Enfant terrible

A new novel by Michel Houellebecq (pronounced: Well-beck) is a major literary event in France. L’enfant terrible of French letters is loved by many and detested by some but leaves few readers indifferent.

I was set to dislike the fellow. First of all because I have an automatic distrust of the intellectual. You must understand that in France, ‘intellectual’ is a profession. Writer, journalist, political theorist and philosopher: all are taken far more seriously than in the commercially driven culture from which I hail. They are respected fonts of wisdom that drive opinion in this country.

Secondly because, well…look at the photo. He appears to the picture of the debauched, jaded version of the intellectual, a sort of Serge Gainsbourg of letters. Strike two. Thirdly because his work is controversial and I assumed that his point of view would be distasteful.

But then I read one of his novels. I don’t often read in French as it feels less natural to me than English. Frankly, it’s more work. But when the voice is right it makes all the difference.  And his voice spoke to me. Not only because I understood it, but because he has a style that is intimate, natural, relatable. I liked his voice. So I read another. And became a fan.

Houellebecq is hated by many because he speaks his truth (his version of the truth: all that any writer can do) and it is not one which is politically correct, or even palatable to some. But it is certainly representative of the thoughts and fears of many French people.

Now perhaps you’ll think I’m being pretentious, supporting the very thing I purport to distrust. Intellectuals, writers, artists. But there is one thing that I hold dear and it is the freedom to say or think anything. I posted about this before back when the last wave of terror began in France and some of the comments perfectly captured the way I feel about free speech, whether actual censorship or via the cult of the thought police.

I haven’t read Houellebecq’s new book yet. It’s called Serotonin and it’s on my list. If you’re interested, it’s apparently already translated into English and several other languages.

Interestingly, the novel seems to predict the the current movement of social unrest in France, or at least to have had its finger on the pulse of the discontent behind it.

The author isn’t doing a book tour or making any public appearances for now. This seems to be upsetting le tout Paris, but I can understand why. He doesn’t need the publicity and it’s bound to lead to awkward questions.

What do you think: should writers be expected to defend their political beliefs or be given a pass as free thinkers?

Un peu de lecture

Mémé dans les orties

Another thing I love about the fall is the idea of curling up with a book as the temperatures drop and the days grow shorter. Not that I need a seasonal excuse – reading for me is a year-round occupation.

My favourite place to read is also where I write this blog: in bed. Mostly in the mornings. I also read before going to sleep, but my eyes tend to glaze over pretty quickly. I read for pleasure exclusively on paper, not e-books. Besides the fact that screens are not pages to me, anything electronic feels like work. And there is something about holding a book in your hands that I can’t imagine going without.

Although I speak French fluently, I read almost exclusively in English. French often feels like work, and until a few years ago, there were so many gaps in my vocabulary that I was always scrambling to look up words.

I’ve started reading a few French books lately. There was ‘L’élégance du hérisson’ (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. A couple of novels by Michel Houellebecq. And at the moment, a slice of French life called ‘Mémé dans les Orties’ by Aurélie Valognes.

It’s about a bitter old man who makes life miserable for himself and everyone else who has the misfortune to live in his apartment building. It’s about the pettiness and solitude of everyday life, and, presumably, although I’m only half-way through, how that can all change with the arrival of a few new faces.

I love very human stories like this that combine humour with the bittersweet. Dysfunctional families and quirky love stories. One of my all-time favourite novels is hiding on the bookshelf in this picture. Can you guess which one it is?

By the way, for those who are interested: the title comes from the expression ‘Il ne faut pousser mémé dans les orties.’ I had to look this up as I’d never heard it before. Essentially it’s a way of saying ‘il faut pas pousser’ – or don’t push, meaning don’t exaggerate, take advantage, go too far. At least not so far as to push poor Granny into the nettles!

Do tell me: what are you reading?