Wednesday Book: No Brie, but lots of ecstasy

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The Independent Culture
A LAW was proposed in 1997 requiring visitors to France to register at the local mairie. The campaign to have the law ditched became a national cause celebre, focusing on a crass remark made by a right-wing politician to the effect that "these people" were readily identifiable anyway because their names were unpronounceable. Tens of thousands signed petitions against the bill. The publication of these lists in newspapers cleverly made the point that our textbook friends Monsieur and Madame Leblanc were hardly representative of actual French family nomenclature. Les imprononcables, c'est nous.

This anthology underlines the point. Houellebecq, Desplechin, Beigbeder, Desarthes: hardly names to gladden the heart of a football commentator, as Le Pen was quick to point out during the World Cup. But French society is diverse, richly multi-cultural - and the writing in this collection represents some of that diversity.

The French are concerned that we do not take their contemporary fiction seriously. "Proust killed the French novel," a spokeswoman from the Institut Francais declared at the launch of this book. "And the nouveau roman... finished it off."

It is true that the French novel entered a crisis in the Seventies. It was no longer seen by intellectuals as an interesting form. The hope is that, with this "sampler" of translated stories and novel extracts, it will become apparent that something has changed.

The contributors' biographies, as much as the texts, indicate the change. They were all under 40 and unpublished at the time the translations were commissioned. Twenty years ago, they would mostly have been academics. Now they are a more varied bunch - DJs, columnists, footballers.

They write about clubs, drugs, joyless sex. Their language - full of anglicisms and hip references - reflects the increasing anglicisation of popular French culture. The title carries allusions to Generation X, ecstasy and the high-rise "cites". It is ironic, given the fierce disavowals of the influence of the great French writers, that the title should owe such an obvious debt to Georges Perec. But it is in the nature of influence that we can carry it like a virus.

Anthologies, like class photographs, rarely flatter anyone. If a writer is clearly wonderful - Waberi (originally from Djibouti) or Mounsi (Algerian) - then we want more. Of others we may want less. British editors should find people here whose work they wish to follow up. The extract from Guillaume Dustan's Serge Le Beaute, while having nothing on a writer like Alan Hollingworth, is a very readable example of a particular genre.

Mathieu Lindon's account of Front National rallies, quoting directly from speeches, is the only overtly political piece. Marie Desplechin and Agnes Desarthes write well on the young-woman-in-search-of-a-man theme. That my critical attention survived her presentation in the preface as the "ultimate kick-ass fuck-the-system anarcho babe" suggests that Virginie Despentes' writing is genuinely powerful, though Helen Zahavi was doing this years ago. Frederic Beigbeder's witty satire of the young bourgeoise out clubbing sits uneasily alongside more reverent accounts.

The three last inclusions - scenes from Mathieu Kassovitz's film La Haine, a piece on the house music scene by DJ Tov and an interview with Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly - suggest that much of what there is to be said about these areas of society may not be best suited to the conventional vehicles of fiction. Underground magazines and the Internet should not necessarily be seen as poor relations, though it's true they don't make money. But to complain - as some of these writers have - that they are excluded by xenophobic and market-driven British publishers seems rather like wishing Marks & Spencer would manufacture your combat trousers. I thought part of the point of this kind of new fiction was to question traditional modes of publishing.

The French are tired of their image. Down with Brie and grand cru. Stuff May '68. Georgia de Chamberet's rather over-excited preface does the book no favours, though I do not doubt her passion. For anyone seriously interested in where the French novel may be going or in the world outside the Eurostar terminus, there are tasters here. A lot isn't great writing, but it is vibrant and portrays areas of French life we often ignore.

But there is no point hoping that XCiTes is going to fly off Brittany Ferries boutique shelves. You can shout "Fuck the Academie Francaise" in all the languages you like, but what the British love best about France is all that is absent from these pages.

The reviewer's translation of `My Phantom Husband', by Marie Darrieussecq, is published this month by Faber