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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear