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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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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