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Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes.

June 18, 2015 13 comments

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. 2015 (Not available in English)

Despentes_vernonIWhat a disappointment! I was looking forward to reading Virginie Despentes’s new novel after enjoying Apocalypse Bébé and Teen Spirit.

Vernon Subutex is the name of the main character, a former record dealer whose professional life was destroyed by digital music. We’re all aware of what happened to the music industry with the development of internet, P2P and music in mp3 files instead of CDs. So Vernon’s store sunk and he sunk with it. His financial situation worsens and when his friend Alex dies, he doesn’t have anyone anymore to help him with his rent and he’s evicted from his apartment. Alex is not a guy-next-door kind of friend, he’s a rock star. And Vernon has tapes where Alex talked about himself. Surely, such precious material is worth money?

That brought me to page 120 out of 393, of the first volume. (The second one was released this month and there’s a third one scheduled for later). Although Despentes is still punchy in her style, I couldn’t care less about the story. I heard her talk about her novel at the Fête du Livre de Bron and I expected something more about society’s shortcomings. She explained our society is uncompromising for the weak and Vernon’s situation spiraled out of control. I expected to sympathise with Vernon.

Instead, I thought Vernon was a bit of a Peter Pan. He never wanted to grow up and he now resents ageing even if he doesn’t complain about it.

Passé quarante ans, tout le monde ressemble à une ville bombardée. After forty, everybody looks like a town after a bombing.

He’s more in a mood of “where the hell did those years go?” He failed to acknowledge his professional world was changing, he failed to branch out when it was time. Perhaps it was such a strong wave that the whole music industry didn’t see it coming. His friends or so call friends are all the artistic/media world (rock stars, rock journalist, screenwriter or working on TV) I wasn’t interested at all in their angst. I could imagine a sordid plot was about to explode about Alex’s recordings and that it would be ugly and expose society’s greediness. But I didn’t feel like reading more about that.

So after seeing the book lying around for a while and never feeling like picking it up, I decided to stop reading it. It’s not a bad book at all. I still enjoyed Despentes’s style and she hasn’t lost her edge

Pedro s’appelait Pierre, mais il prenait tant de cocaïne qu’il avait hérité d’un prénom sud-américain. Pedro’s real name was Pierre but he sniffed so much cocaine that he inherited of a South-American name.

However, sometime, I could hear the English under her French, which is really odd. I noticed this sentence Emilie est devenue balistique sur la propreté. (Emilie went ballistic on hygiene) and later I spotted a Marque mes mots (mark my words) In both cases, it means absolutely nothing in French if you’re not aware of the English expressions. I truly love the English language but when you write in French, you don’t sabotage the beauty of the language by literally translating English expressions into French. It bothers me.

So, in a nutshell, I think she’s as talented as ever but that her Vernon Sullivan never engaged me. Her novel should have left me with a head full of rock music. Instead, it left me with a song by Renaud, P’tite Conne. In this song, Renaud describes the funeral of a young woman who died of an overdose and who came from social circles where drugs were accepted. See part of the lyrics:

Tu fréquentais un monded’imbéciles mondains

Où cette poudre immonde

se consomme au matin,

 

Où le fric autorise

à se croire à l’abri

Et de la cour d’assises

et de notre mépris

 

Que ton triste univers

nous inspirait, malins

en sirotant nos bières

ou en fumant nos joints…

You belonged to a worldOf stupid socialites

Where this disgusting powder

Is consumed in the early morning,

 

Where money allows you

To feel protected

From the Crown Court

And from the contempt

 

That your sad little world

Inspired us, smartasses

While we sipped our beers

Or smoked our pot…

Vernon Sullivan seemed a part of this sad delusional world and I left him there.

This was my second read of my #TBR20 project.

 

 

 

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes

April 29, 2015 11 comments

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes. (2002). Not available in English (unfortunately)

Despentes_teen_spiritThis is my second Despentes after Apocalypse Bébé. (available in English, this one) and before Vernon Subutex, her latest opus which is sitting on my shelf.

