French literature: elitist and pointless?

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French literature: elitist and pointless?

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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 again

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?

The answer to this question is yes— that we should read literature in French again and care about what it says. This is because a distinct resistance movement to theory has recently been gaining ground with French authors. The present crop of young writers  are rediscovering the pleasure of writing to be read rather than studied. Second, many of these writers do not belong to the elites of the Left Bank. Much of the new French literature is made up of voices from the edges of the big cities, or former colonies.

These include the Algerian Rachid Boudjedra, who fought against the French in Algeria’s war of independence. Boudjedra is now a father-figure to a generation of writers who owe no particular allegiance to the French critical theorists. A minor bestseller recently was Saint-Denis bout du monde by Samuel Zaoui, a Parisian-Algerian in his forties. This is a comic and touching tale of a journey between Algeria and Paris that spoke to a generation of Algerians and others in France who are caught between two worlds. Female writers—such as Malika Mokeddem and Lounja Charif—have captured the same experience and found popular appeal in doing so.

Writers of French origin are also exploring the social and cultural boundaries of French life. This applies particularly to Jean Rolin, a journalist, critic and a former Maoist who came of age during the cultural revolution of May ’68. The term “Rolinien” has entered the lexicon of French literary critics as a way to evoke the mood and tone of his books, which are characterised by a taste for peripheral places and marginal characters. Rolin writes about the forgotten spaces in Parisian geography, including the banlieue (the impoverished suburbs of the city), the péripherique (the ring road which encircles Paris) or the petite ceinture (the inner ring road of the Boulevard Ney). Beyond the capital, he favours conflict zones and borders and brings to his writing a forensic eye, a deep sense of the oddest details of history and a wry sense of humor.

The Explosion of the Radiator Hose is the story of a journey that Rolin made in 2005 from Paris to Kinshasa, to deliver a beaten-up old Audi to a friend who plans to use it as a taxi. Rolin begins with the ultimate failure of his trip—the explosion of the radiator hose on the last leg of the journey which makes the whole thing pointless. But then he loops back and recounts the cargo ship, the African ports, his concerns over the car’s safety, the books he is reading—and the memoir takes on a different quality.

We are in the hands of a skilled psychogeographer whose mapping of the world is really a mapping of the self. The book begins like Tintin au Congo—a lighthearted voyage into the exotic—but is really a multi-layered narrative that contains, among other things, an alternative history of colonialism in the Congo, meditations on the workings of late capitalism, and responses to Proust, Conrad and even WG Sebald, whose digressionary style is both a model and inspiration for Rolin.

The wit and playfulness of Rolin seem a long way from the grim subject matter of another recent bestseller, Suicide by Edouard Levé. On its publication in 2008, it provoked a minor scandal in France due to the circumstances of its composition and delivery. The author gave the manuscript to his editor on 5th October 2007 and, when he learned that it had been accepted for publication, killed himself on 15th October.

There is a long tradition of literary suicide and posthumous publication in France, going back to Alphonse Rabbe’s Album d’un pessimiste, a compendium of ways of killing yourself published in 1835, six years after his death by an overdose of opium. Levé’s text is self-consciously part of this canon—which in the 20th century included the surrealist poet René Crevel and the situationist Guy Debord. This book is, however, more than a self-indulgent suicide note or a melodramatic gesture: it is a subtle, moving and enigmatic memoir, as loaded with literary devices as anything by Nabokov or Georges Perec (one of Levé’s heroes).

On the surface, all of this seems an example of the irritating and arty tactics that has made French fiction so unpopular. However, this novel is not so much an explanation or justification for Levé’s death as an insight into how the act of suicide might or might not confer meaning on an otherwise random life. The hope of all would-be suicides is that the suicide note will do this; bringing closure at least to anguish. But this can never happen. Accordingly, the most disturbing moment in Suicide is when the protagonist’s wife finds his body. He had left open a comic book on a meaningful page, but it has been blown away. The last thoughts in the dead man’s head can now never be revealed. This is not tragicomic but absolutely, devastatingly awful.

Yet this not a depressing book. The protagonist described the act of suicide as a “work of scandalous beauty”—also a good description of the book, which like Levé’s best work as an artist and photographer, has a cold but very real sense of poetry. At one stage, the protagonist reflects that “seeing an island from a boat might be better that actually visiting it.” It is the sense of watching from a distance that gives Suicide its glacial appeal. This perception is, of course, informed by the death of the author in the same way that listening to Closer by Joy Division is inseparable from singer Ian Curtis’s suicide, and all the more piercing an experience for that knowledge. Most important, Levé’s book is about a real experience rather than the theorised, abstracted version of the world that apparently killed off French literature in the late 20th century, and it is this aspect of the work which makes it so powerful and compelling.

For much the same reasons—an emphasis on writing about life as it is lived instead of ideas—French writing in the new century is gaining ground. Authors are returning to the strengths of the French tradition: the clarity of its language, the uniqueness of its history and its quixotic mission to solve the problems of mankind. Added to all this is the hyper-complexity of contemporary life in a globalised world.

As France is forced to confront the problems of immigration and the shifting geo-politics of the 21st century, its society, identity, even its language, is changing faster than at any point in living history. A stroll round any non-gentrified part of Paris, Lyon or Marseille reveals the truth of this argument. Although I live in France and write in English, I can’t think of a better time to be a reader or writer in French.

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Andrew Hussey is dean of the University of London Institute in Paris 

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