Frédéric Beigbeder

[Interview by Shawn Dogimont]

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Hobo #15 – Paris, December 2012. I first met Frédéric over lunch at Allard in the 6ème arrondissement after translating and publishing excerpts from his passionate book on books: First Inventory After the Apocalypse. I’ve since come to realize just how well known and prolific a figure he is. His program Le Cercle exudes intelligence and wit and is, along with The Walking Dead, my favourite show on television. He has penned nine novels which sometime fictionalize his own life, often caricature consumer society, and always pose metaphysical questions. He was one of the first people to sign the manifesto opposing the new legislation penalizing clients of prostitution in France and to me represents the liberal side of a country that was known for revolutions and the Enlightenment: founding the Prix de Flore, keeping the image of Hemingway in A Moveable Feast alive, championing institutions like L’Ami Louis…

Shawn Dogimont — It seems to me like you’ve invented your own career. I find this very inspiring because it’s based on classic interests and talent, your appetite for literature, and I wonder if a professional journey such as yours could exist elsewhere than Paris where film criticism is at the forefront of media, there’s still a love of physical books… You’ve published nine novels and you’ve directed a film. You’re touching on all the things I’ve romanticized doing.
Frédéric Beigbeder I agree with you – it’s not possible elsewhere because you have in Paris this culture of cinema d’auteurs, the story of the nouvelle vague which basically says: when you are a writer, you can be a director. Because François Truffaut was a film critic, because Sacha Guitry and Marcel Pagnol directed movies, and Jean Cocteau also. So you don’t have this wall between writing and directing movies. Many directors were writers before in France, and still are. So that’s the main difference. When I said to Jay McInerney “I’m going to direct a movie” he said “wow, but did you go to film school?” Of course not, I’m just a writer but in France when you’re a writer you’re someone who’s telling a story and you can tell your story with ‘la camera stylo’. The camera is like a pen here and in America it’s different, there’s a culture based around Hollywood, technique, and if you don’t know everything about movies you’re considered an analphabet I suppose, and maybe it’s right, I don’t know, because many bad movies are made by writers where people talk for hours but ‘c’est permis en France’. It started because I organized parties when I was eighteen. Before any artistic activity I was known for nightlife and I invited many guests to costume balls and things like that. So I became a ‘figure de la nuit’ ‘un noctambule’ and started writing in magazines about this night life. What I wrote seemed funny to some people so I published a novel, was called to work in an advertising agency and as a host on television. I became a character before doing anything. I’m like a Kim Kardashian from the 80s. [laughs] It doesn’t mean I have no talent but it was a succession of accidents, one leading to another, which is why I do a lot of things.

­— Where is your ‘âme’ in all this, where do you feel the most at home?
— All these things are connected to writing. If you do a TV show you start with the questions you’re going to ask or what you’re going to say. If you do cinema you have to write a script. If you write a book, you write. If you write an article in a magazine, it’s writing. So it all begins with writing at some point, except when you throw a party. Well, you still have to write an invitation that makes people come. All these forms of expression are different but they begin with one guy alone in a room scratching his head and wondering what he’s going to say.

[Interview & photo by Shawn Dogimont]

— Do you prefer imagining stories from scratch or, somehow, melding your own life experiences and personality in? That must be fun.
— That’s a key word. I’m scarred of being bored all the time. Literature is more than that, it’s a game, it’s playing with your image, putting yourself in a book allows you to lie to people and say what Aragon says ‘le mentir vrai’ the true lies or Cocteau says “je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité”. I’m a lie that always tells the truth and I think this is what novels are. I prefer to read a novel by Charles Bukowsky or Bret Easton Ellis where you think maybe for example it’s the author, but you’re not very sure, and he’s playing with this idea, and playing with the reader. Mixing imagination and autobiography is what I prefer because people follow you, if you’re credible, they want to turn the pages. If I write a story on a poor Ukrainian mujik, nobody would believe what I have to say. If I talk about a guy in France that has an empty life, then people follow me. [laughs]

— They’ll say: he knows what he’s talking about.
— Exactly. If I tell the story of a guy being arrested for doing cocaine on the hood of a car outside, people will know it’s true, so it’s a good start.

