Tag: France

Knausgaard reads Houellebecq

Wednesday, 18 November, 2015 0 Comments

It was a brave decision on the part of the New York Times to ask Karl Ove Knausgård to review Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Brave because the Norwegian author is not known for his brevity. Knausgård is the author of Min Kamp (My Struggle), six controversial autobiographical novels that stretch across 3,600 pages.

“Before I begin this review, I have to make a small confession. I have never read Michel Houellebecq’s books,” writes Knausgård, warming up to his task. Eventually, he picks up the novel and opens it: “I leaned back in my chair under the bright light of the lamp, lit a cigarette, poured myself a coffee and began to read.”

Submission Submission is controversial, he finds, because “anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left’s anti-­racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities.”

Houellebecq’s savaging of political correctness prepares the ground for “a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible,” notes Knausgård. In this scenario, the French general election of 2022 is won by the Muslim Brotherhood with which the left collaborates to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. Snippet:

“What’s crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.

But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs… This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence.”

What does it mean to be a human being without faith? For Knausgård, that’s the key question posed by a novel that closes with the faithless protagonist looking forward in time to his own submission, “to the comedy, eventually converting to Islam in order to continue teaching at the Sorbonne, now a Muslim seat of learning.”

In the end, Knausgård is full of praise for what Houellebecq has written and declares Submission to be a great book: “The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses we concoct to give life meaning, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its own driving force. But what does that matter as long as it creates great literature, quivering with ambivalence, full of longing for meaning, which, if none is found, it creates itself?”


It is 2022 and the votes are being counted in France

Tuesday, 17 November, 2015 0 Comments

On the day that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was published in France, two Islamist terrorists stormed into the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people, including eight journalists. Among the dead was the economist Bernard Maris, one of Houellebecq’s closest friends. The tragedy and the coincidence were interpreted as a portent, but nobody could agree as to its significance. Conspiracy theorists wondered if Houellebecq had not somehow provoked the attack. The fact that the publication date of the book had been signaled long in advance did nothing to deter them.

Submission transports readers to the year 2022 as the votes are being counted after the French general election. Marine Le Pen and her Front National are neck-and-neck with the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic grocer’s son, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists, under Manuel Valls, decide to form a coalition with the Brotherhood to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace, but negotiations are tricky. One evening during the talks, François, the narrator, meets a friend whose husband works for the DGSI intelligence service, and the three discuss politics with the aid of port. Snippet:

“But what do they want?”
“They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling. Now, however you look at it, a Muslim education is very different from a secular one. First off, no co-education. And women would be allowed to study only certain things. What the Muslim Brotherhood really wants is for most women to study Home Economics, once they finish junior school, then get married as soon as possible, with a small minority studying art or literature first. Sottomissioni That’s their vision of an ideal society. Also, every teacher would have to be Muslim. No exceptions. Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all, the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.”
“You think the Socialists will give in?”
“The haven’t got much of a choice. If they don’t reach an agreement, they don’t have a chance against the National Front. Even if they do reach an agreement, the National Front could still win. You’ve seen the polls…”

“Are your sure? That sounds so drastic…”
“Quite sure. It’s all been settled. And it is exactly in line with the theory of minority sharia, which the Muslim Brotherhood has always embraced. So they could something similar with education. Public education would still be available to everyone though with vastly reduced funding. The national budget would be slashed by two-thirds at least, and this time the teachers wouldn’t be able to stop it. In the current economic climate, any budget cut is bound to play well at the polls.”

All of this bores François, who Houellebecq depicts as a caricature of the Western middle class: smug, agnostic, narcissistic, alcohol-addicted and sex-preoccupied. But there’s no smoke without fire. The question at the core of the story is how will he manage when his world is engulfed by the approaching wave of zealotry. Sink or swim? If ever there was a book for our times, Submission is it.


Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015 0 Comments

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


Why Paul Fussell thanked God for the Atom Bomb

Thursday, 6 August, 2015 1 Comment

The great American cultural and literary historian, author and academic Paul Fussell landed in France in 1944 as a 20-year-old second lieutenant with the 103rd Infantry Division and was wounded while fighting the Germans in Alsace. When his Thank God for the Atom Bomb (PDF) essay appeared in The New Republic in August 1981 it was received with howls of rage by leftist revisionists who accused Fussell of justifying a “war crime”. Unlike his detractors, however, Fussell knew whereof he wrote.

