Tag: Michel Houellebecq

Vernon Subutex Trilogy by Virginie Despentes

Posted September 24, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

Vernon Subutex Trilogy by Virginie DespentesTitle: Vernon Subutex Trilogy (Goodreads)
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Frank Wynne
Published: MacLehose Press, 2017-2020
Pages: 1088
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

How many translated series can you think of? Apart from Proust, or Elena Ferrante or Karl Ove Knausgård. Maybe, there are more than I expected; Virginie Despentes’ trilogy Vernon Subutex is currently the most talked about, with book three just being released in English. This trilogy started off as a cutting-edge look into the punk sub-culture of France but slowly, with each book the focus shifted, stepping away from the music industry, towards a mystery in book two and finally the third novel focusing more on a cult-like community. While Vernon Subutex is the focus of this trilogy, I found that the different styles of each novel become a little disconcerting for myself.

Virginie Despentes draws from her own career in these books, I suspect using some of her own experiences to drive the plot. Before becoming a novelist, she worked in a few fields including as a sex worker and a pornographic film critic. While these careers play a part in the Vernon Subutex trilogy along the way, it started with her experiences as a salesclerk in a record store and a freelance rock journalist. It is these aspects that I found the most fascinating, my love of music (particularly punk rock) really drew me to this series in the first place.

I loved how the first novel focused on the music, Vernon Subutex started working in this record store in his twenties. The store was legendary back in the days, but now thanks to the internet and digital music it is struggling. Even Vernon Subutex himself has a cult-like status (which plays out more later in the series) with people on the internet speculating that he owned the last recordings of musician Alex Bleach. What I loved the most about Vernon Subutex 1 was reading about the industry and exploring the dark side of the punk culture, from the violence and drug abuse often associated with this culture to the less talked about racism and sexism.

Unfortunately, the books slowly digressed away from exploring the punk scene, and maybe my interest did as well. That is not to disregard books Two or Three, my interest was the scene and I was less interested in following the character Vernon Subutex. The first novel focused on the punk scene, whereas book two focused on this one character and a small group of people around him, a group that have banded together at a bar in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. While the plot of Vernon Subutex 2 focuses more on what happened to the lost tapes of Alex Bleach, I was more interested in themes than plot, so this became a book about class struggle.

This group of people hanging in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont turned into a cult, which leads to the third novel of this trilogy, where Vernon Subutex has become a spiritual leader to the group. The final book in the series, for me is the weakest, but it was clear Virginie Despentes knew what she was doing and where she wanted to take this journey. There was a strong focus on social struggles that plays out here, focusing more on homelessness and the way these people banded together. The cast of characters slowly shrinks with each book, but I really like how Despentes brings in new characters and then they disappear after a short period of time. This might frustrate many, but I found it natural; sometimes you meet someone, and they are only in your life for a small period of time, they might make an impact but then they are gone.

Vernon Subutex 3 was more political, with the 2015 Charles Hebdo shootings playing a part of the plot. The satirical papers controversial depictions of Muhammad are believed to be the cause of that attack. However, it was Michel Houellebecq that was on the cover of the magazine when this attack happened. I bring this up because I find Virginie Despentes and Houellebecq have similar styles. Both are satirical French authors that make me question myself and their writing style. They leave me with an unease while reading them and I spend time contemplating their satirical nature. I even find myself wondering if they are actually satirical or just overdoing the transgressive. This is not easy reading and knowledge of the punk scene and modern French history became vital aspects of my appreciation of Vernon Subutex.

When I think about the writing of Virginie Despentes, I have a similar feeling as when I think about Michel Houellebecq, I am unsure how I feel about them as authors. I have read five Despentes novels and while I enjoyed the Vernon Subutex trilogy, I find it hard to fully appreciate her works. Her writing is a combination of the thriller genre, but it tends to be overly transgressive. I am not trying to be negative, just not the style of literature I tend to enjoy. I am curious to know more about Despentes’ life and might read her feminist manifesto King Kong Theory, which like the Vernon Subutex trilogy has been translated by the legendary Frank Wynne.


Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie Despentes

Posted May 15, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie DespentesTitle: Vernon Subutex, 1 (Goodreads)
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Frank Wynne
Series: Vernon Subutex #1
Published: MacLehose Press, 2017
Pages: 352
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018
Longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2018

Having read Virginie Despentes previously (Apocalypse Baby) I have to say I was a little worried about reading her Man Booker International Prize shortlisted book. I was worried that Despentes was aiming for to shock, but this novel seems to be a cutting-edge social novel looking directly at the punk sub-culture in France. The book is the first in the trilogy and it focuses on Vernon who is feeling ambivalent about his fast approaching half century. He started working at Revolver, a hip Parisian record store in his twenties but now he is reflecting on his own life. Vernon Subutex, 1 explores the rapidly changing social scene of music and the punk rock lifestyle.

The record store once boasted a legendary status but now, in the 2000s, it is struggling. However, in a throwaway comment, the internet believe that Vernon is in possession of the last filmed recordings of the famous musician Alex Bleach. Beach recently died from a drug overdose and now people from all walks of life are after Vernon and this supposed recording.

I view Vernon Subutex, 1 as the beginning of an epic journey. Often, we read an epic as a story that follows a family through their generations but this is more of a social epic. It follows both Vernon and the music industry as their worlds rapidly change. What drew me to this novel is the music references, there are so many bands and songs referenced in this book that I remember fondly. Before becoming a book nerd, I spent a lot of time listening to music, and the punk scene was one I closely followed. While I still listen to music, I do not have a finger on the pulse anymore. I have borne witness to the changes the internet brought to the music industry. Music stores closing everywhere as the rise of piracy and streaming quickly spread. However, it is important to remember that the revival of vinyl has helped indie record stores survive nowadays.

For me, there was just too much that I could relate to in Vernon Subutex, 1 and I found myself loving the reading experience. While I was never into the drugs and alcohol consumption that is associated with this sub-culture, I could identify with the social disconnect, music obsession and laziness that characterised Vernon. Then Virginie Despentes starts to dive into a darker side of the sub-culture, dealing with violent tendencies, racism and sexual identity. Despentes previously was a sales clerk in a record store and a freelance rock journalist, which plays a big part in helping shape this novel. Although her past careers as a sex worker and pornographic film critic have also influenced the plot. She seems to explore themes of youth marginalisation, the sexual revolution lived by Generation X, music and pornography within Vernon Subutex, 1 and Apocalypse Baby, which leads me to suspect this is common in all her novels.

Virginie Despentes may have found a place with French authors like Emmanuel Carrère and Michel Houellebecq and while I was not blown away by Vernon Subutex, 1, I will be continuing with book two when it is released into English later this year. I feel like there is still more of the story left to explore and I hope that it all comes together in the end. Right now, it feels incomplete and something I would not recommend to anyone, unless they love the music. There is a Spotify playlist which features all the songs and artist mentioned in the trilogy which has lead to discovering some new French bands. If it was not for the Man Booker International Prize longlist, I may have never given Virginie Despentes another chance, but I am glad I have.


The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Posted September 12, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 2 Comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel DaoudTitle: The Meursault Investigation (Goodreads)
Author: Kamel Daoud
Translator: John Cullen
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2013
Pages: 143
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the key components to philosophy is the ability to argue your point, this is done in many different ways and Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger does exactly that. Kamel Daoud took the same approach for his counterargument, with his novel The Meursault Investigation. This novel seemed to have taken the world by storm, winning the Goncourt du Premier Roman, the Prix des Cinq Continents, the Prix François Mauriac and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. It follows Harum seventy years after his brother Musa (the Arab) was killed by Meursault. Harum is reflecting back on his life and the impact Meursault’s story has had on himself, his family and Algeria.

Kamel Daoud’s response to The Stranger is basically saying that life is not absurd, it has meaning. Taking a life has consequences and execution is not simply a life for a life. Meursault killing the Arab had a big impact, and never referring to him by name allowed Camus to focus his story but at the risk of missing the bigger picture. So seventy years later, well after Algeria has declared their independence from France, the story of Meursault is still a topic of discussion.

