Director of our research branch, Mark Greif, has sent me on a French fishing expedition. Here are some results, though for the moment just the Paris branch of them (no colonies). I’ll also try to call Houellebecq this week, for those translation rights, if we have the right number.
A brief history of 20th century French fiction:
in the oughts and teens it was Catholicism, Conservatism, Dreyfus
in the twenties it was the Unconscious and Communism
in the thirties it was Anthropology and Communism
in the forties, well, we don’t talk much about the forties, but it was
a hard time to be a novelist and you can understand that one must make compromises.
in the fifties, it was language as structure
in the sixties it was language as destructure
in the seventies it was sex, sex, sex, and feminine writing
in the eighties, it was still sex with some regrets and gay sex
in the nineties it was the free market.
There are exceptions to this schematic, actually the canon of great 20th-century fiction is largely exceptional: Gide, Proust, Bernanos, Camus, Blanchot, Colette, largely exceed these joky categories. In the 2nd rank though, form holds. Go through the PQ2000 section in LC classification (roughly done by decade and alphabetically) and you’ll find authors who fit oh so snugly into the paradigms. The French are classicizers and everything they touch becomes classicism, even pornography. There are oddballs and Louis Calaferte’s Septentrion is one. He was a little ahead of the curve on sex. Septentrion is published in 1962: “Au début était le sexe,” is its opening line. Almost its last, “le sexe est la mort et la resurrection.” In between, you’d expect a lot of sex, at least as much as Henry Miller. In this respect, it’s disappointing. Septentrion is a bildungsroman, the story of how nameless working class boy fails to become a writer in two hundred numbing pages. I haven’t read them all, but I challenge anyone to do so when they have better things to do. There’s a 20 page encomium to reading in public toilets and the joys of shitting. For a while it looks like autodidacticism will triumph over sex, but, no, sex wins in the end. The grand discovery of the working class writer: the Bourgeoisie are too uptight, and while they may write novels, they miss out on life. “Writing is a tomb” our narrator declares. The novel is confessional and the French confessional tradition is dangerous. Rousseau is an obvious model and still the best. Chateaubriand is a purer stylist, but he’s obsessed with religion and death. For French purposes, he invents the idea that writing is a kind of living death and that one writes when you’ve nothing better to do and suicide is not an option. However, I challenge anyone to read Chateaubriand’s “Memoir d’outre tombe” and not be weepingly bored. Septentrion is very late french romantic, style Chateaubriand. Somehow the novel is too late and too early. Its main contribution seems to have been its conversational tone, colloquial and also a mix of low and high.
It’s not until the 70s that sex takes over completely and becomes the model for “pure writing.” The case of Pierre Guyotat is instructive. Son of catholic resistants, Pierre deserts during his military service during the height of the Algerian war and is imprisoned and probably tortured. He emerges in Paris in the late 60s as a left-wing idol. Then his second novel, Eden, Eden, Eden (1971), becomes the first banned book since Baudelaire. It’s a porno extravaganza. Written without punctuation, it’s a litany of rapes and s and m in a nameless war zone that resembles French Algeria in the 50s. Guyotat, person, is anti-violence and despairs of the world as anything but a place where the powerful fuck the powerless. His visions are, in some way, probably very close to the truth of what it’s like to be in Algeria, or Bosnia, or Colombia. It’s a bit like Road Warrior without the satisfactions of the revenge plot. It’s just 500 pages of serial rapes. Guyotat, writer, is championed by Tel Quel as the “real thing.” Pure writing at its impurest. All writing is control, rape, manipulation, the great doors of the unconscious have been fucked wide open. Guyotat believes his press, talks about writing while masturbating. Insists he only writes while masturbating. There were clues. His first book, Tombeau pour cinq cents mille soldats. It’s the same thing with a bit more narrative structure (revenge is suggested, and then coolly denied) and lots of vampirism and raw meat. Of note, the “enemy country” taking over the world is called “Septentrion” and in the title we hear the warnings of Calaferte’s narrator about writing and entombment. Is this irony? Coincidence? Critique? Next to Guyotat, Calaferte and Henry Miller are prudes. I’ll tell you that I find all this sex and violence disgusting. That’s the point. I’m properly bourgeois, bien-sûr. But I’m amazed that Guyotat, who ought to have been treated as a polemical savage, was instead crowned as a liberatory genius. It’s his bad luck that he believed it. It’s as though French intellectuals discovered Darwinism late and erected biology into destiny and the replacement for dogmatic catholicism all too quickly, celebrating it as freedom and deploring it as tyranny at the same time.
Guyotat is still alive, he’s only 64, but he hasn’t really done anything of note since the 70s. It seems like he’s working on a 3-part enormous book that someone could look into. He’s also become a campaigner for prostitutes’ rights. This a long way of saying this is not my taste in fiction.
How can I like Houellebecq then? Houellebecq is a model of positive restraint compared to what came before. He’s so much more open-minded than the absolutist 68-ers, especially Sollers. Houellebecq at least offers characters who are capable of dissent from dominant models in either sex, politics, economics, or aesthetics. Elementary Particles offers two possible responses to the problem of sex and late capitalism, developed through character rather than style. So coming from America, Houellebecq looks like the next great novelist a thèse, approaching him from France, he marks a much-needed return to rich realism, but only a partially successful effort at it. In choosing our Frenchies, we should choose carefully, or at least contextualize fully. I’ve mentioned a neglected 1990s novel to Mark and I’ll continue reading it to see if its neglect is deserved or not. It’s another bildungsroman but it’s more up to date than Calaferte’s and so possibly of greater interest, and explicitly about the link between pro-porno Frenchies of the 70s, the yearning for religious mysticism, and the search for the holy grail of the next original style in fiction. It may explain this mysterious tendency to make organized sex into the substitute for organized religion. I hope it does.