With France the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, we look at some of the nation's best contemporary authors and ask an expert: Why do the French write such good books?
As this year's guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, France has much to offer the host country of the world's largest publishing industry trade event: Hundreds of recently published German translations of leading French books are showcased in the 2,500-square-meter French pavilion at the book fair.
To better understand this well-spring of contemporary French literature, DW met German literary critic Iris Radisch, whose work "Warum die Franzosen so gute Bücher schreiben: von Sartre bis Houellebecq" (Why the French write such good books – from Sartre to Houellebecq) was published a few days before the book fair.
DW: Your book covers French literature from Sartre to Houellebecq. Do they have anything in common?
Iris Radisch: I picked Houellebecq as a representative of current literature, because his work and his persona was a shock for many young authors, and they had to deal with it.
In this sense, Houellebecq is at the center of current literary developments in France, as was Jean-Paul Sartre in his time – even though his approach was completely different. Sartre consciously seized intellectual power in 1944 and remained France's intellectual authority for decades.
There are therefore certain parallels related to how important these figures are for other authors.
But there are major differences as well...
I describe Sartre's "The Roads to Freedom," which is the name of his series of novels that launched French post-war literature, and I end with Houellebecq's novel "Submission." So it's an arc that spans from freedom to submission.
Houellebecq's panoramas of society, which are often social satires, are in my view universal and, above all, they aspire to be a diagnosis of the times. Even though his approach is unrelated to Sartre's perspective and overall direction, Houellebecq plays a very dominant role in contemporary French literature.
How do you explain the fascination surrounding Houellebecq? Is it related to the fact that his message is always accompanied by irony and satire? Is it even possible to really understand the Houellebecq phenomenon?
You can't completely determine where the satirical character stops and where Houellebecq's own ideas actually begin. That's what I've concluded through the interviews I've had with the author. My impression is that he's not all satirical character – a big part of him obviously is, however. But there is also something of an anarchist – perhaps even a right wing anarchist – core to his thought. That's clearly related to his anti-modernism, with his critique of the Enlightenment, of rationalism, of laicism, of universalism – everything Sartre actually stands for. There is a non-ironic Houellebecq in all of his books.
Isn't that a shattering realization – when taken at face value?
Of course it's shattering. But French literature has always had the antithesis to universalism and the Enlightenment. I call it the "darker sides of existence."
They were always represented in French literature; Houellebecq is obviously not the first one. He's read Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Eugène Ionesco. Georges Bataille also came before him. They were all authors who didn't always stand for the Enlightenment and intellectual advancement; they also worked with an irrational, anarchic perspective – those darker sides.
Do you see students of the "Houellebecq school" among currently leading French authors? Some mention for example Virginie Despents as a female counterpart.
No one is directly imitating his style; Houellebecq's destructive and ironic furor does not show up anywhere else. Even with Despentes, the only parallel with him is her fearless social realism. But she does not criticize the French Enlightenment and the country's intellectual values.
There are nevertheless authors with completely different styles of writing who are strongly influenced by him – even though they've distanced themselves from him.
There is at the moment a strong current of autobiographical writing, of confessions and personal stories in French literature – very strong authors, such as Emmanuel Carrère, Didier Eribon or Annie Ernaux. They use their life story to write social and political essays, that makes their novels more than just memoirs. That's their reaction to the Houellebecq shock.
Where would you locate the last French Nobel Prize laureate, Patrick Modiano, in this literary timeline?
Modiano's first novel was published in 1967; he was very young at the time. He stands in line with classical modernism. He grew up in the atmosphere of the Algerian War – without experiencing it himself. Later on, he nevertheless wonderfully described the eerie atmosphere ruling in Paris at the time. I don't see him as a directly contemporary author. He is rather an author who portrays a lost version of Paris.
In the title of your work, you ask why the French write such good books – and you provide many answers. Do some reasons stand out?
They are really manifold. It obviously has a lot to do with the old public role of the writer, which has a long tradition in France – to which Sartre and other Sartrists could immediately connect after 1945: The fact that a writer is worth so much more, that he has such a high symbolic capital, that he's deeply estimated by society, that his novels and stories really offer narratives competing with politics – and that they're of equal value! De Gaulle famously said, "You don't arrest Voltaire," in reference to Sartre [Eds. who was to be arrested for civil disobedience].
Why is France's relation with its authors different from the one we have in Germany?
This incredible esteem for intellectuals is of course connected with the Parisian situation, with the dense concentration of intellectualism in this space. The myth of Paris as a "world capital of literature" also plays a role. It has to do with the entire character of French society.
The tradition of the social novel there is different from the one in Germany. French literature was always associated with the upper middle class, seen as more urban, more intellectual – especially compared to German post-war literature.
There are further reasons as well: It is connected with libertinage, with the experimental love lives of the French, which always stood in opposition to the Catholic model.