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Week in Review: March 8, 2019

by William Weingarten

 

Illuminating the Enlightened: Denis Diderot Receives Due Veneration

Denis Diderot, an Enlightenment-era thinker referred to by his contemporaries not merely as “a philosopher” but as “the philosopher”, has not received as much contemporary admiration as Rousseau or Voltaire. Andrew S. Curran’s new biography, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely (Other Press), revives the thinker, navigating his life and extensive works--notably 5,000 entries in the Encylopédie--and presenting him as truly exceptional; trailblazing in his assessments of faith and women’s rights, among other things, and amiable to a fault. In a recent NYRB article, “The Man Who Questioned Everything”, writer Lynn Hunt recognizes Curran’s Diderot as “simultaneously too much a man of his time and too much ahead of his time.” Recent articles from The New York Times, the LA Review of Books, and The Washington Post praise the work as an achievement. Robert Zaretsky, whose book Catherine and Diderot (Harvard University Press) also released this February, lavished Curran’s biography of Diderot with praise. He made note of Curran’s success in providing “a powerful reminder that Diderot’s rightful place is under the Panthéon’s dome, if only to annoy both Voltaire and Rousseau.” Diderot, buried anonymously and denied the honor of a burial in the Panthéon in Paris, would appear at long last to have found his way into the much-deserved limelight.
 

Leïla Slimani on Living with Unbearable Secrets

In February, writer and cultural representative Leïla Slimani sat down with The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman to discuss “The Confession”, a short piece featured in that week’s issue. Slimani’s story takes place during a young man’s hazy summer spent working  in rural Morocco on his father’s orders. The story culminates in his raping a young peasant girl. Years later, haunted by “the consciousness of a crime [he] dared not speak” the main character decides he must confess. On her decision to recount such a story from the perpetrator’s perspective, Slimani stressed the “tragically banal and ordinary” nature of the central character’s act: “He doesn’t have the sense that he is committing a rape, because the sexist patriarchal culture he lives in to some extent considers a woman’s body to be a man’s property.” “The Confession” was originally published in French in Le Magazine Littéraire, appealing to some and offending others, who criticized the notion of humanizing heinous acts. Slimani performed a reading of the piece, available for listening on The New Yorker’s website.
 

Michel Houellebecq - Ever Present, Ever Elusive, Ever Stupefying

Michel Houellebecq’s Sérotonine is the latest in a string of successful releases by the internationally bestselling French novelist, whose Submission (Flammarion, 2015) caused notable controversy upon release due to the bold stances it took on subjects considered sensitive by most readers. Nevertheless, Houellebecq continues to dominate fiction markets in Europe. Sérotonine was the bestselling novel in France and Spain in February 2019, a month after it topped novel sales in Germany as well. For all this success, though, Houellebecq himself remains tough to pin down. A recent article in Le Monde tried to encapsulate the author somewhat, drawing from Houellebecq’s interview on “Stupéfiant !” a paradoxical portrait of the sort he himself features in his work. Le Monde’s piece alleged that somewhere between fatalism, satire and new-age romance sits Houellebecq, at home at the center of his web, impressing readers in droves.
 

Sophie Hénaff Crafts a Winner

Publisher’s Weekly recently covered the forthcoming English translation of Sophie Hénaff’s Stick Together (MacLehose, translated by Sam Gordon), a sequel to her 2018 novel The Awkward Squad. Stick Together follows Paris police commissaire Anne Capestan as she sets out to investigate her ex-father-in-law’s murder, with the  help of her “department of castoffs”. Getting to the bottom of the increasingly labyrinthine assignment--one bolstered by “twists and turns in the plot [that] feel more like an actual police case than contrived story lines”, the ragtag police squad must contend with two other departments assigned the same case. From these premises, a hilarious and endearing tale ensues. The English translation of Stick Together will be available April 2nd.

 

Feminist Writer and 1990 Prix Femina Winner Pierrette Fleutiaux’s Passing

Pierrette Fleutiaux, a prominent French feminist novelist, passed away in Paris on Wednesday, February 27th, at the age of 77. Fleutiaux was the recipient of the Prix Femina in 1990 for her bestselling gothic work, Nous sommes éternels. Her varied body of work focused generally on the plight of the downtrodden through a contemporary lens. Her final novel before her passing, Destiny (Actes Sud, 2016), detailed the struggle of a West African migrant and mother in Northern Africa and eventually Europe, as she battles to ensure her children’s and her own survival. In addition to writing novels, Fleutiaux contributed to Le Monde and other news sources, typically to expound an ethos of equality she felt was lacking in the public eye.

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