On the Prolixity of French Writers
It’s time for that peculiarly French tradition: the rentrée littéraire. Every fall, when France comes back to life after the long summer holidays, an avalanche of new books is published, timed to be eligible for the various literary prizes. This year the count for novels alone is 663, with 449 of them by French authors.
Michel Houellebecq’s La possibilité d’une île (Fayard) kicked off the season with great fanfare. In his new novel, the king of French provocateurs imagines a character named Daniel 1, who resembles the author in many ways, and then moves the action forward a couple of millennia to tell the stories of Daniel 24 and Daniel 25, his cloned descendants. Bad-boy Houellebecq’s new novel is stirring up less controversy than usual; it focuses not only on his favorite subject, sex, but also on sects and a new preoccupation for the 47-year-old writer, aging.
Houellebecq is fighting it out for the top place on the best-seller lists with Amélie Nothomb, whose new novel, Acide sulfurique (Albin Michel), has turned out to be as controversial as Houellebecq’s usually are. The Paris-based Belgian writer who made her name with Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling) takes the concept of a reality show to what some might say is its logical conclusion: participants are rounded up in the streets of Paris and sent to a concentration camp, where they engage in forced labor and are tortured by “kapos” in front of the TV cameras. Each week, spectators vote to decide which one of them will be killed off.
Marie Darrieussecq has published a novel nearly every year since the publication of her first, Truismes, in 1996. Told from the point of view of a woman who turns into a sow, it created a sensation. This year, she weighs in with the more prosaic but no less introspective Le Pays (POL), the story of a
young woman who, with her husband, moves back to the area she grew up in, where she must deal with the devastated members of her family while awaiting the birth of her own baby.
The family also takes center stage in Olivier Adam’s Falaises (Editions de l’Olivier), in which the narrator contemplates the cliffs (falaises) from which his mother jumped to her death and reviews his life in the span of one night.
Lydie Salvayre’s La méthode Mila (Le Seuil) looks at the family from a Cartesian point of view. The narrator, who is caring for his dying mother, questions the value of philosophy in the face of human tragedy and eventually finds solace elsewhere, in the less rational methods of the clairvoyant Mila.
One of the first novels that is receiving much attention is Hédi Kaddour’s Waltenberg (Gallimard), a sort of literary spy novel/love story that takes in most of the major political events of the 20th century, including both world wars, and ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Voilà: a glimpse at six of this year’s fall literary harvest; you’re on your own for the other 557.