J M Coetzee, award winner of the Nobel Prize 2003 for Literature, posing in Rome during a literature festival. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What the “brown recluse” spider can tell us about the condition of modern celebrity

A local news channel in Evansville, Indiana recently reported a story about a family who moved into a new house in south-east Missouri and found it infested with spiders. “I’ve counted over a hundred in the house right now,” said Darren Bockhorn, the new owner. “Over 200, total, with the ones I’ve killed and thrown away.” His wife looked in the mirror one day and spotted one crawling out of her hair; Darren found them wandering over the floor of his daughter’s bedroom.

The house, it turned out, had been vacant for a year before the Bockhorns moved in. The spiders – identified as “brown recluses” – had months to bed in and breed. There’s nothing the brown recluse spider likes more than an empty space, an undisturbed corner. All the advice says to watch out for them in unoccupied bedrooms, abandoned outhouses or piles of wood or clothes that haven’t been touched for a long time. They like quiet and solitude, and while they’re venemous, they only tend to bite if provoked or suddenly squashed up against human skin.

I got thinking about the brown recluse after a little spate of stories about other recluses in our midst. The human kind. In appealing synchrony, three celebrated literary recluses – J M Coetzee, Donna Tartt and Thomas Pynchon – are publishing novels this year. (Or so they say – you can never fully trust the promises of a recluse; often it’s better simply to wait to be surprised, David Bowie-style). In Tartt and Pynchon’s cases, the books come after a relatively long period of silence. What all three share, though, is the way they’re talked about, as if they are odd, otherworldly loners who choose to live on the remote coasts of existence.

Is it a fair depiction? I don’t think so. Coetzee’s reputation seems to rest fairly heavily on the fact he didn’t show up to collect either of his two Booker Prizes. He avoids publicity and interviews and lives in Adelaide, where it’s said he likes to cycle, keeps a strict routine and lives – so rumour has it – a puritanical, vegetarian existence. Does this make him a recluse? Perhaps he’s simply someone who likes to live according to his own rhythm, where the work comes first and the attending circus of celebrity is evaded to the greatest possible degree.

Tartt and Pynchon, similarly, are cast as off-kilter eccentrics. It was said she’d bought an island off Tahiti and lived in total isolation (journalists obsessed over a recording of T S Eliot she supposedly had on her answerphone). Meanwhile, people breathlessly record sightings of Pynchon on New York streets in the way a crank might chronicle a UFO fly-by. There are few photos of him in existence and no one seems entirely sure where he lives. But over the years, Pynchon himself has both satirised and dispelled the idea that he’s a recluse (“my belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists,” he once said, “meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters’”). After CNN surreptitiously filmed him in the 1990s, he contacted the channel to ask not to be identified in the footage and, surprisingly, they obliged. “Let me be unambiguous,” he said. “I prefer not to be photographed.” Some, inevitably, are sceptical about his motives, wondering if his mystery helps to cultivate an obsessive following and boost a lucrative mystery. But Pynchon seems to take a lighter view.

In 2004, he made two cameo appearances on The Simpsons wearing, in yellowskinned, animated form, a brown paper bag over his head. He endorsed a book written by Marge: “Here’s your quote: Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!”

They’re hardly a new phenomenon, these artistic hermits. Emily Dickinson, Greta Garbo, Harper Lee – all lived their lives as cut off from the roar of public life as they could. By the time of his death, in January 2010, J D Salinger had driven the Holden Caulfield devotees of America half mad by his reticence. After The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and some short stories, he stopped. Not writing – Salinger claimed he continued to work every day, and an acquaintance once said the author had told him of a stack of unseen novels – but publishing. He loathed the frenzy of it and preferred to live as anonymously as he could in the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire.

A few days after Salinger died, the New York Times sent a reporter up to Cornish. Here, he was known as “Jerry” and, said the librarian, was very much “a townsperson”. He frequented the library, the local church suppers and Plainfield General Store, and even attended town meetings in the elementary school. None of which sounds like the activity of a diehard recluse. When fans and journalists bowled into town in the hope of meeting the author, neighbours would do their best to steer them off the scent, offering wayward directions that spirited them back out again. The owner of the general store described Salinger as being “like the Batman icon. Everyone knew Batman existed and everyone knows there’s a Batcave, but no one will tell you where it is.”

I wish, in some ways, there were more Batmans in the world. Perhaps the reason we’re so tantalised by these recluses is simply because they are so rare in a culture that feeds on the shimmering ephemera of visibility and publicity. That someone should choose to protect themselves from the seductions of fame, should choose not to partake in the whole jamboree at all, seems to go marvellously against the natural order of things.

There’s a picture of Salinger as an old man taken through a car window so that his face is framed by metal. He looks anguished, appalled, and his fist is raised as though he’s about to strike the car, the photographer, the camera – as if to defend himself against the violation. It’s the brown recluse spider again. Left alone, he lived peacefully. When disturbed, he bit.

Ed Smith is away

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.