The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away


[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.

 

Blood Rites in Paris

On this occasion I read an extract from the French edition of Stewart Home‘s Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie before translating the author’s answers to questions from the audience.

From left to right: Emilie Notéris (éditions ère), Stewart Home and me at Galerie Martine Aboucaya, Paris, 19 March 2011.

A History of Pie Activism

This appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 20 July 2011:

From Jonnie Marbles to the Yippies: A History of Pie Activism
The attack on Rupert Murdoch is part of a tradition of patisserie activism — but shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing
Noel Godin, political custard pie thrower
[Nöel Godin, political custard pie thrower. Photograph: Van Parys/Corbis]

Jonathan May-Bowles (aka Jonnie Marbles), who attacked Rupert Murdoch during yesterday’s phone-hacking hearing, has all the makings of a formidable flan flinger. In his capacity as comedian-cum-activist, he embodies a kind of Platonic ideal of patisserie terrorism – that strange interface between slapstick and protest.

Pie-throwing as a political gesture has its roots in the Groucho-Marxism of the 1960s student uprisings and, more specifically, in the prankish happenings of the Yippies. Tom Forçade, the founder of High Times magazine, is usually considered to have perpetrated the very first political pie crime in 1970. Aron Kay, who came to be known as “The Yippie Pie Man”, followed suit, covering countless politicians and celebrities (including the mayor of New York City and Andy Warhol) in cream, between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Yesterday, he allegedly posted a message on a website giving his full support to May-Bowles: “Murdoch definitely needed a pie, for sure.” However, it was a Belgian anarchist who really put “patisserie guerrilla” on the map. One could argue that he even managed to turn it into an art form.

In the late 60s, Nöel Godin was, among other things, a film critic who amused himself by reviewing movies he hadn’t seen or that didn’t even exist. Georges Le Gloupier, a fictitious film director (invented by his partner in crime Jean-Pierre Bouyxou), made regular appearances in these reviews.

In 1969, Godin wrote that Le Gloupier had been so outraged by Robert Bresson‘s latest film that he had felt compelled to chuck a “Mack Sennett-style” pie smack in the director’s face. In a sequel, he went on to describe how the French novelist Marguerite Duras had avenged the initial “creamy affront” by giving Le Gloupier an impromptu pastry pasting while he was dining out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Madame,” said the biter bit after licking his frothy chops, “I prefer your patisserie to your novels.”

Through some quirk of fate, the publication of the second article coincided with Madame Duras’s arrival in Belgium on a promotional tour. This proved a godsend to Godin, who decided to give a final twist to this burlesque saga. He ambushed the prime exponent of the “empty novel” and treated her to a real custard pie this time round. A visiting card was nestling in the incredible, edible weapon. It read: “With the compliments of Le Gloupier.”

The seminal Duras drubbing provided a blueprint for all the subsequent pie attacks. A few months later, it was choreographer Maurice Béjart‘s turn to fall victim to a Chantilly crime. By that time, Le Gloupier had acquired all his distinctive features: the refined dinner jacket and bow tie of gentleman-burglar Arsène Lupin, the false beard and spectacles of a cartoon, bomb-throwing anarchist and, last but not least, the absurd “gloup! gloup!” mantra. In the time-honoured tradition of Galatea, Pinocchio and sundry gingerbread men legging it after rising from the pastry board, Le Gloupier took on a life of his own: he started popping up all over the place, unbeknown to his creator, who was often associated with attacks he had taken no part in, but was only too willing to take credit for.

According to Godin, a well-aimed pie can break through the victim’s public image and lay bare his true character. New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, reacted in good-humoured fashion and refused to press charges. By contrast, Bernard-Henri Lévy reacted violently and was flanned on at least five occasions as a result. The vendetta against the pop philosopher turned into a running gag in France.

The movement probably peaked in 1998, with the pieing of Bill Gates. Godin had now become a celebrity in his own right, and was frequently invited on live TV shows to be pied by presenters he had himself pied. The whole thing was descending into farce. However, the website of Godin’s “Internationale pâtissière” continues to advertise the latest pie attacks on a monthly, and sometimes even weekly, basis. The pieing of Murdoch could well be the sign of a revival.

Jonathan May-Bowles still has a thing or two to learn, though. A plateful of shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing. Godin once told the Observer: “We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them.”

