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

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

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

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

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