Vie Francaise: A novel
288 pp., 24.95
Reviewed by Otto Selles
A French Updike?
After a day spent on research at the departmental archives in Montpellier, I wasn't in the mood for high–brow French culture. The shaded cafés of the city's gorgeous esplanade had much more appeal in the heat of a July evening. But the notice in the local paper had caught my eye. France Culture, the public radio station, and Le Monde, the left–leaning national daily, were holding a week–long conference on the question: "Are We More and More Conservative?"—the "we" being the French.
The topic of conservatism in French society was meant to follow up on France's recent election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president. Known for his tough–talking manner, Sarkozy has made "work" the central value of his presidency. At the same time, he has managed to draw off leading socialists to serve in his government. In contrast to the predominantly male governments of Jacques Chirac, women now form half of the new cabinet, with Rachida Dati, the daughter of North African immigrants, as Justice Minister. Political maneuvering aside, Sarkozy seems determined to mix left and right–wing policies to keep his critics and own party members guessing.
When I arrived at the conference site, all the seats were taken and I had to sit on the ground. Intellectual debate was alive and living well in southern France. I had only skimmed the conference's daily program and was expecting a discussion on conservatism and religious toleration. In fact, the panel was set to discuss the boundaries of sexual toleration.
The moderator began by throwing out a slogan from France's May 1968 uprising, jouir sans entraves (loosely translated, "enjoy sex without obstacles"). He asked the panel to address the waning of such free love ideology. A child psychologist, a philosopher, a historian, and a lawyer then gave ten–minute interventions—mini–speeches that danced around the question and managed to summarize their own books, all for sale at a table near the door. In the end, I was not sure what they really thought, except for their sense that France is not "obstacle" free, despite the major changes in society since the '60s (drop in marriage rates, legalization of abortion, homosexual civil unions).
Long before Sarkozy's election, writer and journalist Jean–Paul Dubois caught the tension between conservative trends in France and the heritage of the 1968 revolution. In his novel Vie Française, first published in 2004 and now available in English translation, Dubois begins the narrative with the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958 and the news that the hero, Paul Blick, has lost his elder brother. From de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac, Blick's life parallels the presidential eras of the new republic, from youth to middle age. (It should be noted that the title of the novel in French is "Une vie française." Blick's life is not meant to be representative of all French life, so the change in title is questionable.)
As he finishes high school, Blick participates in the '68 uprisings and then lives the life of a radical university student in the early '70s before marrying into the middle class. The '80s and '90s bring wealth and fame when he becomes a successful nature photographer. At the start of this century, his wife bankrupts her company and dies in an accident with her lover, leaving Blick jilted and broke. Like John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, Blick obsesses over sex as a young man, becomes rich, then faces financial disaster, and finally opts for celibacy in his lonesome middle age.
The novel actually begins with an epigraph taken from Updike, and the narrator refers directly at one point to Philip Roth's sexually self–obsessed Alex Portnoy. In the review copy I received, blurbs by French critics compare Dubois to both authors, along with John Irving. Dubois' use of sexual comedy and his biting criticism of the French middle class do give an American feel to his writing. It's easy to see why Knopf decided to translate the novel, already a winner in France of a major literary award, the Prix Femina.
But compared to Irving, Dubois' comedy has the timing and crudeness of a teen movie like American Pie. And while Rabbit Angstrom's life spreads itself over four novels, Dubois tries to cover the same chronology in one, and with a style much less poetical than Updike's. Instead of allowing the reader to draw conclusions, Dubois is forever telling us what we are to think of a particular period or character.
Dubois is best when he avoids heavy–handed commentary and provides tragicomic details about French society. For example, Blick's grandfather is a shepherd form the Pyrenees, taken by force from his herds to serve during World War I. Shell–shocked, the grandfather only returns to the mountains as an old man and must negotiate chairlift pylons from a new ski resort—an anecdote underscoring the ravages of war and modern development on the French countryside.
Since Dubois, a French journalist born in Toulouse in 1950, describes a Frenchman born in Toulouse in 1950—who works briefly as a journalist—one wonders how much of the book is autobiographical. The passages describing Blick's abysmal university studies, his brush with the army, and his conflict with a psychotic office manager all have the feel of lived experience.
The novel also provides interesting cultural commentary on the spiritual framework of a French secular mindset. At first, "Leftism" is Blick's "theology." Sinking into middle–class life, he accepts that he is no longer "a model revolutionary activist" and realizes he believes in nothing. Even love, which he considered "a kind of belief," becomes an "illusory redemption." Toward the end of the novel, he reflects pessimistically: "whether considering my own life or the nation's destiny, I saw no way out, no light, not the slightest reason for hope or relief."
At first I thought Dubois was guilty of posturing—of imitating the gloom–and–doom attitude many French social critics display—in order to give his book a Profound Ending. Given the comic tone of his novel, I now wonder if Dubois is merely satirizing this perspective.
For Blick never acts on his beliefs. He never votes or is involved in any political action other than rioting as a youth. In faith, love, and politics, Blick—the archetypal soixante–huitard (1968 revolutionary)—lacks true conviction. And perhaps that is Dubois' explanation for the recent failures of the Left and the conservative swing in French society.
Otto Selles is professor of French at Calvin College.
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