Bruno is thirty, living with his girlfriend and doing nothing. He’s unable to leave the apartment, out of agoraphobia. He watches TV, smokes pot, hopes to write something one of these days. One day, Alice, his former girlfriend from high school barges into his life and tells him she was pregnant when she left him. So Bruno has a daughter, Nancy, who’s thirteen. Nancy has always lived with her mother, thinking her father was dead and when she discovered by chance that he was actually alive, she wanted to meet him. And she made her mother’s life a living hell, so Alice caved. Bruno is rather shocked by the news but is willing enough to meet his daughter. Nancy enters his life and their budding relationship will help them both.

This sound like a nice little novel with hearts and flowers, you could almost smell roses from the loveliness of the description. Except you’re in a book by Virginie Despentes. So it doesn’t smell like roses but it Smells Like Teen Spirit. Virginie Despentes loves rock music and it permeates through her literature.

Bruno is the narrator of the story and he has a bit of a Peter Pan syndrome. He’s depressed because he doesn’t want to grow up. He has to give up some of his dreams, leave behind his self with the rock attitude to adjust to the world of adults. He’s still grieving the loss of his illusions but he needs to turn the page and move on. Before Alice and Nancy, he was hiding away. Alice made him go out of the apartment to meet her, he couldn’t tell her about his phobia, so he pushed himself. She was the catalyst he needed. Her difficulty to raise Nancy leaves some space for him in Nancy’s life; she wanted to get to know him and Alice welcomes any help she can have with her daughter.

Virginie Despentes captured very well the hesitation of adolescence, like here, in her description of Nancy:

Deux versions d’elle-même se disputaient dans un seul corps. Entre la montre Kitty et le bracelet clouté, elle n’avait pas encore choisi son camp. Two versions of herself were fighting in one body. Between the Kitty watch and the studded leather bracelet, she hadn’t picked her side yet.

Sometimes, Nancy sounds like she’s the adult. Between Bruno whose paternity make him accept to cross the bridge between adolescence and adulthood and Alice who struggles to keep sane, she seems the most grounded of the three.

Despentes also captured well the emotions brewing in Bruno. When I wrote about Apocalyse Bébé, I compared Virginie Despentes to Michel Houellebecq, saying why I thought she captured our world better than him. When I read Teen Spirit, I wondered it was a response to Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles. Indeed, in this novel written by Houellebecq in 1998 one of the main characters is also named Bruno. He’s as much as a loser as this Bruno and also someone who doesn’t want to grow up. Bruno by Despentes is less self-centered than Bruno by Houellebecq. He doesn’t know how to be a father and as he’s not totally an adult, he manages to communicate with Nancy, with slight touches, with hesitation and feeling his way along. The book was written in 2002, Bruno is 30, so he was born in 1972. Houellebecq’s Bruno belongs to the babyboom generation, like his creator. Despentes’ Bruno belongs to the Generation X. In my opinion, this is the first generation of men fully involved in raising children along women. (at least in France) This is the generation of men who change diapers, don’t think that a stroller cramps their style and get up at night when kids are sick. It makes sense that our Bruno in Teen Spirit doesn’t reject Nancy and makes effort to get to know her. This Bruno has accepted this society made of unemployment, consumerism and lives with it, even if he doesn’t approve of it.

Despentes seems to have more faith in individuals than Houellebecq even if both writers share a dark vision of our society. Alice comes from a wealthy family and Bruno is poor. Spending time with her father, Nancy goes out of her protective shell. She discovers Paris on foot and Bruno shares his concerns about money. I heard Virginie Despentes talk about her work. She said she wants her book to show how violent our society is. She doesn’t mean “violent” in a sense of riots and physical threats. She points out the violence of a society with high unemployment, sometimes pressure in the work place and too much interest in consuming.

I liked Teen Spirit a lot. It’s fairly optimistic and I’m not sure it reflects Virginie Despentes’ other books. I enjoy her punchy style, her take on the French society, her insolence, her rejection of political correctness. She rocks!

Find another short review by Marina Sofia, here

 

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

October 7, 2012 27 comments

Apocalypse Bébé by Virginie Despentes. 2010. Available in German and Italian. Will be available in English (UK) in June 2013.

