by Rafaël Newman
Herta Müller, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, was born and raised in a traditionally German-speaking region of Romania. When she moved to what was then the German Federal Republic in 1987, she was eagerly asked by strangers hearing a Latinate inflection in her German whether she was French. When she told them that she was in fact Romanian, she recounts, she would watch as the expectant glow faded from their eyes.
There is a similar case of mistaken identity in Greta, a new film by Neil Jordan, in which the phenomenon is a deliberate plot point: apparent French nationality masks a lowlier, positively sinister Eastern European provenance. Jordan also made The Crying Game in 1992, a film notorious for a certain gasp-provoking reveal, whereby gender ambiguity and assumed identity serve as an allegory of the Anglo-Irish relations that are on the political periphery of what is otherwise a picaresque romantic comedy. In Greta, an assumed French identity is merely one of several burlesque symptoms of mental illness, as the film out-camps serial-killer forebears like Psycho and The Vanishing to produce a solid genre flick. But the certainty with which Jordan deploys presumed Frenchness as a lure and a lull to an Occidental sensibility on guard against the Iron-Curtained Orient is a reminder of the role France and French culture have long played in the Western imaginary: that of a reliable signifier of elegance, glamour, and sophistication, and an apotropaic talisman wielded against the less presentable elements of the Europe family.
This last propensity of Frenchness was a source of confusion for me when, a prepubescent visiting Paris in the early 1970s, I attempted to assimilate the evident grandeur of the métropole, and the globally intimidating power of its culture, with the French world I had been familiar with to date, namely the Montreal of my birth: a city divided on linguistic lines, whose francophone majority seemed to me edentulous and impoverished, quietly wracked with resentment at anglophone overlords who had long since forfeited bragging rights won two centuries earlier on the Plains of Abraham and were in the process of being outnumbered by an ascendant starving class still practicing a “revanche des berceaux”, or revenge of the cradle, initiated in the 18th century.
In retrospect I fancied myself to have spent my childhood in an analogy to Habsburg Prague, as a member of the German-speaking ruling class surrounded by a seething mass of Czech-speakers quietly plotting their nascent nation. And while the “révolution” that ensued, in the Quebec of my youth, did for a brief period feature violence and repressive reaction on the part of the federal government, and our relocation to the relatively placid Canadian west coast was motivated by my father’s detection of anti-Semitism among the champions of Québécois nationalism, the move from anglophone to francophone hegemony in my home province for the most part lived up to its appellation “tranquille” by failing to resemble the upheavals of an interwar Eastern Europe bent on self-determination.
My childhood perception of French speakers as a ragged, faintly ridiculous band of revanchists quickly ceded to the received notion of “la grande nation”, with its “mission civilisatrice”, propaganda transported by a veritable legion of books, films, restaurants, and French teachers throughout “la francophonie” and beyond. Of course, like Barthes’s glass of wine, French culture has always also been capable of the reverse effect – misery as well as splendor – but even the miserable counterpart to Napoleonic glory has for the most part been of the operatic, “Les Miz” and “La Bohème” variety, an easily digestible minor-key element in the grand chiaroscuro of the Gallic Gesamtkunstwerk.
In recent years, however, a more credibly, less romantically somber picture of contemporary France has been emerging, in the works of intellectuals such as the left-wing sociologist Didier Eribon, who has inherited the mantle of class analysis from his teacher, Pierre Bourdieu, and the novelists Edouard Louis and Annie Ernaux. All three writers are significantly from the “provinces” of France, from Champagne, Picardy, and Normandy, respectively, rather than from the capital, and were born into “modest”, lower-middle-class or working-class social backgrounds. While Eribon and Louis, in books like Retour à Reims (2009; Returning to Reims) and En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014; The End of Eddy), have explored the intersection of class and sexuality, particularly through the lens of young men growing up gay in a working-class environment saturated with macho hatred of homosexuals, Ernaux, in Mémoire de fille (2016; “A girl’s memory,” as yet untranslated), evokes the searing shame visited upon a young woman “initiated” into sexuality by a brutal and uncaring partner in the days prior to the Sexual Revolution – and of course predating the #MeToo movement.
Common to all three is an unstinting will to evoke the most sordid and painful situations – involving toxic masculinity, vicious misogyny, domestic violence and homophobic insult – in such classic French settings as the seaside holiday colonie or the sun-drenched terrain, and thus to demythologize these otherwise romanticized sites by revealing them as the proving grounds of patriarchal abuse, sadistic domination, and compulsory heterosexuality, and as home to a working class moving inexorably away from the noble ideals of les droits de l’homme and l’humanité, as espoused by the French Communist Party, and towards the xenophobic, white nationalist allure of the National Front. Indeed, in his La Société comme verdict (2013), Eribon identifies social class and milieu as constitutive of identity by virtue of the assignment by society at large of its particular constituents to a variety of habitats; while Louis appends to this constructionist view a bitter sense of the individual’s willing self-relegation to its pre-defined place in his description of the macho homophobe’s auto-condemnation to a life of penury and back-breaking toil, summed up in the axiom: “Haine de l’homosexualité = pauvreté” (Qui a tué mon père, 2018: “Hatred of homosexuality equals poverty”).
