- Bernard-Henri Lévy remains, at sixty-five, the paragon of “noble insolence”: “Responding to a recent query from a Parisian newspaper about the secret of his perpetual youth, his advice was, ‘Don’t spend time with boring people.’ The unbuttoned white shirt—he tells interviewers that he would choke otherwise—is a form of social provocation that he doubtlessly relishes; it also constitutes a dandyish parlor trick, leading otherwise shrewd judges of character and intellectual talent to underestimate his political acumen and Puritan work habits.”
- The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster that launched millions of profoundly vacuous parodies is seventy-five years old today—but it was only first seen in 2001. The British Treasury refrained from printing it during World War II because they thought “the phrase was ‘too commonplace to be inspiring … it may even annoy people.’” Prescient.
- Have novelists exhausted the supply of decent titles? Last year saw two books called Life After Life; this year there’s Remember Me This Way and Remember Me Like This; and Stephen King’s Joyland came eight years after Erica Schultz’s Joyland.
- Celebrity novels, reviewed: Chuck Norris’s The Justice Riders “wraps up with Justice sharing the gospel with Mordecai, then shooting him dead after the bad guy rejects Jesus—which is sort of Norris’s worldview in a nutshell.”
- To catch a (phone) thief: “You’d NEVER send a message with the incorrect ‘your’—no matter how plastered you are!”
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.