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