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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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