Désiré Nisard must be destroyed: someone must put an end to his nefarious influence on literature and free the world from his corrupting sway on its affairs. This is exactly what the narrator is setting out to do. He hunts him down as an undesired infant, shames him as the writer of an appalling erotic romance, laughs him off as a footman to his country’s varying political masters, boos him along with his unfortunate students, and denounces him as a reactionary critic. But anger and righteous indignation is not enough: physical annihilation is on the cards. But how on earth do you kill a man who died 119 years ago?
The writer of this strange tale, 43-year-old Eric Chevillard, is, along with Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Jean Echenoz, one of the writers who in the mid 1980s rejuvenated the prestigious French publisher Editions de Minuit—home to the New Novelists Butor, Sarraute, and Robbe-Grillet, as well as Samuel Beckett. With them, this famous publishing house proved that there was life after the New Novel, that it was still possible to question traditional narratives while breaking the mold created by the likes of Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon. The importance of Chevillard et al. remains largely ignored outside of the French-speaking world, maybe because it’s impossible to consider them as being part of a group or a movement, most certainly because none of them will ever write a manifesto.
Since Mourir m’enrhume (Dying Gives Me a Cold) in 1987, Chevillard has published eighteen books, only two of which—Palafox and The Crab Nebula—have been translated into English. One doesn’t need more than a sentence to sum up the argument of a novel by Eric Chevillard: inventing a simple idea and then exhausting it over the course of 150 to 250 pages. His latest novel, Sans l’Orang-Outan (Without the Orangutan) was an affair as straightforward as its title implies: imagine a world where the last orangutan died and figure out the impact. Almost each paragraph develops a new idea, a new possible outcome or consequence in an extremely wide spectrum of situations. This is neither an ecological fable nor a scientifically oriented fiction: Chevillard is France’s foremost absurdist, a modern day surrealist who revels in using popular catchphrases or clichés—here the “butterfly effect” that some suppose will follow the disappearance of a species—and subverts them by means of his imagination and sense of humor.
Chevillard is not only an extremely funny and witty writer, he also happens to be one of the most fascinating stylists at work in French today. To read him is to expose oneself to serpentine phrases and paragraphs, to crawl on the page, to take the long ride and then the short ride, to enjoy one-sentence haikus, to discover an art of the counterpoint that always catches the reader off guard: however well you happen to know the language, Chevillard will always strip it down and reveal new ways of looking at an old mechanism you thought couldn’t teach you anything any more.
But the man has his enemies. His stories are neither realistic nor plausible: in fact, Chevillard doesn’t even care about plotlines. He is seen by some as the epitome of the writer who likes to watch himself writing, a man who has nothing to say and only worries about tricking the language into submission.
There is obviously some truth in this: most of his books have no closure, one gets the feeling he could have written 50 pages more or 50 pages less without much change. Likewise there is no need to read all of a Chevillard novel. They are best absorbed sip by sip, a couple of sentences at a time. Picking his book from your shelves whenever you feel like treating yourself to something special.
Although I don’t find this to be a negative, it seems to infuriate some others who would like Chevillard to be a psychological realist, a proper storyteller and a straight talker. Just imagine someone spouting off to W.G. Sebald about Austerlitz—”just tell me why you went to Liverpool Street Station, I don’t need to know how you got there or who goddamn built the place!”—and you will get an idea of the profound misunderstanding that exists.
It might precisely be this misunderstanding that Démolir Nisard (Destroying Nisard), his penultimate novel, deals with: it can be read as a ferocious indictment of contemporary French literature and reviewing. Ironically, it happens to be his best received book, as if critics didn’t notice what Chevillard was up to.
It is true that this work can easily be considered on the surface only, which would lead to the conclusion that Chevillard is up to his usual business of rambling about an absurd idea until the cows come home. Désiré Nisard (1806-1888) is a long-forgotten French academic, writer, critic, and politician. He spent his entire life changing political allegiances, an attitude that helped him climb social ladders: when he died, he had received the Légion d’honneur, France’s most important civilian distinction, had been MP and senator, and had spent some time as director of the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure where he developed his theory of two morals: one, very strict, for the common person and another, much looser, for the person of wealth and power. His views on literature were no less archaic and reactionary: he hated the romantics and thought that writers should dedicate their time to imitating Boileau or translating Virgil, teaching through their work the only important values: family, work, religion, and fatherland. Literature’s greatest aim is the moral education of the people and Nisard wanted to be its first apostle—no wonder Eric Chevillard’s narrator is out to get him, by any means possible.
