French Books USA: Week in Review

October 22, 2015 | By Arian Murati
Roland Barthes pondering silk swatches

Perspective Shift

The release of Michel Houellebecq's Soumission in France happened to coincide with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and thus, became inseparable from its socio-temporal context. Over the course of the subsequent media storm, the book found itself wedged into the national debate on xenophobia, anti-Islamic politics, and artistic provocation. As such, just about every review or critique obliged the controversy surrounding Houellebecq and approached the book from a rather facile entry point. Not so in the U.S., where Submission has earned Houellebecq comparisons to Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe for his biting satire and flippant disregard for political language games. Could it be that American critics are unmoored from the French talking points that follow the book, and so more willing to approach the text rather than the controversy? Could decontextualizing Houellebecq from France lead to a more universal study of his satire? Recall that even Rabelais was banned in France, and that it took Bakhtin, a Russian, to illuminate the necessity of vulgar, provocative literature in a politically warped world.

A Sign of Affection

For the low, low price of eight hundred and ninety-five euros, you too can own a genuine Roland Barthes scarf by Hermès. In perhaps one of the more unique celebrations of the French intellectual's 100th birthday, the luxury brand recently unveiled a silk tribute to Barthes' well-loved book, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. “A scarf is very intimate,” notes Artistic Director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, “it absorbs fragrance and your scent and expresses emotion and memory.” For a more cost-effective way to celebrate his anniversary, check out Barthes Vision, an interactive collage of text and images organized by the Institut Fraçais.


To New Yorkers, there is only one other city: Paris. Consider Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, Luc Sante's The Other Paris (see him at Albertine!), or Elaine Sciolino's more recent The Only Street in Paris (also Albertine) and you'll realize that, over time, the two cities are mixing into some sort of fluid sameness: it isn't uncommon for an up-and-coming neighborhood in Paris to be labeled the "New Brooklyn," or for a sneaker in New York to end up on the feet of every Parisian bobo within weeks of its release. But, as a freshly found article from the Atlantic archives shows, the love affair between the two cities hasn't always been peachy. Alvan Sanborn lays down the hammer on turn-of-the-century New York, writing, "To the Parisian who sees New York for the first time, it must appear a wilderness of sprawling ugliness."

Up for Review

This week, Publishers Weekly features two reviews for recently translated French books. First up is Karine Tuil's The Age of Reinvention, a "Gatsby-esque odyssey" about a French Muslim lawyer who hides his old life and recreates himself as a high-powered Jewish District Attorney in New York. "The question is not if his past will catch up to him but when." Second, we have The Winemaker Detective, by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen. The omnibus edition collects three popular French novels about "a mystery involving dead bodies and missing bottles [and] the deadly meaning of biblical graffiti in Burgundy—all against a backdrop of lavishly described fine food and beautiful estates, plus accurate exposition about the details of wine tastings and the technicalities of wine production."

Prize Roundup

Announced this week were the selections for the Prix Interallié, as well as the finalists for the Prix Femina. It's a busy week ahead for some of the biggest awards in France, with the final selections for the Goncourt, Médicis, and Grand prix du roman de l'Académie Française all set to be posted over the coming days.

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