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.

 

Marc-Edouard Nabe: The ‘Unacceptable’ Face of French Controversy

This appeared in Guardian Books on 23 March 2011:

Marc-Edouard Nabe: The ‘Unacceptable’ Face of French Controversy

An incendiary commentator on modern-day French society, the writer has chronicled the strange death of France’s joie de vivre


[Me, myself and I … Marc-Édouard Nabe. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features]

Marc-Édouard Nabe has always relished playing with fire, but never more so than when he burned what would have been the fifth volume of his journal. His main motivation was to avoid being trapped in a Shandyesque race with time, ending up pigeonholed as a diarist. Nevertheless, he went on to describe this event in Alain Zannini, his 2002 novel, which was so blatantly autobiographical that it even bore his real name as its title (Nabe, short for “nabot” — midget — is a nom de plume). The implication was clear: having lived his life in order to narrate it, Zannini had gradually become Nabe’s creation. What, then, would happen if the writer were to stop writing?

This ontological question is raised in L’Homme qui Arrêta d’Écrire (The Man who Stopped Writing, 2010), which begins with the author-narrator’s paradoxical assertion — given the length of the tome, let alone its very existence — that he has forsaken literature after being dropped by his publisher. “A publisher paying me to write books nobody reads,” he deadpans, “I thought this would go on for ever.”

For the best part of two decades, the real-life Nabe had received a monthly wage from Les Éditions du Rocher. When this stipend was suddenly withdrawn, following a takeover in 2005, the author decided to take legal action. Throughout the lengthy lawsuit, he expressed himself by means of posters, which his hardcore supporters pasted all over the walls of France’s major cities. He also maintained the fiction that his authorial days were over, so as to remain in character while writing his novel about writing no more.

The appearance of L’Homme qui Arrêta d’Écrire thus came as quite a surprise, not least because Nabe chose to go down the self-publishing, or rather “anti-publishing,” route. The minimalist jet-black cover has a whiff of piracy about it: no barcode, no ISBN, no publisher’s name or logo; the spine remains bare. On the front, the author’s name is reduced to “Nabe” as if it had become a brand, and on the back you only find a number, indicating that it is the writer’s 28th published work (and seventh novel). The book is exclusively available through an official website and a handful of highly unlikely retailers (a butcher’s, a florist’s, a hairdresser’s and two restaurants at the last count). By cutting out the middleman, Nabe claims to be able to make 70% profit, instead of the usual 10%, on each copy sold. The initial print run — funded by the sale of his paintings (Nabe is also an artist and jazz guitarist) — sold out within a month. The novel was even shortlisted for the prestigious Renaudot prize, a first for a self-published volume in France.

This declaration of war on the publishing industry is in keeping with Nabe’s image as a latter-day écrivain maudit. Initially accused of being a neo-fascist (partly because of his predilection for Céline and Lucien Rebatet), Nabe is now frequently depicted as a pro-Palestinian leftist. His first television appearance, in 1985, proved so incendiary that he was beaten up by a leading anti-racist campaigner. Looking every inch the provocative young fogey, complete with centre parting, bow tie and retro spectacles, he declared that every day he shoots up with a Montblanc pen full of “utter hatred of humanity”. A great admirer of Jacques Mesrine, Nabe famously befriended the flamboyant bankrobber Albert Spaggiari as well as Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Following 9/11, he produced a pamphlet entitled A Glimmer of Hope and, since then, has repeatedly argued that Osama bin Laden is only acting in self-defence. In 2003, he even travelled to Baghdad, where he protested against the invasion of Iraq in typically Gallic fashion: by writing a novel. These antics may have earned him a large cult following, but Mazarine Pingeot summed up the views of many when she declared that Nabe was “unfortunately” a great writer.

Great or not, Marc-Édouard Nabe is an important figure on the French literary scene. Along with Michel Houellebecq, he is one of the only authors to have chronicled the strange death of France’s joie de vivre. With its rogues’ gallery of modern Tartuffes, L’Homme qui Arrêta d’Écrire is a roman à clef that lampoons every aspect of contemporary Parisian life, particularly its incestuous literary milieu peopled with floppy-haired Beigbeder clones. This, alas, is one of the reasons why the novel probably won’t be translated: most references would be lost on a foreign readership. The names of all the famous people who appear have been slightly doctored (Depardieu, for instance, becomes Depardieux), signalling that they have stepped through the looking-glass of fiction. As one of the characters remarks, a mere typo can plunge you into another universe.

This grey area between fact and fiction has been the stomping ground of many a French author since the late 70s, when Serge Doubrovsky coined the word “autofiction“. In recent months alone, both Régis Jauffret and Christine Angot have been sued for fictionalising real-life events and individuals. Zannini/Nabe, whose entire oeuvre is haunted by the figure of the double, once said that his novel Alain Zannini — in which Zannini and Nabe meet — was told in the “double person singular”. Sometimes, however, I really is another, rather than just the other half of a divided self.

Although no oil painting, Houellebecq is Dorian Gray to Nabe’s picture — the acceptable face of controversy. Or at least this is Nabe’s spin on events. In the early 90s, both men lived at the same address (103 Rue de la Convention in the 15th arrondissement) facing each other, like bookends, across a cobbled courtyard. Both belong to the same generation, come from similar lower middle-class backgrounds, had domineering Corsican mothers they rebelled against and established their reputations by courting controversy. Nabe was the senior partner in this relationship, up until the success of Atomised in 1998.