Published in the fall of 2017 by Suhrkamp, then translated and published in French by Ça et Là, WIE ICH VERSUCHTE, EIN GUTER MENSCH ZU SEIN (How I Tried To Be a Good Person) depicts Ulli Lust as a young adult in Vienna, in the early 1990s. In this large-scale autobiography, the Austrian author tells her story with disconcerting honesty. Between a loving relationship with Georg, a theatre actor much older than her, and Kimata, a beautiful Nigerian awaiting regularization with whom she will engage in a particularly torrid love affair, the young woman must also worry about her career as an illustrator and think of her son Philipp, born when she was only 17.
At the time of our meeting with Ulli Lust, in Angoulême, the book was one of the 10 finalists for the Fauve d’Or 2018 for Best Album (the prize was finally given to La Saga de Grimr by Jérémie Moreau). Nevertheless, Ulli Lust’s career has been marked by prestigious awards. Most recently, in May 2018, she received the Max und Moritz Award for best German comic book for WIE ICH VERSUCHTE, EIN GUTER MENSCH ZU SEIN.
Le Gaufrier will have a close look at this book but also, by far, at TODAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (translated and published in English by Fantagraphics), with which it forms a stunning autobiographical diptych.
LE GAUFRIER: AT THE BEGINNING OF “WIE ICH VERSUCHTE, EIN GUTER MENSCH ZU SEIN”, A FORTUNE-TELLER PREDICTS THAT YOUR WORK AS AN AUTHOR WILL BE WIDELY RECOGNIZED. IS THIS ANECDOTE AUTHENTIC?
Ulli Lust: Absolutely. I was in my 20s and nobody was interested in my work. I was desperate. An astrologist then predicted that one day I would be famous, and that I needed to continue and hang on. Since then, there’s this golden star shining above my head (laughs)!
WHAT REPRESENT AWARDS FOR AN AUTHOR AND HIS PUBLISHER?
U.L.: It’s always a very good thing, and excellent news for everyone… My French publisher, Ça et Là, is a small alternative publisher who does an outstanding job with a superb selection of books, but who doesn’t have the financial means of Dargaud or Delcourt to fill in the bookstore displays. A nomination raises the public interest necessary for the visibility of a book. Thanks to this, the public knows its existence. Potentially, this type of advertising can double the sales of a book.
YOUR SUCCES IS INTERNATIONAL. HOW MANY TRANSLATIONS ARE THERE OF THE TWO BOOKS?
U.L.: “Today is the last day of the rest of your life” has already been translated into 11 languages, if I am not mistaken. For the time being, “Wie ich versuchte, ein guter mensch zu sein” has only been translated into French but translations into English, Spanish and Dutch are already in progress. In fact, all the publishers who published the first book are interested in the second one. I have not thought of it as a “serial”, but as it is an autobiography there is an obvious continuity. And if the books complement each other, so much the better: reading one leads to reading the other. I couldn’t be happier.
“WIE ICH VERSUCHTE, EIN GUTER MENSCH ZU SEIN” IS OVER 350 PAGES LONG. WORKING ON SUCH PROJECTS IS A HUGE COMMITMENT, PROBABLY OVER A LONG PERIOD OF TIME. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?
U.L.: It took me 4 years to write this book (and 5 years for “Today is the last day of the rest of your life”). There are of course many pages to draw and redraw, attempts, reflection. A bit like a writer who writes and rewrites chapters, returns to the structure of his novel. I am aware from the start that I will have to invest time in the project, but I don’t mind. My story follows its course, situations and characters evolve. I really enjoy seeing a story take shape. While some authors are comfortable with short stories and enjoy regularly working on new projects, I enjoy working over the long term. Ultimately it is a matter of personality.
THERE IS A VERY CLEAR LITERARY DIMENSION IN YOUR WORK. ARE YOU A BIG NOVEL READER?
U.L.: I used to read a lot when I was younger. I read books as we eat food. And above all, I loved “big” novels. I was soaked in literature when I started comic books at the age of 28. My wish then was to tell stories that had a real literary scope, I wanted something that had as much scope as the books that had marked me.
IN THIS REGARD, YOU GIVE US AUTHENTIC “GRAPHIC NOVELS”. AS IN THE BEST LITERATURE, THE PSYCHOLOGICAL CONTOURS OF THE CHARACTERS ARE DEFINED WITH EXTREME PRECISION. MOREOVER, EVERYTHING IS IN THE NUANCE: EVEN IF SOME COMMIT REPREHENSIBLE ACTS (BEATING A WOMAN, FOR EXAMPLE), THE READER IS NEVER TEMPTED TO MAKE A JUDGMENT. ON THE CONTRARY, HE IS INVITED TO A SOMETIMES CONFUSING EXERCISE IN EMPATHY.
