French dystopias: Soumission, Houellebecq /2084, Sansal /Gratis, Herzog

To judge by the publishers’ lists, dystopias are big literary business in France right now. Three 2015 releases propose different views of a political future and the role of memory. Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (Flammarion) is set in the present and near future and is narrated by François, a middle-aged academic who observes a growing political crisis in France. The only effective opposition to the National Front is an Islamic party led by a Mohammed Ben Abbes, backed by the Socialists. As the novel continues, a sharia state is imposed, women are banned from working, and in a sour parody of Gaullism, France returns to global influence through its alliances with Arab and North African states.

It’s slightly regrettable that the jacket to the English translation positions it as thriller, since it’s a considerably more unsettling and sophisticated novel than the rumpus around it might lead you to believe. François is your classic Houellebecq character, a jaundiced loner trapped in what Northrop Frye memorably called the squirrel cage of the ego. That stasis is both physical and emotional. He can’t follow his Jewish girlfriend to Israel, and cannot mirror his literary hero Huysmans in submission to Catholicism. soumission

References to unfashionable Catholic writers such as Péguy and the decision to make François a specialist in Huysmans, who publicly rejected the Zola school of Naturalism, is a riposte to the received notion of the left-leaning politically programmed writer. It also underpins Houellebecq’s challenge to the entire French intellectual class, whose apparent political engagement is here revealed to be feather-light. In Soumission, the establishment’s capitulation to the new regime is total. The exclusion of women from public life is barely protested, and as Saudi and Qatari money pour in to the institutions the academics accept the new dispensation entirely.

Soumission is not, I don’t think, a black-and-white neocon fantasy. It is instead a parable of occupation and collaboration, which unearths uncomfortable memories of France under Vichy, a past so often airbrushed in in the nation’s self-image. There’s a stunning bit of writing in the last chapter, where Houellebecq sets out a future for François that includes conversion – but the entire chapter is written in the conditional tense. It’s a classic bit of narrative misdirection; there we are, expecting François to submit like Winston Smith, but even that is not assured. He’s certainly a collaborator, but belief is beyond him.2084

Orwell’s 1984 is absolutely the source text for 2084: La Fin Du Monde (Gallimard). It’s written by Boualem Sansal, an Algerian novelist who like Kamel Daoud, writes in French (see a previous blogpost). 2084 is set in the state of Abistan, a future theocracy of indeterminate geography (it could be North Africa, or even France) in which the people worship Yolah, whose representative on earth is Abi. The Winston Smith character is Ati, who meets Nas, a civil servant working for the archives department who has just come back from an archaeological dig in which a site was discovered that contradicts the ‘truths’ as expressed in the holy book of Gkabul– that there was a world before Abistan. It isn’t the seamless read of Soumission; the four sections don’t have quite the same coherence of voice or pace – but its merit lies not in the plot but in an imaginative scope that borders on the best science fiction.

Felicité Herzog’s Gratis (Gallimard) is a rather slighter offering. It begins at the height of the dotcom boom in London, telling the story of Ali Tarac, an arrogant outsider setting up a telecoms service. It reads rather as your standard corporate thriller at this point (Herzog used to work at Lazard and JP Morgan). After the crash, Ali Tarac disappears from view but it emerges that he is behind a fabulously successful company called New Birth, which allows people to escape their lives and assume different identities in a form of human recycling. In retrospect, I’d have liked Herzog to junk the earlier dotcom section and fashion the whole novel around the socially disruptive implications of New Birth. That could have taken it into seriously challenging

This year I finally caught up with HHhH (Grasset) by Laurent Binet, which was originally published in 2010. HHhH refers to the Nazi quip ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) and tells the story of the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi head of security, acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the architects of the Holocaust. But it’s also a painstaking account of other treatments of the story; what it means to record events, and the ethical limits of fiction in retelling history, and in doing so positions itself as a literary rebuke to Jonathan Littell’s hallucinatory Les Bienveillantes (Gallimard, 2006).

