The year 1903 was a good one for French culture-the upper crust got properly registered in the first Bottin Mondain (see Prospect, April 2003), the working classes got a chance to win 20,000 francs in the first Tour de France and (mostly) middle-class writers were bequeathed a prize worth 5,000 francs by Edmond de Goncourt. In his will, he nominated ten friends to be the Acad?e Goncourt, giving each an annual stipend of 6,000 francs to cover the regular lunches at which they would select the year’s best “work of imagination in prose.”
The financial turmoil of the first world war reduced Goncourt’s legacy to a pittance. Today the prize is just ?10 and the Acad?e members have lost their comfortable salary (although the monthly lunches are still on the house). Nevertheless, being members for life, they wield immense power.
The Goncourt is awarded with enormous fuss in early November. Any author aiming for this most prestigious prize should be published between the end of the summer holidays and mid-October: six weeks known as the rentr?litt?ire during which, this year, 147 publishing houses will bring out 691 novels and 594 works of non-fiction. In this self-destructive system the Goncourt becomes the public’s primary guide. Its winner becomes an instant bestseller.
In recent years the literary genre of choice has been auto-fiction-navel gazing. But, French navels sell poorly even in France, the public crying out, unheard, for stories. Then Michel Houellebecq happened. English readers may think he epitomises introspection, but French readers find him refreshingly outward-looking. Though there is no new Houellebecq this year, his influence-turning fiction on to topical, social and sexual issues-is everywhere evident in the frenzy of the rentr?litt?ire: novels about the homeless, genocide in Rwanda, paedophilia, Algeria and 9/11.
Freddy Beigbeder’s new novel, Windows on the World, opens as a 40-year-old New Yorker decides his two boys would enjoy breakfast in the restaurant on the 107th floor of the WTC-the Windows on the World. Known in Britain for his novel ?9.99 (recently brought out in paperback, entitled ?6.99), Beigbeder is a media star in France. Sparkling but superficial, he depends on media attention. But then the rentr?forces writers to find non-literary means to catch the public eye. Every year there is an event which becomes the talking point of the rentr?last year it was Catherine Millet; before that it was Houellebecq. This year, tout Paris is buzzing that Beigbeder will provide, or simply be, the ?nement. But his novel doesn’t cut it. Parallel to his narrative in the WTC tower is a journal written in the Montparnasse tower, as the author broods on 9/11, how ugly he is, how he wants to be famous so he can pull girls. Navel gazing may be dead, but it won’t lie down.
More encouraging is that finally, 40 years after independence, writers are tackling Algeria. The choice in both fiction and non-fiction is rich, but two novelists stand out: Assia Djebar and Salim Bachi. Both, in their new works, trace Algeria’s history-Djebar through the eyes of a man returning from exile, Bachi following the fortunes of a house built for a French colonial family, taken over in the 1960s by Algerians.
Humour, too, is new: Allah Superstar, a novel by YB, born in Algeria, living in France, uses irony to give a cutting but accurate view of life at the bottom in Parisian suburbia as seen by a young, and necessarily unsuccessful, stand-up comedian. And Jean Gr?r’s novel, Headless Young Managers (influenced by Jonathan Coe and very popular in France) satirises the ruthless and brainless business world.
But probably this year’s most anticipated book, after the success of his Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is Dai Sijie’s Le Complexe de Di, scheduled for publication in Britain next year. Sijie’s second novel opens in Paris where Muo, a Chinese student of psychoanalysis, is living in exile. Returning home to obtain the release of his girlfriend, an imprisoned journalist, he sets off on his bicycle. The success of his quixotic mission depends on an ability to overpower, in mental combat, the cruel judge Di, who will release Muo’s fianc?only in return for a young virgin.
If Goncourt’s “work of the imagination” still means that, Dai Sijie is my choice for ?10.