— Is there a similar social malaise between Octave Parrango, your alter ego in 99 francs, and Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman or the anonymous narrator in Fight Club?
— Oh yeah sure. When David Fincher’s film was out on screens I was very sad because I admired it so much. I was writing 99 francs at the time and I thought “shit, he did it before me.” I was trying to describe the crazy madness of advertising, the power of advertising by using advertising techniques. The book is full of bylines and slogans, so it’s like turning back on advertising the weapon that they use to influence us. This kind of expression/writing is very American, very attractive, very seductive, like Elis or McInerney did in the eighties. I was influenced by both of them. Elis more because he’s very radical, McInerney’s more romantic, more tender maybe.

— What attracts you to North American life and literature?
— Well the thing is: I love French literature, it’s my language so I read a lot of French poetry and novels. Americans, they tell stories. Maybe in the 20th century we looked for new languages and new experiences, like the ‘nouveau roman’ where you refuse to tell a story, and some of it for me became too abstract. That’s why I like to read real novels with characters and situations describing our time. It can be Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, but also Tom Wolf. This ambition, that was the ambition of the French in the 19th century. For example Zola and Stendhal. Stendhal said novels are a mirror, you show reality. So the Americans are writing French 19th century novels. Even Bukowski said he was influenced by Zola and Céline. I’m influenced by the Americans because they’re influenced by the writers that I love. The Russians also. The Russians and Americans have this ambition to sum up the world, to embrace the world. So you’re reading a story but you’re also looking at yourself in a mirror.

— What does this passage from George Perec’s Things: A Story of the Sixties immediately make you think about?

“Alas, quite often, to tell the truth, they were horribly let down… The screen would light up, they would feel a thrill of satisfaction. But the colours had faded with age, the picture wobbled on the screen, the women were of another age; they would come out; they would be sad. It was not the film they had dreamt of. It was not the total film each of them had inside himself, the perfect film they could have enjoyed for ever and ever. The film they would have liked to make. Or more secretly, no doubt, the film they would have liked to live.”

Les Choses is very important because it was published the year I was born so it’s a very important year… [laughs] It’s the first novel to describe consumer society and how it’s disappointing to human beings. I admire Perec. It’s his first novel and he said everything about what happened after the fall of the Berlin wall. Thirty years prior he understood why the end of utopias will not make us happy, we need to have a dream. The dream of the people in Les Choses is having material things. That’s their utopia: to have furniture, a tv, a nice apartment and that this will make them happy. Of course it doesn’t. It’s maybe the first novel that says buying stuff won’t make you happy and it’s the subject of everything I ever wrote. How my generation is a generation of disappointment because we have been lied to, ‘on a été escroqué’. Since I was born, people have been explaining to me communism is bad, capitalism is good. Fascism was horrible and all your parents and grandparents suffered in the war so you should be happy with capitalism. And the thing I write about is how we are not happy with capitalism, it’s not enough, we need something else. Religion it’s difficult, it’s over, we don’t really believe anymore.

— So if you don’t have a dream?
— Start writing books to explain books to explain how sad you are and that’s the reason why maybe we get drunk, take drugs, have sex with people we don’t know and then don’t call back, it’s because we don’t have a dream. Perec is a turning point for me. When he says we wanted to be part of a film, we wanted our lives to look like a movie, but then it was a bad movie [laughs], it was a boring movie, it’s exactly how I feel! I think it’s a real problem of my generation and the generation after. Now they have YouTube. They think Facebook and YouTube and Google will make them happy. It won’t!

