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.

Celesteville’s Burning

A slightly different version* of this story was published online by The White Review on 22 September 2011.

Celesteville’s Burning

Zut, zut, zut, zut
– Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu

Sostène Zanzibar was not feeling himself that day; someone else was. A journalist from an English paper. Name of Phyllidia. Or possibly Petronella. Something along those lines. The interview had gone remarkably well. Such probing questions. Very stimulating, very in-depth. There was no denying that Sienna — or possibly Serena — was thoroughly a young woman. Hang on, cross that out. Was a thorough young woman. Very thorough indeed.

In a bid to impress her host, she had taken up gesticulation with all the fervour of a new convert. It was a joy to behold. Her impeccably-manicured hands would suddenly flutter away from the warmth of her lap, describing graceful ellipses as if trying to conjure up words that could not possibly exist. Ever. In any language. Even French.

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.

Allegra — or possibly Anushka — had struggled to fully comprehend the answers to some (if not most) of her questions. The fact that the former usually bore little (if any) relation to the latter did not help. Neither did Zanzibar’s scattergun delivery nor his baffling habit of peppering his sentences with arcane references to Heidegger and Blanchot. Whenever he switched to pigeon English, he sounded like Jacques Derrida dubbed by Inspector Clouseau, which proved an even greater source of confusion. Of course, now that she was grinding her crotch against his salient features, that his nose kept popping in and out of her prize orifices, Zanzibar’s discourse was largely inaudible anyway. This was as it should be. She wanted to move beyond surface meaning, to experience his words at a more physical — and yet more spiritual — level. That of muffled stubble-mumbles. Warm, moist exhalations. Visceral verbal vibrations. Epic poems licked on to her clitoris, one labial consonant at a time.

Candida — or possibly Chlamydia — tried in vain to decipher the text that was presently being lapped on to her nether regions. She had long removed her horn-rimmed glasses (just before shaking her hair loose), squinting was unbecoming, the letters were upside down, Zanzibar’s tonguewriting — famously dismissed as ‘chicken-scratch squiggles’ by a one-night-stand graphologist — was indeed diabolical and, frankly, the spelling mistakes were doing her head in. It began to dawn on her that, although patently the recipient of this work in progress, she may not be its target audience. In fact, she was now convinced that she was not. Oh no. She was a mouthpiece. A conduit. An instrument. A sounding-board. A relay point. A mediator between the General Reading Public (GRP) and some obscure creative power within Zanzibar that was now being channelled through her. She felt frightfully oracular — a proper little Pythia — and more than a little empowered by the impulses her firm, nubile body was adding in to the mix. These impulses were barely perceptible, but they were definitely there amid all the crosstalk, crackle, static, dribble and thermal noise distorting the transmitted data. She closed her eyes and pictured dozens of snails leaving letter-shaped trails — crinkly slivers of silver — all over her cunt, like so many miniature calligraphers. Now the snails were topsy-turvy, à la bourguignonne, a bubbling mixture of parsley and breadcrumbs oozing from their exposed buttery apertures. Now the snails had morphed into winkles, clustered around her labia minora, in homage to Zanzibar’s controversial debut.

