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Posts Tagged ‘Emile Zola’

The State of the Political Novel: An Interview with Édouard Louis

May 3, 2016 | by

Édouard Louis

Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.  

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.

Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.

Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?

Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him. Read More »

The Great Books

March 8, 2016 | by

Gunnar Asplund, View of Interior for Paris Exhibition 1925, Bookcase Wall Elevation.

There’s something profoundly sad about being surrounded by books and unable to find anything to read. It feels like a failure: yours, society’s, the universe’s. It can happen in a poorly stocked library branch, a failing bookstore, an airport newsstand. And it’s a horrible feeling. Read More »

Bodies in Space: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

January 19, 2016 | by

Photo:  Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Photo: Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar,” which appeared in our Summer 2014 issue, is a slow-simmering story of unease, humiliation, and eroticism—it concerns a man’s experience with sadomasochistic sex in Sofia, Bulgaria. Greenwell, also a poet, is exacting in the language he uses to describe the encounter; the result is an intimate and intense intermingling of desire and trepidation.    

Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, out today, dilates those same concerns: over three sections, the book’s unnamed narrator plumbs the feelings of exploitation, loneliness, and overwhelming desire that are produced by his complicated, compulsive affair with a bewitching male prostitute named Mitko. The first section is a revised version of a novella, Mitko, which won the Miami University Press Novella Prize in 2011 and marked Greenwell’s first foray into fiction. It follows the young American teacher, new to Bulgaria, as he engages Mitko for sex in the bathrooms under Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. The second section comprises a single unbroken paragraph that reflects back to the narrator’s childhood, and the third returns to his troubled relationship with Mitko.

I met with Greenwell last November after eagerly reading an early copy of the novel. He spoke easily and at length about growing up gay in Kentucky, erotic freedom, and the many faces of desire.

I thought we would start by talking about sex.

Great. That’s my favorite thing.

The novel is concerned with sex and desire, and often we think of those two things as being intertwined, but they’re largely kept separate in this story. Sex and desire are sometimes linked, but they’re also independent entities.

Maybe that’s tied up with the experience of growing up queer in the eighties and early nineties in Kentucky. I remember very clearly thinking about sex all the time when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling an intense desire that I was pretty sure I would never be able to act on. I remember asking myself, Will I ever be able to do any of these things? Will I ever find anyone with whom to do these things? It really did seem possible that the world would never accommodate my desires. And so in that way, desire was separated from sex. And then when I did finally have sex, I found that the world accommodated those desires in these weird marginal spaces, where sex wasn’t exactly analogous with desire—places like cruising bathrooms and parks—and where there can be a circulation of bodies that, if it’s about desire, it’s about a kind of desire that can be detached from specific people. Read More »

Staff Picks: BMX, BBQ, Brutes

January 8, 2016 | by

From an early edition of Black Wings Has My Angel

Dying is an experience that biographers tend to pass over in silence. That’s why Katie Roiphe’s forthcoming book The Violet Hour is a revelation, at least to me. Her case studies—of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, John Updike, and Maurice Sendak—focus on the last months of life, using each writer’s final struggle as a key to his or her character. This is the best book Roiphe has written. She shows that our interest in dying is not just an interest in endings, or in final things, or in posterity. Instead, it has to do with how we get along, how families and friendship work, in short, how we live. —Lorin Stein 

I spent Christmas on the beach in ninety-degree heat, so I wanted something pulpy to read. I took along Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1954 noir, just reissued. Its plot doesn’t break the mold: a lowlife dude busts out of the clink, picks up a gorgeous hooker, and embarks with her on a life of crime in big-sky country. But Chaze has a strange eye for details, ones that set him against the grain of most crime writers. (Seldom do you hear a hard-boiled guy extol the potato salad at a roadside BBQ joint or tell you about his hernia exam.) Black Wings gathers a bizarre, often comical head of steam that reminded me of Denis Johnson or Wild at Heart. What kept me turning the pages was the easy, blunt wit and endless disdain: “Both had the terrible conceit of little men,” he writes of his employers, “who through fortune or persistence had landed in positions where there were even littler men for them to boss around. I’m sure it never occurred to either of them that they were stupid.” And Chaze gave his hero an excellent nom de guerre: Timothy Sunblade. “I picked that name,” Sunblade tells us, “because it is a name that smells of the out of doors.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

What’s the Use?

