Show Hide image

An American suicide

There was no subject about which David Foster Wallace could not write brilliantly, from politics to

On the evening of 20 October this year a memorial service was held at Amherst College, Massachusetts, for the writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who graduated from Amherst in 1985, had hanged himself the previous month at his home in California. He was 46.

Since the publication of his voluminous and extravagantly ambitious second novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace had been widely acknowledged as the finest American writer of his generation. When Infinite Jest came out, in 1996, New York magazine's Walter Kirn declared that the competition had been "obliterated". It was, he wrote, "as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy!". More or less instantly, Infinite Jest became the benchmark against which any ambitious and intellectually curious young novelist would measure himself. And so, when Wallace died, American fiction lost its lodestar. His suicide was a kind of Kurt Cobain moment, a profound generational shock. (Cobain, frontman of the rock band Nirvana, shot himself at home in Seattle in 1994. He was 27.)

Wallace had begun to write fiction while at Amherst, and his first novel, the antic and exuberant The Broom of the System, published when he was 24, was based on his senior English thesis. One of his professors, Andrew Parker, told the congregation at the Amherst service at Johnson Chapel how Wallace had insisted on writing a thesis in the philosophy department at the same time, and had still managed to graduate summa cum laude in both subjects. Sue Dickman, an Amherst alumna, remembered the year Wallace spent there as an instructor after an abortive attempt to start a PhD at Harvard; she recalled how he would come to class with a tennis racket and let his students take breaks so he could smoke.

The mourners also heard from Mark Costello, Wallace's college room-mate in the early 1980s, who implored them not to forget "how painful Dave's day-to-day life was". Wallace had suffered from depression since adolescence, and was hospitalised during his sophomore year at Amherst. Later, he briefly shared an apartment with Costello in Somerville, near Boston. Wallace was drinking heavily and experimenting enthusiastically with drugs, and eventually ended up in McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had previously counted the poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell among its patients. The "power of death", Costello said, was his constant companion, and "eventually it cornered him and killed him".

While he was at McLean, Wallace was prescribed Nardil, a powerful antidepressant that he would take for most of the next 20 years. By the summer of 2007, however, the drug had begun to have unpleasant side effects, and it was decided that he would come off it. Doing so had catastrophic results. "Severe depression came back," Wallace's father, James, told the online magazine Salon. "They tried all kinds of things. He was hospitalised twice . . . and had a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments, which just really left him very shaky and very fragile and unable to sleep."

By this summer, Wallace hadn't written anything for more than a year. He had been granted medical leave from his teaching job at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and had stopped going to the gym with his friend and colleague John Seery, where they had been the only "skinny-ass egghead types" in the place.

When, in mid-August, his wife, Karen Green, had to go away on family business, Wallace's parents came to stay with him in Claremont. "He was very emotional," his mother, Sally, said. "He was just terrified of so much. We would just try to hold him. He did tell me that he was glad I was his mom." James and Sally Wallace flew back home to Illinois at the end of the month. A fortnight later, Karen came home from a shopping trip to find her husband dead.

News of Wallace's suicide first broke on the Twitter page of the Brooklyn-based writer Edward Champion. By the time the mainstream media picked up the story, Champion was already gathering tributes and testimonials from the "literary community" on his blog, the comments box of which was soon filling up with expressions of shock and anguish from Wallace's fans. The confession of one devotee that "I haven't really cried over the death of someone I haven't met since Kurt Cobain" was typical.

Within a couple of days, Dave Eggers's McSweeney's ope ration had a virtual book of condolence up on its website, and people were posting reminiscences of meeting "DFW" at readings in out-of-the-way branches of Barnes & Noble, of taking writing classes with him and, in one case, of playing tennis against him in fifth grade. (Wallace had been an adolescent tennis prodigy, playing the junior circuit in the Midwest in the mid-Seventies. The first piece of extended narrative journalism he wrote, for Harper's magazine, was about summers spent "being driven through dawns to tournaments all over Illinois, Indiana and Iowa"; and Infinite Jest is, among other things, probably the finest, and certainly the longest, work of fiction about tennis ever written.)