— How do you escape the trappings of modern city life where lifestyle is being sold as life?
— I do not escape. I am inside this world. I am a part of it. I have a magazine called Lui with lots of advertising and beautiful pictures of naked models. I go out, I get drunk, I buy stuff, like everyone else. I just describe how it’s not enough to be happy. And I don’t really know how to be happy and that’s what I’m writing about. You know, happy people, I don’t think they write, or they write boring books. I have an attraction to glamour, I’m part of the system, but I’m also complaining all the time. I like that, it’s very comfortable maybe. [laughs]

— Why do you write novels? What are you looking for in your writing?
— Trying to put words on ‘mon malaise’, discomfort, ‘sodade’ in Portuguese. It’s like auto-psychoanalysis, you feel better at the end of the day if you’ve written one sentence that’s telling about why you feel bad, what’s wrong with you, what’s wrong with this life, just one sentence every day and that’s enough, it helps. Maybe you stop writing the day you know who you are.

— Do you agree with Georges Simenon who once said: Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.
— I strongly think he’s right but I hope he’s wrong. I love Simenon because he was always trying to find the simple words. He got this from Colette. Very detailed descriptions. A vocation I agree totally. I started when I was nine years old to write things like a diary. You don’t decide to become a writer, it’s like a sickness. Some people like to live, other people like to immortalize things by writing them and it’s like a handicap in life. Sometimes, say in a restaurant, people are having fun all around me and I’m like a dead guy going out of his body and looking at everything and not living.

— Does writing jog memory? Does surfing jog writing?
— They have things in common. You have to wait for inspiration and suddenly there is a wave and you have to listen to what happens, very quickly take notes. I believe in inspiration, I think it exists. Some days you’re good and some days you’re shit. Writing is like waiting for an appointment with yourself. Sometimes you can be stood up. Sometimes you get a text…

— Why did you write First Inventory After the Apocalypse? Are you genuinely concerned about the disappearance of physical books?
— Oh yes sure, I’m very scarred of that. The world is changing of course. The digital revolution. To me it’s different reading on a screen. Books become digital files, it’s not the same as reading on paper. Because of concentration. If you read Dostoevsky on paper you have to sit down, open a bottle of Armagnac, sit in a nice comfortable chair, turn off your phone, your tv, everything, have silence and listen to the voice of a dead, old Russian with a beard talking to you about how gambling destroyed his life. This is real. It’s a joy that no other form of art can give you because you will listen to the soul of someone much more clever than yourself. It’s a real treat for me, literature is like a movie you direct in your head so it’s the best thing ever. But it’s an increasingly difficult thing to do today. My daughter has so many temptations, I don’t know if she will ever read Crime and Punishment. It’s difficult for me too. I have so many things to turn off. To read one page of Proust is like a war. I read more when I’m in my little village in the southwest of France. No television, nobody calls me, I feel alone, trapped… Sometimes I hate it and I want to come back and go to the Montana! [laughs]

— What are the consequences for society? Because people seem to be alright with the notion that our minds, the way in which we process information, are changing. A world where things are meant to be felt not thought about and articulated…
— It’s funny because the digital revolution made me realize I was a ‘réactionaire’. I thought I was a ‘progressiste’, ‘libertaire’, ‘libéral’, somebody of the future but… I’m not. I’m someone from the past and I discovered that because I don’t like Facebook I don’t like to be bothered all day long by technological things that ring and disturb me. I like an old civilization, the history of literature, I like to have time and decide what I do with my time, I liked to surf. I like to disobey this revolution. I don’t think it’s good to be unable to write good language, with the correct spelling, I don’t think it’s a better life to be unable to read long novels.

— Is the form and length of the novel in danger?
— Yes. No one is telling the truth. And the truth is: you cannot read Proust on an ebook. You just can’t, it’s not possible. So it’s going to change the novel, the way people write and read, and maybe they will not read anymore. I’m scarred when I go to the apartments of some friends and there are no books.

— That’s weird.
— That’s very weird. The music industry disappeared as objects. No albums, no CDs.