Lastly, it’s been fun discovering Maurice Druon this year. I’d never heard of him until George R.R Martin cited him as an influence, and reading Le Roi de Fer, the first volume of Les Rois Maudits (Livre de Poche) you can certainly see why. Full of intrigue, violence and political struggle set in the early 1300s during the time of Philippe Le Bel, whose daughter Isabelle, wife of Edward II , also features. There’s no ethical meditation on the fictionalisation of history here; it’s a spanking read. There’s even a French miniseries with Gérard Depardieu and Jeanne Moreau , which is available on YouTube. If you’ve got withdrawal symptoms for Game of Thrones and don’t mind the inferior production values, it might be worth checking out.





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Art in the City: Piercing the Veil, Simmons & Simmons

Above the door to this City law firm’s auditorium hangs a pink neon sign: ‘Trust Me’. It’s far from your average bit of corporate art; it’s a Tracey Emin piece bought by Simmons & Simmons several years ago. Emin is nothing if not autobiographical, and ‘Trust Me’ evokes not only her own damaged background but it hangs within a place in which trust is – or should be – at the centre of a transaction. There’s a legend that goes that some asset managers arriving at Simmons for a meeting were spooked by the sign and wanted it removed, but the Emin remains in place. The clash of artistic and City cultures is most evident at Simmons’ regular exhibitions, when the lower lobby is filled with people who look nothing like your average Moorgate suit. The Simmons collection is immense – the firm was an early buyer of the YBAs – but there’s no white cube; this is a working floor of meeting rooms. The evening I went there were still posters around for a seminar that day on legal trends in the mining sector. You wouldn’t get that at the Saatchi Gallery.

Jenny Holzer, I Am Arrested

Jenny Holzer, I Am Arrested

Piercing the Veil is a cute title that meshes the art and legal worlds. It refers to a well-known principle when assessing liability, the ‘corporate veil’ being the concept that separates the legal identity of a company from its shareholders and directors. It’s also an allegory for the artistic process: how much should you be made to work to read a painting, and to what extent should a painting resist reading?

Conforming to the theme of obscuration, these works invite you to look, and then look again. Some, like the Dangerous Minds Practice, put that veil centre of the painting and indeed the title. Veiled Threat shows two AK47s lit by neon behind a screen print on perforated steel, a Pop version of a global weapon brand. James William Collins’ Brandy arranges grids of tiny high-gloss teardrops with black squares in varying states of decomposition. It hangs next to Jenny Holzer’s I Am Arrested, which is part of a series in which she reproduces declassified US government documents from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Malevich’s black square is no longer a method of artistic liberation but becomes a deeply authoritarian act of redaction.

Azadeh Nia, Untitled

Azadeh Nia, Untitled

There’s some real beauty too. Maybe I’ve been looking at too much Dutch art recently, but I enjoyed two sets of interiors in particular: Azadeh Nia’s two untitled works represent imagined rooms, offering a jumble of perspectives and speckled with miniature delicacy. Meanwhile, In Parting, Parting Again and Edge, Eleanor Watson presents dark-wooded interiors that suggest a pregnancy within the stillness, something deliberately withheld rather than absent.

In the panel discussion, chaired by Jon Sharples, a Simmons lawyer who is a skilled curator, we got an insight into the practices of some of the artists. Justin Mortimer spoke powerfully about the slow burn of the image: we read long novels, we listen to complex music, he argued, and yet there is no equivalent cultural acceptance of long contemplation of the image. Saul Rohr spoke of the battle to escape his training in illustration, which teaches you above all to communicate instantly. In a world that is saturated with images, the challenge for artists is to cloud the obvious.

Justin Mortimer, Djinn II

Justin Mortimer, Djinn II

Justin Mortimer’s Djinn II is based on a World War One photograph of dreadful wounds that he said were too graphic and too explicit to reproduce. To evoke that horror, Mortimer uses instead one of his signature motifs of the balloon, whose skin-like texture is both childlike and uncanny. It’s an anti-documentary approach that unearths throbs of old nightmares within the viewer, and it’s also way of veiling the original.