The internet is a uniquely effective mechanism for processing public grief, of course, but there was something striking nevertheless about the sheer copiousness of the reaction to Wallace's death. This was partly because he was the kind of writer who attracts acolytes as well as admirers. The esoteric, self-enclosed quality of much of Wallace's fiction, not least the great thousand-odd-page slab of Infinite Jest itself, tended to inspire unusually fierce allegiance in many of his fans - the sort of obsessive who can tell you the likely effects of putting your head in a microwave (this being how the father of one of the central characters kills himself) because they've checked with a "med-school acquaintance", and who posts elaborate theories about arcane plot points online ("It sounds far-fetched, but check this out . . .").

Just as striking, and much more significant, however, was the reaction of other writers, Wallace's peers. There was spontaneous, unanimous agreement that he had been the best of them. Jonathan Franzen described Wallace as a "huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer". In Zadie Smith's view, he had no "equal among living writers. He was an actual genius". He was also, everyone agreed, an unusually generous man: as "sweet a person" as Franzen had ever known, "meticulous about putting people at their ease", according to Smith.

Eggers posted a series of anecdotes about Wallace on the McSweeney's website. In one, he recalled the first time they met, in the mid-Nineties, at a diner in New York. While Wallace chewed tobacco, using a teacup in his lap as a spittoon (a habit he would never give up), he and Eggers "talked about how he'd grown up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and how I'd gone to college there, how his father taught there, about the pleasures and quirks of east-central Illinois. There's something very strange and uniquely powerful about meeting a guy whose writing you find world-changing but who also comes from your part of the world."

Who else could have written a story about a marketing executive who plans to inject deadly cultures into a snack he’s testing with focus groups?

Wallace was, by his own description, an “infantile transplant” to Illinois from upstate New York: his father had done his PhD at Cornell University and had come west to teach philosophy at the University of Illinois in Champaign. His mother taught English at a local community college. Wallace described the atmosphere of the family home in an essay he wrote for Harper's: “Suppers often involved a game: if one of us children [Wallace had a sister, Amy] made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and light-hearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your small child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly.”

Being raised as an "extreme usage fanatic" by a teacher of composition certainly left its mark on the mature Wallace's prose style. In another of his McSweeney's posts, Eggers remembered the time Wallace sent him a story, "Mister Squishy", together with a note asking that if it was to run in his magazine, it should do so under the pseudonym "Elizabeth Klemm". Eggers agreed ("we were so proud to publish it"), but the subterfuge didn't last long: Wallace was simply "too recognisable to hide, too singular to fool anyone". Who else could have written a 60-page story about a marketing executive who hatches a plan to inject deadly cultures into the "snack cakes" he is testing with a focus group? And all this in sentences of improbable length and fiendish complexity.

Take the passage in which the protagonist fantasises, while briefing his focus group, about how much ricin or botulinus it would take to bring the entire corporate snack industry to its knees. As he is doing so, he is struck by his ability to entertain such fantasies in "total subjective private" and then by the thought that half the people in the room with him are doing the same:

. . . Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness . . .

This is writing of extraordinary syntactic control, and it is characteristic of what Eggers describes as Wallace's "dense, discursive, and insanely detailed style". The sentence continues for almost another page; the paragraph in which it occurs runs over four pages. Eggers says that he asked Wallace to consider breaking up some of the paragraphs before the story was published: "It was as if he were visiting the notion . . . for the first time. He was that kind of genius, whose understanding of the workings of his own fiction was, I think, largely separate from ideas of audience."

Actually, Eggers is missing something here, because Wallace thought more deeply about questions of audience and address than any other American writer of his generation. All that "insane" detail, and the formal strategies he borrowed from postmodernism (authorial intrusions, digressions, footnotes, flash-cutting between scenes and so on), were meant in fact to serve the rather traditional end of saying something about "what it is to be a fucking human being".

Wallace believed that each of us is "sort of marooned" inside our own skull, and that it is fiction's job to "aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people". It was the estranging apparatus of his style - the postmodern rhetorical devices, the hyperextended sentences - that was meant to do the aggravating.

