October 31, 2020

The literature of French discomfort | Culture

The literature of French discomfort | Culture



The signs were there. It was enough to read some of the most celebrated literary works in recent years in France. They show the symptoms of the malaise that has erupted with the crisis of the yellow vests.

The closing of the factories, the low wages, the daily humiliations. The isolation of small cities away from the capital and dependence on the automobile to work: to survive. Education and culture as hallmarks of social classes. The frozen landscapes of shopping centers and the impersonal roundabouts on the outskirts of cities. Also the seduction of the ultra vote. Everything was there, in sight of anyone, but very few paid attention.

There is a literature of the yellow vests, the movement that broke out in November last year as a protest for the price of fuel and has ended up precipitating the biggest crisis of the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. The most recent example is that of Michel Houellebecq. Your new novel, Serotonin (Anagrama), published this January, describes the demoralization of a rural world that feels despised by Paris and Brussels. The cholera peasants cut a highway and face the police. Houellebecq wrote it before the crisis of the yellow vests, but it seems that it is describing the violent drifts of the movement.

Because of its decadent aestheticism and its reactionary vision, Houellebecq is an exception. The poetic and political position of the author of Serotonin contrasts with the perspective of left-or extreme left in some cases-of other authors who have portrayed the so-called peripheral France.

The inspiration

Many of these authors -from the philosopher Didier Eribon, responsible for the memorialistic essay Return to Reims (Libros del Zorzal), to Nicolas Mathieu, recently awarded with the Goncourt in 2018 for the brilliant Leurs enfants après eux– They cite as an inspiration and model Annie Ernaux, who in her short autobiographical novels portrays this other France: that of those below, her family in rural Normandy and that of the anodyne Parisian periphery.

If Macron and his advisors had read these books carefully, they might have realized that something seemingly as technical as the price of diesel and gasoline is an almost existential issue for this France. Perhaps they would have detected that it could be the trigger for a revolt.

When Anthony, the protagonist of Leurs enfants après eux, At last he gets a job, the narrator observes: "The problem is that he was not at the door next to his house, all the pay was going in the fuel, or almost". "They proposed exhausting part-time jobs, physical, in the big city 40 kilometers from home. Paying the gas to make the round trip each day would have cost you 300 euros a month, "laments Édouard Louis, a disciple of Eribon, in Qui a tué mon père (2018), an epilogue in the form of a pamphlet to To end Eddy Bellegueule (Ediciones Salamandra), the story of his childhood and adolescence in a dysfunctional family in northern France.

The protagonist of The pier of Ouistreham (Anagrama), the book in which the reporter Florence Aubenas tells of her experiences as a cleaning woman on the Norman coast during the last economic crisis, runs into several times with similar advice. "You need a car," his boss tells him in a job as a cleaner on a ferry crossing the English Channel. "I also advise you to group several to share the price of gasoline, if you do not lose the fuel bill."

Dickensian story

The book of Aubenas is a Dickensian account of the world of temporary employment agencies, at the bottom of the salary ladder. The adventures of the protagonist take place in the campsites, industrial zones and port towns where he works. In addition to the hypermarkets where he spends his leisure time: non-places that are a usual scenario of the French discomfort literature. Also for Annie Ernaux the hyper are one of the spaces of this ugly and bland country, far from the picturesqueness of tourist postcards. In Journal du dehors (1993), where the author notes with surgical coldness external events that surround her, several scenes appear in which the cashiers are humiliated by haughty clients.

Although France is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, social classes are marked. And a barrier between them is education, one of the plot axes of Return to Reims, from Eribon. "Social destinations are marked! Everything is played beforehand! "He writes. Based on his own experience, he argues that the school does not serve as a meritocratic elevator. He arrived at the university, but he never crossed the doors of the sanctuaries of the educational elite like the Normal Superior School. "In fact," he writes, "the disadvantaged classes believe they have access to the place from which they were previously excluded, but, once they have access, these positions have lost their place and the value they had in an earlier state of the system."

In Leurs enfants après eux, by Nicolas Mathieu, the adolescents – a worker, a bourgeois and a small Arab drug dealer – live trapped in the steel valley in which they reside. Only the bourgeoisie escapes from that kind of post-industrial Macondo where the dramas and illusions of the France of the late twentieth century are projected. "This life that was woven almost in spite of them, day after day, in this lost hole that everyone had wanted to leave, an existence similar to that of their parents, a slow curse," says the book. There is no escape and it is not difficult to imagine Anthony, the fifteen-year-old protagonist in the mid-nineties, as a yellow vest Forty in 2019.

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