The UK can’t boast anyone quite like Frédéric Beigbeder. He’s a familiar face on TV, hosting a weekly cinema TV show, and cropping up repeatedly, everywhere as a pundit, as French celebrities tend to do. He’s got a reputation as a playboy, frequently being photographed in the company of young, attractive females in the pages of the French celebrity press, where he also has a column. As well as being a DJ and a staple of the Parisian nightclub circuit, famously being locked-up by police after being caught snorting cocaine off a car bonnet a couple of streets away from the Arc de Triomphe in 2008, Beigbeder is also a sophisticated man of letters, making Scotland’s Irvine Welsh look like a crumpled first draft in comparison.
When he isn’t busy leading a jetset lifestyle, Beigbeder he finds the time to write. He’s published eight novels to date, with his last, Un roman français winning the coveted 2009 Prix Renaudot. Notably, he was fired from his job as an advertising executive for the content of 2000’s 99 francs, a darkly funny satire of the ad industry and Windows on the World (2003), another prize-winning book, was in part a critically-acclaimed telling of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York from the perspective of a character trapped inside one of the towers. He’s also published a collection of short stories, been responsible for two band dessinées (comic books). He’s also a literary journalist, penning a monthly column for books magazine Lire, has been involved in the creation of a host of cultural revues and, between 2003 and 2006 served as editorial director of publishing behemoth Flammarion. In 2001, he also published Dernier inventaire avant liquidation.
Inventaire is a collection of critical writings, a celebration of the top fifty pieces of literature, as voted for by 6,000 members of the French public from a longlist of two hundred titles (and paid for by the combined forces of Le Monde, retail chain Fnac, published by Grasset and Fasquelle). Whilst the book itself is reasonably interesting, and is enlivened by Beigbeder’s always lively prose, it suffers from the fact that, and this is a point Beigbeder makes in the introduction, that the choice of works (which predictably is topped by Camus’ L’Etranger, Proust, and Le Petit Prince) was imposed on him, rather than being his own selection. Inevitably meaning, of course, that he would have ended up extolling the virtues of books that he wasn’t particularly fond of (as noted above he’s an ex-adman so one might expect taking corporate cash for a bought opinion comes relatively easily).
To address this comes Premier bilan après l’apocalypse (loosely translated by me as ‘First report after the apocalypse’) is another league table, this time completely selected by Beigbeder, detailing what he believes are the last century’s greatest works of fiction, drawing from literatures from all over the world, each with a two to three page description of the text with a short biographical sketch of the author. The only restriction Beigbeder has placed on his selection is that anything featuring in the previous work doesn’t qualify this time around.
For anyone who has flicked through a Beigbeder novel, it won’t be a surprise that Bret Easton Ellis scores top position for his American Psycho, Beigbeder’s work is similarly fixated on the jetset, Indeed, the majority of the one-hundred works selected for review in the collection share a number of things in common; the majority are first person narratives where the subject appears to be the author himself (or examples of what the theoreticians call ‘autofiction’), the majority of these characters are male, drunk or drugged, philandering, unreliable, rich, unmistakably of their time – explicitly the type of Gatsby-esque novels Beigbeder himself writes, in fact. It is no accident, then that F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose 1945 collection of essays The Crack-up is in ‘like a bullet’ at number ten) crops up as a benchmark reference in the vast majority of the appraisals in the collection.
That does mean that the ‘elegantly wasted’ author stereotype is in full flow throughout Bilan, the novels in the hot one hundred are all largely predictably white, male and out of it; Bukowski, Kerouac, Houellebecq and Hemingway all score highly, as we would expect. That said, there is also an impressive number of works from overlooked or little-known authors (whose works mostly follow the above formula), such as Alain Pacadis, Lolita Pille and Pierre de Régnier whose works, according to Beigbeder, warrant closer attention.
The French literary establishment has a deserved reputation for being exclusive, very much a closed shop when it comes to new writing. It is then somewhat refreshing to see Beigbeder, in his introductory essay and through the works selected, making a strong case for contemporary writing, living writing being produced around the world at the moment, rather than the type written by dead nighteenth-century types and beloved of fusty, dusty academics. The current generation of French writers (of whom Beigbeder naturally forms a part) have an eloquent champion; Despentes, Régis Jauffret, Phillippe Djian and Yann Moix all deserve more recognition of the order of Despentes and Houellebecq’s 2010 literary awards.
For all its qualities Premier bilan après l’apocalypse comes across a little bit like a literary version of one of those TV shown on BBC Two and Channel Four each Bank Holiday Sunday, called things like ‘I love 1985’, rather than ‘bought memories from Stewart Maconie (copyright Stewart Lee) and inane contributions from Dick and Dom, except this features Beigbeder on his own rattling on and on, fine if you like him, but his writing isn’t to everyone’s taste.
Whilst Bilan deserves to be read widely, not least for its passionate anti-Kindle, e-book and pro-curling up with a book introduction, but will, I suspect be of most interest to Beigbeder fans looking to get their first fix since 2009’s Un Roman français. Those looking for the novelist’s familiar narcissistic, always slightly over the top voice, as present in the novels, and on his TV shows, won’t be disappointed, his distinctive touch runs throughout the work, in a gentler, more considered and perhaps more self-parodying way to 2001’s Inventaire. It is there, however funny, irreverent and even elegant, and for all of the 426 pages written about other writers, the ultimate subject with Beigbeder’s writing, is, one suspects, always Beigbeder himself.
- Premier bilan après l’apocalypse will be published by Grasset in French on September 14, 2011. No news, as yet, about a possible English translation of the book.