It was an unusual experience within the auditorium of a City law firm auditorium to hear passionate declamations against too much clarity, too much definition. The practice of law is a mixture of fluidity and rigidity, and the best lawyers negotiate the grey areas; but art wants to leave the most important things unsaid.


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When sex goes wrong: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse

Well, that didn’t disappoint. I booked Les Liaisons Dangereuses in some trepidation, though: not only is it up there amongst my favourite novels, but for anyone of my generation, a revival will always evoke memories of the 1985 production with Lindsay Duncan and the late, lamented Alan Rickman, and the celebrated Stephen Frears film starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

Happily, Josie Rourke’s production at the Donmar Warehouse measures up.

The plot is gloriously serpentine: it centres on the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), former lovers whose favourite sport is sexual intrigue. Valmont wants to seduce the upright Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy); Merteuil wants him to corrupt Cécile de Volanges (Morfydd Clark), in order to take revenge on her former lover, who has left her to marry Cecéile, who is in love with the callow Chevalier Danceny (Edward Holcroft). Cécile succumbs to Valmont. Merteuil agrees that she will spend another night with Valmont, but only if he provides written proof of his seduction of Madame de Tourvel. And then the intrigues unravel when despite himself, Valmont falls in love with Tourvel and is forced by a furious Merteuil to break with her. It ends with Valmont killed in a duel with Danceny, the exposure of their letters to the public gaze, and the pervading sense of a doomed aristocratic class on the eve of the Revolution.

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Valmont and Merteuil exist in a series of masks, though their dissoluteness is tempered by self-knowledge and wit. But this is not just a play of surfaces; both are taken by surprise by their own emotions. Christopher Hampton’s superb adaptation, in which every line contains a dagger, more than does justice to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary masterpiece, condensing four volumes into a couple of hours of theatre.

With such an eventful narrative there’s a danger it can tip into melodrama, so the casting is key. The leads have good chemistry. Dominic West’s Valmont is commanding and charismatic (though a couple of his lines are surprisingly shaky), while Janet McTeer is the right blend of deadly and charming, adept at playing the virtuous matron and counsellor who is trusted by Madame de Volanges (Adjoa Andoh) while at the same time helping to corrupt Cécile. Elaine Cassidy, in the difficult virtuous role as Madame de Tourvel, delicately articulates her inner struggle. The scene in which, confronted with her own desire for Valmont, she faints into his arms laces pathos with comedy and is particularly well done. There’s plenty of excellent work in the smaller parts, too: Jennifer Saayeng (last seen in City of Angels at the Donmar) as the courtesan Émilie, Una Stubbs as Madame de Rosemonde and Theo Barklem-Biggs as Valmont’s valet are all strong, though as Danceny Edward Holcroft is not so convincing.

Merteuil and Cécile

Merteuil and Cécile

Sex as a weapon, deceit as strategy, seduction as social practice: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is all about the perils of pleasure. There’s pleasure for the viewer, too in the gorgeous costumes and the candles, and we merrily go along with the intrigue – with the exception of the uncomfortable scene of Valmont’s rape of Cécile. Valmont’s letters present it as a seduction, but the Donmar production allows us to see it through her eyes and therefore neatly wrongfoots the audience, since we’ve all been rooting for the sexy villains.

There’s one oddity about the Donmar production. The ending of Laclos’ novel sees Merteuil exposed; Valmont’s last act of revenge is to have their correspondence published. In Stephen Frears’ 1988 film, Glenn Close is booed at the opera and the last scene sees her savagely removing her face-paint, suggesting the disfigurement of smallpox she suffers in the novel. In the Howard Davies staging in 1985 the last scene was played out against a projection of a guillotine, suggesting how libertine aristocrats will soon be swept away (and perhaps uncomfortably suggesting the Terror as a moral broom). Here, though, the final scene, in which Cécile’s fate is decided by the three older women, hangs ambiguously. There’s a shadow in McTeer’s eyes at that point, as if she realises she’s tiring of the power games, but there’s no overt suggestion that Merteuil will be disgraced. It’s almost as if the whole cycle will begin again with a new set of lovers.

Madame de Tourvel

Madame de Tourvel

I’d forgotten how much Laclos’ main characters group novel-reading disparagingly with sentimentality. Hampton retains these references throughout his adaptation; when Madame de Tourvel is struggling with her love for Valmont, she reads Clarissa – the latter being the novel to which Laclos’ work is most strongly indebted. Laclos’ text also defines itself against the feminocentric novels of Madeleine de Scudéry, whose idealising romances were still being read in the eighteenth century in both France and England, but were increasingly being satirised within fiction. In Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) the heroine Arabella makes a whole series of misjudgements because of her reading of French heroic romance, much as Catherine Morland does with the Gothic variety in Northanger Abbey. Female agency in Laclos is verbal and calculated, and the witty dialogue between Valmont and Merteuil rests on the assumption of intellectual equality. Pierre-Daniel Huet’s 1670 A Treatise of Romances (translated into English in 1672, Wing H3301) makes the connection between high narrative art and gender power relations, arguing that French romances are superior to any other nation’s because of

‘the refinement and politeness of our Galantry; which proceeds (in my opinion) from the great liberty in which the Men in France live with Women: these are in a manner recluses in Italy and Spain, and are separated from Men by so many obstacles, that they are scarce to be seen, and not to be spoken with at all’ ( p.103).

La Carte de Tendre

La Carte de Tendre

It’s a notion articulated strongly in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Clélie (1654), which introduced its readers to the Carte de Tendre, or the map of tenderness. Possibly a collective creation of Scudéry’s Paris salon, it’s a spatial representation of how heterosexual intimacy can and should progress. It begins at Nouvelle Amitié and presents three routes to ‘Tendre-sur-Reconnaissance’ ‘Tendre-sur-Inclination’ and ‘Tendre-sur-Estime’: gratitude, inclination and esteem. Along the way, the lover must pass through towns called Complaisance (obligingness), Petit Soins (small favours), or Obéissance (obedience), but there are dangers for the unwary traveller, who can wander to Negligence (neglect), Légereté (frivolity), Perfidie (treachery) and Orgeuil (pride) and potentially end up in the Mer d’Inimité (sea of Emnity). The most perilous endpoint, though is La Mer Dangereuse, a place of unbridled passion. The map still has the power to inspire now; Gucci’s head designer Alessandro Michele calls clothes ‘an atlas of the emotions’ and Gucci’s womenswear collection for spring this year included a print of La Carte de Tendre on a midi dress.

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

The Carte de Tendre regulates and authorises the emotional interactions between men and women, making them literally readable, though Boileau satirised this as a covert manual of seduction. Merteuil is with Boileau on this: she declares in the play:

‘I became a virtuoso of deceit. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.’

Merteuil’s philosophy of self-interest is diametrically opposed to Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre, but it gestures at a not dissimilar road map within relationships. What they both have in common is a horror of lack of control, or ‘la mer dangereuse’ of passion, and it is exactly that lack of control that forms Merteuil and Valmont’s downfall as they give in to love (or at least, a form of love). Les Liaisons Dangereuses not only figures the patterns of seduction as war, but also subverts the very notion of friendship – the highest possible relationship in Scudéry’s novel, which is presented as a form of perfect understanding. Valmont and Merteuil’s relationship is a twisted version of the friendship so valorised by Scudéry; there is only perfect understanding between Valmont and Merteuil when they share the same malicious objectives. Merteuil’s conviction that sex is the only power a woman can have is the cynical obverse of Clélie’s idealised view of negotiated relationships. Les Liaisons Dangereuses reverses the map of tenderness into a map of dazzling cruelty.


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This is Illyria, lady: shipwrecks and a black horizon

Just off the Dubrovnik coast is an installation called Your Black Horizon by Olafur Eliasson that first made its appearance in 2005 at the Venice Biennale and now finds a permanent home on the island of Lopud. Set back several hundred metres from the harbour and behind some straggly botanical gardens, it’s a windowless pavilion designed by David Adjaye. Inside in the blackness is a thin, dazzling horizontal line of light that burns on to the retina. Unknown The idea, I think, is to renegotiate landscape art in that you leave the work with that image in your eye and reproject it onto the real horizon. We’d spent the day on boats, swimming in the Adriatic, so it wasn’t quite part of the script, and in fact we came across the installation entirely by accident. It’s not necessarily comfortable being in pitch blackness with just one dazzling line – no sense of the size of the space which disappears. Groping for the exit you feel lost, like a pre-modern traveller with no maps.images-1

Early modern representations of Croatia, whether as Illyria in Twelfth Night or the Dalmatian coast in travellers’ tales, inevitably revolved around seafaring. Across the Croatian coastline, even now, there are traces of shipwrecks in touristed areas. On the island of Hvar, just off the coast from Split, there’s a lovely little Franciscan monastery that was founded in the 1460s after a captain survived a storm at sea. John Locke’s account of his journey down the Adriatic coast in 1553 on his perilous way to Jerusalem, reported in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (STC 12626a), makes clear that the going was treacherous. His party tried to ‘beare in againe to Ragusa, for to know the newes of the Turkes armie, but the winde blew so hard and contrary, that we could not.’

Lopud island was a sixteenth-century centre of shipbuilding that supplied the city-state of Ragusa – modern-day Dubrovnik – which equipped Spain with ships for the Armada. The early modern name of the city was corrupted into the word ‘raguesee’ and thence ‘argosy’. Like Venice, it was a mercantile republic; no Orsino here. Jean Bodin’s 1576 Les Six Livres de la République (translated into English in 1606 by Richard Knolles) is approving:

“But sudden and complete change is dangerous, and in order to avoid replacing all the officers of the realm at the same time, to the interrupting of public business, it is best that colleges of magistrates should be renewed by succession of persons, one at a time. This is done in the Republic of Ragusa, where the Senate is perpetual, but the senators, who form the sovereign judicial body, only hold office for one year at a time, but do not all go out of office together, but successively, so that the change is hardly noticeable. After a certain period they may serve again.”

Ragusa’s stability even more striking given its delicate position of being a client state of the Ottoman empire, the bridge between the Venetian and Turkish spheres of influence.

“This citie of Ragusa paieth tribute to the Turke yerely fourteene thousand Sechinos,” noted John Locke, “and euery Sechino is of venetian money eight liuers and two soldes, besides other presents which they giue to the Turkes Bassas when they come thither.”

A hundred years later, James Howell was marvelling at the diversity of the inhabitants. ‘In these Territories which the Turk hath ‘twixt the Danube and the sea, and ‘twixt Ragusa, and Buda, Christians are intermixt with Mahometans’ (Epistolae Ho-elianae 1650).

But Howell’s account of Ragusa’s economic and civil prosperity was shortlived. New merchant routes to the Atlantic were being opened up, and in 1667 an earthquake devastated Ragusa and its islands. An Illyrian golden age was over.

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Inventing Magna Carta /Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

In my day job as legal business journalist it’s been pretty difficult to avoid Magna Carta commemorations this year, particularly since it’s coincided with furious debates over the continued existence of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Partisans of the HRA have invoked Magna Carta as a precursor to the Act; by contrast, David Cameron used it this month to push his stance that the UK needs a Bill of Rights. It’s all highly tendentious and entirely predictable, so the antidote for those with Runnymede fatigue is to read Lord Sumption’s astringent dismissal of the whole jamboree, characterising it ‘a distortion of history to serve an essentially modern political agenda’ and ‘high-minded tosh’.


King John and the drama of Runnymede, in Ladybird

Jonathan Sumption is a medieval historian and silk whose brilliance led to his appointment to the Supreme Court without the inconvenience of ascending through the lower courts (not something that particularly endeared him to some at the bar, but that’s another story). His speech to the Friends of the British Library in March this year gave some welcome context to Magna Carta. Sumption argues that its effect was limited, that the charter was closer to a private contract than a constitutional document; it did not provide for an independent judiciary and was aimed at protecting the financial interests of a small aristocratic class. Even the famous clause that demands that freemen be tried by their peers, Sumption argues, is born of a narrow grievance of the baronage on jurisdiction.

Most interesting to me, though, was Sumption’s characterisation of our modern uses of Magna Carta as a distinctively seventeenth-century creation – and more specifically, one by the jurist Sir Edward Coke. Sumption doesn’t have much time for Coke, calling him the ‘chief sinner’ in the ideological appropriation of the charter through his Institutes of the Lawes of England, written between 1628 and 1634 and published in separate volumes up until 1644. The Institutes became a set text for mid-century Parliamentarians who wanted to challenge what they saw as the King’s untrammelled power. It was Coke, argues Sumption, who rescued Magna Carta from relative obscurity in order to underpin his argument for the sovereignty of Parliament.

Sumption’s argument that the seventeenth century created the Runnymede narrative is compelling, but begs wider questions. Why are we so obsessed with Magna Carta, and yet refer so little to the period that essentially created the myth of a high-minded revolt? While school students learn about the French and Russian revolutions, the English revolution is barely studied at all. I loathed the Civil War in history lessons in school because it was taught as a series of battles rather than an explosion of ideas; we spent a term on it, and the only thing that engaged me was hearing some bonkers Puritan names like Praise God Barebones. In fact, the first time I heard of the Diggers was not through alighting upon Christopher Hill but by listening to Billy Bragg’s first album.

I’m consistently baffled why our only period of republicanism barely features in the school syllabus. It’s a particular mystery that Michael Gove, that arch-proponent of ‘English’ history, didn’t insist upon it when he was Education Secretary. The mid-seventeenth century not only sows the seeds of our political system, but is so imaginatively accessible. The explosion of pamphlet culture so much like the cacophony of the internet; huge theatrical setpieces such as sporting opening ceremonies rivalling the masque in their elaborate hymns to power; the rise of identity politics paralleling the godly certainties of the Calvinist elect.

Even theatrical treatments of this time are few. Two, to be precise: 55 Days, a great Howard Brenton play at Hampstead Theatre a couple of years ago which featured the wonderful Mark Gatiss as Charles and Douglas Henshall as Cromwell. It focused on the trial of the king, and cutely, the auditorium was divided into two; on booking your seats, you were asked to pick the Royalist or Parliamentarian side.


Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

The National Theatre has recently presented a revival of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, directed by Lyndsey Turner. Originally written in 1976, the play deliberately restages Civil War as history lived by the common people, and Royalists are barely referred to. The entire stage is turned into a giant banqueting table laden with fruit and candelabras (it’s a fantastic set by Es Devlin), and that table itself later turns into the ground that is being dug by the people appropriating land for the common purpose. The play loosely follows trajectory of Briggs (Trystan Gravelle) from raw Parliamentarian recruit to a man retreating into isolation and desolation on the collapse of the republic, and is peppered with scenes in which Ranters, Levellers and Diggers argue, prophesy and scrabble for existence in a world turned upside down.

It’s intermittently engaging. The most successful sequence is a piece of verbatim theatre that occurs just before the interval with the dramatisation of the Putney Debates of 1647. The Putney Debates were put on by soldiers of the New Model Army and chaired by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn) and included such radical notions of one man, one vote and a complete rethinking of the English constitution. It was during the Putney Debates that Thomas Rainsborough, the soldier and Leveller, famously declared: ‘It seems to me that the smallest Hee that is in this kingdom hath a life to live as the greatest Hee’. In Churchill’s play, the radicals are matched in passion and rhetoric by General Ireton (Leo Bill), who defends property as a cornerstone of suffrage and of social stability. The scene doesn’t just work because it is adversarial; it works because the ideas are still exciting now.

Ordinary people – the rank and file of the New Model Army – were actually working through new ideas about how society should be shaped. Even now, rereading excerpts from the Debates fills me with awe. It was a time when everything was up for grabs; in eighteen months there would be a republic, and in 12 years the republic was gone. Magna Carta seems very wan in comparison.






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Killing an Arab, finding an Arab: Rewriting Camus’ L’Étranger

Ask most people to name the best-known French novel of the twentieth century, and they’d almost certainly come up with Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 and moved to France in 1940, but as his greatest novels L’Étranger and La Peste testify, his imagination was firmly rooted in Algeria (as is Les Noces, a collection of meditations that contain his most rapturous writing). Since his death in 1960 there’s been a struggle for ownership of Camus that has played out within a postcolonial critical context. Last year Algerian writer Kamel Daoud – who, like Camus, is a journalist by trade and who lives in Oran – published Meursault, Contre-ênquete. The novel has had remarkable success in both France and Algeria (it was just pipped to the Prix Goncourt in 2014 by Lydie Salvayre’s Pas Pleurer), precisely because it resituates the complex modern reception of Camus in fictional form.

Kamel Daoud

Kamel Daoud

L’Étranger is the story of Meursault, who attends his mother’s funeral but does not show grief. He becomes embroiled in a quarrel with some Arabs and under a blazing sun, shoots one of them; arrested and put on trial for murder, he is condemned to the guillotine, partly because the prosecution plays on his reaction to his mother’s death. Rather as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea spins out of Jane Eyre, Daoud’s Meursault, Contre-enquête is a text born in the gap at the centre of Camus’s novel. The man into whom Meursault empties his gun on the beach is never named by Camus, but Daoud constructs a biography for him. Moussa’s story is retold by his brother Haroun, who is now in his late seventies. His mother mourns every day, since the body has never been found. Meursault, Contre-ênquete maps out the effect on his family, not only of the death of a brother and son but also of the fictionalisation of the killer Meursault into a post-war absurdist hero within French culture.


Albert Camus

For the central literary conceit here is that L’Étranger was not a novel but real-life testimony, written while Meursault was in jail, and to which Haroun now responds, seventy years later. It’s a cute sleight of hand; indeed, the intense consciousness of its own fictionality lifts Meursault, Contre-enquête out of a monochrome postcolonial polemic. There’s a dense interplay of Camus texts throughout: ‘Moussa’, of course, echoes ‘Meursault’ while the first line of Daoud’s novel (‘Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante’) explicitly references the famous opening of L’Étranger: ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’. Just as the evangelising priest in L’Étranger rails at an impassive Meursault for his lack of belief, so the does the imam to an unreceptive Haroun. Whereas Meursault’s inability to mourn his mother condemns him to the scaffold, the obsessive mourning of Haroun’s silent but vengeful mother precipitates another death. During the chaos of the Algerian revolution Haroun, urged on by his mother, commits a murder of a Frenchman apparently picked at random. The meaning of that killing is contingent; to have killed him before the day of Algerian liberation would categorise the death as an act of war; the day after, the Frenchman’s death is a meaningless one.

