Publishing a novel in France is harder than ever. With the death of the French intellectual, the world stopped caring what the French have to say. But it’s time to think againby Andrew Hussey / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Clockwise from top, writers Edouard Levé, Lounja Charif, Jean Rolin and Malika Mokeddem
The Explosion of the Radiator Hose
by Jean Rolin, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Dalkey Archive Press, £7.99
by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn, Dalkey Archive Press, £9.99
In the age of the Kindle and Amazon, haunting the bookstores of Paris remains one of the great pleasures of the city. The best bookshops still defiantly prize literature not for saleability but quality. They are also unafraid to teach you stuff. Recently, my local bookstore in the Rue Daguerre had a window display on the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, one of the greatest living poets writing in French but barely known outside the French-speaking world. Disgracefully, I have never read much of his work, so I bought a collection of his poems and came away from the bookshop both inspired and informed.
It seems a long time since writing in French had a global audience. Fifty years ago the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and their disciples commanded the attention of the world: from the terrasses of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, their thoughts on Marxist revolution, the third world or the impossible ethics of simply existing were received everywhere as truths of universal significance. The next generation of French thinkers—led by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—were less immediately engaging or comprehensible, yet still, when they spoke the world listened, even if it did not easily understand the politics of deconstruction they espoused. But since the 1980s or thereabouts it has been a truism among Anglo-American commentators that the influence of French literature—along with the cultural power of the French intellectual—has been in decline.
The French are aware of their waning influence in world literature. For the most part this is attributed to the way critical theory has dominated literature from the 1980s on; put simply, French readers, brought up on the diamond-hard prose of Flaubert or Zola, or the musicality of Baudelaire or Hugo, were sick of theory and theorists, and the stodgy, indigestible and incomprehensible literature they inspired. Little wonder, French publishers have argued, that book sales have been in freefall ever since. All of which begs the question of whether, in the 21st century, should we care what the French write and think?