In October and November, half of France went on strike over a raft of government reforms concerning the judicial system, the public funding of university education and the public pension system for railway workers. A combative spirit of protest survives in France, despite the disarray of the Socialists and other parties on the left. Contemporary letters might thus be expected to reflect the ongoing struggle for the national soul between the powers of the state and those of the market, but paralysis has set in: the conformity and escapism of even elite fiction are signs of a new status quo already quietly in place. The so-called pensée unique (a home-grown Washington Consensus) prevails in all the centers of power, ring-fenced by the close--often literally matrimonial--alliance between the handful of individuals and companies that dominate business, media and politics; the vast publishing conglomerate Hachette is owned by Lagardère, which also owns an arms company. Most successful writers toe the line.
The shortlist for the 2007 Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize for prose, reflects popular topics for the upper tiers of the French mass market. With the exception of one novel set in the real asylum seeker's camp of Sangatte, these topics can be summed up as horror, heroism and history. This year's winner? Gilles Leroy with Alabama Song, a novel about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Besides confirming that traditional anti-Americanism is no longer cool under President Sarkozy, this selection suggests that France's literary tastemakers know their public: confused about national identity and stuck at an ideological crossroads, people prefer to read something that distracts them from the here and now.
Distraction of a different sort is a key motif in Lydie Salvayre's The Power of Flies, one of a dozen short, peculiar texts that have earned this novelist, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, more nervous respect than love in France. (The Power of Flies is the sixth novel of Salvayre's to be translated into English.) Her paranoid loners--festering in their housing projects or mean provincial towns, harassed by officials and do-gooders--reproduce contemporary power relations within a vicious personal-institutional loop. But any kinship with European pessimists like Michel Houellebecq or Elfriede Jelinek (who, like Salvayre, analyze the debasement of contemporary sexuality) is theoretical. It's the fabric and flavor of the text that define an oeuvre as well as Salvayre's plays for laughs in the voices of faux-innocent misfits who have swallowed the thesaurus. Salvayre uses "characters" as cartoon masks behind which she utters the cruelty and comedy of life under the new capitalist order. Her latest novel, which was evicted from the Prix Goncourt at the second stage of elimination, is called--suicidally if she wanted to win-- Portrait de l'écrivain en animal domestique (Portrait of the Writer as a Household Pet). It traces the corruption of a worthy liberal author by a sham-philanthropic fast-food tycoon, who hires her to perfect his image for posterity: a satirical fable, like all her works, powered by the spirit of Swift and Rabelais.
Salvayre's "voice," an elaborate blend of the mellifluous and the rude, and the importance of orality in her writing, are an effect of her unusual background. Born near Toulouse in 1948, she is the daughter of Spanish Republican refugees, and her first language was Spanish. To be foreign and poor meant humiliation at school, and she revisits this in her fiction; her childhood was a primal experience of social voicelessness. Although she began compensating for that from the moment she discovered French language, literature and philosophy, she is intimately concerned with the inarticulate anger of the class she escaped from--for she knows what it is to be denied a voice--and engages with this both clinically and creatively. She works with young Parisian marginals as a psychiatrist; and she published her first novel, tellingly titled La Déclaration (The Declaration), in 1990. By then, the dichotomy between Spanish and French had come to symbolize fundamental oppositions between transgression and propriety, passion and order, body and mind. As Salvayre explained to Yann Nicol in The Brooklyn Rail in 2006, for her Spanish was originally
the language of intimacy, of interior riposte, the language that handled everything left out by the beautiful exterior tongue: bad taste, crude jokes, what didn't legally exist, excesses and overflows. So I used Spanish for what was improper, risible, ugly, or even monstrous. At the same time, I was learning French: the refined language of school, the very language of books.... French meant beauty of expression and decorum.
All of Salvayre's narrators (speakers, ranters, even when they're ostensibly writing) delight in combining the mock-literary and the demotic. Sometimes it's vaguely justified by giving to the characters, straitened or downtrodden as they may be, a subversive love of the classics: in La Compagnie des Spectres (The Company of Ghosts), published in 1997, the bathtub of a mother and daughter who have been driven mad by the legacy of the Occupation is clogged with volumes of Seneca, Epictetus and Cicero. There's less reason for the arch eloquence of the narrator of The Power of Flies, who has only read thrillers and the Pensées of Blaise Pascal. What Salvayre does is to project her own outsiderhood, with its playful, mannered distance from the language, onto a series of alter egos whose rhetorical range is a device for parodying the incompatible discourses of which people are made.
The Power of Flies, published in 1995, is Salvayre's fourth novel. The unnamed speaker is in jail for murdering his father. He pours out his life and opinions to a judge, a defense lawyer, a psychiatrist and a nurse--though one shouldn't conclude anything about the French justice system from the authorities' solicitous interest in the background to such a clear-cut crime. (The reader must wait until the last page to know who was killed, but it's no surprise.) The framework is so sketchy that any interlocutors may exist purely in the imagination of a man reliving his descent into madness. We deduce their input from his reactions: "You need some evidence? Significant factors from my childhood?"
There shall be no shortage of childhood horrors, chopped in with the more recent past, as different times slowly merge into a manic present. We start with scenes from the speaker's job as a museum guide at Port-Royal-des-Champs (the Jansenist convent and school where Pascal often stayed, as a celebrity defender of the cause, even after it was declared heretical in 1654). The speaker's persona is at once apparent: a fantastical, pompous little man, a nonentity who revels in what small power he has over others. He enjoys scaring the tourists with horrid warnings lifted from Pascal: "Human bonding, I tell them, is as fatal as it is futile. For no one can influence the orbit of another. Each of us plots his path irreversibly, awaiting the day of the final catastrophe (you should see their faces!)" This segues into a melodramatic vision of his dead mother with a fly on her cheek and the terrifying countenance of his father--her moral torturer, "her killer"--before switching jauntily to his own marital life, via fresh liberties with Pascal:
Whosoever ties love down delivers its death warrant. This is what I keep telling my wife, Your Honor.... If I cannot always come up with the suitably pithy turn of phrase required for a rational demonstration, I do prove an excellent pedagogue when it comes to empirical argument. Thus, every day, I work at educating my wife. I prod her. I sting her. I attack her. I vex her. I overwhelm her with sarcasm and nastiness. My purpose is that she rid herself of me entirely. And I confess, though this may shock you, that I enjoy tormenting her this way.