The thousand lives of Erik Orsenna

He opens the door to his house and, as if by magic, we are no longer in Paris. We are in Japan, thanks to the Zen garden placed in the heart of the large lower room and the screen that separates us from the kitchen. We are at sea, aboard a boat, so much has the house been designed and decorated like a ship: all white, beautiful parquet floors, mirrors and portholes, railings on the first and second floors. We are in Mali, welcomed by four huge puppets overlooking the small Zen garden. We are in Senegal with this large bird (a heron? An ostrich?) Made from cans and bits of metal by street artists. We are everywhere at the same time and there is nothing unusual about it, as the owner of the premises has traveled the world.

Iconoclastic, prolific and successful writer (Prix Goncourt 1988 for The Colonial Exhibition), economist specializing in raw materials (and graduate of the London School of Economics), consultant for large companies, geographer, scientist, storyteller and sailor: Erik Orsenna is a man of many lives and his discreet Parisian house, where he welcomes us is in his image. “She is my refuge and my boat,” he smiles. My friends warned me: the day you sell it, you die. ” Are they right? “I’m afraid so.”

He likes planispheres and maps; he also likes to cover his tracks. Erik Orsenna was born in Paris on March 22, 1947. But his name was not Erik nor was his name Orsenna. Coming from a family where there are bankers from the Saumur region, on the banks of the Loire, Luxembourg peasants and a Cuban paper maker, he trades the last letter of his first name, the C for a less agreed K and transforms Arnoult, his real surname, in Orsenna, from the name of the old town of Shore of Syrtes, by Julien Gracq. Economist, jurist, adviser to the powerful, writer, traveler: impossible to put it in a box. Impossible also to silence him, even when he poses for the photographer of T Magazine, who has a hard time obtaining the silence necessary to capture the moment. He hears her plea but continues: “It has always been, when I am told to shut up, I continue. When I was a child I was told: “But shut up!”

Parisian village

We are in the heart of the Butte-aux-Cailles district, south-east of the French capital. We are not in the “beautiful districts”, those, bourgeois, of Saint-Germain-des-Prés or the 6th, 7th and 8th arrondissements or the very chic 16th century. The 13th district, the Mecca of Asian communities, is much more popular, mixed, a mix of high towers and small typical streets and to eat like those of the Butte-aux-Cailles, become a bastion of artists and lovers of street art . The neighborhood looks like a village. “It is both steeped in history and very young at night with an incredible number of restaurants where I am known as the White Wolf.”

Yes, Paris is dirty, but I love Paris! I am constantly enthusiastic about its beauty, I feed off it. I stop, I watch, it’s breathtaking. I could cry

Erik Orsenna

Erik Orsenna lives in a house with blue shutters. Silence reigns. Two small buildings were brought together into one. The old courtyard that separated them was covered with a canopy, overlooking the Zen garden, two beautiful red armchairs and a piano. An art he has been practicing diligently for six years and which has fascinated him to the point that he has dedicated his latest work to Beethoven.

It may well have been elected in 1998 to the French Academy, in the chair of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, to be a highly media personality coupled with a wealthy man; Having refused ministerial posts many times after having advised François Mitterrand, Orsenna is nonetheless an outgoing, smiling, highly sympathetic man. As we crossed the threshold of his house on this November morning, we thought we were bound to have a good time. We weren’t wrong.

Freshwater sailor

He lives here a third of the time. Another third went to Brittany, opposite the Île de Bréhat where his family had owned a house for five generations and from which he recently separated. “I keep a good distance from my childhood.” There he owns two boats, a dinghy and a Dragon. “But think again, I sail as much at sea as in fresh water, especially on Lake Geneva. The expression “freshwater sailor” is not an insult to me. ” Geneva skipper Bernard Stamm is one of his friends. A photo of him sits in the lower library, behind the black piano.

The other four months of the year are devoted to travel. Less since the health crisis, of course, but the young man of 74, who will soon publish a book on the Niger River, then another, in October 2022 on the major rivers (including the Rhône, of course) has ants in the mountains. legs. “I would like to go back to Japan, discover Korea, go to New Zealand and also to New Caledonia.”

