A French Novel by Frédéric Beigbeder: References which render personal experience, if not in an orderly way, then visibly

Frédéric Beigbeder's new novel, with masterly translation by Frank Wynne, spatters names, comparisons and references to forge links between nation, family and self.

The Eiffel Tower.
Imagined city: Frédéric Beigbeder's hyper-referential novel blurs fact and fiction. Photograph: Jade Doskow.

A French Novel
Frédéric Beigbeder
Translated by Frank Wynne
Fourth Estate, 304pp, £14.99

“We were more like Marcel Carné’s Youthful Sinners than Larry Clark’s junkie Kids.” “I thought of that TV game show, Countdown.” In telling the story of his life so far – this time without the protective armour of his alter ego Marc Marronnier, the star of such novels as Holiday in a Coma and Love Lasts Three Years – the French writer Frédéric Beigbeder draws on a wide range of references. At first, the habit can seem idle and even uncontrollable – the preposition “like” appears dozens of times in the opening chapters – but it proves to be effective. As with the imagery that Beigbeder borrows from psychiatry, astrophysics, speleology, scuba-diving, genetics and Japanese alcohol when attempting to explain the workings of memory, the tendency to drop or spatter names and titles on to the page is of a piece with a project of forging connections both inevitable (between various members of a family, between the health of a republic and the happiness of its citizens) and improbable (“The job of a cop is like the job of a novelist”) and of rendering personal experience, if not in an orderly way, then vividly.

But culture from its highest to its lowest doesn’t only furnish a private language that doubles as a common one. It also serves as a source of inspiration: “I have to dig deep within myself, like the prisoner Michael Sco - field digging a tunnel in Prison Break.” Even the misdemeanour that earns Frédéric, a twice-divorced, middle-aged bad boy, the free time in which to dredge up the past and spray it with italics is revealed as a “homage” – to Jay McInerney or, rather, “Jay McInerney”, who is depicted doing coke off the bonnet of a car in another novel that reads like a memoir, or might be a memoir, or anyway exists in some sort of relationship with Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park. (The 2009 Grasset edition identifies Un roman français as “roman”.)

One of the things that Beigbeder discovers in this exercise in personal archaeology is that human behaviour leads less by example than deterrence. If Frédéric gravitates towards Mc - Inerney as an elder-brother figure, it is only because he has defined himself “in opposition” to his real brother, Charles. Growing up, Frédéric “thumbed” his nose at his brother’s authority in a way he describes as “Gandhilike” (only deviating to launch the occasional “surprise attack, planting my bony knee in his thigh and yelling ‘Dead-leg!’ – a non-nonviolent tactic which, to my knowledge, the founder of modern India never employed”).

On the night when the book begins, Frédéric’s chosen approach to nose-thumbing involves closing one nostril and sniffing with the other. “He gets the Légion d’honneur. I get banged up.” As his “cramped conditions” work to expand his “imaginative horizons”, restoring in fine sensory detail (“a style of cooking redolent of stewed apple and stale bread”) the childhood he was convinced he’d forgotten, Frédéric discovers new depths of rivalry in his relationship with Charles and new pain in the memories of his parents’ divorce and subsequent busy love lives.

In a series of brisk, instructively titled episodes that flit between jail cell and memory vault, making intermittent use of textual tricks (a squiggly map, a watercolour portrait of the author as a “little blond cherub”), Beigbeder attempts to trace Frédéric’s formation as a writer, an “amnesiac” and a wouldbe “arrogant lothario”. To this end, he makes a “Parental Inventory”, listing the things Frédéric got from his mother (“short-sightedness”, “an inferiority complex”) and his father (“snoring”, “a taste for younger women”). He also draws on evidence from much earlier in the century. In hiding her divorce from her sons, for instance, Frédéric’s mother is shown to be replicating the silence of her own father about the world wars, the first of which made him fatherless, the second of which left him a shame-struck survivor.

As Beigbeder presents things, in a portrait whose strengths contradict his claim to despise “psychoanalysis masquerading as literature”, Frédéric’s fate was fixed at every turn by events beyond his control, whether it was the discovery of a cure for TB (“a catastrophe for my inheritance”) or being raised in Neuilly-sur-Seine (“hardly instils a fighting spirit”) or being born to parents infected by both the post-1945 “cult of wealth” and the hedonism “bred” by the atmosphere of 1968. When summarising the ways in which Frédéric’s life has been “a French novel”, Beigbeder describes the book as, among other things, “the story of a boy who was melancholy because he grew up in a country that was slowly committing suicide, raised by parents depressed by the failure of their marriage”.

In its mixture of wildness and rigour, exhaustion and rapture, impudence and earnestness, A French Novel reminded this reader of – to adopt for a moment Beigbeder’s name-splattering style – Michel Houellebecq with a human face, Nabokov in both his huffy and dewy modes, Marcel Proust at his most Paul Morley-ish (“Nutella had not yet arrived from Italy”). Beigbeder’s gifts are remarkable but for a book so steeped in its native land and language to retain its exhilarating sharpness and the jazziness of its juxtapositions requires the work of a translator no less rare. Frank Wynne has shared prizes with Beig - beder in the past and again he finds the right pitch of measured mania, his occasional lapses into literalism (“une généralité” becoming “a generality”) more than compensated by his ability to add to the richness of the original, as when the straight-shooting “capot litigieux” becomes the thoroughly Beigbeder-ish “bonnet of contention”.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction critic of the NS.