Published in late 1986, Je suis la Femme Bigorneau was a succès de scandale which took the literary establishment by storm; a cause célèbre that turned Zanzibar overnight into the enfant terrible of French letters. Like Leos Carax’s film Mauvais sang, also released at the end of that year, it seemed to capture the zeitgeist and polarise opinion along a generational fault line. Louis Pauwels, editor of Le Figaro Magazine, claimed the novella was a perfect illustration of the ‘mental AIDS’ afflicting the nation’s youth. ‘Makes Schopenhauer sound positively chipper,’ wrote Josyanne Savigneau in her full-page rave review for Le Monde. ‘The kind of book that exists on the slippery cusp between pure genius and utter rubbish,’ wrote a critic at Le Matin de Paris. ‘Bof!’ Philippe Sollers is reported to have said, when sounded on the subject, mid-pied de porc farci grillé, at Brasserie Lipp. Zanzibar was all over the gossip columns too. He dated Béatrice Dalle (who had recently starred in Betty Blue), wrote a song for Etienne Daho, appeared in a video with Les Rita Mitsouko (playing the glockenspiel), spent his nights at the ultra chic Bains Douches nightclub and was headbutted by Jean d’Ormesson during Apostrophes, the highly influential TV show. His parents — René and Monique — told Actuel that they had always known, deep down, that Sostène was special. ‘On sentait bien qu’il allait devenir artiste ou écrivain,’ said his mum. ‘C’était vraiment un chieur,’ his father concurred. They confided that they had done their level best to make him as miserable as possible throughout his childhood so as to provide him with a lifetime of neuroses that would feed his future creative endeavours. ‘N’empêche qu’on a drôlement bien réussi notre coup,’ said René, beaming with paternal pride: it was the gift that keeps giving. Zanzibar, however, was overwhelmed by his new-found notoriety. Béatrice Dalle soon left him and he started dabbling in too many drugs. Rumour has it that he could drink the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Antoine Blondin or Alain Pacadis under the table — literally in the latter’s case. His next three books were minor bestsellers, and one of them was even turned into a film with Juliette Binoche (La Bonniche, 1991), but Zanzibar was never able to replicate the impact of Bigorneau, which he always likened to his seminal first orgasm (1979). Each new novel resembled an increasingly faded photocopy of the original blueprint, giving rise to what Sam Jordison recently described in The Guardian as ‘a sense of perpetual déjà vu on a dimmer switch’. Bref, his work seemed condemned to a gradual, but irreversible, running down; a depletion of vital energy that implied a dismal future of erectile dysfunction, hair loss and growing inertia.

Angela — or possibly Nigella — glanced at the twit beneath her twat. She recalled how her heart had sunk upon entering the spacious study where the interview would take place. The fabled author was standing at the far end of the room admiring a framed photomontage of a lady with a Morphy Richards iron in lieu of a head. His cat — Erwin — was rubbing himself against his calves in the most wanton fashion. A rebours, Zanzibar’s rampant alopecia made him look like Kojak with a beard growing on the wrong side of his face. To be honest, she would have been hard pressed to say which of these visions was most unsettling. It was as if she had been shown the gates of Paradise only to be denied entrance by some burly bouncer with a gold medallion, a Brummie accent, a bad case of halitosis and a mullet. Covered in dandruff.

The journalist’s black Moleskin notebook lay open, face down, on the coffee table. After an hour or so, weighty topics had been dropped in favour of increasingly flirtatious small talk. Zanzibar got up to refill her glass and, instinctively, she got up too and now they were kissing, deep and slow, their tongues going round and round like the ground bass number in the background, and he gently lifted up her summer frock as the melody soared over the looping bassline, and their bodies were grinding, their tongues intertwining, her head spinning and she found herself reclining — à la bourguignonne — in a Le Corbusier-style chaise longue. ‘J’aime quand ça s’incarne,’ she whispered, drawing him into her buttery aperture with her long legs that he wore over his shoulders in the manner of a sweater casually knotted around a Continental neck. Leaning on her forearms, she tilted her head back, closed her eyes and bit her lip. A slow intake of breath — like a deep drag on a cigarette — subsided into a faint, low-pitched moan, not dissimilar to the sound a puppy makes when kicked.

Suddenly, Zanzibar was all at sea in an endless desert of snow. The ghostly whiteness of her teeth — which he instantly interpreted as Melvillian with Malevichian overtones — sent shivers down his spine, as though the absence it seemed to materialise mirrored his own. Her whole body, he now sensed with each new caress, was designed to frame the void, which, otherwise, would remain invisible — white on white.

His heart was pounding; he was perspiring profusely and his penis had shrivelled up like a salted snail. In order to get his bearings, he endeavoured to recall the journalist’s bloody name once and for all. It could have been Gemma. Or even Emma, for all he knew. Unless, of course, it was Linda. Or Belinda — he would not have put it past her, the little minx. Luella rang a bell — as did Annabella. Not to mention Tamsin and Tamara; Imogen and Iphgenia. It was on the tip of his tongue… Got it! Tippi. Ah, Tippi, Tippi, Tippi. Ze tip of ze tongue taking a trip of two steps down ze palate… Or was it Trixie? Calliope? Suki, Sadie — Parthenope?…

When he was toing, her face appeared blank and featureless: totally inscrutable. When he was froing, it seemed to run the emotional gamut from mild surprise to utter boredom in quick succession. There was either too little or too much information to process. Worlds, he felt, were splitting. Splitting all the time.

