Tahar Ben Jelloun (official website) came to live in Tangier as a boy in 1955, but last night was his first time visiting TALIM's museum and research library. Gallimard has just published his latest novel, Le Bonheur Conjugal (listen to an excerpt), and Ben Jelloun discussed his work with our audience – we were packed to overflowing, and had to turn people away, much against our instincts.
Probably Morocco's best known writer in French (alternately, France's best known Maghrebi-born novelist), Tahar Ben Jelloun divides his time between Paris and Tangier. This 2006 Guardian interview provides a nice biographical sketch, and this Paris Review conversation reveals his literary and cinematic inspirations:
What is important is to invent a story and to make the spectators believe it—what is important is that sitting in a dark movie theater one is transported to another universe in imagination. This is what I try to do in my books.
Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Faulkner, but especially Joyce, are among the anglophone writers Ben Jelloun cites as literary references, and he knew Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs as well, recalling the latter as he strolled through our Paul Bowles exhibit. No fan of Bowles, he did admit that "he wrote a few good books," and was particularly interested in our museum's focus on Bowles as a composer and musicologist.
Ben Jelloun read us a few excerpts from the ironically-titled Le Bonheur Conjugal, but he was mostly extemporaneous, and the audience remained riveted for a good hour. At one point referring to his latest novel as "a science friction," he said that he certainly doesn't have the magic formula for Marital Bliss. Questions of love and loss have long preoccupied Ben Jelloun, from his time as a psychotherapist among North African immigrant workers in France in the Seventies.
Ever the astute observer of the Moroccan scene, Ben Jelloun weaves social criticism into his fictional situations. Typical Moroccan boys spoiled as "princes" by doting mothers and female relatives, having to then live with another woman who may not quite appreciate their exalted status. In Morocco, you not only marry a spouse, but you get the extended family too, for better or for worse. And Ben Jelloun recalled the unease with which extending marriage rights to women was greeted, even in the left-leaning circles of liberal, educated males.
Le Bonheur Conjugal is his first Moroccan-themed novel which takes place somewhere other than Tangier – in this case, Casablanca.
There are plenty of venues in Tangier where the Librairie des Colonnes could have held this event, so we were honored that this tower of French literature presented his work at TALIM.