That, at least, was the theory. However, Wallace was tormented by the thought that the “antagonistic elements” in his fiction might in fact just be manifestations of a pathological exhibitionism. He deplored his own “grossly sentimental affection for gags” and weakness for “formal stunt-pilotry” that served no narrative purpose. But he also understood that this predicament was not his exclusively; it was that of an entire generation of writers who, in a sense, had come too late – who had arrived, that is, just as the bold innovations of postmodern novelists such as John Barth, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon were being absorbed and neutered by the culture.

Wallace believed that each of us is “sort of marooned” inside our own skull and that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this sense of entrapment”

This highly developed generational self-consciousness is one reason Wallace was held in such esteem by his peers: he held up a mirror to their own anxieties, and articulated them more clearly and honestly than they ever dared.

Infinite Jest bears the scars of Wallace's parricidal struggle with his influences. He insisted that he had wanted it to be an "extraordinarily sad" book about loneliness and addiction, rather than a postmodern one. And to this end, the novel's two principal settings are a tennis academy, which Wallace depicts as a kind of laboratory of obsession (he writes with considerable feeling about the psychic costs exacted by endless early-morning tennis drills), and a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. However, it is also crammed with set-ups and gags that could have come straight out of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: a geopolitical agglomeration with the acronym ONAN; a gang of wheelchair-bound Québécois separatists; and a film so entertaining that it paralyses anyone who watches it.

At times it seems as if the novel is conducting an argument with itself - for instance, in a long scene in which Don Gately, a former drug addict who is now a live-in staffer at the half way house, goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston. One of the residents in Gately's care is there, too, and complains about the "psychobabbly dialect" that's de rigueur at events like this. Gately admits that the "seminal little mini-epiphanies" routinely experienced by new inductees into AA come embalmed in language of "polyesterish" banality. Then someone else says they also find the sentimental argot hard to stomach - especially the habit the speakers have of saying they are "here but for the grace of God", which phrase, she points out, is "literally senseless", and should be used only when introducing a conditional clause. Wallace is flattering his hip and savvy readers here, inviting them to identify with this sophisticated cynicism. But it is also clear that we are meant at the same time to find something ridiculous and overwrought about someone who is driven to want to "put her head in a Radarange" by a home-spun solecism or two. Indeed, Wallace said later that the scene was designed to get his readers - privileged, educated Americans, most of them - to "confront stuff about spirituality and values", stuff "our generation needs to feel".

Infinite Jest turned out to be Wallace's last novel. He didn't stop writing fiction - there were two further collections of stories, the second of which, Oblivion, contains some of his finest work - but, as Mark Costello observed in his Amherst encomium, something changed: "If you sit down and read his prose from the early Nineties to later, you'll hear the music changing. You'll hear sentences getting longer and longer, with these wonderfully balanced dependent clauses."

According to the novelist and journalist Tom Bissell, who knew Wallace, this was also a shift in "world-view". Bissell told me: "I think the man who wrote Oblivion would not have been satisfied with the cross-dressing leader of a Québécois separatist group whose primary mode of transport is wheelchairs, or with the political acronym ONAN, both of which are kind of silly in the way Pynchon is silly, but not in the way the world ever feels silly. I believe he escaped the anxiety of his influence."

Wallace's deepening ambivalence about the moral as well as aesthetic legacy of postmodernism is especially noticeable in the non-fiction he wrote in the last decade of his life. In many of his essays, whether the brief was to write about Caribbean cruises or the Maine Lobster Festival, he can be seen grappling obsessively with all that "stuff about spirituality and values".

A good example is a piece he wrote after Harper's sent him back to Illinois to attend the state fair, and to gorge on corn dogs while watching the rural Midwest at play. "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All" derives all its considerable force from the tension between Wallace's self-acknowledged "East Coast cynicism" and his yearning for a kind of authenticity.

He describes coming across a small hillock that, for some reason, has been covered in artificial grass: "a quick look under the edge of the fake-grass mat reveals the real grass underneath, flattened and already yellowing". Now, the postmodernist debunker in him would have been content to leave that image to stand for the emptiness and shoddiness of the state fair as a whole. But Wallace doesn't settle for simply unmasking the event as a sham; and this is partly because, for all his protestations that he is no longer "spiritually Midwestern", he remains of the place he is describing.

