Vive le punk!

Andrew Hussey discovers the rebellious soul of the French literary establishment

When the days shorten and the smell of roasting chestnuts wafts along the boulevards, it can mean only one thing in Paris. This is the season of la rentrée littéraire - the annual madness when the most important French books (mainly fiction) are published in four weeks between September and October. This year more than 800 books have been published, the highest figure ever.

The statistics are daunting, and most ambitious new writers soon come to grips with the disappointing realisation that they will soon be returning to the bank or the lycée rather than picking up the Prix Goncourt - the biggest literary prize in France - before an international audience of pliant literary groupies.

Until now, I had only ever been a witness to this ritual, but this year, as I have a book being published in French (called Paris, ville catin - roughly "Paris, a whore of a town"), I have been, for the first time, a participant. So far this has meant giving readings throughout France - to an audience of sleeping pensioners at a jazz festival in Nantes, at a Paris nightclub packed with impatient, pilled-up dancers, and at the Salon du Livre held in a public park in Besançon. The people of Besançon were very polite about the whole affair, though I noticed that not many of them bought any books.

Back in Paris, the big talking point of this year's rentrée has been the absence of any major controversy or any big hitters. There has been no repeat of Michel Houellebecq shocking his way into public acclaim, as he did with La Possibilité d'une île in 2005, or anything like Jonathan Littell's Holocaust blockbuster Les Bienveillantes last year. Instead, the latest offerings by the big names have been disappointing - there has been a lot of noise about Yasmina Reza's 'aube le soir ou la nuit, which promised revelations about the interior life of Nicolas Sarkozy, but which really delivered less than a tabloid article on its subject. The new book from Patrick Modiano, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, is agreeably wistful, evoking the poetic melancholy of the late situationist thinker Guy Debord.

For my money, the most interesting work to appear has been in non-fiction - a genre often overlooked as quite vulgar by many Parisian literati. But they don't know what they're missing: Gangs de Paris by Jérôme Pierrat is a penetrating and intelligent account of the Parisian underworld, including first-hand reportage on the latest wave of gangsters in the banlieue.

In a similar vein, Rémi Pépin's Rebelles tells the story of the Paris punk scene in the 1970s and 1980s, cutting through stories of squats, dead junkies and a culture of political agitation with wit and sympathy. It's good to read again about Stinky Toys, Shag Nasty, Bazooka, Skydog Commando and other heroes of the scene.

The ghost of Debord, patron saint of Parisian subversion, can also be traced in these pages. Most of all, however, these books are proof that, contrary to popular opinion, French rebel culture is alive and well - it just doesn't seem to be making it in fiction. Not this year, anyway.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered