Monthly Archives: February 2016

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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