— I remember someone saying that the only time humanity has gone backwards technologically was when we got rid of the Concorde.
— [laughs]

— But that’s not true anymore. Ask Neil Young or Eddie Vedder and they’ll tell you recorded sound sucks now. It’s not as good as it was just a few years ago and I feel the same way about film.
— Tarantino agrees with you. He only shoots on celluloid. The thing is it scares me because it says we are getting old. [laughs] ‘On est des anciens combattants.’ Intelligent people should analyze the positive and negative aspects of any invention. It’s normal to say it has good parts. You can talk with people all over the world on Skype for free. Some things are better. But for example Twitter, it’s stupid. It makes people say things they regret the next day, say things about society in only a few letters, it’s too short. Calling people friends on Facebook. They’re not your friends, you don’t know them. Maybe they’re lying! I know of five people who are fakes, using my name and picture. ‘Le progrès scientifique n’est pas toujours bon par essence.’ This is called scientism. Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, they are also very weird, they believe in a new form of mankind. They’re not only saying it’s great to feel things instead of thinking, they’re saying much worse. They’re saying we’re going to mix machine and human and create a new creature with cameras in our heads and chips in our bodies and we’re going to live for 400 years… they’re speaking exactly like the Nazis! [laughs] It’s a new utopia.

— It’s as if the nerds in school are taking over. Where are the slackers?
— The most boring guy in the class is now the richest in the world. That’s a big problem. [laughs] It’s the same as Adolf Hitler. Maybe this shouldn’t be in the interview [laughs] but it’s true, Adolf was ‘un raté’. He had no talent as a painter and he was very angry at all the people who had the girls because he was very ‘complexé’ and… it’s dangerous when nerds get the power. [laughs] You know why? Because they want revenge. They want all the brilliant people to obey their orders. For example when Zuckerberg says something like private life does not exist anymore – this is George Orwell and I don’t understand why nobody reacts. So we have to resist. It’s important to choose your side. Do you prefer things that are irrational, art, instinct, or do you prefer mathematics? I don’t want to be a superman.

— “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Ray Bradbury isn’t very far off finally.
— Yes and that’s exactly what’s happening now. He was wrong on one point – they are burning the books. They’re not burned but ‘pillonés’. Hundreds of thousands of books are going to be destroyed. Seventy-eight bookstores closed this year in France. When you close bookstores you physically destroy the books. So Bradbury was too optimistic. [laughs]

— Why is it important to read novels?
— Because it’s taking time, deciding to use your time to be alone with yourself and the mind of a genius like Flaubert or Walt Whitman. Perec again, one of his books is called La Vie Mode d’Emploi. Books are like instruction manuals for life. The most important things you are not taught, except in novels. How to love, what is the meaning of life, are you happy, did your parents love you, do you know the smell of the canal in Venise, would you like to cross the United States in a car starting from NY and going to LA with a crazy guy? All this you learn in books, nowhere else. No one will teach you how to be happy or why you are sad.

— It’s checking out, time when you’re not productive, not consuming, and maybe that’s not in the best interest of governments.
— That’s why the Nazis burned the books. They didn’t want people to think or criticize. When you read you get out of reality and you start thinking and you are more free. Also it’s useless and that’s what I like. ‘Le sens de l’inutilité.’ When you wake up in the morning and all day long you have appointments, things to do and you are efficient from 8am to 8pm… when you go to bed you can’t sleep. There’s a reason – you need time to be useless, to operate with instinct. To waste time is very important.

— Do you have a favourite hero?
— Can I have two? One French and one American. They’re almost the same and they were written almost at the same time. Meursault, L’étranger de Camus and Holden Caufield, The Catcher in the Rye. They are the same. They are young and lost. They don’t really understand how to integrate the world of adults. Meursault kills someone and doesn’t know why and Holden just escapes school and walks around Central Park. They’re anti-heros, that’s what I like about them. They escape, they have no real goals and they don’t want to obey. Holden’s wasting his time, of course he’s expelled from school, but instead of going home and getting yelled at, he rambles, talks to a nun, a prostitute, a cab driver… He wanders. He’s a hobo.