A celebrity in search of lost time: How Frédéric Beigbeder recovered his past after a drugs bust

Interview: Now 48, the wild child of French fiction has lost none of his knack for provocation - or his flair for self-parody.

"I want to become Don Draper," says Frédéric Beigbeder, "by relaunching this old magazine with beautiful girls, without clothes on". Now 48, the veteran enfant terrible has lost none of his knack for provocation - or his flair for self-parody. In France, the novelist and TV presenter - and DJ, and fashion model, and permanent fixture on the celebrity pages - is something like a mash-up of Martin Amis and Jonathan Ross, with a ripe dollop of Russell Brand on top.

Get money off Beigbeder's latest work here

Beigbeder's Mad Men fixation ("I'm in love with January Jones!") has helped fuel the coming revival of Lui, the Sixties bible for French hipsters: "a famous magazine with naked women and excellent writing. It was the French Playboy." We shall see how much of that "glamour" in the style of 1963 actually makes it into the reborn Lui. As ever with Beigbeder, the element of wind-up, in-your-face mischief masks a more serious intent. "I was born in 1965. Since I was seven years old [the time of the first oil shock] I've always heard about economic decline." Half-ironic, half-earnest (a default setting for him), this yearning for an era of cocksure hedonism chimes with an enduring fascination with the splendours and miseries of consumer society à la française.

From a strictly literary point of view, name three of his friends - and firm supporters - and you catch the flavour of Beigbeder's earlier work: Bret Easton Ellis; Jay McInerney; Michel Houellebecq (whom he edited at the Flammarion publishing house). When we meet, Beigbeder says that he has just received a text from Houellebecq about his father's death. "I did not know his father still lived - because he never talks about him; and, in all his books, the father dies. So I thought he was dead a long time ago - and he died yesterday." Ah, missing and absent French fathers: more on them soon.

Poster boy for prêt-à-porter fashion house The Kooples; host since 2007 of the Canal Plus review show Le Cercle; occasional DJ at chic Parisian clubs, Beigbeder the ultimate "people" (that bizarre piece of franglais that now means "celeb") is - despite his paparazzi-friendly stunts - a writer of considerable distinction. His trend-surfing, media-savvy career in advertising, TV and publishing fed novels such as 99 Francs, Love Lasts Three Years and Holiday in a Coma. Like his transatlantic buddies Ellis and McInerney (these days he prefers the latter's "empathy" to the former's "radical" coldness), he nimbly tiptoed along the fine line between satire and celebration, critique and complicity, in these insider's tales of affluent anomie.

In 2005, I was on the jury that gave him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Windows on the World: his novel of 9/11, and of the strained relationship between fathers and sons. It dared to imagine the top-floor restaurant at the North Tower of the World Trade Center on that fateful morning, and had to skirt every pitfall of vulgarity and ghoulishness. Yet Beigbeder's candour, passion and compassion in tackling that taboo motif raised his novel far above the hushed mawkishness of so many later 9/11 fictions. Nonetheless, ever since I have met French publishers and writers who crossly make it plain that they consider Beigbeder's victory an outrageous lapse of taste.

For his detractors, what happened to Beigbeder in Paris on 28 January 2008 would have confirmed all their suspicions. Outside the chic Baron nightclub on avenue Marceau, he was arrested for snorting cocaine from a car bonnet. Beigbeder spent two nights in jail, the second in the remand hell-hole of Le Dépôt attached to the Palais de Justice. In the event, he agreed to six sessions at a rehab centre: a standard disposal for a first such offence. But those 48 hours of shame and self-loathing had a silver lining. They led to A French Novel: the reason why we are sitting here, sipping mineral water, in the bar of an old-school Mayfair hotel while the sun blazes outside at Côte d'Azur fashion-shoot strength.

The autobiographical story of his childhood and family, mingling fictional artifice with personal testimony, A French Novel won the high-prestige Renaudot Prize. Now out in English thanks to Frank Wynne's pitch-perfect translation, it marked for many critics and readers its creator's final passage into literary maturity. Even cab drivers felt the impact. After the Renaudot award, the newly-esteemed laureate hailed a cab and "The taxi driver said, 'Bonsoir, Maître'. Good evening, master. This never happened before. I love it!"