He understands that to be Midwestern is to be "marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual", and that what the state fair provides is a kind of temporary communal respite from that condition. As Bissell, himself from the Midwest, puts it, "in terms of literary persona, [Wallace] was temperamentally speaking a rural Midwesterner, intellectually speaking a high-wire postmodernist, and emotionally speaking an artist-as-priest type. I'm not sure anyone else has really managed to combine those qualities."

Wallace’s best essays are artefacts of this multifarious literary personality, dramatisations of its internal conflicts. Nowhere is this drama more powerfully performed than in the 15,000-word article he wrote for Rolling Stone about a week he spent following John McCain during his Republican primary battle, in 2000, with George W Bush. (The article was turned into a short book this year to coincide with McCain’s second run at the presidency.)

It is unsettling reading the piece now - after a Republican campaign this year conducted mostly from the sewer - to recall that eight years ago McCain represented to many the last, best hope for decency and truth in American politics. Even the most jaded hacks aboard McCain's bus, the Straight Talk Express, were wondering if "humanity and politics, shrewdness and decency" really could coexist. And Wallace finds himself as inspired as anyone: "It's difficult not to feel enthused and to really like this man and want to support him in just about any sort of feasible way you can think of."

Underpinning McCain's promise in 2000, of course, was "something riveting and unspinnable and true": that the candidate had been imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War, and spent five years in a box-sized cell at the "Hanoi Hilton". But whatever it was in his character that sustained McCain during those five years was shut away in that box, too. This, for Wallace, was the essential "paradox" of his campaign: the fact that the "box that makes McCain 'real' is, by definition, locked. Impenetrable." Which meant that it was up to the voter to decide whether McCain was "truly 'for real'".

What the essay is really about, therefore, is the "interior war" inside Wallace's own head between the need to believe in something larger than himself and his anxiety that the need to believe might be a sham or a fraud. And "fraud", Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, "was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary".

In the end, Wallace took his own life. Perhaps the struggle to believe in something was too great; he had suffered too much. He was the ultimate victim of his own interior war.

Jonathan Derbyshire is a writer and philosopher

The best of David Foster Wallace

1987: The Broom of the System

The metafictional game-playing and sheer verbal inventiveness of Wallace's first novel established him as a successor to American postmodernists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. It is set in the near future in Cleveland, which now stands on the border of the Great Ohio Desert (or GOD), a vast tract of land filled with black sand.

1989: Girl With Curious Hair

The centrepiece of this first collection of stories is "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way", a 150-page novella set in a creative writing workshop. Wallace said the story was "written in the margins" of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse - the professor running the workshop is the author of a famous story also called "Lost in the Funhouse".

1996: Infinite Jest

The gargantuan novel that sealed Wallace's reputation as the most exciting and ambitious American novelist of his generation. The plot motor of Infinite Jest, which is over a thousand pages long and weighed down with more than a hundred pages of endnotes, is a movie of the same name which paralyses anyone who watches it.

1997: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Wallace's first collection of extended non-fiction contains some of his most celebrated essays: the titular record of a comically awful Caribbean cruise; a paean to the genius of David Lynch; and "E Unibus Pluram", his account of the way the "rebellious irony" of postmodernism was co-opted by television.

1999: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

In the title story of this second collection of shorter fiction, several unidentified men describe their sexual proclivities - including one who can't help shouting "Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" when he is on the point of ejaculating. Another story, "The Depressed Person", with its extravagantly long sentences, footnotes and abundant psychotherapeutic jargon, is typical of Wallace's later fictional style.

2004: Oblivion

Oblivion has several of Wallace's finest stories, notably "Good Old Neon" and "The Suffering Channel". The former is narrated from beyond the grave by a high school acquaintance of "David Wallace". In the latter, a journalist on a hip New York style magazine travels to Indiana to profile a man who developed an ability to shit perfectly rendered sculptures while on latrine duty during the first Gulf War.

2005: Consider the Lobster

When Gourmet magazine sent Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival, he came back with the title essay of this collection, in which he asks whether it is morally acceptable to boil sentient creatures alive (short answer: no).

