November 13, 2012 | by Nelly Kaprielian
Last month our friends at the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles reported that Philip Roth has called it a day, and the world took notice. Here is the full interview with Nelly Kaprielian, in English. —Lorin Stein
Out of all your novels, Nemesis seems to be the one where you lay out most clearly your own vision of existence.
That’s true. I think everything in life is a matter of luck. I don’t believe in psychoanalysis, or in a subconscious that guides our choices. All we have is the good luck or the bad luck to meet certain people who will be either good or bad for us. My first wife, for example, turned out to be a criminal—she was always stealing, lying, and so forth—and it’s not as if I chose her for that reason. I hate criminals. But there you are, I had the bad luck to marry a bad person. Psychoanalysts will tell you that I chose her unconsciously—I don’t believe in that, though in a certain way this isn’t far from my own view, which is that, in the face of life, we are innocents. There is a certain innocence in each of us in the way we deal with our lives.
Nemesis belongs to a group of four novels entitled “Nemeses” (including Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling). How are they connected?
Each one deals with the subject of death from a different point of view. In each of these books, the protagonist has to face his “nemesis,” a word one hears a lot in the United States, and which could be defined as doom, or misfortune, a force that he can’t overcome and that chooses him as its victim. Read More »
November 9, 2010 | by Nelly Kaprielian
Now it’s midnight: We’re at the Montana drinking vodka with some kind of blue mint thing in it—“we” being a small gang rounded up by Frédéric Beigbeder after dinner. No way is the novelist and former talk-show host (one of our more energetic littérateurs) going to let his friend Michel crawl into bed with his Goncourt. “Between Michel getting the Goncourt and Virginie Despentes winning le Renaudot,” Beigbeder exclaims, “a whole generation—our generation—has finally won!” There's a brief silence, and we must all think the same thing without saying it: If we’ve won and there's nothing to fight for, it’s probably downhill from here.
Of course, we can always wait for Houellebecq to get the Nobel. “After France, the world!” jokes Beigbeder, and everybody’s quick to raise a glass. A colleague from Les Inrocks joins us and immediately falls into a passionate discussion with Michel. When I ask Sylvain Bourmeau (an editor at France’s most important news site, Mediapart) what’s got them so worked up, he tells me “charcuterie.” And in fact, when we were all crammed into a car on the way to the Montana, Michel held forth with great precision on the subject of his car (sorry, don’t ask me the make); it occurred to me that this is what makes him so deeply charming and also, perhaps, part of what makes him such a powerful novelist: his capacity to be completely present, without any irony, whether the subject is literature, feelings, or cars. Later, a blond angel of Russian origin absconds with him, once he’s already half-asleep. This would be Maria, the young woman who served as a model for the character of Olga in La Carte et le térritoire. “All my characters are here,” Houellebecq joked during the dinner thrown in his honor at La Mediterranée. He then asked them to rise: Beigbeder, Maria, and his editor, Teresa Crimisi, who shares with Houellebecq a very sportsmanlike air of victory—all calm joy, no bragadoccio.
September 16, 2010 | by Nelly Kaprielian
This is the second installment of Kaprielian's culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
11:00 A.M. Trying to write my column. I got an e-mail from Michel H. asking me not to put the photos of him bare-chested on the cover for September 8. It’s too bad, those photos are the best by far.
11:15 A.M. Still trying to write my column (nothing to say, really). Get a phone call from the French publisher of Bret Easton Ellis's new novel, Imperial Bedrooms. (It’s such a great novel. I know American critics don’t like him. As we say in French, “nul n’est prophète en son pays.”) They’re very cool about it, but they just want to let me know how badly we've screwed up their plans. We put Ellis on the cover of our rentrée issue, which came out August 18, and ran the interview he gave me in Los Angeles, but it was a month before the book came out. Usually we don’t do stuff like that. Nobody does. But this year the publishers decided to publish some very famous and interesting writers late in the season—no doubt to get coverage early on for authors who are less well known.
But the rentrée needs one or two locomotives if the books are going to get read—ditto the magazines. If you put a star on the cover, people are curious to read the article, then they read the other reviews, even of first novels. (That’s how each book finds its readers.) Also, I have to say, we’re the only magazine that puts writers on the cover at all. Everyone knows a writer doesn’t sell copies. That’s the sad reality. And it’s why I like working for Les Inrocks—we can still do it anyway.
2:00 P.M. Reading the new (to us) Philip Roth, Indignation. I interviewed Roth last year in New York. He’s one of the sexiest minds I’ve ever met. Les Inrocks are putting together a series on the greatest American writers. I wonder if an American magazine would ever do the same for French writers!
5:00 P.M. High heels? Not serious enough. An expensive bag? Too bling. Black trousers and black jacket? Too executive… Finally I opt for a black minidress and black ballerina slippers for our annual rentrée cocktail party. It takes place in a restaurant in the Panthéon cinema, decorated by Catherine Deneuve. Cozy, cool, lounge-y. Unless you're as tense as I am. It’s nice but always difficult to have all those people around. And will they even show up? If they do, what to say? How to behave? But I’m relaxing as the years go by. Now I know all you have to do is smile. And kiss. So I spend my evening smiling and kissing. And everyone is happy—me included.