As Beigbeder puts it, "If you want to remember your past, you have to be arrested by the police and be thrown in jail. You are alone with yourself. It's so boring that you have to start to go back." He believes he comes from an "amnesiac" generation: the children of postwar prosperity whose early years passed in a blur of facile consumption. Why the forgetfulness? "We were watching television for 20 years and that's what we remember." He belongs, he says, to a baby-boom cohort of latecomers, condemned to stupefied solipsism: "I became jealous of my parents' life. I thought that the previous generation had more fun… They had interesting stories to tell; they were young but they saw the Second World War; they had the Sixties liberation."

Beigbeder makes of his prison-cell purgatory the trigger for a flash-flood of childhood memories. They begin on beach near Biarritz, and a shrimping trip with his aristocratic grandfather. The bourgeois Beigbeders, spa-hotel magnates in Pau, had married into the Perigordian family of the Comtes de Chasteigner de la Rocheposay. It's a lineage straight out of Proust. And his sun-dappled snapshots of a childhood in the "well-heeled ghetto" of Neuilly-sur-Seine, as leather-upholstered Rovers purr through the Bois de Boulogne, belong to a golden age prolonged past May 1968.

"It's a lost paradise," he says, "but it's also the end of a couple - my father and my mother. So it's both beautiful and sad." Divorce is the serpent in this lovingly-remembered garden. "It's tender, but it's telling painful things. Because I'm talking about the fact that my mother left my father, and I always thought it was the opposite. There are elements that were family secrets in this novel."

A French Novel confirms that stiff upper lips hardly start or end at Calais. "We have this in common: we have families that never talk. Many, many taboo subjects. This is the same in France and England. You feel that your childhood is a beautiful picture but it is full of lies and emptiness." The book regrets its broken idylls and fractured families: pleasure-loving fathers who vanish, freedom-seeking mothers who toil. But, almost inevitably, the divorced Beigbeder has repeated the pattern. His daughter Chloe, now 13, centres the narrative: the focus of hope for more grounded times. Will she read the book? In time. For now, "She's not interested in my work at all. She reads Twilight!"

What sort of responsibility does he feel towards the nearest and dearest - his parents and rock-solid elder brother Charles, a well-known entrepreneur - who play starring roles in this cunning "faction" of lost illusions? Beigbeder recalls that he was "terribly afraid" of their reaction. He sent them the manuscript, but insisted - here, Graham Greene's splinter of ice in the writer's heart perhaps comes to the fore - that they could make only one cut. His father asked that his weight should be revised downwards: "I was making him too fat". Neither mother nor brother asked for any alteration. After that, "I thought, OK, I can publish. I didn't want to hurt anybody. The thing is, I wanted to be honest, sincere and true. Which doesn't mean to be cruel or mean."

A French Novel turns any cruelty or meanness against its hapless "spoilt kid" of a protagonist. Its overriding question becomes: "What happened that I became so stupid that now I am in this prison." With self-lacerating comedy as much as lyrical nostalgia, Beigbeder scans the files of his recovered memory for answers. Readers on this side of the Channel will share dozens of the pop-culture allusions - bands, brands, movies, clothes, sweets - that accompany the young anti-hero through the Seventies. Global consumerism kicks in and the book can be read, its author notes, as "a French novel about the end of France". Frédéric's story becomes that of a generation adrift in the wake of 1968, who floated through "life with comfort in a country that was beginning to fail and to become little".

A French Novel counts for him as "the first book where I am not in the present or the future - I am looking back at my past. This is how you recognise that you are old. Maybe turning 40 is the difference." His old fart credentials established beyond reproach, Beigbeder has since published a study of his hundred favourite books that denounces the throwaway superficiality of e-books and screen reading: "I'm in a way more nostalgic than conservative. But I do fight for the book on paper, the magazine on paper." Is it a lost cause? "I like lost causes; I like Don Quixote. It's very romantic to fight windmills."

Prior to A French Novel, "I was looked on as a clown. And now I'm looked on as a funny old man." All the same, "I still do things to stay a clown": hence, perhaps, the disinterment of Lui. These days, he tries to write "for myself", "not trying to seduce anyone", and not in Paris but down in Guéthary on his ancestral Basque coast. Poignant, droll, self-mocking, a portrait of an artist and of an age, A French Novel makes plain all the benefits of that detachment. Yet his inner Don Draper evidently hankers for a night on the tiles now and then. "Until 10 years ago, when I went to sign my books in a bookstore, I had lines of beautiful young girls. It was great. Now I have lines of old people - like the grandmothers of the previous pretty girls… Maybe I should start to write about nightclubs again."

'A French Novel', translated by Frank Wynne: Fourth Estate, £14.99

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?