Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Photograph: Adriana Zehbrauskas/Polaris/Eyevine
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Reviewed: Belle et bête by Marcela Iacub

Loving Strauss-Kahn.

Belle et bête
Marcela Iacub
Stock, 128pp, €13.50

There are moments when I feel that as long as I live and as hard as I try, France will remain forever a mystery to me. Reading Marcela Iacub’s book Belle et bête, a fictionalised account of her six-month-long love affair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was one such moment. Hailed as it was by Le Nouvel Observateur for its “literary power of stupefying proportions” and described by Libération as a piece of “experimental literature as violent as that which she experiences, inspired by a spirit of risk”, I was prepared for something remarkable. This is how the book opens:

You were old, you were fat, you were short and you were ugly. You were macho, you were vulgar, you were insensitive and you were mean-spirited. You were egotistical, you were brutish and you had no culture. And I was mad about you.

That, more or less, is how it goes on, for 120 pages or so. It’s an unrepentantly verbose and embittered apostrophe to a man already disgraced, which leaves you feeling a mixture of distaste, exasperation and boredom – the kind of boredom, as I realised when I’d got about halfway through, that you might feel listening to a particularly long closing speech by an overweening barrister.

Iacub was indeed a barrister, back in her native Argentina, before she moved to France in her early twenties and became a brilliant jurist specialising in bioethics. More recently, she has made a name for herself as a clever, provocative columnist for Libération, where she writes mostly about sexual politics, often lamenting what she sees as the widespread erotic impoverishment of contemporary society.

When DSK was arrested in New York, she leapt to his defence, publishing a book entitled Une société des violeurs? (“A Society of Rapists?”), in which she offers a fierce criticism of the feminist witch-hunt that followed. He now rues the day that she ever became his champion.

As you can probably guess, Belle et Bête is not an apology for Strauss-Kahn – any doubts about this are swept away by the presence of an insert at the front of the book attesting to his libel suit against the author – nor is it, despite Iacub’s frequent assertions to the contrary, a love story. I, at least, could not detect any love in it. Perhaps that is because her approach is scientific and theoretical. “I wanted to create a theory of love from my situation,” she writes. “[A] nun who falls in love with a pig. A nun who turns away from the grandeur of divine love to wallow in filth.”

At this point, I should explain that there are two metaphors running through Iacub’s book – one of her lover as a pig and the other of herself as a saint or nun. And that they recur on every page. The other motif – that of Iacub’s saintliness – is built around the following assertion: “I was in love with the most despised being on the planet.”

From this point, we realise that, apart from his piggishness, we are not going to learn much about Strauss-Kahn. The book, rather, is about Iacub; her decision to defend an underdog and then submit to his (inevitable) advances. Above all, it is an ode to her writing life, which she likens to a form of auto-eroticism: “My writing. That operation, which consists in the transformation of my self into the object of my own passion.”

Although the text is littered with the most potent abstract nouns – truth, desire, happiness, love – the effect was to leave me cold. I could not believe – as I waded through all that unbridled narcissism (Iacub likens herself to Voltaire and Victor Hugo) – in her so-called passion. The account felt throughout not like a novel but like a very dry, very calculating exercise: “The only thing left to me in order to forget the pig and to have no further dealings with you was not to kill you but to write a book.”

In the penultimate chapter, the author describes a scene in which her lover tears off her left ear and eats it, then faints, in a spasm of ecstasy, into a pool of his own semen:

Thinking about it, I realised that my love  for the pig had died at the very moment he had mutilated me. As if my left ear had been the repository of my feelings and that without it I could no longer feel anything for him.

This scene, like all the erotica in the book, is, of course, purely symbolic. The problem is that the material never rises above this emblematic register, nor does it stoop to anything resembling experience. By the time I had dragged myself through the final chapter, I was, just as Le Nouvel Observateur had predicted, utterly stupefied, both by the book and by the praise it had received.

Lucy Wadham is the author of “Heads and Straights: the Circle Line” (Particular Books, £4.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era