2008: McCain's promise

This short book about John McCain was published this year to coincide with the US presidential election. Originally published as a long narrative report in Rolling Stone magazine under the title "Up, Simba!", it is an account of a week spent following the McCain's campaign during the 2000 Republican primaries. Wallace admired McCain the man, if not the politician, and was fascinated by his years in prison in Vietnam. He did not live long enough to see the outcome of this year's presidential election.

the death of Kurt Cobain

Whatever the cultural significance of Kurt Cobain's suicide, his reasons, as with David Foster Wallace, were first and foremost personal. Struggling with heroin addiction, various medical problems and facing an impending separation from his wife, Courtney Love, the lead singer of Nirvana shot himself at home in April 1994. Yet when news broke, the public outpouring of grief among teenage fans in his home city of Seattle resonated around the world.

To many, his death represented a clash between conflicting value systems: the counterculture from which Nirvana had emerged, and the corporate world of MTV and major record labels that transformed them into global rock stars just months after the release of their 1991 album, Nevermind. Cobain's suicide seemed like an admission that these two worlds could not be reconciled. "The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 per cent fun," he declared in his suicide note. The irony is that this exit only pushed Cobain deeper into music-industry mythology.

But it is a mistake to see his death as an artistic gesture. Cobain had come adrift in his life, which is something he shared with the increasing numbers of young men who kill themselves every year. In England and Wales, for example, suicide remains the second most common cause of death for men under the age of 35. If you really want to know something about the hopes and fears of a generation, understanding these everyday tragedies is as important as unpicking the famous ones.

Daniel Trilling

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

Andre Carhillo
Show Hide image

The decline of the Fifth Republic

With the far right and far left surging in the run-up to a defining presidential election, the French seem intent on blowing up the political establishment.

On a cold Saturday evening in late February, cycling back to my flat in southern Paris, I accidentally ran into a pack of lads on a rampage. They were turning over bins, kicking over expensive motorbikes parked on the street, and obviously looking for someone to fight.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen this sort of thing, even in this relatively gentrified part of the city. Usually the best course of action is to stop, let them swarm past and allow the police to do their job. But on this particular night, although I could hear the buzz of a police helicopter above us, there were no officers on the ground. As I nervously became aware of this, one of the lads, no more than five yards away, looked at me and screamed: “T’es qui toi?” (“Who the f*** are you?”). His mates turned and gathered round. Now panicking, I saw that he was pointing a screwdriver at me.

I pelted down the street, heart racing as the young men followed me, so shocked that when I reached my apartment building I twice tapped in the wrong entry code. It was only once indoors, now safe but genuinely scared and sweating, that I understood what had happened.

This was a gang from one of the local ­cités – council estates – that border this part of Paris. They had been flushed out of their normal dens, where they deal in weed and mess about, by police using helicopters and unmarked cars, and were now taking their revenge on these unfamiliar surroundings. When they saw me, a tall, white, male figure, watching in the dark on my bike (stupidly the same dark blue as a police bike), they assumed I could only be one thing: a police spotter. In other words, their most hated enemy.

In the past few weeks, in Paris and across France, there has been a new and special danger in being identified by such gangs as a lone policeman. This is because the ever-present tensions between police and the youth of the cités have become particularly acute following the so-called Affaire Théo. On 2 February in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, four police officers violently attacked an innocent black man, identified only as Théo. The assault was caught on camera and allegedly involved the man’s “rape” with a telescopic baton.

The details of the case caused widespread outrage, right up to the highest level of ­government. In the banlieue, the suburbs where many young people feel excluded from mainstream French life, some felt a desire for revenge. And though their anger related to a specific incident, it was in keeping with the emotions sweeping across France, at all levels of society, in the lead-up to the first round of this year’s presidential election on 23 April.

***

France is in a state of political disarray. This much was obvious during the first live “great debate” on 20 March, organised by the television channel TF1, featuring five front-runners for the presidency.

Probably the greatest loser on the night was François Fillon of the centre-right party les Républicains, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012. Fillon has gone from being a sure favourite to outsider in the presidential contest, following allegations of dodgy financial dealings. Most damagingly, a formal judicial investigation has been launched into reports that he paid upwards of €800,000 of taxpayers’ money to his wife and other family members for jobs they didn’t actually do. Fillon, who denies any wrongdoing, has also been accused of failing to declare a €50,000 loan from a French businessman in 2013 (which he has since repaid). He held himself in check during the debate, trying to look dignified and presidential, but he has become the object of scorn from all sides, including his own.