He speaks while observing a huge planisphere hanging on the wall. A gourmand facing the world. A lover of work, who swears not to have the impression of working, precisely, when he writes. A keen on action who hates no other word more than annuitant. We are here in one of the two parts of the house, the one devoted to romantic writing. On the second floor, under the eaves, connected to the first by a footbridge, Erik Orsenna has set up his two offices. In it, a beautiful work piece of furniture, overhung by a funeral urn containing the ashes of his mother. “She’s looking to see if I’m doing a good job.” As a child, she had ordered him to always be first in class. He had managed to negotiate to be in the top five. She told him: “You will be a writer and you will serve France.” As for his father, a former reserve naval officer, he helped him fall asleep by telling him stories of pirates, tugs, submarines …

In this first office, we find books everywhere: The Museum of Innocence Orhan Pamuk, a small “sympathetic erotic” library, Apollinaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor… Two Tulip armchairs, photos or watercolors of boats, everywhere… “I usually say that you have to behave in life on land and sea, ”said the sailor who sailed twice in the Cape Horn archipelago then set off on a small sailing boat in the company of the navigator Isabelle Autissier. Set sail for Antarctica for a seven-week trip in the middle of the ice. “It was one of the dreams of my life.”

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No order, no disorder

We slowly descend, stealthily, the staircase with Japanese steps. Brief stopover at the first, a few steps on the bridge and up on the other side towards the second office, that of seriousness, of non-fiction. Another plush and old piece of furniture for writing, another small bed to rest. Here, no computer but tidy files, on digital, water, biology… Against a wall, another library. This is entirely made up of his publications in French and in the multiple translations, including his reference works on globalization: The future of water, Travel to cotton land, On the paper route, Mosquito geopolitics

Here as elsewhere, nothing is perfectly tidy. We are not in the austerity of a Scandinavian or Japanese home as we see in films or decoration magazines. However, nothing is really disturbed. Erik Orsenna evolves neither in order nor in the bazaar, we simply perceive that his house lives, according to the moods of its owner who decorated it with objects brought back from travels, especially from Africa. But also little pigs, a statuette of the couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier as a garden gnome or prints by the photographers Martine Franck and Peter Lindbergh.

He likes to leave his home to walk in Paris. When he goes to the Académie française, he always makes the trip on foot. “I walk, I walk, I walk… I am a pedestrian of Paris.” At a time when the background noise wants every Parisian worthy of the name to dream of only one thing, to flee to settle in the countryside, in Brittany or in Bordeaux, he does not consider it for a second. “Yes, Paris is dirty but I love Paris! I am constantly enthusiastic about its beauty, I feed off it. I stop, I watch, it’s breathtaking. I could cry about it. ” He takes out his mobile phone, shows a photo he has taken of the Ile Saint-Louis, from the quays of the Seine. “Look! It’s sublime, isn’t it? ”

French-speaking branches

He also likes to walk in Geneva, another beloved city. Like Switzerland, moreover, which he says he loves. “Switzerland is a formidable and fascinating democratic laboratory. We cherish a permanent and efficient democracy. I can’t stand the French arrogance towards Switzerland. ” He, who chairs Initiatives for the Future of Great Rivers, an international and multidisciplinary collective based in Lyon which carries the voice of rivers for a sustainable common future, speaks of the Rhône as a “wild beast”. He mainly practices French-speaking Switzerland: “My homeland is the French-speaking world.”

One day, he who said he was “possessed by the divinity of happiness”; he who swears to be totally foreign to the feelings of melancholy, nostalgia, sadness, anguish (“my only anguish is to go mad”) will look at the past of his house, redeemed from the great historian and professor at College of France, Pierre Rosanvallon. One morning a few years ago a lady knocked on her door. Erik Orsenna opens the door to this stranger whom he brings in. The visitor tells her how she lived here, in one of the two halves, her, her relatives and four other families. In 1942, during the great roundup against the Jews orchestrated by the French police of the Vichy regime, his parents were arrested before being deported and dying.

Since the day of her first visit, the lady has become a close friend of the writer. “One day, I’ll tell the story of this house,” Orsenna tells us, accompanying us to the exit. For once, he didn’t surprise us. We can even say without bragging that we would have suspected it.

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