There is a difficulty that I always encounter when I speak of contemporary French literature, which is that the country has only relatively recently emerged from a literary golden age. From the works of Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire to Albert Camus and Simone De Beauvoir, the French have spent more than a century dissecting literary masterpiece after another, honoring and renewing their reputation for sophistication and taste.
Unfortunately, their literary production has not been so important on a global scale since the post-war period, the most famous intellectuals of the country (Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida) rather to postmodern philosophy. I admit that my research on contemporary French writers has been more casual than methodical, but personally I had never found a contemporary French novelist or poet who struck me like their ancestors. (Yes, I read Michel Houellebecq, and no, I was not particularly impressed).
It was all true until now, as Yannick Haenel‘s Hold your crown firmly, Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, It’s exactly the kind of novel I’ve been waiting for for so long. I wanted something to challenge me, and Hold your crown firmly does this to such an extent that I’m even challenged to describe its plot. At first, it seems to be the story of an anonymous Parisian writer who wants to produce an ambitious screenplay. Then said writer has to deal with his neighbor’s dog and the story seems to be going on a tangent, except from there that’s all that happens – the plot continues to unfold tangent after tangent. , juggling a handful of recurring themes, symbols, and imagery, but never giving you an appropriate narrative thread to cling to.
The result is undeniably a mess, and yet it works, thanks in large part to Haenel’s weird and haunting prose. Here is, for example, how the author describes a trip to New York: “The sky outside was pink, and all the green of Central Park shone like a softly burning bush. I breathed in the scent of wisteria, honeysuckle climbing up the front door of the museum, and all the petals flew around, little yellow and purple words in the dusty, saturated history of the New York air. . The vocabulary and arguably even the style are relatively straightforward, but there’s a lot going on here, from the color of the imagery to the vaguely metatextual quality of the composite metaphor.
Besides being messy in terms of plot, Hold your crown firmly is everywhere as far as its intertextual library is concerned. The backbone of the story seems to be the quest for the protagonist of truth (the kind you spell out with a capital T), who is symbolically represented by a deer. But the deer is most often seen by the protagonist in artwork rather than real life, so much of the novel is simply about the main character watching movies and reading books while he smokes and drinks. more than anyone. He seems to develop a particular obsession with Herman Melville and director Michael Cimino (who, of course, directed the years 1978 The deer hunter), but he frequently refers to other works as well, tracing a bibliography that goes from that of Ovid Metamorphosis to the Isenheim altarpiece and which has little or no thematic coherence.
All of this chaos is enough to make the book an infuriating read, but what will really turn any reader up is that the havoc spreads – if not climaxes – to the book’s philosophical perspective. If you like thoughtful and thought-provoking literature, then Hold your crown firmly will give you what you are looking for in spades: the protagonist seems unable to simply see a kite or drink a glass of wine without rambling on a deep existential aspect of life, and yet these ramblings are as unreliable and unstable as the plot itself. I’ll quote a long passage, simply because there’s no better way to convey the effect than by sampling it:
“But in the end, what does failure really mean? I do not have to believe in check. Melville’s was proportional to the demands that motivated him: it indicated a secret glory. The company slaps failure on anything that does not meet its demands. He denies success to anything that exceeds his set criteria. I wasn’t really impressed with society’s idea of literature. What does he know about it? Nothing. Everyone thinks they know what literature is, but no one knows anything. And that morning, with my twenty euros, my dizziness, my slight hangover and my irrepressible desire to see Apocalypse now, that morning and every morning of my happy and rude existence, as well as every evening and every night, not only did it seem to me that I knew what literature was, but that in a sense I was Literature.”
Here the speaker begins with a seemingly relevant critique of society’s criteria for determining success and failure, but then flies off into crazy generalizations like ‘no one knows anything’ and ends with the odd statement ‘I was Literature’. I find this passage as beautiful and memorable as I find it frustrating and unreasonable.
Due to its contradictory qualities, Hold your crown firmly is not a book for everyone. I can very well imagine some readers annoyed by the wandering plot or irritated by the narrator’s madness (and the madness is undeniable – indeed, the opening sentence of the book is “At the time, I was mad”) . That said, I can’t help but feel that the novel is heavy by design, and that there is an order underlying the chaos. One long passage seems hypocritical to the point of being almost unbearable, as the protagonist sits with a film producer and two actresses, and they rail against oppression and exploitation while eating oysters and enjoying themselves. intoxicating with champagne. And yet the author (unlike the narrator) seems very aware of what is going on, leaving plenty of clues that suggest the reader is playing with it (the waiter in this scene, for example, is being compared to French President Emmanuel Macron, a statesman frequently accused of classism and elitism).
Regarding interpretation, Hold your crown firmly defeated me. I would need close and repeated readings, filling out the different passages of the prose, for me to find the common threads to give meaning to this sublime mess. And maybe there isn’t, and all of this is just the hollow nonsense of a charlatan. I must also admit this possibility, and it is in any case the kind of doubt that the first criticisms of a Gustave Flaubert or a Stéphane Mallarmé must have nourished.
Time has provided these writers with answers that I cannot provide to those of Haenel. Hold your crown firmly. I can’t say what that means, I can’t say if it’s good or bad, and I certainly can’t say for sure whether or not this is a “great” novel. But it shocked me, excited me, angered me, compelled me, thrilled me more than any French book I’ve read and written in the past 50 years, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all I have to highly recommend in Le livre de Haenel.