Barack Obama’s 2015 book of the year) and moderator Priya Basil’s Be My Guest, are available in Zürich at Pile of Books and other quality booksellers.
Groff also spotlighted Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman and Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke. She praised George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which Groff rereads annually, saying, “If there is a god, this is her voice.”
And Basil recommended Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine by Anna Della Subin.
Rewards of the evening
Even with my incomplete understanding of German, I felt the drama, humor, and tension in the two readings by Miriam Japp. Groff is learning German in anticipation of a six-month residency in Berlin and was equally mesmerised by Japp’s performance. When I complimented Japp afterwards, she stayed with the theme of honoring those unseen and praised Jacobs’s translation work.
Under the deft guidance of Priya Basil, Lauren Groff’s reflections that Friday evening ranged from sisterhood to feminism, onto utopias, labyrinths, and how the crusades have a lot to answer for. She ranked her top historical figures (Eleanor of Aquitaine is at the top of the list, Hildegard of Bingen takes third and second place is hotly contested) and spoke about the influence of the different cadences of male and female orgasms on story structure.
Groff’s approachable intellect made topics like the beauty of not pushing death to the fringes and the power of embracing menopause accessible — and far more entertaining than the pounding music and flashing lights of Langstrasse.
I’m not sure Gesa Schneider can top the moderator/author matchmaking of Priya Basil and Lauren Groff, but I’m looking forward to seeing what other events Literaturhaus has in store!
Many thanks to Literaturhaus for providing WIZ access to the event and to Meredith Wadley for being a delightful seat neighbor. And much gratitude to Megan for the photos.