Virginie Despentes is a French writer born in 1969. Her first novel, Baise-moi (Do I have to translate?) was made into a film directed by Virginie Despentes herself and Coralie Trinh Ti. The film was first allowed for spectators over 16, then rated X (porn) and eventually rated for spectators over 18. I haven’t seen it, we’re in France, not in the US, when a movie is rated X, there’s really raw sex in there. I’m not particularly interested in that kind of movie. So she’s a writer I’d never read before and as you can easily imagine, political correctness is not in her line of work.

Apocalypse Bébé is her seventh novel; it was published in 2010 and won the Prix Renaudot. Valentine, 15, has disappeared. She’s the daughter of a rather famous writer, François Galtan. Her mother vanished from her life when she was a baby and her formidable grand-mother helped François raise her. Valentine is on the wild side of adolescence, she drinks, has sex with strangers, misses school and pretty much does anything to be intolerable and unmanageable to her father and mother-in-law. Valentine was under surveillance from an employee of a PI agency, Lucie, when she disappears. Lucie is a poor PI, she ended up in this job by chance and clings to it out of fear of unemployment. So when Valentine disappears, she’s a bit overwhelmed with her task to actually find her instead of just watching her. She decides to ask for the help of La Hyène, a specialist in such matters.

Valentine is the Ariadne’s thread between the characters we will discover. The chapters follow chronologically the researches Claire and La Hyène do to find Valentine. In such, the book borrows to thrillers. But it has also the tone of a road-movie, leading Lucie and La Hyène in the places Valentine used to go and to Barcelona.

In each chapter we change of point of view, seeing the moment through the eyes of Lucie, La Hyène, François, Claire, the mother in law, Vanessa, Valentine’s mother and different participants to the research. All the characters don’t fit in our world. Valentine, raised by an old vindictive woman and a self-centered womanizer as a father, has no guiding light, no frame of references to ground her. The story slowly unravels the last twelvemonth of her young life before her disappearance.

All the characters have their own issues. Lucie is dull, self-conscious and entangled in a life she follows instead of leading it. La Hyène is an incredible character, full of violence and lucidity. She flirts with illegality and doesn’t hesitate to use doubtful methods when she thinks they’re needed. She has no moral compass and we’ll know where it comes from. Galtan is a pathetic writer, always looking for attention from the media, not quite detached from his mother and married to a woman he cheats on regularly. Claire is desperate and frightened. She thought that living her life according to the rules would bring her happiness but it didn’t and she feels betrayed. Valentine scares her with her raw violence, her lack of manners. Through Vanessa’s family we have a glimpse of society in the banlieues and the way general rules don’t apply there.

With Valentine as a thread and the different characters as a pattern, Despentes weaves a tapestry of today’s French society. She’s abrupt, nasty and provocative. She shows the country behind the curtains and analyses it without kindness. She points out the violence in the suburbs, the underground world. The ending is chilling and resonates with the current news, but I can’t say more to avoid spoilers. Her style is powerful, using street language when the character’s voice needs it. She catches the essence of our time. She’s as provocative as Houellebecq but for me, she succeeds where he fails. Houellebecq is a man of the 20th century. The two novels I read are provocative but in the past. They are based on the angst of the white male with a language that didn’t hit the mark. Virginie Despentes is a feminist, a lesbian I believe, and her light on our world is resolutely in the 21st century. Like Houellebecq, her vision of our society is dark and rather desperate but unlike Houellebecq she shows it with the means of our time. Her characters aren’t depressed, they adjust.

It’s good to read a novel different from an intimate drama, different from the story of a dysfunctional family only. Valentine’s family is dysfunctional but it’s not the theme of the book. Max wrote an entry about Cosmopolis and the creative cowardice of Anglo-American literature where he explains that, to him, contemporary Anglo-Saxon writers fail to capture our age. In her own trashy way, I think that Virgine Despentes succeeds in this. Her novel doesn’t sound like the product of a writing class but the expression of her gut feeling about our world.

I sure want to read another of her books.

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