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A French Novel by Frédéric…

A French Novel

by Frédéric Beigbeder

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Another book which just had to be read in the sunshine - anything else would have felt out of tune with the cover. Though, unlike those vintage beach babes, with a very uneven suntan due to a combination of reading and unglamorous aches and pains.

I'd read the blurb, but was so seduced by the cover that I still, illogically, expected lots of stuff about the French Riviera in the 60s. A grown up Bonjour Tristesse? But it's a history of the author and his family and their parallels with the history of France in the twentieth century, reflections "tender and ironic" prompted by his being arrested and imprisoned for two days when he and a poet mate blatantly snorted coke off a car bonnet at the roadside. A sort of potted French Min Kamp - Beigbeder and Knausgaard are of similar age and background, though Beigbeder's family was less troubled. This is much shorter than Karl Ove's Struggle, and with huge print like a book for ten-year olds. (Wonderful for reading with non-prescription sunglasses.) It was tipped for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize but wasn't longlisted - and I was more interested in it than in some of the worthy, issue-filled texts that did make it.

So many popular reviewers on Goodreads would absolutely shred this book. Hopefully they just won't bother with it in the first place as the a/s/l of the author, plus lack of recs from approved sources, would put them off if they noticed it at all. (Way too many people read a ton of stuff they're obviously going to hate and write reviews which aren't funny. If I were anywhere near as good a writer as I wish I were, I'd try to apply a maxim of "Be nice or be funny. Or both." when it came to reviewing fiction, memoirs, and anything non-serious. I love entertaining bad reviews, but schoolmarmish tutting isn't a response to art that I want to see more than once or twice a year. Inaccurate factual books and crap intentionally didactic stories, however, deserve any kind of drubbing.)

Honestly, it was sometimes difficult to find my own response to A French Novel because I thought so often with an editor's head, of other, noisy, types of readers who'd hate it. Not having read more than a few pages of Knausgaard is a major handicap in reviewing and contextualising this. With that very significant proviso, I'm not sure this book would work for many people in an English-language readership - only those who are a) quite similar to the author or b) non-judgemental and open to listening to all kinds of people including those widely lambasted as privileged, in the manner of a person-centred counsellor. (I used to think much more of humanity was that nice before I read thousands of Goodreads reviews. Though I live in hope that the reviews are more a reflection of the sort of people who like ranting on the internet.) As far as I can gather, literary reflections on the angsts of a life that's well-off and untroubled by most people's standards need, in our language, to be written in an extraordinary way, preferably humourous, and/or couched in a detached, apologetic and perhaps theorised manner.

Beigbeder clearly knows how he may sound, especially later in the book: "I'm painfully aware that this whole thing is ridiculous, that I'm just a privileged child deprived of his comforts as punishment for his overgrown-rich-kid self-indulgence." Personally, I find it brave that, whilst realising this, he is upfront about articulating just how awful and frightening he finds the police cells. Undoubtedly, some writers would use the experience to observe the place and talk to everyone they could, people they wouldn't normally meet, but he's feeling too shaken for that. The descriptions would be called melodramatic, and I could hear a commentary in my head saying that another proper label for them was "mockable", even whilst I realised that this might be a manifestation of the cultural trope "big boys don't cry", that a woman might get a little more sympathy (those same readers would probably still call her spoilt). And even alongside memories of the time when an ex was similarly arrested, roughed up a bit, full body searched and held, (he'd done nothing but look scruffy and smell of booze on an inter-city coach) and came home a trembling wreck like I never saw him before or since, barely able to speak for a couple of days. And he was used to lowlife and grotty bedsits, so I don't doubt the experience was a shock for golden bad-boy Beigbeder.