Chevillard’s message is obviously that there is something rotten in French literature and reviewing today, a plague of Nisardism that prevents critics from judging a book on its own merits. The preferred mode is to babble about the non-literary, to stay well away from the adventurous writer or to upbraid her for not being, say, Henry James, or not showing through her work what are held to be the values of the day. Most reviewers remained blind to this aspect of Démolir Nisard, preferring to discuss what they thought was paradoxical: bringing back to life an odious man, whom nobody remembered anyway. The reviewers often found themselves at the obvious conclusion that this was yet another proof that Chevillard is the new king of the absurd. And he might well be, but critical blindness to Chevillard’s subtext is, to me at least, definite proof that Nisardism is an extremely perverse illness that is still going very, very strong.
It’s true that the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence, but the case of Démolir Nisard always makes me stop to wonder when I read Americans complaining about literary coverage in their media. Certainly it could be better, but the difference in some respects remains striking. Harper’s regularly dedicates seven- or eight-page articles to the latest books by the likes of DeLillo or Denis Johnson, while French literary monthlies, let alone general information magazines, rarely have pieces longer than one page. More space will be available only if there is an interview with the author—analysis doesn’t sell, only the anecdotic does.
Some say the only serious critic in the American press is James Wood (and not everyone happens to be in thrall with his views), but the sad truth is that there is no French critic at work today with half the reputation, talent, and skills as Wood. The situation in France today is really dire: one of the most successful literary books of the 2007 rentrée littéraire was Olivier Adam’s tedious A l’abri de rien (Safe from Nothing)—a book about a young volunteer who helps illegal migrants headed for Great Britain get around the French police. It is a poorly written, regressive work, yet it was sold by the press as one of the most daring and profound novel of the year. This praise only seemed to be justified by the moral and political agenda of the author, which happened to agree with that of most of the mainstream press.
Unfortunately, it seems to be a given in France today that reviewers fail to engage with a novel to the point of leaving aside the literary altogether. William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, translated last spring, received well-deserved positive reviews, but I can count on half the fingers of one hand the number of them in largely distributed publications that really connected with the prose and the exact magnitude of the author’s project and intentions. Most were contented to say that Gass was a major but unknown author and argue that the dubious politics of the main character really were excusable. The truth of the matter is that French-language literary landscape is dominated by John Gardnertype figures while there doesn’t seem to be a William Gass around to give them the answer they deserve.
Though I’ve strayed a bit from Démolir Nisard, the digression was essential: reviewers’ beliefs notwithstanding, Chevillard didn’t write his book in a vacuum. It would be foolish to claim that every single one of them is under the influence of Nisardism, but it would even be worse to bury one’s head in the sand and go on pretending everything really is fine. On France’s political left and right, books are judged according to values, and it sometimes seems that subtle works, those not easily caught into the vagrancy of the time, are discarded as art for art’s sake, enjoyable if one really has nothing else to do.
Chevillard is not a man of imperatives and he doesn’t tell us what literature is. He only states what cannot be considered as literature or serious literary criticism. This is fundamental, as he is essentially asking us to get away from dogma and literary narrow-mindedness. In Démolir Nisard he states that literature freed from Nisard’s influence would be pure poetry. Pureness is unattainable; he knows it as much as we know it. Yet, we find ourselves wishing for a triumph of the mad, the fantasist, the satirist, the shrewish, the defiant, the melancholy, and, in Chevillard’s words “tous les autres soleils noirs de la poésie”—all the other black suns of poetry—over those who are either enslaving literature to their self-serving vision or gladly proclaiming its death—just like Nisard did over a century ago, at the very same moment Verlaine and Laforgue were hard at work on their respective masterworks.
François Monti lives in Brussels, Belgium, from where he runs the litblog Tabula Rasa and his fiction blog Auto-fission. He is also a founding member of the Fric-frac club électrique, a clandestine congregation of French-speaking litbloggers whose only common trait seems to be the worship of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s oeuvre.
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