Among the most vital and provocative of these recent rewritings, or undoings, of inherited French grandeur is Vernon Subutex (2015-2017), by Virginie Despentes, a prolific novelist, essayist, and filmmaker who made her début with Baise-moi (1994; Rape Me), a pre-#MeToo account of revenge by victims of sexualized violence. The Vernon Subutex trilogy, currently being published in English volume by volume, details the travails of the eponymous anti-hero, a middle-aged former record-store owner who is evicted from his apartment in the opening pages of the first book and plunged into an increasingly unstable life of precarity and homelessness. Boasting an enormous cast of recurring characters, recalled to the reader’s mind with an annotated dramatis personae at the beginning of each volume, the books resemble a television series in scope, pace and narrative arc (and have indeed been produced as such in France) and offer a vivid and arresting diorama of French life in the first decades of the third millennium.
The trilogy grows darker as it proceeds, since, having begun to write in the relatively bloodless aftermath of the global financial crisis, Despentes continued amid the highly personalized violence of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks of 2015, followed by 2016, the notorious annus horribilis of the music world, in which a veritable Pantheon of revered rock and pop entertainers were laid to rest. (The thread or “MacGuffin” that runs throughout the whole trilogy, video recordings made just prior to his death by a superstar of the French music world, is reminiscent of a strain of audio-idolatry familiar to readers of postmodern “polars,” or French-language police procedurals, whose most notable exemplars are Delacorta’s opera-obsessed 1979 Diva and Grégoire Hervier’s excellent, blues-steeped 2016 Vintage.)
All of these latter catastrophes – economic, social, cultural – are reflected, mostly obliquely, in the books’ action, as its characters, many of them former players on the French music scene, now afflicted to varying degrees by hard luck and obscurity, mourn the death of their youth, the heroes and heroines of their early enthusiasm, and their national innocence, and coalesce around the title figure to stage rave-like happenings known as “convergences”, at which DJ Subutex mixes esoteric sound waves into his brilliantly eclectic playlist to induce a drug-free high in the assembly.
For that is ultimately what is on offer in Despentes’s lush, occasionally lurid, high modernist pageant, which weds a Flaubertian penchant for free indirect discourse to a Joycean facility with genre parody and universally omniscient narration: as presaged in the title figure’s pseudonym, “Subutex”, the name of a substitution medication used in the treatment of opioid addiction, the novels stage a course of replacement therapy for a France in withdrawal from its drug of choice, variously figured as a belief in the sanctity of the nation, its role as bride of the church and standard-bearer of Christendom, the unsurpassed quality of French art and thought, and the ineffable coolness and self-assurance of the “trentes glorieuses”, the 30 “glorious” years of postwar prosperity that saw France recover from its humiliation at the hands of the Nazis to indulge in a last “nouvelle vague” of cultural preeminence. And as it dances its newly drug-free way forward, Despentes’s microcosm of French society reveals itself to the world at large as coarse, fragmented, leavened by a punk insouciance but a far cry from the unquestioned nobility of the “France” that had presented itself to my incredulous young eyes as a panacea for the squalor witnessed in its farthest-flung colonies.
In the meantime, of course, the “real” France has caught up with Despentes’s imaginary nation, as the Gilets Jaunes or “Yellow Jackets” movement initiated in 2018 in protest against President Emanuel Macron’s tax on diesel fuel has spread throughout the country, scrambling hereditary political alliances and eliciting breathtakingly brutal levels of police violence in a kind of serialized civil war. The autonomous, decentralized, anarchist nature of the movement, the first of its kind, Annie Ernaux has noted, to originate in the provinces, challenges traditional hierarchies and decencies (by its failure to respect the unwritten law whereby protesters avoid the more representative tourist districts of Paris and instead focus their destructive energy on the “banlieues chaudes”) and shows the world a “France” through the Looking Glass: not the suave uprising of May 1968, with its radical chic, impeccable intellectual pedigree and printable slogans, but a messy congeries of demands from both ends of the political spectrum (by turns poujadiste and travailliste) and a relentlessly ugly couture, borrowed, as Edouard Louis has observed, from the wardrobe of the working poor and those ravaged by factory jobs – and by no more factory jobs at all – in France’s poorly served, rust-belt hinterland. The Yellow Jackets’ “convergences”, unlike those staged by DJ Subutex and his cohort, are not particularly musical, nor do they induce a drug-free high; but they do similarly reveal the sordid, agonized underbelly of what had once purported to be a grand nation.
Amid this general disintegration and demythologization, it is tempting to imagine a Frenchwoman abroad in the near future, claiming, when asked about the provenance of her accent, to have recently arrived from Romania.