Since I've been back in Paris I've all of a sudden become a shockingly lazy reader. I've spent more time planning my lessons and watching "Big Love" than doing anything else. So Wolf Hall sits, halfway finished, next to my bed, joined by Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind (which I'm reading for a Thursday evening Barnard Alumnae book group), David Foenkinos's La Délicatesse, and Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole.
The only book I did manage to finish was Beigbeder's Un roman français, and the only reason I blew through that is because it was mediocre enough that it didn't take much concentration. I didn't hate it, but I didn't feel like it was worth the time it took to read it. Here's a summary: Beigbeder gets caught sniffing cocaine with a friend outside some nightclub from off the roof of a car. They are too messed up to notice they're getting high right in front of a police car. They're arrested and hauled into jail. Being in jail is a terrible experience, Beigbeder finds, and, much like that other writer-guy dipping a madeleine into some tea, or whatever, Beigbeder finds the fact of imprisonment summons up his entire childhood. Being locked up–oh so paradoxically!–gives him access to all these memories he thought were locked away inside himself.
Although it has real moments of tenderness (when he thinks about his daughter, or his relationship with his brother, verging into full-blown, large-scale sentimentality, weeping about his mother while sitting in prison, his tears dripping into his beard), the rest of the guy's strut and performance seriously undercuts any lasting affect the book might have had. He tells us over and over that he's such a loser– but it just feels like part of the act. We never for a moment believe that Beigbeder really believes he's a loser.
Occasionally funny, but often not, the novel's worst offense is its complete unwillingness to trust the reader. Beigbeder can't just tell a joke without immediately telling you why it's funny; he can't build on a theme without pointing it out to you– how do you like my theme?– which is just insulting. Even the dimmest Beigbeder fan is capable of noticing different passages and ideas seem to circulate around the idea of imprisonment.
Other ideas that he tries to bring in– such as his childhood summers spent in the southwest, or his family history– don't really work. As he said the other night at Literary Death Match, lamenting the fact that the only thing that interests people in his book is the coke-sniffing scene: "No one seems to care about my great-grandfather." Maybe it's because Beigbeder doesn't seem to care that much about his grandfather. The man is there, one suspects, just as an opportunity to share details about his aristocratic lineage. The grandfather in question died on the field of battle in the First World War, "like a Japanese kamikaze or a Palestinian terrorist, this father of four children sacrificed himself knowing full well what he was about. This descendant of Crusaders [oh yes, apparently he is descended from Crusaders] was condemned to imitate Jesus Christ: to give his life for others. I am descended from a valiant knight who was crucified on the barbed wire of Champagne." With all due respect to the soldiers of World War I and their families: Oh, lord. Eye-roll.
What does work nicely are the descriptions of the various houses and apartments in which he grew up; Beigbeder evokes quite nicely the different spaces, how it felt to be in them, and how they determined who he would become. (There are some scenes with his father and his friends that could have been taken from the adult Beigbeder's life– we certainly understand why he became such a fétard.) But Beigbeder doesn't seem interested in asking hard questions of himself, and hard questions are the only ones that really matter in a memoir. Otherwise it's just a show, just a shallow depiction of what it's like to be Beigbeder, without yanking the reader into that hulking physique.
More on Foenkinos, Toltz, et al, when I finally finish reading them.
For more on Beigbeder at Literary Death Match, see here.