****

Here is a longer (unpublished) version of the same piece:

Jonathan May-Bowles, who attacked Rupert Murdoch during yesterday’s phone-hacking hearing, has all the makings of a formidable flan flinger. In his capacity as comedian-cum-activist, he embodies a kind of Platonic ideal of patisserie terrorism — that strange interface between slapstick and protest. Pity, then, that he didn’t take a leaf out of Mack Sennett‘s book: “A mother never gets hit with a custard pie,” warned the Hollywood director, who knew a thing or two about the use of confectionery as weaponry, “Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers? Never”. Old men are also a no-no, even if they happen to be at the head of an evil international media conglomerate. Pieing is always a difficult balancing act, a subtle blend of humour and anger, and in this case the first, vital ingredient was sorely lacking. Like the pie itself — a plateful of shaving foam — it wasn’t the real thing. Instead of shattering the spectacle (in Situationist parlance), May-Bowles has simply provided a perfect photo opportunity illustrating the metaphorical humble pie that Murdoch was already eating. Worse still, the media mogul may come out of this looking like the victim.

Pie-throwing as a political gesture has its roots in the Groucho-Marxism of the 60s student uprisings and, more specifically, in the prankish happenings of the Yippies in the United States. Tom Forçade, the founder of High Times magazine, is usually considered to have perpetrated the very first political pie crime in 1970. Aron Kay, who came to be known as “The Yippie Pie Man”, followed suit, covering countless politicians and celebrities (including the mayor of New York City and Andy Warhol) in cream, between the late 70s and early 90s. Yesterday, he allegedly posted a message on a website giving his full support to May-Bowles: “Murdoch definitely needed a pie, for sure!” However, it was Belgian anarchist Noël Godin who really put “patisserie guerrilla” on the map. One could argue that he even managed to turn it into an art form.

Like Aron Kay, Godin was influenced by the slapstick of the Three Stoges and the political ferment of 1968, but he also drew inspiration from the insurrectionary humour of late nineteenth-century French anarcho-pranksters like the Hydropathes or the Zutistes, to whom he paid homage in his anthology of radical subversion (Anthologie de la subversion carabinée, 1988).

In the late 60s, Godin was, among other things, a film critic who amused himself by reviewing movies he hadn’t seen or that didn’t even exist. Georges Le Gloupier, a fictitious film director (invented by his partner in crime Jean-Pierre Bouyxou), made regular appearances in these reviews. In1969, Godin wrote that Le Gloupier had been so outraged by Robert Bresson’s latest film, that he had felt compelled to chuck a “Mack Sennett-style” pie smack in the director’s face. In a sequel worthy of one of Joe Orton’s classic epistolary pranks, he went on to describe how the French novelist Marguerite Duras had avenged the initial “creamy affront” by giving Le Gloupier an impromptu pastry pasting while he was dining out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Madame,” said the biter bit after licking his frothy chops, “I prefer your patisserie to your novels”. Through some quirk of fate, the publication of the second article coincided with Mme Duras’s arrival in Belgium on a promotional tour. This proved a godsend to Godin. The affair was causing so much fuss that the novelist was immediately forced to hold a press conference during which she repeatedly denied all prior knowledge of “Le Gloutier” (sic). Godin decided to give a final twist to this burlesque saga, thus illustrating Wilde’s dictum that life imitates art. He ambushed the prime exponent of the “empty novel,” and treated her to a real custard pie this time round. A visiting card was nestling in the incredible, edible weapon. It read: “With the compliments of Le Gloupier”.

The seminal Duras drubbing provided a blueprint for all the subsequent pie attacks. Le Gloupier’s metamorphosis into a latter-day noble bandit figure had occured overnight. A few months later, it was choreographer Maurice Béjart’s turn to fall victim to a chantilly crime. By that time, Le Gloupier had acquired all his distinctive features: the refined dinner jacket and bow tie of gentleman-cambrioleur Arsène Lupin, the false beard and spectacles of a cartoon, bomb-throwing anarchist and, last but not least, the absurd “gloup! gloup!” slogan. In the time-honoured tradition of Galatea, Pinocchio and sundry gingerbread men legging it after rising from the pastry board, Le Gloupier took on a life of his own, popping up all over the place, unbeknown to his creator, who was sometimes associated with attacks he had taken no part in, but was only too willing to take credit for.

According to Godin, custard pies are the weapons of “the weak and powerless” (L.A. Times). A well-aimed pie can shatter the pompous and vacuous public image of a celebrity in a matter of seconds. Le Gloupier’s targets (politicians, journalists, actors, pop stars, writers) are never selected at random (“Every victim has to be thoroughly justified,” The Observer) and his weapons are chosen with the same meticulous care (“We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them”). Pseudo-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was flanned on five different occasions because he was “totally in love with himself” and epitomized “empty, vanity-filled literature”.

According to Godin, a well-aimed pie can break through the victim’s public image and lay bare his true character. New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, reacted in good-humoured fashion and refused to press charges. By contrast, Bernard-Henri Lévy reacted violently and was flanned on at least five occasions as a result. The vendetta against the pop philosopher turned into a running gag in France.

The movement probably peaked in 1998, with the pieing of Bill Gates. Godin had now become a celebrity in his own right, and was frequently invited on live TV shows to be pied by presenters he had himself pied. The whole thing was descending into farce. However, the website of Godin’s “Internationale pâtissière” continues to advertise the latest pie attacks on a monthly, and sometimes even weekly, basis. The pieing of Murdoch could well be the sign of a revival.

Jonathan May-Bowles still has a thing or two to learn, though. A plateful of shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing. Godin once told the Observer: “We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them.”

Journal

I spent half the night tossing and turning, fending off panic attack upon panic attack, fretting over everything in general; in particular, a few sentences I’d spent ages trying — and failing — to write. To think that, on a good day, Michael Moorcock can toss off some 50,000 words — or so I read in Hari Kunzru’s fascinating interview in The Guardian yesterday.

Naturally, today was a bit of a blur. I met one of my three half-sisters at Anvers. As I was early, I had a coffee at Les Oiseaux, a café across the road from La Cigale, the famous concert hall. I remember going there after an Interpol gig, in 2003, with a group of friends that included the young lady who would become my wife: that’s obviously one of the reasons why I’m fond of that café. It’s also slightly secluded and a good spot for people-watching — the prerequisites for any good Parisian café. It was mild and sunny, so I sat outside. It almost felt as though spring had arrived. It felt good, or as good as could be in my present state. It felt almost good. It almost felt good.

The restaurant experience was slightly surreal. For starters, the owner, who I had down as a typically Gallic character, was entertaining a young English guy in perfect English. He may well have been bilingual; I couldn’t hear him well enough to make sure. Then another English guy came in and they all started talking about Zadie Smith. (I almost expected her to walk in at this juncture.) Was he a literary agent or a translator? He was accompanied by a young woman — probably a writer — who was all dressed in black. The gaffer remarked that she looked scary. I glanced over at her. She was staring blankly at the menu. I felt I knew how she felt. Of course, it may just have been the effect produced by the menu.

On my way home, I walked past another restaurant. In fact, I walked past many other restaurants, but in this particular one I spotted an old mate of mine. He had already spotted me, but pretended he hadn’t. I followed suit.

Switched on the telly this evening, and my friend Tom McCarthy, was being interviewed about Tristram Shandy. As usual, he was spot-on. “A novel,” he said, “is something that contains its own negation, right?” Right.

I have always been very ambivalent about journals. I’m wary of the idea of writing as self-expression. I’ve always found it very difficult to talk about myself, as I fail to understand how anyone could be interested. People are attracted to journals in order to discover other people’s secret, private lives but I would never record anything that could embarrass anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings. Simon Critchley writes — and I was re-reading this yesterday — that “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing. …” Perhaps I don’t want to remember. Or can’t. I’m not even sure such a person really exists anyway.

The Expatriate Literary Scene in Paris

Anthony Cuthbertson, “From the Lost to the Beat to Now,” Notes From the Underground 19 November 2010

The expatriate literary scene in Paris

What Allen Ginsberg called, ‘The bewildering beauty of Paris’ has attracted writers and artists for centuries. It has been the setting of great novels and the home of great writers, and in the last hundred years has briefly been the stage for two waves of expatriate writers that changed the face of modern literature: the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. Fifty years have passed since the latter faded away, and though the expatriate literary scene has remained vibrant, no significant movement has since emerged. However, with the arrival of new soirées, literary journals, writers’ workshops and readings, as well as a fresh generation of writers flocking to Paris, a new wave may well be rolling in.

Historically, Paris has been a place of refuge for artists and writers. It has attracted political and cultural exiles fleeing the injustice and intolerance of their homelands, offering them a liberal safe haven and allowing them artistic freedom. In the 1920’s and 1950’s it became a place of escape for those left disenfranchised by the World Wars. The Génération perdue, as Gertrude Stein named them, included writers like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, and later James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. They were a generation disillusioned by the horrors they had witnessed in the First World War, and who felt disaffected and betrayed by their governments back home. Pound wrote of his contemporaries, ‘(they) walked eye-deep in hell believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving came home, home to a lie’. They gathered in cafés and hung about Stein’s salon to share ideas, bottles of absinthe and write, together forming a movement that still resonates strongly today.

