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.
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 19 July 2013
"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.
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
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