Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Excluded Youth of France's Angelique Guardian

Dear me, the Guardian, like a dear but cantankerous old friend, continues to exasperate much as one loves it. It remains, along with the FT, the best of the English newspapers (my relative unfamiliarity with Scottish and Welsh papers prevents me from saying 'British') but it can also madden with its one-note, one-dimensional coverage of certain things, France in particular. The latest shoddy missive from Paris comes today from the paper's Paris correspondent Angelique Chrisafis in an interview with the young French novelist Faïza Guène, which rails with savage indignation against the Parisian literary scene's shunting out of a reportedly talented young novelist from an immigrant background - I say 'reportedly' because I haven't read Ms Guène's work, though I look forward to doing so.

What bothers me about the piece is not Guène's bitterness about her marginalisation in both literature and society - the former of which is believable and the latter the reality for many Africans and Arabs in France - nor her analysis of Sarkozy's appointing the ethnic minority trio of women Rachida Dati, Fadela Rama and Rama Yade as tokenism, which I agree with. No, what riles me is the plain stupidity of the piece, which, being the cover feature in the G2 section and of a good length, can hardly be explained away as a piece of serviceable hackwork conceived to beat a deadline. Chrisafis invokes injustice after injustice while all the time compounding those very injustices for an English-speaking audience; there is also her recourse to lazy journalese to propel her story forward, not to mention a dubiously close identification with the opinions of the interviewee.

First up, in the opening paragraph, Chrisafis treats of the publication of Guène's first novel Kiffe kiffe demain, which came out when she was only 19:

When the book came out in 2004, Guène was hailed as the "Françoise Sagan of the high-rises", the antidote to the navel-gazing French novel in crisis.

One doesn't have to wonder too hard where a lazy journalist found the epithet "Françoise Sagan of the high-rises" nor the standard-issue Anglo-Saxon anti-intellectual "navel-gazing French novel" though you do wonder how many of those Chrisafis has read. I imagine that, writing for the Grauniad from Paris she has at least a smattering of French. As for the French novel being 'in crisis', well it must be if word has trickled all the way down to the G2 section of the Guardian.

Then we are told:

One thing Guène notices as she tours the world, attends book fairs in Britain and lectures on the evolution of slang in the US, is that back in France, she tends to take up more space on the "society" rather than the "literary" pages of the papers.

Well where does she appear in the papers in the far more receptive English-speaking world? Certainly not in the literary Review section on Saturday, where the interview would most likely have been conducted by somebody with literary expertise. Indeed a previous interview with Guène in the Guardian was covered in, guess what, the Society pages. There is no assessment of either Guène's work or its reception in France; surely Chrisafis has at least read her books and surely she could have phoned around for someone to say something, positive or negative, about them? Instead Chrisafis blindly accepts Guène's grievances and endorses them by implying that she is on the writer's side:

But in France, despite her huge readership, the élite still see fiction set in the suburbs as something exotic and alien. Society is so polarised that the world Guène writes about is not something the establishment has ever seen close up; they are not streets they might ever have walked down, even by accident. She is still asked with wide-eyed fascination about the forbidden lands. "I feel ridiculous explaining things like people there love each other too, that they decide to have babies out of love and not just to claim benefits."

Again, I am not gainsaying Guène's experience, but is Angelique Chrisafis herself spending that much more time than the French literary élite seeing how the other half live in the Paris banlieues?

Of course, the real, implicit theme of the article is finally laid bare in the next paragraph:

She says every time she lands in London she finds herself marvelling at women going about their lives in headscarves, without the state deciding where they can or can't wear them. She meets people in London from the estates of "93", Seine-Saint-Denis, hoping to find a job without their race, name or postcode putting a brake on them. She thinks nothing has improved on French estates since the riots. "If that hasn't changed things, what will? Apart from civil war or revolution?"

If only those Frenchies were like us English! A typically fatuous example of the smugness of many British and American commentators on the social problems of France (and yes, I know that the French media can often be as infuriating when analysing the US and the UK). France and Britain both have their problems with the integration and marginalisation of immigrant communities and I don't deny that Britain is largely better in this respect but to claim that Britain is a world of unlimited opportunity for immigrants is downright silly.

Chrisafis, continuing in her amateur-litterateur vein, notes approvingly that immigrant fiction in Britain is long established and accepted, citing Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali as examples. But literary marginalisation is alive and well in Britain, one need only return to the horrors experienced by the London literary establishment when the great James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late it Was, How Late. Kelman is a writer whose one-page short story 'Acid' alone outweighs the entire careers of literary blowhards such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and John Banville but this didn't prevent bluenose cretins such as Julia Neuberger and Simon Jenkins calling his work 'a disgrace' and 'the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk' respectively. He is also considerably chippy, understandable given the savage reception of his work, but sometimes exaggeratedly so as this interview with Theo Tait illustrates. It's also quite possible that Faïza Guène's bitterness at her literary exclusion is an over-reaction and maybe her work is not actually that good. I don't know but the fact that the literary establishment is not falling over itself for the novels of a 22-year-old does not necessarily mean she is being wilfully excluded.

To be sure, the French resistance to linguistic innovation such as Verlan is as absurd as it is exquisitely vulgar and François Bégaudeau's novel Entre les murs, which I wrote on last week, makes much of this absurdity. But I would like to see the issue treated with more intelligence and more expertise than Angelique Chrisafis is capable of bringing to it; not knowing anything about literature or film has in the past not been a barrier to the Guardian's Paris correspondent writing, as the French say, n'importe quoi on the subjects. It is sad to see that, once again, even left-wing Europhile British newspapers only seem to interested in reinforcing lazy preconceptions about France. Compare this approach with this excellent review of Elfriede Jelinek's novel Greed in the London Review of Books; Jelinek is another writer who has been ill treated by the literary establishment in both Austria and Germany and Nicholas Spice's piece is a brilliant, learned defence of her life and work. I plan to read Faïza Guène's novels soon and I sincerely hope that the Guardian will afford her work more respect than the French literarati has, or it itself has on this occasion.
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maitresse said...

Nicely put.
I linked to this on my blog (which tries to address the intersection between literature and French culture) but didn't have the energy to get into it-- it's too polarizing of an issue.
I bought Kiffe Kiffe Demain a few years ago but couldn't understand the verlan. It may be a "rich" language for a writer to play with (in the way dialects of English can be) but it's just incomprehensible, even for native speakers. And I'm not trying to reproduce the snobbery of the literary élite-- I just couldn't understand a bloody word!