U.L.: I’m glad you understand things this way. Indeed, I try to describe characters struggling with the complexity of their existence, who show good and bad sides, do good and bad deeds. But from the perspective of my narration no one is viscerally good or bad. Unfortunately, this is not obvious to everyone. I have read comments and reviews from people who have not read my book in this way and who, evoking my character, feel that I have simply failed to “be a good person”, that I have been selfish, that I should never have done this or that and that I deserve whatever happens to me. Others have chosen to see Kimata as a monster…
In telling this story, however, I wanted to give the reader space to understand the situations in their entirety, to realize how difficult or even inappropriate moral judgment can sometimes be. Under no circumstances do I want to teach a lesson. But we do not decide the “a priori” of certain readers, their prejudices, the conclusions that will be theirs. No doubt that in this respect my approach was risky, but I realized it only much later…
“ALORS QUE J’ESSAYAIS D’ÊTRE QUELQU’UN DE BIEN” (IN FRENCH) IS THE ALMOST LITERAL TRANSLATION OF THE ORIGINAL GERMAN TITLE, “WIE ICH VERSUCHTE EIN GUTER MENSCH ZU SEIN”. THERE’S ALREADY SOME AMBIVALENCE IN THAT STATEMENT, ISN’T THERE?
U.L.: There is irony, indeed. What does it mean, to be a good person? When you say it, it sounds very old-fashioned. I don’t want to be a good person that way! In the first book, I clearly try to be someone “not good”, to put myself in a situation of rupture with society, values and established norms. I am fascinated by crime, I try drugs… In the second book, things look different. I try to adopt a responsible attitude towards my son, my parents and myself. But it doesn’t work exactly as I would like, because there is still a lot of “savagery” in me. The title suggests that things don’t always go as planned!
MEN’S VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IS AT THE HEART OF BOTH BOOKS. YOU’VE BEEN VERY CLOSELY INVOLVED IN THIS ISSUE.
U.L.: My character finds himself, in both stories, confronted with patriarchal situations, where his “humanity” is somehow denied. During the stay in Sicily, this tension led to rape and in Austria to assault and battery. Each time I tell the confrontation between a woman from the North, particularly emancipated, and men from the South (Italy and Africa) with archaic beliefs. For an author, the meeting of these two antagonistic models is very interesting to treat.
But although comparable, the situations I have faced are not identical. In Vienna, it is finally me who dominates the situation. I am in my environment, close to my family and friends, I understand the world around me. Kimata, on the other hand, has neither landmarks nor security and suffers from it. He must adapt to my condition as an emancipated woman. Paradoxically, I am in a situation of strength. You don’t see much of it in the book (“Wie ich versuchte, ein guter Mensch zu sein”), where the focus is more on conflicting moments leading to violence, but Kimata has long dealt with this difficult situation for him.
SEXUALITY PLAYS A MAJOR ROLE IN THE RELATIONSHIPS BUILDING. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT THIS MIGHT BE TROUBLING TO SOME READERS?
U.L.: Yes, absolutely, there are still many taboos in this area. My approach to sexuality outside of the couple, in particular, may have bothered some readers. But this question quickly arose for Georg and me. We were not physically compatible – these are things that happen – and we agreed on this solution: I could have lovers, he could have lovers. As long as there is enough respect and everyone has good self-esteem, this is not a problem. On the other hand, I recommend that people who have low self-esteem or who think they don’t deserve to be loved avoid these kind of relationships.
That was precisely Kimata’s problem. In addition to his difficulty to exist in Austria, he had to accept not having the first place in his love relationship. He couldn’t feel “at home” anywhere. Besides, Kimata has always been a great romantic. I’m not…
WE LEARN A LOT OF INTIMATE DETAILS ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO WERE CLOSE TO YOU AT THE TIME OF THE STORY. DO THEY APPEAR UNDER THEIR TRUE IDENTITY?
U.L.: No. In « Wie ich versuchte, ein guter Mensch zu sein», except for my character and that of my son, I have always used pseudonyms. Georg is for many readers easily recognizable even with his alias. We talked about it, I asked him if he didn’t mind and he told me he’d even let me use his real name! “Georg” is himself an artist and understands perfectly the meaning of my work. He told me he was very touched when he read the book.
THE COVER OF “WIE ICH VERSUCHTE EIN GUTER MENSCH ZU SEIN” IS BEAUTIFUL. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT IT?
U.L.: I made many variations before proposing this image. The cat suggests a hedonistic atmosphere that seemed interesting to me. Two cats are present in the story. One is tabby, the other is black. By extension, they evoke the two men I loved, Georg and Kimata. I also wanted the cat’s eyes to respondent to the young Ulli’s make-up eyes, a little punk, that appear on the cover of “Today is the last day of the rest of your life”.
OVERALL THE DRAWING ALWAYS SEEMS TO BE IN ITS RIGHT PLACE, WHICH MAKES THE READING VERY FLUID.
U.L.: I’m glad to hear it! Narration is always my main concern. I try to avoid anything that is “decorativ” and would bring nothing to the story. I always draw different versions of the scenes that will appear in the books. Again, this is a very slow process. I leave a rest period then reread all the versions. Only the ones that I find the most just , the most lively, will be kept.
DO YOU WORK ON PAPER?
U.L.: Yes. In that respect, I’m old school. I’m aware that many authors are now working on digital media, but I love the feeling of the pen on the paper. It’s almost fetishism!
Ulli Lust’s website: http://www.ullilust.de
Electrocomics’ website: http://www.electrocomics.com
Ça et Là editions’ website: http://www.caetla.fr/
All images © Ulli Lust