All you could hear now was a serving spoon squelching its way through a bowl of pasta. Whatsherface had long stopped biting her lip and her body had grown so limp that he began wondering if she was not asleep, in a coma, or even dead. The thought did cross his mind. Then, she started convulsing and screaming as though she were being torn asunder: ‘Sostène, where are you? Where are you, Sostène? Reviens! Reviens, Sostène! Sostène, reviens! SOSTEEEENE! SOSTEEEEEEEENE!’

‘Thanks,’ she said, upon leaving. Zanzibar stared at the outstretched hand last seen clasping his erect penis. ‘For having me?’ she added by way of explanation, but the high-rising terminal transformed her statement into a question. A final probing question that she left dangling like one of Fat Pat’s earrings as she departed with a toss of hair and a rustle of chiffon. She was marching past the cat who, curled up on a beanbag, did not even bother to look up. She was making her way down the transparent spiral staircase that seemed — like her — to be wound around nothing. Zanzibar just stood there, in the doorway, buffeted by the fragrant breeze she had generated. With closed eyes, he breathed in a lungful of her absence and just stood there. He just stood there, caught in her slipstream. Winded, he just stood there. He just stood there. ‘Putain!’ he muttered and finally closed the door.

****

Bearing a striking resemblance to Ursula Andress (had she been immortalised by Botticelli), the presidential candidate emerged from the sea to spontaneous cries of ‘Vive la République!’. She was naked save for a tricolor sash — ‘Un rien m’habille’ — that bisected the perkiest pair of Delacrucian tits to have ever stalked Le Touquet Plage. ‘Tu vois, là,’ said a young father to his son, ‘ce sont les deux mammelles de la France.’ As he pointed, tears welled up in his grateful eyes. Everything would be all right now. Everything. The crowd parted and Mme Royal glided by. Majestically. Regally. Eponymously… Photographers had a field day, fireworks were let off, babies were brandished, a brass band struck up the national anthem and, just when he was about to get an eyeful, Zanzibar found himself back home in his bathroom. He was standing in front of the mirror, trying to remove his contact lenses, which (as he would discover after plucking out an eyeball) he had forgotten to put in. The eye he was now staring at, and that stared back at him intermittently as he rolled it around in the palm of his hand, resembled a large white egg with a black dot inside — or rather the drawing of a white egg. The black dot alone contained more atoms than all the penceuls in the world.

****

Zanzibar was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe. He had opted for the last row, furthest away from the road, with the steps leading up to the theatre right behind him. He was the only one there now, a couple of German tourists having just departed. The sun was shining; birds were chirping in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens: summer was in the air. A waiter — as stylish as he was young — brought over an espresso and a glass of water, which he placed gingerly beside Zanzibar’s copy of Le Monde. They had devoted a whole page to ‘l’affaire Zanzibar’. It was all over the papers, the blogs, the social networks, the news bulletins — both radio and television, local and national. There was no escaping it, and that was precisely why he was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe.

A 58 bus turned into Rue de l’Odéon. Zanzibar followed its slow progress past the clothes shop where the original Shakespeare and Company used to stand. It stopped outside the pharmacy at the other end, on the other side, where an attractive woman he vaguely recognised — but could not quite place — alighted and started walking back in his general direction. As she crossed the road, he identified her as a celebrity graphologist who had publicly pooh-poohed his legendary lovemaking technique a few months back. Name of Amélie. Or possibly Emilie. Something along those lines. It was she too, he now realised, who had played the part of the presidential candidate in that strange dream that was still haunting him. Thankfully, she had not noticed Zanzibar and picked a table in the second row, next to an olive tree in a square metal pot. With an uncanny sense of apropos, she ordered a kir royal. No sooner had the waiter scuttled away than she proceeded to hitch up her maxi dress until vast swathes of toned thigh were exposed to the warm rays. She completed this pre-prandial routine by crossing her legs and lowering, visor-style, the designer sunglasses that had been sitting pretty on her head, like a tiara. Zanzibar’s beady eyes darted from the rear view of the graphologist to the restaurant facing him on the left, back to the graphologist’s signature legs, and on to the Flammarion building facing him on the right. He repeated this circuit many times with meticulous, almost obsessive, care until the person he was waiting for finally emerged from the building.