Benoît Hamon, the candidate for the Parti Socialiste (PS), the party of the outgoing and discredited president, François Hollande, did not perform much better in the debate. Hamon identifies with the far left and green wings of the PS and favours a basic income, the legalisation of cannabis, and euthanasia. He resigned from Hollande’s government in 2014 claiming that the president had abandoned socialist values. But at every public appearance Hamon still looks surprised to be in the race. Although he has positioned himself as the “anti-Hollande” candidate – no surprise, as Hollande has the lowest polls ratings of any French president – even Hamon’s supporters concede that he has no reach outside the party faithful, and his dismal poll ratings reflect this.

In recent weeks, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran left-winger and now leader of his own party, France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), has surged in the polls. He has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn but is more like George Galloway, in that he can be trenchant and biting and speaks fluently without notes. Some of his views – anti-EU, anti-Nato, pro-Russia – are close to those of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN). The candidate of the centre or centre-left is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and protégé of Hollande, under whom he served as minister of the economy, industry and digital data. Macron broke with the PS in 2016 to set himself up as an independent candidate with his new movement, En Marche! (“onward”). He presents himself as a voice of moderation and common sense. He defends the EU and the eurozone and is an unashamed liberal globaliser. But Macron is also hard to love: his enemies claim that he is self-serving, an opportunist who cannot be trusted, and, worse, that he lacks experience of high office. On television he can be vain and testy – as was the case when he came under attack from Marine Le Pen, during the TF1 debate.

In many ways, Macron was a gift to Le Pen. She accused him of being out of touch and of not knowing what he was talking about. Even non-FN supporters, who didn’t necessarily agree with her views on security and immigration, conceded that Le Pen was the most convincing speaker. As I was told by a neighbour with an impeccable PS background, it was as if she was the only politician on the night of the debate in charge of what she believed. Le Pen’s popularity increased as a consequence.

So is it now possible to think the unthinkable: that Marine Le Pen could triumph not only in the first round of the presidential election but in the second as well? If that happens, not only would she become the first female president of France but she would transform French politics and further destabilise the European Union.

***

When I put this to Jean-Pierre Legrand, the leader of the Front National in Roubaix, a town of 90,000 inhabitants in the north of France, he shook his head. He wishes Le Pen well but fears that in the second round the mainstream parties will gang up and back whoever her opponent is. “This is what always happens,” he told me. “This is why so-called French democracy is actually a form of dictatorship. You can never really get your hands on power. It belongs to an elite, people like Emmanuel Macron.”

Legrand, 69, has been a supporter of the FN for decades. He smiles a lot and can be witty, but he also likes talking tough, like the hard-headed factory boss he used to be. He admires the way Le Pen has reinvented the party, shedding some of the old-school neo-Nazi trappings. But he is also faithful to, maybe even nostalgic for, the old FN of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election (he lost to the centre-right Jacques Chirac). So I asked him if he was not really a democrat but, like Le Pen père, basically a fascist. “I am not afraid of being called a fascist, or even a Gaullist,” he said. “But all I really believe in is order and authority. And that is what France needs now.”

I had come to Roubaix because it is officially the poorest town in France. It is also, according to most media reports, one of the most troubled. It’s not far from Paris – just over 90 minutes on a fast train – but when you get there it feels like a different, distant place. The train station is scruffy and there is little sense of the usual Gallic civic pride; the stroll down the main boulevard to the Grand Place is drab and quiet, unlike in most French towns.

Roubaix has a large immigrant population, mainly from North Africa but comprising more than 60 nationalities. It has a reputation as a refuge for illegal migrants making for Calais and then the UK, and as a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation. In May last year the conservative news weekly Valeurs actuelles described Roubaix as “le Molenbeek français”. The magazine was referring to the suburb of Brussels where several of the terrorists and sympathisers involved in the November 2015 attacks on Paris, which killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan concert hall, grew up.

Legrand and his FN colleague Astrid Leplat offered to show me around the town, just as they had done with the writer from Valeurs actuelles. The article was criticised by the local newspaper La Voix du Nord as depicting a fantasy version of France conjured up by the FN. I was aware of this argument, but also keen to take up the offer of a tour: it was a rare chance to see an ordinary French town through the eyes of the FN.

