Book Reviews - Review 354
Vernon Subutex, Part 1
Category: Fiction | Published: 2015 | Review Added: 17-09-2017
Having read on the German cultural website perlentaucher.de that Virginie Despentes is the author frequently regarded as capturing the reality of contemporary France, I managed on a recent visit to find the volume named above in the bookshop at Marseille Airport. The back cover of the Livre de Poche edition I bought even makes an implicit comparison with Balzac by taking about a "comédie inhumaine". What is certainly different from this literary forebear, not to mention the great stylist Flaubert and other nineteenth-century novelist is the style. Despentes does not write in the "langue de Molière, as certain newspapers like to call the French language in order to invoke its literary heritage. There is a great use of slang, not least to describe sexual activities. Translators (there are, for example, English and German translations) must have faced a Herculean task. Incidentally, when I checked the existence of a German translation on line, I discovered that one provincial newspaper (Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung) describes Despentes as a "pornographer", whilst her German publisher Kiepenheuer und Witsch speaks of a "grandioses Sittengemälde", the second word being almost untranslatable but implying a portrait of the age. It is an age where it would seem there are no longer many certainties.
The eponymous middle-aged hero was once the owner of a flourishing record shop in Paris. Changing patterns in the consumption of music, however, forced him to close down in 2006. Thereafter he was able to keep going by selling various possessions on eBay and thanks to a musician friend paying the rent. After the death of this benefactor and the stopping of social security payments, by the beginning of the novel he is broke. Bailiffs arrive to expel him from his flat just before the winter ban on expulsions begins. Thereafter he has to seek shelter, principally from past acquaintances, who are willing to put him up for a short period, even if they do not believe his story that he has just returned from Canada and has yet to find a place to live. He no longer has any real relationships; he lost his long-term girl-friend because of his infidelities, being unable to restrain himself in the face of the sexual opportunities his music-related profession afforded him. Nevertheless, there are unseized opportunities for him to stay in some of his refuges for a longer time. In one case, he leaves because of his hostess's sexual demands, in another he cannot bear the idea of being dependent on the mother of his former friend Xavier. The result is that by the end of this first part he is homeless, living on the streets where, for a short time at least, he enjoys the protection of another homeless person, a formidable woman who is able to see off some right-wing extremists, just one danger in his precarious situation. The only asset he now possesses is some film recordings of his dead musician friend. There are people in the film and music worlds who are interested in these. Whilst he is roaming around Paris, they are on the lookout for him. Xavier finally finds him but at the end of the novel he is brutally beaten up by the extremists.
Vernon's anabasis and the search for him allow the novel to present a picture of the world of music and film. Because of his age and that of the people he comes across, it is a largely lost world or a world in decline. If there ever was anything positive in a world of sex, drugs and rock n-roll, time has taken it away. Reviewers have linked this sorry picture with the perceived decline of France itself. Despentes certainly presents a society where precarious lifestyles seem to be the order of the day. How far they can be accepted as a metaphor for the whole country is a matter for debate. Certainly, there was often an air of pessimism hanging over France during the thirteen years I lived there between 2001 and 2014. That certain politicians kept evoking a winning France (une France qui gagne) suggests that even for them everything in the garden was far from lovely. On the other hand, those who have been treated by the French health service or travelled by TGV might see things very differently.
As pointed out above, this is the first novel of a trilogy. After I had read the first third, I decided that I had no intention of reading the other two parts. This then began to change. Despentes is in fact very good at providing insights into the minds of her characters. One person Vernon stays with briefly is a man with little education who has a history of violence, particularly against the wife he drove into a refuge. In her convincing portrait, Despentes shows how he feels desperate about his situation with violence the only way left open to him to preserve any sense of worth. By contrast, the portrait of the extremists is less successful, although it could be said that the presentation of their stereotypical prejudices reflects reality. All in all, I found enough in the novel to think it is probably worth reading the remaining volumes of the trilogy.
Review by Stuart Parkes