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The Parisian - Paris, France

The Parisian Magazine Review - Paris France

"Escapology"... The Parisian interviews Roman Payne, December 2005
Click to zoom in on this photo
Roman Payne on a bridge over the river Seine, December 2005. Photo by The Parisian

The November sun barely heats up the chilly streets of the 7th arrondissement. As the employees of the various ministries rush to their workplace with heavy coats and steamy breaths, I notice Roman Payne’s tall, dark-coated figure walking in long strides to meet me.

Roman Payne is the author of Crepuscule, a novel where one meets the intersected fates of David and Nastya, two lovers who meet joy and broken dreams in the derelict streets of an almost Dickensian Paris. As we shake hands, M. Payne seems to be in a slightly frantic though radiant mood, and asks me with eagerness: “Can you please tell in your article that on my way here I saw an accident? A man was hit by a car and his legs were broken. He didn’t die, though”. After assuring him I would, we pace through a massive door, and climb the narrow steps leading to a bright and tidy chambre de bonne – M. Payne’s “unofficial speakeasy”, so says he – on the last floor of a 19th Century building. The tiny window provides a great vista over the courtyard of the Hôtel Matignon, where guards stand cramped in their coats, cursing at the merciless, pre-winter climate. M. Payne’s rather agitated state of mind is a brutal contrast to the stillness of the air, and the talk will soon turn out to be a restless race through subjects such as the Art of Hiding, iced tea and German princesses.

The Parisian: Your first novel, Crepuscule, was released last year. Can you tell more about its writing process?

Roman Payne: Oh I don’t really know… How it came to life? It was kind of in a fever I think. Mostly because of this insane…I’d better lie a little to cover up the innocent… It started with this Uzbekistan actress, a torrid affair. She kind of inspired it and then I killed her, and when I was finished I ended the book. An affair, a murder and a novel (pauses). I wanted to write a book for impoverished romantics. For people who wear cashmere. Who wear wool in the winter and silk in the spring (chuckles) for people who drink wine in the winter and milk in the spring.

TP: Do you think Paris is a good place to find such people?

RP: It’s the only place. But I’m not living in Paris right now. I’m hiding.

TP: You’re hiding? Where?

RP: In a dark basement. In a capital city in another country. But not in Paris. That must be noted. I’m writing another novel that’s less tragic than Crepuscule, because when I was writing Crepuscule my life was tense, to say the least. And now everything’s relaxed so I’m writing an adventure story that will be my masterpiece. If I don’t louse it up it’s going to be the greatest book of this century, Jean-François. But I might louse it up.

TP: When is it going to be finished?

RP: I’ll finish it in March or perhaps February. It will be magnanimous and after this I’m writing a novella that’s already half written, that’s probably going to be overlooked by the press and the people. And after that I’m probably going to emigrate to another country like Taiwan or Iceland and then I’m going to write my main opus. And I already have the title for that. But nothing else. Just the title.

TP: Well, you need to start somehow…

RP: But I know with this title it’s probably going to be the greatest book of the next century. The one I’m writing now will be the greatest book of this century, and the one in a few years will be for the next century.

TP: So you might want to publish the latter posthumously.

RP: Well, I’m expecting to live at least for a century. I don’t know how I’m going do it. But modern medicine is moving quickly.

TP: Have you ever experienced modern medicine?
RP: Well, the life expectancy has gone up seven, eight years in the last twenty years, so by the time we are in our fifties, people will be living a hundred and fifty years maybe.

TP: Reading Crepuscule, I sensed that you were trying to tell a fable, in the way that there is a certain “timeless” quality attached to your prose. It seems that you are telling stories in the classical way, without bothering to sound contemporary. It seems to me you are more influenced by Dostoyevsky than, say, Bret Easton Ellis.

RP: I’ve never read Ellis. But I’ve only listened to some of his readings on his website. I like Dostoyevsky very much. In his biographies, you read about the hysteria he’s in when he writes, fighting over words, pacing back and forth on his floor. His neighbours were afraid, they thought he was insane, pacing back and forth all night mumbling things aloud. I think I have some of this. I don’t write gently. I don’t sit with a cup of ice tea and whistle when I write. I kind of sweat over the keys.

TP: That must be quite damageable to your computer.

RP: My computers keep on getting stolen anyway. I don’t have time to wear them off.

TP: I’ve read that you count a lot of Russian writers among your influences.

RP: It’s because I have been living in Russia, hiding.

TP: That’s a lot of hiding. How long have you lived in Russia?

RP: Years. I was kicked out of the French Foreign Legion. And I couldn’t go back to America. They considered me as a traitor because I was fighting for the French. I also spent some time in Belgium. Then I went to Russia. It’s a great influence. Russian writers seem to be constantly struggling with the world. Whether is is the cold, the political climate or the economical climate or whatever climate. That is, it’s not petty bourgeois. It’s not the kind of people who spend their weekend in St Malo drinking iced tea. Especially Dostoyevsky. He wasn’t noble born like Turgenev and Tolstoy. He was clinging to the lower middle class ladder with his family and later on when he was on his own he was always in debt. He lost his gentleman stature when he was sent in prison, and it took him ten years of fighting before he could come back to St Petersburg. He had a chaotic life. A real struggle. And also Maxim Gorki is another writer. If I practice my art, I hope one day to be able to write like he did. He was just great. He was self-taught, proletarian.