Daoud Meursault contre-enquete

Meursault, contre-enquête

For all its homage to L’Étranger, though, the novel that Daoud references most closely in structural terms is Camus’s 1956 work La Chute (The Fall), in which the narrator Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells how he, a liberal and respected lawyer, realises he is living a life of hypocrisy and futility; there is no such thing as justice or social fairness. Like La Chute, Meursault, Contre-enquête is constructed around a series of monologues in a bar. It revels in pointing out individual and social hypocrisy, whether it be that of elite French culture and of the reader him- or herself in collaborating with the Meursault’s celebrity, that of the Algerian revolutionary movement, and even the hypocrisy and futility of religion. It figures the Algerian revolution as a series of absurd and violent acts that never connect to a higher or noble purpose, and the novel has also earned Daoud a Facebook fatwa from an obscure Algerian imam, to whom he has rather splendidly responded by filing a criminal complaint. Meursault, Contre-ênquete is an extraordinarily bold reappropriation of the canonical post-war French novel. I give it a year for Daoud and Camus to be paired on university reading lists.

Kamel Daoud, Meursault, Contre-enquête (Actes Sud)


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The bleakness of love: Closer, Donmar Warehouse/Kill Me Now, Park Theatre

They say that Park Theatre was deliberately constructed to resemble the Donmar. This month the programming oddly converges, with two savage relationship plays. The first is the revival of Patrick Marber’s 90s classic Closer at the Donmar, a tightly-constructed four-hander whose plot plays with a series of sexual permutations. Dan (Oliver Chris) and Alice (Rachel Redford) get together; Dan meets Anna (Nancy Carroll) and falls in love with her but stays with Alice; Larry (Rufus Sewell) and Anna meet and marry; Dan and Anna have an affair; Anna leaves Larry for Dan; Larry and Alice have a relationship; Anna goes back to Larry; Dan and Alice reunite; Larry and Anna split; Dan and Alice split. Put like that, it sounds like Midsummer Night’s Dream rewritten by David Mamet.cc051ed2-dd04-44ad-a0cc-c1a20a3c7a0b-1360x2040

When I saw it back in the 1990s I don’t think I properly appreciated the quicksilver shifts of fury, desire and neediness that Marber creates between the characters; each new relationship builds on the emotional residue of the previous one, so that every scene is layered with history of previous exchanges.

All the characters keep insisting on knowing the truth, but the truth always brings pain. Rufus Sewell’s deceptively mild delivery never obscures the rage and manipulation beneath. He absolutely dominates the second act, as Larry moves from bafflement at Anna’s desertion to a calculated relish of maximum revenge. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Redford as Alice, though I thought her reading of the character was right. Alice could so easily be played as your standard damaged child-woman, but she brought a welcome sincerity to the role. I quite liked the idea expressed in the Donmar programme notes that the fifth character of the play is Postman’s Park in Clerkenwell, to which the four protagonists variously return. Bunny Christie’s spare production design highlights the gravestones of the ordinary people buried there, their heroism a mute counterpoint to the self-indulgence of the main characters.

At Park Theatre, whose success is contributing to the gentrification of N4, they’re showing Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, whose bleakness resides in its subject matter rather than its narrative outlook. Jake (Greg Wise) has given up his career as a writer to look after his severely disabled son Joey (Oliver Gomm); Jake is helped also by his younger sister Twyla (Charlotte Harwood) and Joey’s best friend Rowdy (Jack McMullen). Jake’s isolation from the world is only tempered by his weekly trysts with Robyn (Anna Wilson-Smith).


The play charts a downward trajectory; Jake, for so long the carer, develops an incurable condition and has to be cared for. Throughout, we’re confronted with the difficulties of disability and desire: in the very first scene Jake, bathing Joey, notices that his son has an erection, and realises he now has to deal with adolescent sexuality. Eventually it leads to a masturbation scene involving two characters, the strangeness of which is entirely normalised within the emotional context. Wise puts in a strong performance, and I loved Jack McMullen as Joey’s best mate Rowdy, a boy with mild special needs whose dedication to his friend is both comic and heroic. The standout was Oliver Gomm as Joey, though. There will always be a debate over casting an able-bodied actor in the part, but this is a performance that will probably win awards, and is a beautifully-judged mix of tenderness and raging horn. Whereas in Closer love is narcissistic, in Kill Me Now it represents the little hope available. Take a tissue.


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