26 October 2013

Frédéric Beigbeder: Premier bilan après l'apocalypse (2011)

Before Premier bilan après l'apocalypse exploded on my consciousness, I'd only read two of Frédéric Beigbeder's novels: Mémoires d'un Jeune Homme Dérangé (1990) and 99 Francs (2000), both of which I've commented on before on this blog, and both of which I link below.

But Premier bilan is quite something else, and it's difficult to express how much I enjoyed this ourageously self-opinionated, repetitive, wholly original, quirky, bizarre, immensely informative, infuriating, moving, contemptible, cliquish, and quite brilliant book written with both deep sincerity and tongue firmly in cheek.

Beigbeder obviously has deep concerns for the future of the book: not so much that it will be consumed in the flames of a Ray Bradbury-style dystopian Fahrenheit 451, but that we shall move into a paperless society in which print be only be in the form of the virtual word, with no sense of touch or smell, etc, and whose technology may even destroy our literary heritage.

So, here are one hundred books from the (essentially late half of the) 20th century (and just a few more immediately before and after that century) that Beigbeder believes must be saved. As Beigbeder is French it is unsurprising that more than 50% of these books are in that language, and as he has connections with the USA it is unsurprising that more than 25% of the books are of American origin. But barely 10% of the books are by female authors, which would appear to suggest an unfortunate male bias. (Maybe he can be excused just this once.)

It would be churlish (even ignorant) of me to even attempt to mention (in mock anger) the number and quality of the writers Beigbeder has excluded here: this is an idiosyncratic list, a list of those books he loves and considers worthy of survival, and not a list of those works he personally thinks are, er, great works in themselves (if that has any meaning).

But the strength of this book is that it is idiosyncratic, even a little insane – Beigbeder, for instance, includes in his hundred books an album by French rock band Téléphone and contrives to make his number 69 by the very sexually-oriented San-Antonio (OK, Frédéric Dard), the book of choice (En avant la moujik!) being published in the 'année érotique' of 1969. Furthermore, as I'm far from being a fan of much of what passes for good contemporary English literature (by which I mean that produced by English nationals), I am very pleased to find that only five of the 100 entries are by English writers, and that two of those entries are books by J. G. Ballard, whom Beigbeder rates higher than the usual tedious suspects he dismissively mentions: David Lodge, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Coe, and Julian Barnes.1

I am delighted to note that Beigbeder includes the glorious Jean Rhys, who was born in Dominica to a Welsh father and a white Creole mother of Scottish ancestry; the fact that the chosen book isn't the usual (and atypical of Rhys's better work) Wide Sargasso Sea but Good Morning, Midnight (1939) shows that he knows what he's talking about. But then, going for lesser known works (which are often better in quality and/or are far more interesting) is Beigbeder's forte.

 Premier bilan is no conventional trip through the memory lane of its writer, but a genuine attempt to pinpoint some of missing elements in the conventional lists of 'best' books. As such, it often mentions obscure works, even, perhaps, a few that are almost impossible to find without spending far more than idle curiosity would allow for (such as Alain Pacadis's Un jeune homme chic (1978)). But others are much more accessible (at least for buying online but not necessarily from the point of view of readability), such as Rose poussière (1972) by Jean-Jacques Schuhl. And then there are Les Couleurs de l'infamie by Albert Cossery, Brèves de comptoir by Jean-Marie Gourio and Autoportrait by Edouard Levé.

This is a book I shall consult again and again, just dipping into it, discovering (I'm sure) much more each time.

Premier bilan is an infuriating delight – wouldn't anyone be infuriated by someone trying to convince you that writers such as Bret Easton Ellis  or Jay McInerney are way up there among the best in the world? – but it's the way that he says it. And he says things so well (if in a slightly exaggerated fashion). (Smiley definitely required there.)

I'll translate a few gems:

'As with all of [Cossery's] books, he praises laziness, condemns the rich with their possessions, and only respects beggars, outsiders, the poor. For him, these are the only free humans. [...] [L]et's stop classing the unemployed as handicapped when they are gods!'

'...celebrity, the new opium of the people...'

'[Ned Roram's] most beautiful sentences are those which we don't completely understand but feel deeply: they are addressed to the soul more than the head.'

'The film Breakfast at Tiffanys was absolutely charming but all the same it was an act of high treason. [Blake Edwards] turned a satire that could have been called 'The Fall of an Escort Girl' into a romantic moral comedy.'

'[Guillaume] Dustan cleverly synthesises the four most modern strands of contemporary literature: new realism (Houellebecq / Ravelec / Despentes), autofiction (Donner / Angot / Doubrovsky), experimental 'dandy rock' writing (Schuhl / Pacadis / Adrien),  and gay porn (Renaud Camus / Hervé Guilbert / Vincent Borel).'

'When I was an adolescent – I still am, but no matter...' (Beigbeder was 48 when this book was published.)

Beigbeder knows a great deal about literature, he loves it, he's immensely pretentious (that's one of his great strengths: he's a joker), he's still way too laddish, he'll never grow up (also one of his greatest strengths), but after reading Premier bilan I wanted to ring him up and talk about this book (that's a reference to something he says) because I loved it, because of its brilliance and because of its superb arrogance. Beigbeder has a self-deprecation which, paradoxically, can only come from conviction of his great worth. No, of course I don't take this book seriously: it's too vital for that.

Another translation of mine from this book:

'I'm frightened of LSD (I've often been offered it but never wanted to try it). I don't sleep with minors (that's bad). But I love it when books allow me to know things I don't have a knowledge of.'

That, of course, is what reading should be all about. This is a human, wonderful – and wonderfully annoying – book. It easily makes my one hundred, all-time list.

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1 In Coe's defence, he wrote a brilliant biography of B. S. Johnson; Barnes's interest in Félix Fénéon and Alphonse Daudet are to be commended; Lodge is very good when talking about modernism; but McEwan, er... but then isn't he a friend of the dreadful Martin Amis?2

2 I noticed Philippe Djian (Beigbeder's number 18 with Maudit ménage  and 95 with Clémence Picot) says (with apparent glee) in a magazine somewhere that the semi-colon is dead; oh no it's not.

My other Beigbeder posts:

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Frédéric Beigbeder: Mémoires d'un Jeune Homme Dérangé
Frédéric Beigbeder: 99 Francs
Frédéric Beigbeder: Un roman français
Frédéric Beigbeder: L'Amour dure trois ans | Love Lasts Three Years
Frédéric Beigbeder: Vacances dans le coma

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