Théodule Meuniaire was a thirtysomething publishing whizz-kid with rock star good looks, who — it was an open secret — was largely responsible for reviving Zanzibar’s flagging career. He lingered for a few minutes outside Flammarion, talking to someone on his mobile, apparently in a foreign language (probably English), then walked over to his car (a grey Porsche) that was parked only a few metres away. He opened the door, removed his jacket and hung it on a hook inside. Before closing the door, he hooted twice in brief succession while looking over at the pavement café. He waved. Zanzibar quickly unfolded his paper and hid behind it. Peering over his crumpled copy of Le Monde, he saw the graphologist lift up her sunglasses with one hand and wave back with the other. A broad smile had now lit up her face. She sprinkled a few coins on the table and skipped across the road to join her date. They kissed like models in a Doisneau picture and walked, hand in hand, to La Méditerranée, the plush restaurant with its blue exterior and Cocteau decorations. Once they had disappeared from view, Zanzibar called the waiter and whispered something in his ear. ‘Bien sûr, Monsieur, au-cun problème,’ he said. Zanzibar got up and ran over to examine the grey Porsche. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses taunted him from the leather dashboard where they had been conspicuously displayed. With closed eyes, he breathed in a lungful of absence and just stood there. He just stood there, in front of the grey Porsche with the horn-rimmed glasses on the leather dashboard. For a minute or so, he just stood there. He just stood there. ‘Putain!’ he muttered, before making his way back.

The waiter smiled at him and Zanzibar felt obliged to order another espresso. He checked his emails on his iPhone, then glanced at the latest tweets, most of which revolved around ‘l’Affaire’. He ordered yet another smile-induced coffee and started reading again. After a brief recap, the article focused on the prime-time television show, to be broadcast live that very evening, during which a confrontation between Meuniaire and himself was to take place. Whether it would or not was a moot point, not least because the programme consisted of a series of announcements for nominally forthcoming — but, in reality, constantly deferred — features, followed by lengthy commercial breaks, themselves followed by further announcements, and so on until the closing credits. Although quite taken with the concept of a show that was for ever in the process of becoming, Zanzibar had no intention whatsoever of being party to this masquerade. He was equally determined to ensure his rival did not make it to the studio either, and that was — more precisely — why he was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe.

He looked up, squinting into the sun as the waiter returned, just in time to see Meuniaire and the graphologist glide past in the grey Porsche with the horn-rimmed glasses on the leather dashboard.

Putain!

****

In 1992, having finally acknowledged that there was little lead in his penceul left, Sostène Zanzibar embarked on an ill-fated prequel to Genesis. Although this grandiose project would occupy him for the best part of two decades, we have precious little to show for it. A few meagre excerpts appeared at irregular intervals in obscure style magazines whose prohibitive cover prices were inversely proportional to their confidential circulations. The rest of this ‘work in regress,’ as he liked to describe it, was destroyed. One night, in November 2008, the author deleted the computer files containing the typescript and burned all the print-outs he had archived over the years. According to legend, he then took a taxi to Denfert-Rochereau, uncovered a manhole and disappeared down the catacombs where he spent the following fortnight listening to the same album over and over again on a battered old ghetto blaster believed to have once belonged to Don Letts.

Franco-Swiss all-girl band Les Péronelles (think Shangri-Las meet Slits) always maintained that they had rounded off their first (and last) album (Trois fois rien, 1983) with a hidden track. ‘L’Arlésienne’ was so well hidden, however, that no one had ever found it. With time, it became the Holy Grail of Franco-Swiss rock criticism. An early issue of Les Inrockuptibles contained a six-page feature (‘A l’écoute de l’inouï’) devoted to this unheard melody. It included interviews with the producer and sound engineer as well as cultural luminaries such as Gérard Genette, Jean Baudrillard, John Cage and assorted roadies.

Listening to this ten-minute stretch of silence over and over again was a Zen-like experience at first. Soon, though, Zanzibar was able to recognise, and even anticipate, every hum, hiss and crackle on the track: its teeny tiny tinny tinnitus quality. The song had to be concealed behind, or perhaps even within, this silence that was not quite silence. It had to. He even thought he could sense its presence in the same, almost physical, way one is always aware of being observed. It was just out of earshot; a mere whisper away.