July 21, 2015 | by

Celebrity and oblivion in the Goncourt brothers.


Edmund and Jules Goncourt.

Few documents provide as comprehensive—or as caustic—a view of celebrity as the diary of the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond. Chronicling literary Paris from 1851 to 1896, The Journal of the de Goncourts features enough searing bons mots and scandal mongering to make Gawker look like a Sunday school brochure. In one entry from 1852, the famed cross-dressing novelist and amoureuse George Sand threatens to “publish an account” of the behavior of her son-in-law, the sculptor Clésinger; he is quick to reply: “then I’ll do a carving of your backside. And everybody’ll recognize it.” The novelist, playwright, and bohemian Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is described as having “the face of an opium addict or a masturbator”; Edmond de Goncourt dismisses Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, like his poetry, as a “plagiarism from Verlaine.”

Whether or not one is familiar with the poets, novelists, and absintheuses of Haussmannian Paris, to read the Goncourt brothers is to plunge headlong into a world of bitter rivalries and bitterer friendships, in which every gathering around a café table on the Grands Boulevards is a chance to raise one’s status in the byzantine literary hierarchy. “Here,” as Christopher Isherwood put it, “gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry.” Of course, such a cynical, self-satisfied perspective can grate. André Gide, writing on the Goncourts’ novels, excoriated their style as pathologically shallow—a Perez Hilton of the Passages des Panoramas: “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.” Read More »

The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People

February 5, 2014 | by

max factor primitif vintage perfume ad model jean patchett 1957

Jean Patchett, in a 1957 Primitif by Max Factor ad.

There are a lot of things I should be reading right now: great books, worthy books, new books, books that, quite frankly, I need to finish for work. But I cannot. Ever since I ran across The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People on my grandparents’ bookshelf, I have been unable to crack anything else.

As the title indicates, this is the best book ever written, and possibly the only book one need own. The table of contents lists such categories as “Late Virginity Losers,” “Outsize Organs,” “Minute Members,” “Orgiasts,” “Interfered with When Young,” “Overrated or Disappointing Lovers,” “Clean and Unclean,” and “Peeping Toms.” As of this writing, I am only as far as August Strindberg (cross-listed as “Mother-Fixated,” “Prodigious Progenitors,” “Sex with Partners Twenty Years (or More) Younger”). But I have every intention of dispatching Zola (“Bigamists,” “Sex Trials and Famous Scandals,” “Erotica”) before the sun sets.

Despite the subject matter, and the red-and-purple 1981-issue cover, the tone of the book is not lurid. It is objective, almost academic. Or at least, the authors make all their declarations with absolute authority. Each entry begins with a biographical sketch; these, in themselves, are worthy of much close attention. Of Somerset Maugham, the authors assert, “In his 92nd year, partially demented, often angry, sometimes euphoric, he died of lung congestion.”

Of course, the sex stuff is still the best. To wit:

Hemingway had several unusual theories about sex. He believed that each man was allotted a certain number of orgasms in his life, and that these had to be carefully spaced out. Another theory was that, if you had sex often enough, you could eat all the strawberries you wanted without contracting hives, even if you were allergic to the fruit.

Rousseau had numerous sexual eccentricities. He had the odd habit of going into raptures over inanimate objects. When living with Madame de Warens, he would wander through her house, kissing the armchair, the bedcurtains, even the floor.

James Joyce, meanwhile, “was a true underwear fetishist, and even carried a pair of doll’s panties in his pocket.”

Lately, my inbox has been flooded with desperate advertisements for inappropriate Valentine’s Day gifts. And if tubs of popcorn and sofa cushions qualify as tokens of love, I feel I may as well throw my hat into the ring and nominate The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People as the sum total of my 2014 gift guide. In this I follow family tradition: last year, my father gave my mother At Your Service, the unspeakably lurid memoir by the cheerful gent who, by his own account, acted as procurer and trick for everyone in Old Hollywood. (My mother talked so often, and so darkly and cryptically, about Charles Loughton’s fetishes that in the end I had to read it myself.) But really, who wouldn’t love it? Paper is ephemeral, flowers fade, diamonds are forever but pricey. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t prefer four whole pages on Mary Baker Eddy’s obsession with “Malicious Animal Magnetism.”

(Well, I suppose a real Joycean might prefer a pair of dolly panties.)