He's evidently taking the piss out of himself at times, though: a couple of the conversations he has with cops (e.g. pp36-8) are, obviously intentionally, hilarious, sounding like smart-arse sixth formers citing the lives of famous dead authors and political principles as reasons for their actions. It's interesting how it's possible to agree with most of it in principle whilst a) noticing how daft it sounds if put even slightly the "wrong" way or explained in the wrong setting and b) thinking it was a stupid thing to do "at their age", making an incorrect assumption that if people needed an actual experience to realise they were subject to the law and what that might be like, then they would have got it over with by the time they left university.

It turns out it wasn't that easy to read A French Novel out in the sunshine. There were too many things I wanted to look up. These are references for serious Francophiles. Plenty of books I haven't read (not just that glaring gap Proust), several films I hadn't seen, and a plethora of pop-culture and politicians that would undoubtedly send a shiver down the spine of any French nostalgia-fiend born in, or fascinated by, the 60s and 70s. (As an English one I never got tired of thinking about how exciting some of these references must be to people my age or slightly older on the other side of the Channel, and of looking up these weird old cartoons, obscure dead singers and the like.)

As to the author's reflections on his family, there was some history there - not least because both sides were well-connected and public figures were sometimes in the house, not just on newsreels and TV. Most of it was like (well, is) the musings of someone who's about to start, or just starting, therapy for the first time, having not thought about the patterns and connections in their family before, and noticing various assumptions about life and people they've been making. (His family sounded like some of the more ostensibly normal families in this book; no-one's abusive or actually neglectful, but the parents were very wrapped up in their own hedonistic lives.) And it's expressed in a direct way you'd use when talking to good friends or a counsellor, rather than literarified for a critical audience. There is also an incredibly sweet chapter about his daughter. Mumsnet would undoubtedly dismss him a "Disney dad" - though unlike all the examples I've met, he's not actively trying to do something different and kinder from his own bad childhood - after all Beigbeder's was pretty okay and he knows it - he's just lazily repeating what his own dad did. Some of the French GR reviews praise the contrast of A French Novel's narrative with the arrogant characters in Beigbeder's earlier novels - I can see how that might make this book more likeable to some *imagines a series of French John Selfs*, and more interesting than it is as a standalone.

Probably one only for those who've read Beigbeder's earlier works, serious Francophiles, social-libertarian hedonists no longer in the first flush of youth (and who get accused of failing to grow up), or those interested in random personal psychological reflections at book length.
2 vote antonomasia | Jun 15, 2014 |
Diary (or docu-fiction) of a 40 year-old adolescent who imagines he can imitate Proust without effort or style. Poor little rich boy. Turns out that he loves his mother and daughter, admires his father (and his coterie of influential friends and young lovers) and is in awe of his older brother, his parents divorce was hard for him and he took to hedonism. The final pseudo-literary conceit goes plop into an empty pan. Or to put it another way this is a humourless bourgeois Brigitte Jones in drag doing Paris. Despite attaining degree zero of writing its saving grace is that it's a quick and not unpleasant read ( )
  mynote | Oct 11, 2010 |
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Comme un printemps les jeunes enfants croissent
Puis viennent en été
L'hiver les prend et plus ils n'apparaissent
Cela qu'ils ont été.

Pierre de Ronsard, ode à Anthoine de Chasteigner, 1550
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à ma famille et à Priscilla de Laforcade qui en fait partie
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Je suis plus vieux que mon arrière-grand-père.
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dans un roman, l'histoire est un prétexte, un canevas; l'important c'est l'homme qu'on sent derrière, la personne qui nous parle.
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In his most autobiographical text to date, Beigbeder recounts his stay in a French police cell in January 2008, after he was arrested for snorting cocaine off a car bonnet outside a nightclub in the super-chic 8th arrondissement of Paris. As he lies in the cell, he revisits his childhood, from the carefree days when his grandfather taught him to skim pebbles at the beach in Cenitz, to his parents' divorce, the conflicting influences of his hedonistic father and studious, seemingly conventional brother who has it all , and his own first, unrequited loves. This patchwork of memories is as much a portrait of the era as it is the story of a fragile, self-critical man who has finally dropped the mask.… (more)

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