By the middle of the second week, a melody had emerged from the static and wormed itself into his eardrums. It was the sound of music leaking from a commuter’s headphones on public transport. It was the sound of a distant party carried on the wind of time, ebbing and flowing. It was the sound of mythical monsters plumbing the murky depths of ancient oceans. It was the sound of half a dozen rashers sizzling away like nobody’s business in a big fuck-off frying pan. Above all, it was the sound of a wannabe troglodyte slowly going out of his mind.

By the end of the second week, the melody had disappeared. It had never been there in the first place; not really. Zanzibar, now at his wit’s end, had a rare eureka moment. The ghost track was not concealed behind, or even within, the silence — it was that silence itself. He had been listening to it all along, or rather he had not: all along, he had been listening into it for something else. There was, however, nothing else: no behind or within; no depth or beyond. Zanzibar had finally acceded to a heightened sense of hearing. He was now firmly convinced that this recording of real silence — silence that was not quite silence — constituted, en soi, some kind of irreducible message. Communication stripped back to its bare essentials; atomised — degré zéro.

The author’s discovery could not but chime with his long-standing interest in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Whenever he wrestled with the blank page and the blank page won, Zanzibar would shrug it off as being of little import since it meant, ipso facto, that another version of himself was scribbling away in some parallel universe. Although this explanation was offered in jest, the author started thinking of his alter ego — hard at work on the Great Novel (GN) he was not working on — with increasing regularity. Some would say that these thoughts even blossomed into a beautiful, full-blown obsession.

In the early days, Zanzibar had tried his hand at creatio ex nihilo. Did not work. He then had a go at recreating the world within a whopping great Gesammtkuntswerk. This proved equally unfruitful. The words he used to conjure things up simply recorded their absence, instead of preserving them for all eternity: Evanescence, ou la naissance d’Eva (1992) expressed nothing but itself — if that. Writing something, as opposed to writing about something, seemed to be the way forward — or rather backward, as it implied rediscovering some prelapsarian language that merged with the reality of things. Chemin faisant, as he strived to bridge the gap between signifier and signified, Zanzibar also hoped to recapture some of that old magic which had inspired Bigorneau back in the day: a soupçon of oomph; un peu de welly. In the event, he did neither. Every single volume he ever published had thus been an approximate translation — and ultimately a failed instantiation — of the ideal book in his head. Were his novels, then, simply intimations or imitations of his other self’s works: dim echoes, pale copies? Were they inferior versions of the masterpieces his doppelgänger could come up with given half the chance? Zanzibar thought long and hard about all this, finally electing to stop writing in order to let his more talented likeness — whom he pictured as slightly better-endowed and -looking than himself — get on with it.

Flammarion ruthlessly exploited Zanzibar’s disappearance by encouraging the hypothesis of a suicide. Meuniaire claimed on television that this, après tout, would only be in keeping with his ‘fundamentally nihilistic outlook’. Arthur Cravan and Jacques Rigaut were frequently invoked by literary journalists in support of this argument. As a result, Zanzibar’s back catalogue flew off the shelves, with Bigorneau topping the bestseller lists once again. Of course, the second stage of this cunning marketing strategy — i.e. cashing in on Zanzibar’s miraculous reappearance by bringing out a new book asap — was jeopardised by the author’s decision to down penceuls. Meuniaire was promptly dispatched to resolve this delicate problem. As expected, Zanzibar adopted a hardline position (‘C’est une question de principe, un point c’est tout!’) but proved far more amenable as soon as Flammarion threatened to sue his sorry ass. A compromise was finally thrashed out between the two parties, down at Les Deux Magots, where many a bottle of Perrier-Jouët was downed almost cul sec. Zanzibar, who had always tried and failed to convey the inadequacy of words with words, came up with the concept of a novel printed with disappearing ink. Once read, each word would vanish for ever, the full text living on in people’s minds — retold, reinterpreted, reinvented… ‘There’s no such thing as original fiction,’ he said, a little worse for wear, ‘Novels can’t be set in stone.’ He climbed on the table and began chanting, ‘Li-bé-rez le texte! Li-bé-rez le texte!’ After a few phone calls, Meuniaire put a damper on proceedings: the project was too complex to pull off from a technical point of view, and would be far too expensive anyway. So it was back to the drawing board: ‘Une autre bouteille, s’il vous plaît!’ They finally decided that Zanzibar would write an entire novel in longhand, using disappearing ink, and that Flammarion would publish a facsimile of the manuscript — blank page after blank page: ‘Garçon, une autre bouteille!’ What better way to say something without saying it? ‘Allez hop, on fête ça, une autre bouteille!’ What better way to express the idea that the writer has nothing to express? ‘Vous nous remettrez la même chose.’ In between hiccups, Zanzibar explained that his blank book would bear no relation whatsoever to any of the blank books that had ever been published in the past. It would not be a gimmick, a joke, a provocation, a protest or even an artistic gesture — although there would be an element of all those things. His ‘post-literary’ blank pages would not be identical to your ‘non- or pre-literary’ common-or-garden, run-of-the-mill blank pages of the bog-standard variety: they would somehow retain traces of the novel that had once graced them. He then spoke confusedly of palimpsests and the tradition of erasure in contemporary poetry; the word biffure was used thrice. When he started claiming that the absent text would be a kind of manifestation, en creux, of the Great Novel (GN) his other self was composing in a parallel universe, Meuniaire decided to call it a day. It was probably that night, as he was walking home to clear his head that he resolved to publish Le Roman invisible under his own name. Two grown men — intellectuals! French ones, at that! — claiming rights to a blank book was bound to make the front pages. It also made Meuniaire shitloads of money as Le Roman invisible became the must-have accessory of that rentrée littéraire. Suddenly, it was incontournable and, paradoxically, everywhere to be seen. The fact that it doubled up as a handy memo pad turned it into a top seller in the run-up to Christmas too. With the royalties, Meuniaire treated himself to a luxury yacht worthy of a Russian oligarch. He called it Authorship (en anglais dans le texte).