By the time the Second World War and the occupation of Paris came about, these writers had for the most part moved on. Although some later returned after the war (Hemingway famously ‘liberated’ rue de l’Odéon, the then site of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company), a new literary movement in the form of the Beat Generation arrived. Leading figures of the Beats, including William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Ginsberg, came to Paris for much the same reasons as their predecessors. They sought refuge from the strict conformist confines of McCarthy-era America and found it in Paris. In the years that have followed the departure of the Beats, Paris has remained a centre for culture and art. It continues to attract writers and artists with its history and beauty and the lively literary scene is a reflection of its magnetism.

The first stop for any would-be writer or literary pilgrim should be Shakespeare & Company. Its location may have moved over the years but the spirit and the name have remained. The current owner, George Whitman, has described it as ‘a den of poets and anarchists disguised as a bookshop’, having been sanctuary to writers of both the Lost and Beat Generations. The writers, whom George refers to as ‘tumbleweeds’, drift through the doors and find community and lodging in the poky upstairs rooms in exchange for helping out in the shop below. Supporting young writers continues to be one of the cornerstones of S&C. As well as providing a place to stay, they hold workshops, readings and even organize a literary festival every other year. They have also recently relaunched their literary magazine (The Paris Magazine), and announced the Paris Literary Prize (10,000€) for unpublished writers. In its current location on the banks of the Seine it is as much a tourist attraction as it is a bookshop, but between the piles of books still remain bunks for the next hopeful Hemingway to stay.

Beyond this pillar of the past not much remains of the old haunts of writers beyond landmarks and tourist traps. It is easy to get lost wallowing in the myth of Paris but for new writers it is essential to escape the seductive expatriate past, away from the romance of the Latin quarter and the ghosts that wander the left bank, and over to the other side of the river to where the literary scene is shifting.
Boulevard Saint Germain and its surrounds have developed from bohemian havens to bourgeois hangouts popular with tourists. The cafés once frequented by the likes of Hemingway and Joyce, such as Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots and Le Dôme, now sell souvenir memorabilia and a cup of coffee can set you back six euros.

Nowadays it is areas like Belleville and the 19th and 20th arrondissements in the east of Paris where the cost of living is the cheapest that have become the new centres of the literary scene. These parts of Paris continue to provide a conducive environment for young and aspiring writers.

Paris-based writers have often remarked that unlike other big city literary communities, Paris has an open-minded and accepting scene that encourages experimental forms and welcomes outsiders. David Barnes, the founder and compère of a spoken word poetry night in Belleville at Culture Rapide, describes Paris as “a beautiful backwater where life is slower than New York or London. It gives breathing space, distance from the anglo-metropoles that supports writing”.

He argues that the English speaking community in Paris is just the right size “to come together and do something, to provide a home and platform for, to nurture and be nourished by.” The spoken word nights that take place every week welcome anyone and everyone up on stage to read a poem, tell a story or perform a play — the only rule being ‘make the words come alive’. A collective has formed around this café with regulars comprising English speakers from around the world.

In an age where literary scenes and movements are becoming more international by way of the internet, less centred around a location and more around uniting notions and ideals, Paris has managed to retain its place as one of the world’s literary hubs. Since the turn of this century, a movement referred to as the Offbeat Generation has partly formed in Paris. They comprise of a loose collection of like-minded writers, including Lee Rourke and Booker prize nominee Tom McCarthy, who feel alienated by a mainstream publishing industry dominated by marketing. Paris is home to the founder of this movement, Andrew Gallix, whose Paris-based literary magazine 3:AM has provided the main platform for the Offbeats.

Other English language literary magazines that have formed in Paris in recent years include Double Change, Upstairs at Duroc and Platform. The most recent of these, Platform, formed around the spoken word night at Culture Rapide.

As fate would have it, this new scene that is emerging is forming beside where many of their predecessors have found their final resting place: the Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is behind these gates that you can find the graves of such literary icons as Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde.

Its legacy may be one of the great appeals of Paris, though it is the smallness and accessibility of the anglophone writing communities, combined with their supportive and inclusive atmospheres, that is currently causing such a surge in the scene. It seems now that the stories shape the city as much as the city once shaped the stories and for any aspiring writer coming to Paris it would be easy to feel intimidated by the past. For them it is perhaps best to consider again the words of Allen Ginsberg: “You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem a burden”. The scenes may be as transient as the writers, but the essence of Paris endures.