Boyd Tonkin: This 'literary' eulogy of mass murder exposes the dark side of French culture
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 22 September 2012
One picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. True or not, that maxim does seem to govern global reactions to media stunts in France. As I write, French embassies and schools around the world have upgraded their security thanks to inflammatory cartoons in the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Yet, for the past four weeks, the smaller pond of literature across the Channel has been whipped into a frenzy by a work that not only heaped scorn and hatred on immigrants (Muslim and otherwise) but defended the principles – if not, technically, the practices – of Europe's most reviled mass killer. This vicious local squall has made few international waves. Perhaps the voice of the Parisian literati does not carry as far as it did.
Late last month, immediately after the perpetrator of the Norwegian massacre was sentenced, the writer and editor Richard Millet published essays under the title of Ghost Language. Millet, a senior editor at the noble house of Gallimard, followed up a mournful jeremiad on "the impoverishment of literature" with his "Literary Eulogy of Anders Breivik".
Now, Millet did not actually justify the murders committed by the racist slaughterer of 77 innocents. That adjective "literary" was meant to save his bacon. Rather, in the vein of a long-standing French cult of "evil" as a kind of aesthetic category, he treated the massacre as a perfectly timed work of art bred by the mongrel, deracinated, corrupted multi-culturalism both of Breivik's nation, and of mass-migration postwar Europe as whole. "Breivik is without doubt, just what Norway deserved," Millet wrote. He viewed the killer as the "child of family ruin" that has overtaken Europe as it buries its native culture and yields to political correctness.
Ever since the violent "legitimist" reaction to the Revolution of 1789, France has hatched these coldly furious ideologists of blood and soil. And, occasionally, their brand of intellectual venom can seep into the state's bloodstream. This toxicity increased during the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s (now, of course, Muslims have supplanted Jews as the chief enemies of French purity) and – above all – during the collaborationist Vichy regime of 1940-1944. Factor in a somewhat adolescent worship of abstract Evil inherited from the poètes maudits of the Romantic era and transgressive writer-theorists such as Georges Bataille, and you have a ready-mixed cocktail of anti-humanist bile that's still on sale behind the bar in literary Paris. Much of Millet's argument strikes me as ludicrously low-grade polemic (with some abominable, self-pitying stuff about being the only white man in the Châtelet Métro station), but he does have these once-mighty ghosts hovering behind him.
Hence the vehemence of the reaction. The "affaire" came to a head with a letter denouncing Millet written by novelist Annie Ernaux but signed by 117 literary worthies. Ernaux wrote that it's time to call a spade a spade (d'appeler un chat un chat) and identify the Literary Eulogy of Anders Breivik as "a fascist pamphlet that dishonours literature". For a literary scene in which, 70 years ago, well-known authors published many "fascist pamphlets" while Jews were being sent to the death camps without the Germans having to lift a finger, the F-word still hits hard.
Millet declined to apologise for his ideas or his essays (which appeared from a small imprint, not Gallimard). But Antoine Gallimard, current head of the august dynasty, called his wayward editor to order, affirming that "to belong to a house implies a form of solidarity" with its core values.
The pressure mounted and, last week, Millet resigned from Gallimard's editorial committee. His artistic "eulogy" of a racist mass killer poses those familiar free-speech questions at a peculiarly high pitch. Any faintheart can back a saint; but what about a poison-spewing ranter? No one tried to censor Millet's book. But could he go on working with writers who detest him? To author-blogger Pierre Assouline, the affair's shame arises from literary folk ganging up on a colleague to oust him from his job. For Assouline, it's a "bitter victory. Nothing to be proud of". For me, it shows that the Left Bank still lives in Vichy's shadow.
Has the axe woman thrown a boomerang?
Maria Miller has fallen at the first hurdle. The novice culture secretary has refused to set up an inquiry into Brent council's closure of six out of its 12 branch libraries. She finds the cuts justified by low usage, considers access to remaining branches to be adequate, and thinks that library policy should remain a local affair. This free pass handed to a deadbeat Labour council seems to give authorities rather more congenial to Miller carte blanche to wreck their own libraries. When this happens, she will not enjoy the political fall-out.
Sick of old stars? Catch a Pole star
With the usual seasonal glut of home-grown big-name novelists and memoir-signing celebrities upon us, autumn is the time when nights close in and literary horizons may narrow. Just the right moment, then, for Poland's enterprising cultural institute in London to launch the biggest-ever tour of Polish authors around Britain (until 7 November). It begins with Artur Domoslawski, the taboo-busting biographer of travel writer-cum-secret agent Ryszard Kapuscinski, who's already on the road. I shall especially look forward to the wonderful novelist and short-story writer Pawel Huelle, due in London, Manchester, Ilkley and Liverpool between 7 and 10 October. Crime-fiction ace Zygmunt Miloszewski is among the other visitors. Catch them if you can, and find the whole programme for the "Pole Position" tour at www.polishculture.org.uk
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