10:00 P.M. Over. All the publishers came, lots of writers I like, and of course, my friends. How easy it all was. I no longer feel the need to look serious when a writer tells me his new book is about vibrators. And when a writer comes up to shake your hand, now I know that “Bravo!” is all you have to say about the book. They’ll understand. What I’ve learned over the years is that everybody needs to be loved. Absolutely everybody! And the love people need is endless. By ten, the Inrocks team seems satisfied with the party, so I can leave with my friends for Le Rostand, a café across from the Luxembourg Gardens. (Yes, Rostand is a café now. Le Balzac is a cinema. And Colette is a trendy boutique.) Read More »
September 15, 2010 | by Nelly Kaprielian
10:00 A.M. How can you tell when a novel is great? When, even on a second reading, you keep discovering new things, you keep being amazed, impressed, amused, when the text keeps making you think about the world and your own life. That's how it is with Michel Houellebecq's new novel, La Carte et le Territoire. I just finished rereading it this morning in preparation for my interview with him tonight. The book comes out September 8 and already—ever since August 20—the press has been full of raves.
Every Houellebecq novel is an event. The only real phenomenon in French letters, and the only French author known abroad, Houellebecq has certainly paid a price: to be idolized like a rock star, yes, but also hated, scorned, dragged through the mud by his idolators. Since The Elementary Particles came out in 1998, Les Inrockuptibles has stood by Houellebecq, defending him against the unfounded attacks that greeted one of his best books, The Possibility of an Island, in 2005. Out of loyalty, Houellebecq has granted us the first in-depth interview about the book, and the only long interview in a serious weekly. Needless to say, such loyalty is rare in the literary world. Ironically, thanks to the new book, Houellebecq finds himself lionized yet again by the press. Whenever a book of his appears, the media’s reaction tells you as much about them as about the book itself.
11:00 A.M. It hasn’t got any sex in it, no swingers’ clubs, no Thai whores. The novel, which is less angry and less polemical than his previous work, will be read on its own terms, simply as a great book: a total novel, a metaphysical labyrinth of dizzying complexity, a vision of the world that we once knew and have lost to globalization. No, it isn’t exactly funny. And yet Houellebecq manages to combine his despair with an irony that draws you helplessly in. It strikes me that this is why I do my job—why all critics do—for the intense feeling, for the adrenaline rush, of discovering a work of genius. If it wasn’t eleven in the morning, I’d pour myself a shot of vodka.
12:00 P.M.. At the office, in Bastille. I have other people’s reviews to edit, headlines to write (trying to be witty, to think up puns … a nightmare), etc. But first I can’t resist going straight to the editor of the TV section and begging him—on bended knees, with clasped and trembling hands—to let me borrow season three of Mad Men. That’s one advantage of working for a culture journal. You can get all 13 episodes at once, and watch five in one night. Ecstasy.
5:40 P.M. Houellebecq’s novel features a misanthropic alcoholic named Michel Houellebecq, who says at one point: “You know, it’s the journalists who’ve given me the reputation of a drunk: what’s odd is that none of them ever realized that, if I drink a lot in their presence, it’s only so I can stand them.”
I pick up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
6:07 P.M. Houellebecq is … Houellebecquian. The Ritz? The Meurice? The Plaza? No. While in Paris he stays at a completely crummy chain hotel—in the 13th Arrondissement, no less, the same neighborhood where his main character, the artist Jed Martin, lives. The room is depressing enough to make you want to jump out the window. Pajamas balled up on the unmade bed, electric toothbrush recharging on the table. The usual slow delivery, the usual long silence before every sentence, the usual cigarette in the corner of his mouth. And yet he has changed: he’s thinner, his face is more deeply lined, his eyes seem washed out, he seems exhausted. It worries me. “Thank you for the champagne, but I already picked up a bottle. We’ll drink them both.” And so we do.
10:30 P.M. Michel orders a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape at the Moroccan restaurant where he has taken me to dinner.
11:35 P.M. He has fallen fast asleep on the table. What to do? The kind waitress hails a taxi, I shake Michel by the shoulders to wake him up, help him to his feet and put him in the car. “Where are we?” he asks, still half asleep. In the taxi he finally recognizes the 13th Arrondissement and seems reassured. I tell him that the most worrying thing, for me, is that I seem able to hold my liquor better than … Michel Houellebecq himself. “Yes, but you have practice, what with all those literary cocktail parties they make you attend.” All is well: he has got back his sense of humor.
11:55 P.M. In front of his hotel we smoke a few more cigarettes while the taxi waits to take me home. “Alcohol, you know, is a thing of my youth. I don’t drink the way I used to. I’m old now, and I don’t think I have much longer to go. La Carte et le Territoire may be my last book … “ Touching, moving, sincere, brilliant, funny, utterly down-to-earth … An interview with Michel Houellebecq is not like an interview with anybody else. No doubt about it, I love the guy. Read More »