****

A laundry van stopped outside the Michelet Odéon hotel. The words Maison Binger were painted on the side in quaint curlicue letters. A young man in a crisp beige uniform jumped out, leaving the door wide open. Zanzibar made a wild dash for it. The keys were in the ignition; the driver was talking to a pretty receptionist: the race was on.

The van picked up speed, crushing the asphalt beneath its burning wheels, like a shirt-collar under a Morphy Richards. Meuniaire’s grey Porsche was still only a dot in the distance, but it was growing bigger by the second. It contained more atoms than all the penceuls in the world. Soon, those atoms would be spilled all over the leather dashboard and horn-rimmed glasses like chicken-scratch squiggles. Zanzibar was already living in the future. He could see it all, now, with blinding clarity. The shattered glass. The chromium twisted into the shape of Byzantine rings. The gory action painting on the tarmac. The charred corpses in their chariot of fire. He was hunched over the steering wheel, headbutting the windshield, laughing manically, whooping and hollering, with the wind in his combover and imaginary music blaring away in his ears. Four cars now separated him from his prey. He was closing in.

Just as he was about to go for the kill, the grey Porsche lurched into the outside lane. A sudden but steady — and, indeed, uninterrupted — flow of traffic prevented Zanzibar from giving chase. This being Paris, no one saw fit to let him go: steaming ahead was a woman’s prerogative and a man’s virility test. To make matters worse, the cars in his lane had now ground to a halt in what seemed like the mother of all tailbacks. Those on the left-hand side, however, continued to race past as if taking part in a dry run for Le Mans. Watching them whizz by made him a little drowsy after a while. Feeling his eyes glaze over, he stretched, and noticed two large white eggs with black dots inside. The eyes belonged to the Michelin Man who was towering above him benignly from a billboard. Zanzibar fell asleep and was transported back to the tiny village in Bourgogne where he spent his summer holidays as a child. His grandparents’ house with the dark-green shutters and, across the road, the plot of land where his grandfather grew tomatoes and carrots and beans. Halfway up the hill, there was a water pump that looked like an obscene squat robot with a chunky, phallic-looking spout. It said POMPES LEMAIRE and TOURNEZ LENTEMENT (although there was no water in it) and it was green, but a lighter shade than the shutters. On the same side, further up, when you had almost reached the top, there was a little convenience store — the only one for miles. People used to go there to give and receive telephone calls. At the other end of the village, there was a big barn, and on the door of this barn there was an advertisement with the Michelin Man. It was already old and faded by the early 70s. Going back there, he thought, now waking up and rubbing his eyes, would be a little like visiting the setting of his past following the detonation of a neutron bomb. Zanzibar looked up at the billboard again, and it was at this juncture that he realised that there was no driver in the car in front. And none in the one in front of that. And so on. All along, he had been stuck behind a line of fucking parked cars.

