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Posts Tagged ‘France’

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 »

It’s Time to Stop Bothering with Underwear, and Other News

April 21, 2016 | by

A pair of silk-chiffon knickers from the 1930s, on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason

March 30, 2016 | by

The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.

A uniform for the Spokane Indians in Salish.

The first time Sarah “Sally” Thomason and I spoke, she’d just completed her annual two-day, eighteen-hundred-mile drive from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where she spends her summers studying Montana Salish. For thirty-four years, Thomason has been assembling a dictionary of this Native American language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than forty people. Thomason, a linguist, is fascinated by what happens when one language meets another, and how those languages change, or don’t. I had contacted her because I was interested in how certain words—say, e-mail, or google, or tweet—had been exported worldwide by American-born technology. I’d already called several linguists, and they all said I had to speak to Sally. No one, they said, had more insight into how linguistic traits travel, how pidgins and creoles are born, and how languages interact and change over time.  

The French government tried very hard to resist American loanwords like e-mail, promoting in its place messagerie électronique or courriel. They’d formed a whole agency for this purpose. Laws were passed and enforced. And yet e-mail prevailed—it was simply more efficient. But Sally was especially excited about languages that resist such borrowing, even in the face of extraordinary cultural influence and dominance. Montana Salish was one such language. Our conversations followed a pattern: I arrived expecting one thing and ended up somewhere entirely distinct, thinking differently about language and human culture.

Is it fair to say that you study what happens when languages meet? Is meet too friendly a word? I suppose there’s a whole range of things that happen, and sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not.

Right, but having a language disappear because all the speakers got massacred is actually really rare. There are a couple of examples where all the speakers of some language got wiped out by a volcanic eruption on an island. And there are a couple of examples, at least one in this country, where almost everybody was wiped out by smallpox and then the remainder was lynched by a mob.

What languages are those? Read More »

Branded Man

March 23, 2016 | by

The long tradition of outlaw poets.

From the cover of Merle Haggard’s Branded Man, 1967.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, here.

Early in the first volume of Panegyric—the bad-tempered, ironically self-deprecating eulogy he wrote for himself in the late eighties­—Guy Debord sang the praises of a kind of writer he knew he could never become. “There have always been artists and poets capable of living in violence,” he wrote. “The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a tavern bill.” Five hundred years earlier, in the picture Debord goes on to imagine, the medieval poet François Villon presided over a cluster of writers who lived raggedly and riskily at the banks of the Seine. These were outlaw poets, “devotees of the dangerous life”­—starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art.

Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up—when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject. In some cases, the poetry they write from this position turns out bitter, sour, and defiantly indigestible, full of lines that dare their civilized, comfortable readers to tolerate rude language, unhinged imagery, and wild variations in refinement and shape. In others, it comes off as a seductive, pining lament, a plea for pardon or a performance of rueful self-blame. Some of the great outlaw poets shuffle unpredictably between these two tones. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” Merle Haggard sang in 1967, less than a decade after the end of his two-year term in San Quentin: “but they won’t let my secret go untold; / I paid the debt I owed ’em, / but they’re still not satisfied; / Now I’m a branded man / out in the cold.” He could write an equally convincing song that placed the fault on precisely the opposite side: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied; / that leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” Read More »

Pockets—They’re Still Great! And Other News

March 23, 2016 | by

Pockets!

  • The cafard and mirthlessness that have long governed French philosophers have now extended to French writers of all kinds—a new survey says they’ve never been unhappier. Their proposed solution? Surrender. “French writers have never felt more badly paid, undervalued, or under pressure … More than half of established authors earn less than the minimum wage. Many are so depressed by the state of the book industry that they are considering giving up altogether, according to a new report that canvassed more than 100,000 authors of fiction and nonfiction … Although exact comparisons are difficult to make, French writers appear to be still doing better than their British or American equivalents.”
  • BREAKING: Nicholson Baker loves pockets. Give him a good pair of pockets, he’s happier than a pig in shit. And who isn’t, really? You gonna look me in the eye and tell me you don’t like pockets? “I’m a pocket-loving guy,” Baker says in a new podcast. “At any moment I got a couple pens—like why would you have just one pen? For a long time I tried to do everything with pockets … the pocketing of things. The prestidigitational trickery of being able to move things from the world of public visibility into a private place. It sort of feels to me like writing. Or I guess, what I like about writing, is that paragraphs take your most personal observations, or embarrassments sometimes, fantasies, whatever they are, and you fill them up, and it feels as if you’re putting them away or you’re stowing them, you’re pocketing them. But then because of the weird and wonderful act of publishing, you’re making public what you have hidden.”
  • Terry Southern’s letters are full of the humor you’d expect from him, Will Stephenson writes—but as windows into his personal life, they’re curiously opaque. “There’s something cold about Southern’s persona, in other words—he’s always in character, always on. The letters come complete with scenes and dialogue—a voice that’s arch and faux-pretentious, recalling the comedian Lord Buckley—and his habit of signing them under false names only thickens the fog. Reading the book, I wondered whether Southern would have really wanted to see it published, or whether that matters. I wondered whether I even liked Terry Southern anymore, having read it … The majority of these letters, though, have to do with the labor and economics of writing … In some ways, this is the major theme of the collection—where is the next check going to come from?”
  • Alex Mar on Doreen Valiente, once dubbed “the mother of modern paganism,” who believed that witchcraft was simply a means of accessing one’s own power: “One particular image of Doreen Valiente tells two unresolvable stories at once. In this black-and-white portrait, perhaps taken in the fifties at her home in Brighton, she is, at first glance, a suburban wife seated before a pale curtain, wearing a patterned cocktail dress, a string of stones around her neck. (She was in her thirties then, her jet-black hair cut short in a wavy bob, her lips and brows painted in.) But then the photograph becomes complicated: spread before her on a table is an altar laid out with a crystal ball, a bowl, rope, candles, and incense; in one hand she holds up a large bell, in the other a ritual knife … She is the Nerd Queen, a person of rare esoteric knowledge. She is Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft … ‘I had never felt any objection to working in the nude,’ she writes. ‘On the contrary, it was fun to be free and to dance out the circle in freedom.’ ”
  • I consider it part of my job to keep you abreast of quiet advances in the robot-writing community—so you should know that artificial intelligences can now write well enough to make headway in literary contests. “In Japan, a short novel co-written by an artificial intelligence program (its co-author is human) made it past the first stage of a literary contest … Humans decided the plot and character details of the novel, then entered words and phrases from an existing novel into a computer, which was able to construct a new book using that information … The prize committee didn’t disclose which of the four computer co-written entries advanced in the competition. The Japan News reports that one of the submitted books is titled The Day a Computer Writes a Novel, which ends with the sentences ‘I writhed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and kept writing with excitement. The day a computer wrote a novel. The computer, placing priority on the pursuit of its own joy, stopped working for humans.’ ”

Security

March 17, 2016 | by

Alexey Kuzmich, Old Age, 1986.

When I lived in France, I volunteered a couple of times a week at a major expat cultural center. I’d intended just to help out at the soup kitchen and maybe with a little tutoring, but this somehow also turned into working the security desk, too, under the direction of a fiercely proprietary octogenarian Englishwoman, Nancy, who was despised by everyone else, but performed her volunteer tasks with such zeal that removing her seemed out of the question. Read More »