I quite liked Roubaix. With its sooty terraced houses, empty textile mills, iron bridges and dirty canals, it reminded me of Salford in the 1970s. The town is neatly laid out even if the streets are scruffy. It is also busy with small businesses – Arabic-language bookshops, kebab houses and tea shops, as well as traditional French cafés and bistros. It looked no more menacing than Bradford or Rusholme in Manchester.

Legrand is proud of Roubaix, or at least of what Roubaix used to be, and has chosen to live here rather than in nearby Lille. Having been a blue-collar worker, too, he admires the noble ambitions and graft of the people who built the town. These were the original indépendants – the aspiring working class, much cherished by the FN, who believe in the values of hard work and public service. But Legrand told me that when he looks at the streets today he sees not the cluttered life of 21st-century, multicultural France but what he called “conquered territory”.

There are problems in Roubaix: 45 per cent of the town’s residents live below the official French poverty line of €977 a month. Describing the local poverty, Legrand used the term “misère”, a word that also translates as “wretchedness”. The unemployment rate is high (40 per cent in parts of town) and on a typical weekday afternoon there are many young men sitting around with nothing to do.

As we drove through some of the tougher areas, Legrand pointed out so-called Salafist mosques, most of them shielded from the streets by the high walls of disused factories. It is these places, unknown and unvisited by outsiders, which have given Roubaix its reputation for radicalism.

It is true that in the recent past Roubaix has produced many extremists. The most notorious is Lionel Dumont, a former soldier who is white and working class, and is viewed as the leader of radical Islam in the French prison system, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism offences that include trying to set off a car bomb during a G7 meeting in Lille in 1996. Islamists such as Dumont are, in effect, beyond the control of the penal authorities because French laws forbid the monitoring of prisoners on grounds of race or religion. One frustrated director of prisons in the Paris region complained to me that the French penal system was “the real engine room of radicalisation”.

The main reason why Roubaix has produced so many terrorists – including Mehdi Nemmouche, the gunman who fired the shots at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 that killed four people – is not immigration, as the Front National would have it, but geography. This part of France is depicted in the media as “a security black hole”, partly because of its proximity to the Belgian border. You can drive into Belgium from Roubaix in ten minutes, as I did with Legrand; the border is just a roundabout and unmonitored. The French and Belgian intelligence services are minutes away from each other but do not share information or collaborate properly. This allowed some of the terrorists who led the 2015 Paris attacks to escape after the killing spree.

***

Crossing the border to Belgium, you notice that the roads are lined with gleaming new warehouses belonging to Amazon and other technology companies. ­Roubaix suddenly seems like a ruin from the early 20th century. It must be difficult for its people not to feel trapped and abandoned – by the French elite to the south and the new economy to the north.

“If you live in Roubaix it is hard to feel connected to the rest of France,” said Hélène Robillard, a junior civil servant. I had come across her in the centre of town. She was leading a group of young women, merrily banging tambourines, blowing whistles and chanting slogans outside one of the
offices of the local council. They were striking against work conditions at the council, but having a laugh, too, in the best Made in Dagenham style.

I asked the women about the film Chez nous (This Is Our Land), which had been released only a few weeks earlier and was playing to packed houses across France. Set in a fictionalised town much like Roubaix, it tells the story of a young woman, Pauline Duhez, a nurse who is seduced into joining the FN and standing for a seat on the council. As she learns the party’s true positions, she becomes disillusioned and angry. The film ends with Pauline returning to the socialist values of her unemployed father, a former steelworker, culminating in a family trip to watch a game featuring the local football team Lens.

The women protesting with Robillard were all determinedly anti-FN. Those who had seen the film were full of enthusiasm. “It is our real life,” said one of them, laughing. “It shows our true values – not fascism, but football, beer and chips.”

Like Pauline in the film, the FN’s Astrid Leplat is a nurse. Jean-Pierre Legrand explained to me that this was why she had been hand-picked by Marine Le Pen to stand
as a regional councillor. The party has adopted a policy of recruiting fonctionnaires (civil servants), especially those who work in the health and support services. This is partly to demonstrate that the FN has left behind its neo-Nazi origins and is now the party of everyday folk, but also to undermine PS dominance of the public services.

