Beigbeder – who claimed still to be an adolescent in the non-fictional work Premier bilan après l'apocalypse, written a few years after this novel – in fact claims here that he grew up (at the age of forty-two) in the tiny, filthy police cell he was put in after the coke incident in which his friend (just called le Poète in the novel but Simon Liberati in real life) was also arrested for the same activity. The novel is a splendid opportunity for Beigbeder – the narrator of course – to release a stream of invective against the primitive prison conditions he has experienced, and he spends a few pages dwelling on the squalor witnessed, although it isn't without humour – such as that found in the occasional camaraderie among others detained there.
As we can expect from Beigbeder, there are a large number of literary allusions, such as from the ununiformed police officer, who mentions – and I suspect not only improbably so to Beigbeder but also to the reader – that Jean Giono first got the idea for Le Hussard sur le toit in prison. This comes after Beigbeder declares (in an equally improbable moment, although improbable for a very different reason) that the coke snorting was a homage to a chapter in Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park, which has Jay McInerney snorting a line from a Porsche hood in Manhattan: he says McInerney claimed that Ellis invented the incident, although Beigbeder believes it is true. Then Beigbeder gives the cop a list of writers who have been imprisoned, tossed off as if he carries the information around in his head, a kind of walking literary Wikipedia.
It isn't the memory he has of writers which is important in this novel, though, but the memory he doesn't have of the first fifteen years of his life. But – in Proustian outpourings – this is essentially what Un roman français is concerned with: unable to sleep, lacking any intellectual stimulation in his cell, Beigbeder cures himself of his amnesia by writing a novel about his and his family's history – but in his head because he might inflict harm on himself if he were allowed to have a writing implement.
So Beigbeder delves deeply within his past, from the little he knows of his great-grandparents, through to his grandparents, his parents meeting in Guéthary in the Basque country (the place where, he mentions, the poet Paul-Jean Toulet is buried), to his slightly older brother Charles, the trauma of their parents' divorce, his own intellectual history, his repetition of broken family histories by getting divorced twice, etc.
I was impressed by the way Beigbeder tries to reinvent Freudian analysis not through the parents but through siblings, in his case through his relationship with his brother, developing an identity by behaving in exactly the opposite way towards ideas and interests as Charles does.
And a sentence about childhood is worth thinking about: 'On n'évolue pas, l'enfance nous définit pour toujours puisque la société nous a infantilisés à vie. ('We don't evolve, childhood defines us forever because society has infantilised us for life').
Yes. A fascinating – and healthily honest – read.
Links to my other Beigbeder posts:
Frédéric Beigbeder: Mémoires d'un Jeune Homme Dérangé
Frédéric Beigbeder: 99 Francs
Frédéric Beigbeder: L'Amour dure trois ans | Love Lasts Three Years