During the storm, Fussell remained firm in his conviction that the two bombs ended World War II. Along with saving the hundreds of thousands of American lives that would have been lost in a protracted invasion, they also saved millions of Japanese lives that would have been sacrificed in defending Nippon. Snippet:

“John Kenneth Galbraith is persuaded that the Japanese would have surrendered surely by November without an invasion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway. The A-bombs meant, he says, ‘a difference, at most, of two or three weeks.’ But at the time, with no indication that surrender was on the way, the kamikazes were sinking American vessels, the Indianapolis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casualties were running to over 7,000 per week. ‘Two or three weeks,’ says Galbraith.

Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the twelfth of August eight captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the seventieth to be sunk, and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost. That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.”

The atom bomb was a a terrible weapon, but it was used to prevent a more terrible slaughter.


The only other option is breakup

Friday, 31 July, 2015 0 Comments

Germany is running the show and writing the rules says Philippe Legrain. Why, then, he wonders, is France proposing even deeper integration? “The Last Thing the Eurozone Needs Is an Ever Closer Union” argues Legrain in Foreign Policy. Snippet:

“The conceit in Paris is that a eurozone government would be shaped by France. But why would it be? Berlin rules the roost in the eurozone, so it is scarcely going to subordinate itself to a Franco-European institution in Brussels. When German officials talk about fiscal union, what they have in mind is not the Keynesian eurozone treasury that France would like, but a supranational fiscal enforcer that could rewrite national budgets at will. That would entail an extension of German power, not a reclaiming of French influence.”

Legrain’s conclusion is worth pondering: “A flexible eurozone would be good economics and sound politics. Trying to impose a single, rigid, and deeply flawed Germanic model on the eurozone is not. A French-style eurozone government is a pipe dream. The only other option, of course, is breakup.”


Kerouac and Cohen in Paris

Saturday, 18 July, 2015 0 Comments

Dean Moriarty is the hero of On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Leonard Cohen enjoyed a few wild days and nights in the company of Kerouac during that mid-60s Chelsea Hotel phase in New York City. Fast forward a generation and we find Kerouac and Cohen providing inspiration for Moriarty, a musical collective of French, American, Swiss and Vietnamese artists living in France. Here, lead singer, Rosemary Moriarty, aka Rosemary Standley, joins forces with Dom La Nena, a Brazilian-born cellist and singer based in Paris. This is a special trans-Atlantic mix of Kerouac and Cohen, past and present.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”


Qui pendra la sonnette au chat?

Wednesday, 24 June, 2015 0 Comments

The expression to bell the cat means to hang a bell around a cat’s neck to provide a warning. Figuratively, it refers to a difficult or impossible to achieve task. According to the fable, The Mice in Council, often attributed to Aesop, a group of mice are so terrified by the house cat that one of them suggests a bell be placed around the enemy’s neck to warn of his arrival. Volunteers for the job are requested but no mouse steps forward.

Eustache Deschamps (1340–1406) was a medieval French poet and among his ballades is Les souris et les rats. The poem was written as a response to an aborted invasion of England in 1386 and contrasts French wavering in the face of English firmness. The chorus Qui pendra la sonnette au chat (who will bell the cat) became proverbial in France and the moral is the same as that of the the Aesop fable: a plan must be achievable or it is useless.

Nothing much has changed down the centuries. New players arrive and old powers disappear. Today, the USA is the cat and France is still the mouse, spied upon and cruelly taken advantage of by those with the bigger budgets, better technologies and lesser standards when it comes protecting privacy. This is utter tosh, of course, as France is no position to throw stones.


My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

Thursday, 18 June, 2015 0 Comments

On this date in 1815, the Battle of Waterloo was fought in present-day Belgium between a French army under the command of Napoleon and the combined forces of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. When the smoke had cleared, the fate of the French Empire had been decided and Europe was saved from tyranny for another century.

