Interview with Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze

We talk to the French academic and novelist about her ambitions in nuclear physics and REF fatigue

January 21, 2016
Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze, Durham University
Source: JF Paga – Grasset

Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze is director of studies and senior lecturer in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University. Her research focuses on three main areas: 19th-century French literature and culture, the theory of parody and French cinema. In November, her first novel La logique de l’amanite – which was influenced by her 19th-century literature research – won the Prix André Dubreuil. This prize is awarded by the Société des Gens de Lettres for a debut work. Le Figaro Magazine described her work as un premier roman délicieusement vénéneux – a “deliciously poisonous first novel”.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1973 in Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne region of France.

How has this shaped you?
Auvergne and Limousin, where I spent all the summers during my childhood, are quite wild, unspoiled areas of France. As a result, I have a deep love of nature (especially forests and mountains) and this certainly contributed to shaping the storyline in my novel.

What were your immediate reactions to winning this award?
Extreme surprise. I was not aware that I had been put forward for this prize. I was just about to leave for the Brive book festival in France and the lady who phoned me up on behalf of the Société des Gens de Lettres must have found me rather incoherent!

What is the significance of winning this award?
It is a sign of appreciation for my novel. The Société des Gens de Lettres is composed of established writers so I could not be happier.

Your novel was heavily influenced by your research. Did writing your book feel like academic research at times?
Not at all, even though there is a certain amount of research or documentation that went into it. My main character, Nikonor, fancies himself as a scholar (both a mycologist and a literary specialist) but, under a thin veneer of erudition, he often comes up with some utter nonsense. It was a wonderfully liberating experience.

At what point during your academic career were you inspired to write your novel?
I had always considered writing a novel but it was never quite the right time. When I started it in January 2013, I was suffering from research excellence framework writing a novel felt like the perfect antidote to the constraints of academic research.

Do you ever hope that your novel might make it on to a literature course reading list?
Well, one can always hope! And I certainly welcome enquiries from prospective postgraduate students willing to work on my novel!

Your protagonist has an appreciation for the literature you research. Were you ever tempted to make him an academic and write a campus novel?
My protagonist has a very unorthodox approach to literature, to say the least. Who knows, he might have been an academic who has lost his mind...As for the campus novel, perhaps for a future project.

Where is modern languages’ place in the higher education sector? Are they suffering like many other arts and humanities subjects?
Modern languages have a crucial role to play in the higher education sector. The benefits of fluency in a foreign language are immediately obvious and, for employers, this is one of the most prized skills a graduate can have. As a consequence, modern languages are suffering less than some other arts and humanities subjects.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take things easy/easier.

Tell us about someone you admire.
It has to be a writer and, although he seemed rather full of himself as a human being, I'll go for Nabokov. I am in awe of his ability to reinvent himself as a writer of incredibly beautiful, sophisticated and fluid prose in a language that is not his mother tongue.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
At first, I wanted to be a detective, then a spy and, slightly later, a nuclear physicist...I happen to be married to an actual physicist who has little regard for my childhood ambitions (and rightly so, in view of my scientific abilities).

What do you do for fun?
I read novels, watch films, go hiking and travelling with my family.

What’s your biggest regret?
I wish I had learned Russian at school and university. Learning a new language used to be relatively easy for me then. My memory is not as sharp now.

What keeps you awake at night?
Producing a workload model for French studies, which I am responsible for at Durham, and my hypochondria (in no particular order).

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Hard-working, passionate about literature and probably too obsessed with obtaining good grades.

Have you had a eureka moment?
With hindsight, I suppose I had one in early 2013, when standing on the Pont de la Tournelle in Paris (location essential!). That's when I got the idea to write a novel.

If you were the UK universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
Abolish tuition fees: higher education is a sacred right. Look at how Germany does it, not the US. Modern languages departments in the UK should teach much more in the target languages: why are cultural modules mostly taught in English? The UK is unfortunately quite unique in the world in that practice. Give academics time to think (without having to fill in a form every two minutes).


Simon Jones has taken up his position as pro vice-chancellor and head of Cranfield Defence and Security at Cranfield University. Professor Jones was previously provost at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, and has held senior academic positions at the universities of Bath and Loughborough. “I am very excited by the prospect of building on the distinguished heritage of Cranfield and the impact it has in defence and security,” he said. “We will continue to play our full role in developing the capabilities and capacity of the UK and other nations through partnership in the delivery of high quality research and education.”

Jo Silvester has been appointed deputy dean of City University London’s Cass Business School. Professor Silvester, who takes up her position this month, is a professor of psychology and member of the Faculty of Management. Her role will focus on the education strand of Cass’ strategy. Professor Silvester will help stimulate programme innovation. “As someone who is passionate about education and research, I now have an opportunity to put into practice what I believe – and in an institution of which I am immensely proud,” she said.

Julian Crampton, former vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, has been appointed the new chair of the University of Gloucestershire’s council.

Robert Gordon University has strengthened its business development team. Sarah Hillyear, previously operations manager at Decom North Sea, has been made business development manager for RGU’s Oil and Gas Institute where she is responsible for supporting its commercial initiatives. Laura Wood, who joins from an oilfield service company, has been appointed to a similar position in the Aberdeen Business School. She will work with industry to identify needs for tailored learning programmes. The two appointments coincide with the internal promotion of Chris Moule who has been appointed to senior business development manager.

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