TP: Would you say you are more on the side of this school of these “glorious underdogs”, these dissenting writers, as opposed to the more educated or academic ones?

RP: I was never good in school. I went to a fairly prestigious art school for one year. I tested high for literature, and got to the high class. I wrote some poetic short stories and the teacher said “You’re a good poet but you can’t write prose, you’re a horrible prose writer”, but I kept writing and travelling. Stories got longer and longer, and finally I became capable of writing a novel. When Crepuscule came together, I felt I was a good writer. I had proved myself with it. I had written stories, some of them were published, but I wanted to do something that would have an effect on people. When I read The Idiot by Dostoyevsky it threw my life out of balance for weeks. I wanted to do something that perhaps could at least partially do that to other people.

TP: I suppose you do not learn that at school.

RP: I didn’t. And I cannot fake that I’m an erudite scholar. I’m not. I’m not looking to please readers with little facts about ancient Roman history and make them chuckle and rub their bellies and think “Oh, this is a delightful fact”. What I want to do for a reader is create an emotion. In my life I’ve been educated well in emotion and I’ve been educated well in travelling, I have experienced loss, poverty, riches, and so on and so forth. I think I’m capable of that.

TP: You did the artwork for every single book of yours. Is it important for you to do so, to keep control on what your books look like?

RP: I took the cover photograph for Crepuscule. I also do oil painting and drawing. But I don’t have the time, or rather I don’t want to lose time I can devote on writing. But I’m a bit of a control freak, so yes, I like designing the covers of my book. And, oh yes. I have a book that’s going to come out that’s illustrated by myself. It’s called The Old Century.

TP: You seem to be quite a busy man. What would be a typical Roman Payne Day?

RP: (laughs) Nothing typical. If I had to say this I’d have to hide even more. Well today I was awake all night romancing this German princess, mistress of Villepin, the Prime Minister that lives down there (he points at the large windows of the Hotel Matignon). Make sure that goes in because this is the kind of thing the reading public wants to know. This is the kind of things they really enjoy. This morning I bought tickets to the ballet, I bought a coat, and then I rushed back here to meet you. Today I’ll write on my second novel. I’m on the last chapter in the outline. It’s 50 000 words. I’ll print it and then write more. I also do graphic design. After that I’ll walk around Paris talking to myself. Then I’ll take my plane ticket to fly out of here tomorrow morning.

TP: Where to?

RP: I don’t know yet. Perhaps Poland.

TP: Do you have a last thing to say, apart from romancing princesses? Anything for the readers of the Parisian?

RP: I should probably say something interesting. It’s an English magazine? I looked at the website, it’s very good. Is it American? French people who speak English?

TP: It’s just…Anglophone really.

RP: Well, I love your city. Did you drink this Beaujolais nouveau?

TP: I hate it, it’s full of chemicals.

RP: I drink a lot of chemically-infused wine these days. Would you like some?

-Jean François Caro, 2005

'The Parisian' reviews Roman Payne's Crepuscule:
Roman Payne’s Paris is first and foremost a soil open to the seeds of fiction: lonely, damp bridges and their dwellers, dim lampposts, rusty gutters, and an entrancing dusk – crépuscule – that comes back ceaselessly upon the rooftops; all come to life in an estranged, almost timeless vision of the French capital. As you read Crepuscule, do not look for a vision of Paris as you know: you will not find it.

Crepuscule starts off with Ishmaelian character David being expelled from America, caged in a box in the middle of the merchandise stored in the belly cargo boat. He ends up stranded in Paris, deprived of any riches, with a ragged suit and an appalling health for sole belongings. Russian dancer Nastya leaves her hometown, invited to perform at the Opéra Garnier by request of a (supposed) French nobleman. The two youths will eventually meet in misery and hope, in the midst of the terrible and beautiful capital city that eats one’s dreams alive, and decide to find a way out together.

The prose of Crepuscule seems to find its source in 19th Century Romance, a highly symbolic genre where verisimilitude is left out in favour of the imagination of the artist. roman Payne’s novel is a tale of exile and loss, told by the omniscient voice of an almost old-fashioned storyteller. Most of the characters bear the marks of this slightly “dusky” quality one finds in 19th Century Russian and American works. The French nobleman could be stepping out from The Dead Souls, while the mysterious Docteur Moreaux is at once grotesque and terrifying.

Roman Payne’s narrative drive carries the tale to a timeless Paris, reflecting glimpses of its essential bones. It is immemorial as an urban fable that was and will be told on and on, in all its own mirrors – moving in a stream of words, always on the verge between the comic and the melancholic. With Crepuscule, Roman Payne delivers his story with vividness scope and apparent pleasure, in a voice of his own.

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