When I first met Jean Bürlesk, I didn’t know he was Jean Bürlesk (or even that he was Jean Beurlet, which is his real name). He was giving me, my entire family, and all my lifelong best friends a tour of Luxembourg City. I got married the next day, which explains why the whole world was in town—and even if Jean wasn’t quite the talk of the weekend, he made a great impression. To be honest, though, I never thought I’d see him again.
However, years later I was browsing the list of speakers at Cymera 2021, an Edinburgh-based science fiction and fantasy festival, when I saw a picture of a long-haired, behatted person and I thought: hey, that looks like that guy.
And it was that guy.
Jean, it turns out, has been busy since my wedding: his collection of reimagined fairy tales The Pleasure of Drowning was published in 2020 by Luna Press Publishing, with an estimated 500 copies currently in circulation. He has also, among many other things, written a play as part of Collateral Drama’s How To Get Rich In Luxembourg (Fast)—catch it on 24, 25, or 26 June.
Jean’s latest project, for which he has received a “home residence” grant from the culture ministry, is to write a novel. It will be in English, will likely have fantasy elements, and is to be set in Luxembourg during the First World War. After telling me this, Jean theatrically delivered a history lesson about the grand duchy in that era. Tour guide, I remembered.
We then spoke more about his craft and Luxembourg’s literary scene.
You’re a tour guide… if you were giving a tour of your bookshelf, what would you say about The Pleasure of Drowning?
I wouldn’t! I’m better at talking about Luxembourg than I am about myself and my work… so I’d sell it as it is: fairy tales twisted by my own freakish mind. And I’d probably add that it’s mostly well-known fairy tales, which makes playing around with them a lot of fun for the reader and the writer, but that there’s Melusina in there as well. So, selling the local legend.
I’m drawn by the voices you’ve constructed in your stories. The narrators are very knowing about the fact that a reader exists, yet they never make assumptions about that reader or get distracted by things outside the story. What’s your approach there?
Do you trust the person telling the story? That’s how you [walk that line] for me. At some point you, the reader, have to decide that actually not everything the narrator tells me might be true. That’s why I like that perspective and that’s why I like writing in the first person, because you get my version of things, and ideally you won’t agree—I mean I don’t agree with my protagonists—they horrify me—that’s the point!
Was there a fairy tale that influenced you in particular?
Madame de Villeneuve’s The Beauty and the Beast is my favourite fairy tale. It’s… pretty badly written. Madame de Villeneuve is not Anderson, she’s not Perrault, she’s not the Grimm brothers. But she’s a woman. There are many women writing fairy tales, and we’ve forgotten them. We’ve buried them.
Villeneuve loses herself in the hierarchies of the fairies, she does many things that are not related to the story—but she’s writing about a woman who is training, educating, forming, “domesticating” a man. It’s not feminist anymore when you read it now; it’s horrifying for many of its assumptions. But it is a few hundred years old. At the time it was very much a feminist piece—and it’s got an entirely different perspective from all the other great well-known fairy tales.
Why do you write in English?
I write in all my languages. Well, not Spanish, perhaps. What you have with English is understatement, both in the humour and in the language itself. French is more complicated emotionally because it’s the language I grew up in, the language of my mother, the language I speak at home. Luxembourgish is the language of my country, of my friends. German—I’m not sure—but I love German as well; I studied in Germany. So all of those languages have meaning to me.
Actually, I have a great example for this: love poems. When I write a love poem in Luxembourgish it’s going to be emotional and kitsch. When I do it in French it’s going to tend towards the erotic. When I do it in German it will be ironic and intellectual. And when I do it in English it’s going to be dark and twisted. And I love that! I’m not going to write the same way in the different languages, I’m not going to write the same things in the different languages. That’s just how I work.
But English is my main working language as a writer. Mostly for the reasons I just said, but some of it is also ambition. If you’re going to write something in Luxembourgish, you won’t have many people reading it.
Besides languages—which I realise is an unfair and truth-warping reduction—what characterises Luxembourg’s literary scene?
…I mean, that’s a big one. The language is obviously what you’re going to start with, and what the language implies—which is different cultures, different mentalities, different perspectives. That’s what fascinates me and that is what characterises Luxembourgish culture and literature, so even if I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about culture and it goes back to language. No! If you take that away… please don’t take that away!
I love the reasoning behind your penname. By pairing a German surname with a French first name, you indicate that you’re both German and French and yet neither. You’re a Luxembourger. Is there any pressure in this society for Luxembourgish artists to “brand” themselves as Luxembourgish?
I’m very good at ignoring pressure of that kind. I just don’t care. About the pressure, that is—I do care about the question. When I’m outside of Luxembourg I will sell myself as a Luxembourgish writer. When I am at Worldcon I am an English-language writer from Luxembourg—I’m not an English writer, I’m not an American writer. It’s important to me. I love—well, the city is the first thing I fell in love with, and the country by extension—but yes I love my country, to the degree to which I believe in it. I do not believe in borders and nationalities, but I do love the place and I like being from it.
But when I’m inside Luxembourg it really doesn’t matter that much. Of course I’m a Luxembourgish writer.