First of all, the death of Musa has an impact on the life of Harum and his family. The Meursault Investigation starts off exploring the life of Harum and his mother and how the death of Musa effected them. The novel spirals out, first looking at the effect it had on Harum, then his mother and family and then finally Algeria. This may come across as repetitive but I think it was important to understand the impact.

I watched a lecture by Daoud that talks about The Stranger and comparing it to Robinson Crusoe. This is an exploration into post-colonialism; Meursault meets someone who was different to him and kills him. Robinson Crusoe did the same thing to Friday, just not physically; he forced him to convert to his idea of civilisation. That meant changing the way his acted, dressed and most of all his religious beliefs. The fact that Meursault killed an Arab on the beach could be symbolic of the island. If you follow this train of thought, The Meursault Investigation turns into a very complex philosophical argument, not only against The Stranger but the opinions of Western society (especially France) towards the raise of Islam.

The Meursault Investigation is an angry novel with some very deep philosophical ideas embedded into the pages. Published originally in French (translated by John Cullen) this novel evoked similar reactions for me as Submission by Michel Houellebecq in the way it explores France’s reaction to Islam. I understand people’s criticism about repetitive in The Meursault Investigation but I feel like it was necessary as Daoud needs to keep circling back to the death of the Arab and exploring how it affected everyone. This is the butterfly effect and I enjoyed every moment of this novel.


Submission by Michel Houellebecq

Posted May 18, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Submission by Michel HouellebecqTitle: Submission (Goodreads)
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Translator: Lorin Stein
Published: William Heinemann, 2015
Pages: 256
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Have you ever picked up a book and then wanted to cancel all your plans just so you can spend time reading? It is a nice feeling and one that I experienced with Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission. I know this not an experience you would want to have all the time, but I am sure my wife was happy to spend more time playing Dragon Age. However, I think it is a rare treat to be so captivated by a book that everything else needs to be placed on hold. I have been wanting to read Houellebecq for a very long time and now that I have experienced his writing, I am upset that I waited so long.

Submission takes place in the near future, 2022 to be exact. France is about to hold their presidential election and two candidates are looking to be the favourites. The next leader could be Marine Le Pen of the Front National party or Muhammed Ben Abbes of the emerging Muslim Fraternity. Turning the political debate into one of Nationalism or the embrace of a new party with religious ties. The nationalist believe France should be for the French, while the Muslim Fraternity would be a big shift in France’s culture. For starters, it would be the first non-Catholic religious party to gain power, not to mention the impact this will have on the country, both religious and culturally speaking.

At the heart of this novel is François, a middle-aged academic who feels like his life is slowly disintegrating into nothing. His lifelong obsession with the ideas and works of nineteenth-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (best known for his novel À rebours, published in English as Against Nature or Against the Grain) has gotten him nowhere. He is alone and even more concerning to him; his sex drive has diminished completely. While the political backdrop makes for a very interesting novel, Submission looks at the ideas of isolation, love, change and faith.

Michel Houellebecq has been the centre of a bit of controversy, he has a tendency to say things that offend and comes across as vulgar; he’s been accused of being a nihilist, misogynist, cynical and Islamophobic. This is often the persona Houellebecq puts forward in interviews, but it is worth remembering he is a satirist and the persona they put on is not necessarily a true reflection of their actual personality. Michel Houellebecq often writes about controversial topics in order to get people to think about the topic. Atomised (known as The Elementary Particles in America) in 1998 took on cloning and Platform (2001) was on sexual tourism as well as having Islamic themes. In fact, if you look at all his novels, he often explores sex (cloning), tourism (or art) and religion. Even went as far as to have Houellebecq charged in 2002 with racial hatred towards Islam but he was later acquitted by the court.

The novel Submission was published on the 7th January 2015, that day Michel Houellebecq was on the front of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. On this day brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo with assault rifles and sadly killed 11 people and injuring a further 11. This sad event was not a result of Houellebecq being on the cover but rather a macabre coincidence.

I never felt that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was anti-Islamic, or hate filled in anyway. I did think this was dangerous writing, I suspect the author is an arsehole, but still think this novel is exploring an important topic. Houellebecq has a great ability to make the reader think about life, religion, and philosophy. I had such an enjoyable experience with this book I went and picked up another one of his novels right away.