When I asked Leplat why she supported the FN, she said that she had witnessed the disastrous effects of repeated budget cuts on hospitals, with overstretched departments and increasingly run-down facilities. “The Front National are there to protect us,” she said.

Leplat told me she hadn’t seen Chez nous and that she probably wouldn’t, because it would upset her. There were also political reasons why she didn’t want to see it: it had been financed with public money from Hauts-de-France, the northern region that covers Roubaix, as well as the television companies France 2 and France 3. When I pointed out that most French cinema relies on public subsidy, she argued that the film’s release had been deliberately timed to undermine the February launch of the FN’s presidential campaign.

“How else can this be explained?” she said. “The Front National is always persecuted by the establishment elites in culture and politics.”

***

Back in Paris, as part of a documentary I was making for BBC Radio 4, I interviewed Émilie Dequenne, the actress who plays Pauline in Chez nous, and the film’s director, Lucas Belvaux. We met at the production company’s office just off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the swish heart of Paris – a corner of the city that couldn’t be further removed from the streets of Roubaix. But both Dequenne and Belvaux are intimately connected with the region and the northern working-class life, because they grew up near the Franco-Belgian border and still have family ties there. I asked them whether the FN had a point about the film.

“The film is not ambiguous,” Dequenne said. “It is clearly a warning about being ­seduced by the far right. But it also has lots of [different] ambiguities. The main character, Pauline, is a good person, and not stupid. She wants to help people. She thinks that this is not the case with the main pol­itical parties. So she is attracted by a party that seems to care.”

“I agree it is a warning,” Belvaux said. “We are not yet a fascist country, but I do fear that this could happen.

“There are big social and cultural divisions in France. Not everybody who will vote for the Front National is a bad person, but there are many angry people in this country who feel hurt and damaged. When this is the case, fascism can arrive much more quickly than you think.”

Until now, voting for the FN has been a sign of protest, historically a safety valve for releasing discontent. Whenever the FN has got near to victory, right and left have come together as a bloc to exclude it from power. This is what happened in 2002, of course, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the then leader of the FN, made it through to the second round of the presidential elections. Jacques Chirac won the run-off with 82 per cent of the vote, despite accusations of corruption. The rallying cry across all non-FN political lines was: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!” Yet there is no guarantee that this will happen again, because Marine Le Pen has successfully reinvented and rebranded the FN, making it more acceptable to mainstream voters.

Even if Marine loses, there is another danger. If those French parties of the left and right which historically have been strongest continue to implode, there will be a new constituency of voters who in future will be “homeless”. Even if Macron wins – having blurred the lines between right and left – he will disappoint at some stage. When this happens, those who supported him may not find their way back to the established parties, thus opening up an avenue to power for the far right. Sylvain Bourmeau, an associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, told me that this was part of the Front National’s long-term strategy.

The withering of a historically strong party has already happened in the UK, where voters’ movement to Ukip and the SNP has undermined, if not destroyed, Labour as a national force. Marine Le Pen has already voiced her admiration for Ukip for “breaking the mould”. However, it is important to remember that the FN is not “populist” in the way that Ukip, or indeed Donald Trump, is. Nor are Roubaix and the north of France the same as the “rust belt” of the United States.

Rather, the present conflicts in France are ideological, with roots in the antagonisms and turmoil of French history. The FN’s ultimate goal is to get rid of the present French Republic – the result of the “mistake” of the “liberal revolution” of 1789. In other words, the promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité is to be replaced by an “awakening”, which would lead to a “national movement”: that is, the rebirth of the French nation. The FN is not just about racism, immigration or identity: it wants to send French history into reverse gear.

That is how high the stakes are, and why the coming elections are the most important in France since the Second World War. There is a generalised tension right now – the tension that I encountered on my bike on my own street in southern Paris – which sometimes finds expression in gang violence, anti-police riots and even terrorism, all fuelling the rise of the FN.

For all the polls, signs and omens, it is ­impossible to predict the election result. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, with the old political certainties melting away, it seems more than ever that France is set on a long and unstoppable journey into darkness. L

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada” (Granta Books). He lives in Paris. His documentary “Culture, Class and Le Pen” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 April (8pm)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496