Fast forward to 1974 and the Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in Brighton. The French entry was La Vie A Vingt-cinq Ans by Dani, but she never got the chance to perform because Georges Pompidou, the President of France, died in the week of the contest and La Grande Nation withdrew. Sweden was represented by the band ABBA and the audience sensed that something special was about to happen when the presenter said: “This is Sven-Olaf Walldoff, who’s really entered into the spirit of it all dressed as Napoleon.” Like the battle of 1815, the rest is history.


The French lose the currency battle of Waterloo

Wednesday, 10 June, 2015 0 Comments

The great question of 19th century Europe was as follows: Would the continent become a union of states ruled by French laws and language, or would it be an association of states existing in a sphere of security guaranteed by the naval and economic power of Britain? The Battle of Waterloo provided the answer and the 19th century became the British Century. Not surprisingly, the French have not forgotten.

In March, France stopped Belgium from issuing a €2 coin to commemorate the battle. “The circulation of these coins carrying a negative symbol for a section of the European population seems detrimental at a time when eurozone governments are trying to build unity and co-operation under the single currency,” the French government stated in a letter that attempted to disguise chauvinism as concern for market stability. The Belgians retreated then, but they’re back and their Royal Mint has outflanked Paris with a €2.50 brass coin that commemorates the bicentenary of Waterloo. The canny Belgians have made 100,000 and plan to flog them for €6 each. Even better is their trove of 10,000 commemorative €10 silver coins, which can be had for €42 each. To entice French collectors, it has a silhouette of Napoleon on one side, and for British and German investors the other side features a key Waterloo moment: Lieutenant Colonel John Freemantle of the Coldstream Guards telling the Duke of Wellington that the Prussians had arrived on the battlefield.

Waterloo pound Talking of Prussians and Brits, the Royal Mint is issuing a commemorative £5 coin featuring the famous post-battle handshake between Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher, the Prussian commander.

Notes the Mint: “Your purchase is supplied with an absorbing booklet that explores the battle, its great leaders, its legacy on the world — and its impact on Britain’s coinage.” This remains the pound, not the euro, as the French, “trying to build unity and co-operation under the single currency,” have noted, to their chagrin.


Fiction writers outside the pale

Sunday, 24 May, 2015 0 Comments

Quote: “As a writer one doesn’t belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale, necessarily on the edge of society. Because society and people are our meat, one really doesn’t belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.” William Trevor, who was born on this day in 1928 in Mitchelstown, County Cork, the Republic of Ireland.

William Trevor was born in this house in Mitchelstown, County Cork, the Republic of Ireland on 24 May 1928.

Language: The “pale” William Trevor refers to comes from the Latin palus, a stake driven into the ground and, by extension, a fence made of such stakes. The word “pole” comes from the same source, as do impale, paling and palisade. The Pale in Ireland was the area around and about Dublin which England controlled directly in the 15th century, and the English Pale in France was the territory of Calais, the last Crown possession in that country. The Russian Pale consisted of specified districts within which Jews were required to live between 1791 and 1917.


Houellebecq and the capitulation of cover art

Thursday, 5 March, 2015 0 Comments

“For the purpose of Appreciation and Categorization” is the motto of The Book Cover Archive, and there is much to appreciate and categorize on this World Book Day when it comes to book covers. Think of the art of Roger Kastel for Jaws by Peter Benchley. With Soumission, the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq, however, we’re seeing a different kind of cover art. The art of capitulation.

In his book, Houellebecq paints a picture of an old, ailing Christian nation, France, submitting to a more vigorous ideology: Islam. It is a bitterly funny critique of the tolerance of the intolerant and a terrifying vision of the multicultural endgame. The book is a best-seller in France, Germany and Italy, despite the best efforts of its publishers to neutralize its appearance. The two-tone cover of the original French version is devoid of art; the German version, Unterwerfung, features the head of a bird, and the Italian cover of Sottomissione dispenses with imagery completely. The US publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is silent about the cover of Lorin Stein’s forthcoming translation but one fears that the supine trend will continue. Given the vital role of cover art in the history of book making, it is hard to accept that publishers would willingly embrace aniconism, the proscription against the creation of images, but Sottomissione is the proof.

Soumission Soumission Soumission