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.

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.

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser