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
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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.
If the intimacy of any first-person voice courts empathy from the reader, this narrator–full of self-pity when recalling the father’s aggressions, full of smugness when reporting his own–is very difficult to like. Salvayre’s challenge to us, however unclear in this early book, is to feel compassion where the character shows none: to understand him as the heir to a violence that is historically founded and socially perpetuated. The speaker’s parents, like Salvayre’s, were impoverished Spanish refugees. When the father breaks down at the news of Stalin’s death, his tears make this sadist even more repellent; but they are nevertheless a hint of the wound behind the rage inherited by the son.
Salvayre’s own father was apparently brutal and paranoid. Forgiveness was only spelled out by her in 2005, in La Méthode Mila (Mila’s Method), through an unusually positive character in this fiction, a Spanish healer with a heart. Mila enables the narrator, Fausto, to think of his late despised father “returning exhausted from the building site and possessed by a relentless violence that was nothing other than a definitive despair, I understood this too late”: the despair of political defeat, followed by exile to join the French underclass. There are no Spanish parents in The Company of Ghosts, but there’s a similar transmission and displacement of historical violence. Here the fascism of Vichy France persists into the present day, according to the “hallucinations” of three generations of raving women who are, it is implied, sane, since society is mad. Salvayre’s thesis of the transmutation, via the family, of political into personal violence, can be seen as a new try for the elusive equation that’s distracted the left for generations: a working articulation of psychoanalysis and politics.
The reproduction of oppressive or inauthentic behavior in Salvayre’s fiction is not just confined to a domestic hell. She is at her funniest when caricaturing the language and hang-ups of petty despots and their victims. Her renderings of City Hall meetings, pedagogical lectures and factory award ceremonies are grand riffs on demagoguery and inadvertent self-revelation. In The Power of Flies the museum guide’s boss, Monsieur Molinier, is targeted for his cultural pretensions. So long as his superiority remains unchallenged, he is affable and paternal, instructing his staff in the lore of the genius he calls “Blaise”; he fawns over important visitors and goes to pieces before any “genuine artist,” “like he’s trying to keep from farting.” Our narrator has a contradictory relationship to his boss, ingenuous and cruelly knowing by turns. He mocks the efforts Molinier had to make to overcome social origins as lowly as his own; he is flattered by his good will yet perceives its condescension; he affects to be puzzled by Molinier’s resentment when, as a guest in his house, he outdoes Molinier in Pascalian erudition. He also outdoes Molinier in feats of hollow pedantry and patronization of others, and could be describing himself when he calls his superior “just a poor jerk. A loser…. A skeletal fellow, whose flesh has melted away, leaving his bones and his soul.” Both are wage slaves of the culture industry who try to give their lives a higher meaning through familiarity with the great philosopher.
Much comic pathos is wrung from this, as the narrator’s soaring intimations of “vastness” and “the burden of all that is unknowable” collide with reality: “Will I be able to withstand such metaphysics? I asked myself upon seeing my wife rush in, slippers slapping.” He appreciates Pascal’s reprimands to human pride and vanity, inasmuch as they give words to his bitterness, but is apt to misapply them. Made uncomfortable, for he prefers wanking off to intercourse, by the lewdness of a regular in a bar–bars are always the stage for tabloid sexism and racism in Salvayre’s work–he steels himself to remain “fortified as I am by my reading of Pascal, who enjoins men to look their shared wretchedness in the face.” This rather misses the point of Pascal’s logic, which is, even in the absence of God’s saving grace, the necessity of charity toward others.
Locked in a hatred that’s conveyed as a form of grandeur or purity, as well as a curse, the narrator sinks into catatonia for long enough to get rid of his wife, then becomes a tramp in Paris, where the paradoxes of charity intensify. He is hurt at being rejected by various petty materialists for his raggedness and wild talk of gaining “a foothold in the void,” and yet displays no sympathy for fellow rejects: “I go sit on a bench, next to a woman. She’s blond, she’s ugly, she’s pale and puffy, with a persistent odour emanating from her body…. I get up.”
The pensée of Pascal’s to which the novel’s title alludes is “The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our souls from acting, consume our bodies.” For the haunted narrator they represent decay and death; hatred, too, has “the dull mindlessness of flies.” But in Pascal flies are principally symbols of distraction, small annoyances that can paralyze us, cutting our illusion of free will down to size. His great theme of divertissement (translated here as “entertainment” when the right term is “diversion,” at once amusement and deflection) is a license for the narrator to crucify the superficiality of others, especially dumb tourists. To find these vignettes amusing one has to remember it’s really Salvayre talking, through an often flimsy, inconsistent mask. Chapter Nine, however, consists of a single pivotal sentence for the “character”: “Should the reading of Pascal be considered a form of [diversion], Monsieur Jean?” This promising intuition is quickly forgotten. Morbid philosophizing fuels his isolation and precipitates the crisis; but killing the father brings neither relief nor liberation, to judge by these confused confessions.
For all its verbal antics and moments of grotesque or absurdist humor, The Power of Flies offers a despairing view of the psychological damage an alienated society inflicts upon the individual and of the consolations of philosophy. More sentimental and potentially more consoling, La Méthode Mila engages yet more directly with a classic thinker, this time Descartes–the cold fish who made mechanistic abstraction respectable. The Cartesian “method,” which involves training oneself to replace unpleasant thoughts with pleasant ones, not unlike cognitive behavior therapy, is refuted by the narrator in a scolding address to the man himself.
Fausto tells Descartes that after he retired from the rat race to divide his time between philosophy and porn, his decrepit old mother moved in and ruined everything. It soon became apparent that no amount of febrile “cogitation” was of the slightest use against the sadomasochistic dynamic that developed between them, a version of the indignities played out in The Company of Ghosts between mothers and daughters, and in The Power of Flies between husbands and wives. Only by falling for Mila (a politically aware, emotionally wise Spanish “seer” with a gift for stories) has Fausto become free to actively love his mother, forgive his late father and embrace the dark, chaotic, grubby truth of humanity of which there’s no inkling in Descartes. All around us, however, Cartesianism has triumphed as the “positive Reason reigning over our earth that is ploughed by freeways, surrounded by satellites, sold off to technoscience.” Descartes’s “mathematization of the universe” was a disastrous con that has led to the wholesale quantification of contemporary life: the neurosis of neoliberalism.
One could argue that Salvayre is not so much a novelist as a prophet in the desert wielding a facetious literary megaphone, and that her synthetic plots, confessional characters and savory or archaic speech rhythms make her works more like monologues that demand to be performed aloud. Stylized situations and orally driven ironies suit the theater, and it seems right that several of her books have been adapted in this way. A version of Les Belles âmes (Beautiful Souls), about a politically correct package tour of slums and war zones, opens in Paris this month. Whether on the page or on the stage, Salvayre’s voice–seldom has the term been less of a metaphor–is an original work of artifice, an alternative to realist kitsch, a protest in itself.