Night was beginning to fall. He wondered how long it would take to drive back to the past, and if the Michelin Man would still be waiting for him there.

[*Zanzibar’s cat was called Schrödinger (instead of Erwin) in the White Review version and Pat Evans has become Fat Pat]

Illustration by Max McLaughlin.

The New Wave of French Urban Fiction

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 September 2008:

The New Wave of French Urban Fiction

Between mid-August and late October, the French publishing industry goes into overdrive. The current rentrée littéraire (named after la rentrée scolaire — the beginning of the school year) has seen fewer novels hitting the shelves but their subject matter is as Gallicly grim as ever — not that much of it is likely to find favour in Britain anyway. It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Besides the fact that local authors are increasingly young and female, urban fiction seems to be finally breaking out of its generic ghetto.

This new trend first hit the headlines at the Gauloise-end of the nineties when Rachid Djaïdani — a small-time actor and Thai-boxing enthusiast from the deprived banlieues — published his debut novel (Boumkeur) to rave reviews. The second milestone was the runaway success, in 2004, of Faïza Guène‘s Just Like Tomorrow, which earned her the “Françoise Sagan of the estates” sobriquet. In spite of their critical and commercial success, both books were often regarded as mere novelty hits by the snooty Left Bank literati. Djaïdani explains, for instance, that the big publisher to whom he had sent his first manuscript just could not believe he had written it by himself: after all, he came from the wrong side of town and was the offspring of immigrants. No wonder the leafless Paris suburbs erupted in 2005, just in time to commemorate the tenth anniversary of La Haine. (Incidentally, Djaïdani was part of the security team on the set of Kassovitz’s film and claims, half-jokingly, that the actors probably owe their lives to him.) Since then, many other writers from similar backgrounds have made it into print, including Hamid Jemaï, Skander Kali, Karim Madani, Mohamed Razane, Thomté Ryam, Insa Sané and Livres Hebdo points out that “More and more young authors don’t want to be published by the big houses so are self-publishing via the internet”. Antoine Dole has been instrumental in bringing them together and fostering a sense of community. In November 2006, this young writer produced the first issue of a home-made fanzine which showcased some of the “word activists” — rappers, slammers, bloggers — who were using blogs or social networking sites to bypass mainstream publishing. En attendant l’or soon became a word-of-mouth success via MySpace and a focal point for Les Décalés, a burgeoning literary movement which coalesced around Dole and Elsa Delachair. Most of the members of the Décalés group have now been published in a collection called eXprim’, launched a couple of years ago by 28-year-old Tibo Bérard. The collection addresses itself specifically to teenagers and young adults, which has proved rather controversial in recent months. Antoine Dole’s first novel, Je Reviens de mourir (“I Have Died Again”), was banned by some bookshops and libraries following accusations that it glamourised suicide.

So what is this “littérature urbaine” lark really about, then? Above all, it reflects the advent of a new generation; a changing of the guard: Faïza Guène was only 13 when Georgia de Chamberet edited her anthology of fresh French fiction back in 1999. Giving voice to the vernacular of the banlieues — with its backslang (“verlan”) and borrowings from Arabic — may not seem a big deal in post-Trainspotting Britain, but it is truly novel, and perhaps even revolutionary, given the conservative nature of the French literary establishment. Antoine Dole believes that this movement actually represents a long-awaited “democratisation of writing,” which is why some (like the Qui Fait la France? collective or guerilla micro-publishers Impact Verbal) see it as inherently political. The conception of what a writer should be is also evolving: urban fiction authors often see books as just one means of expression; many of them are also musicians, actors, painters or film directors. Their works are saturated with references to pop rather than high culture — yet another trait which brings them closer to their Anglo-American counterparts.

Although urban fiction is a reaction against the very kind of navel-gazing autofiction that puts off so many British readers, a literary entente cordiale still seems a long way away. The pervasive influence of hip hop and slam poetry on many of these young French writers leads to a stylistic inventiveness which seldom goes down well on this side of the Channel. Another major obstacle is that literary movements — especially when they have a socio-political dimension — are usually met with derision over here. Let the scoffing begin.