Don’t Look Back in Anger: Virginie Despentes and Modern France

Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.

In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.

Violence is a common theme in Despentes’ work, and yet it is never there for shock value. Despentes writes about violence as the perfect outlet for female anger. Violence, and especially violence taken to the extreme, violence for violence’s sake, is often seen as the domain of men. There is a belief that women are often guided by the better angels of human nature and thus unwilling or unable to derive any pleasure from it. But, Despentes reminds us, there is anger brewing underneath even the most docile of women, anger waiting to turn into violence beyond mere retaliation once they realise (like Nadine and Manu) the depth of male hatred and exploitation. Despentes’ unifying theory of female anger resulted in the publication of King Kong Theory in 2006 (translated by Stéphanie Benson), a feminist manifesto weighing in on issues that embattle feminists to this day: performing femininity, sexual assault, the place of porn and prostitution in our society, and ultimately the pressures of capitalism on our sense of self.

While Despentes joined the ranks of literary celebrities decades ago in France, she is finally gathering similar levels of fame in the English-speaking world thanks to Frank Wynne’s translations of the Vernon Subutex trilogy, the first of which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2018. Vernon Subutex is the pinnacle of Despentes’ storytelling to date; a raw history of contemporary Paris told from a cast of characters as diverse as the population of the city. Throughout three volumes, the books trace the journey of Vernon Subutex as he goes from being an owner of a semi-famous record store, to homeless person, to accidental musical guru. After the suicide of his best friend, superstar Alex Bleach who paid Subutex’s rent, Vernon is kicked out of his apartment and forced to seek shelter with his many acquaintances. And as he drifts from place to place, his legend spreads across Paris, initially because he was in possession of Bleach’s compromising confession tapes, and later for being the prophet-like DJ of some very exclusive raves.

There is plenty of Despentes’s signature feminist anger throughout Vernon Subutex. When Aïcha, a level-headed and devout Muslim girl, finds out that her mother’s suicide had been staged by Dopalet, a powerful film producer, she breaks into his home to terrorize him. With the help of a friend, she tattoos the word “Rapist” on his back. In volume 3 of the series, Patrice, a proud socialist and domestic abuser, becomes aware of the extent to which the women around him have experienced some degree of sexual assault. He is baffled by how these women push their experiences under the rug, electing to remain silent. He asks himself why women haven’t taken to the streets instead, killing men with the same fervor that men violate women. Patrice voices a sentiment that is common to many women: the desire to burn it all to the ground.

Nevertheless, female anger is merely a feature of Vernon Subutex, rather than its driving force, unlike Despentes previous novels. Its focus is more political, looking directly at the rise of poverty after the 2008 financial crisis, the evolution of the far right and even the recent terrorist attacks in France. While the framing of the story might sound broad (or too political), Vernon Subutex is deeply relatable on a personal level—refreshingly and, more often than not, chillingly so. The characters are easily recognizable to anyone who has skirted the edges of poverty and homelessness. The first volume opens with Vernon struggling through poverty himself: he has been smoking his long-dead cigarette butts, unable to buy himself a coffee in weeks, and had just given up on meeting with a social worker meant to re-introduce him to the modern labour market.

This world is recognizable thanks also to the language and vocabulary Despentes imbues her writing with words like “Social worker”, “RSA”, “restaurant tickets” permeate the lives of those living in France, especially low-skilled and middle-class workers. With these words, Despentes tears the gaze away from touristy Paris, giving voice to people at the fringes of Parisian society. This aspect of her work is particularly noteworthy because there is a big gap between written literary French and colloquial French. The latter is slippery, infused with phrases from Arabic and English, and uses techniques known as the verlan where the words are flipped around. In the past, Despentes has been criticized for her transliteration of colloquial French into her writing, but it is another feature that makes her work so distinct. In Vernon Subutex language itself gains a deeper role as what discerns each individual chapter is the specific vocabulary and register the relevant character brings with his or her point of view.

Vernon Subutex is gritty, steeped in the everyday and the ordinary. Through the text, Despentes gives a voice to the marginalized communities all over Paris. But Despentes is also shrewd, well aware that though her characters live at the margin, her own readers are likely liberals and progressives that support socialized care, but have only ever read of them in newspapers. So, while Vernon runs out of options, or is too proud to ask for further help, he is forced to live and beg on the streets of Paris. Here, as passers-by who give him money or a restaurant ticket try to smile at him, Vernon recognises a gesture he used to do, too. This desire to appear magnanimous, to tell the person at his feet: I am smiling because I want you to know that I am aware you are human. But Vernon also acknowledges that as a homeless person himself, he does not care. Pity, smiles, greetings, gestures, they mean nothing. What matters is surviving.

If Despentes gives us the opportunity to see life from the point of view of the marginalized, she does not allow us to linger in the self-satisfied pleasure of reading from diverse perspectives. Through Vernon’s struggles, she seems to taunt her readers, many quite possibly well-educated, middle- or upper-class people who like to donate their time and money to worthy causes. “This has been you in the past, hasn’t it?” her writing seems to say. “As if the smile you give, this nod towards humanity has any value whatsoever besides making you, the privileged person, feel better about this performance.”

Being taunted for one’s virtue signalling is repeated throughout the series: Vernon and his girlfriend deride Kiko, a stockbroker, who starts listening to podcasts from France Culture (better known for shows like Les Chemins de la philosophie, “The Paths of Philosophy”) and uses his podcast-acquired knowledge as the basis for grandiose plans. Later on, Vernon again contemplates how often he hears the word “performative” in the camp where he and his group of friends had begun organising raves with hallucinogenic effects and how easy it is to map such a vocabulary to a particular social class.

But even in the discomfort arising from being seen so clearly and cynically there is still the lingering feeling of at least attempting to do good. The most disconcerting aspect of the Vernon Subutex series, and Despentes’s writing at large, lies perhaps in her ability to present (unvarnished, unjustified) and even humanise the type of people Despentes herself despises, from the most disgusting and power-hungry misogynist (Laurence Dopalet, the producer mentioned above) to young neo-Nazis supporters of Marine le Pen, to seemingly ordinary people who, it turns out, hate refugees and Jewish people, but don’t consider themselves members of the far right explicitly. They would have rather have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, or François Fillion instead.

As the book shifts perspectives with every chapter, the reader gets a glimpse of the lives of these characters. Take for example, Chapter 3 of Vernon Subutex 1 which opens with Xavier, a failed screenwriter, shopping at Monoprix, a well-known French supermarket. The scene is unsettling familiar: it is probably after 6 p.m., the time when most Parisians leave their office jobs and head down to the local supermarket before it closes inconveniently early. And exactly when the store is at its most crowded, the store staff is taking the time to restock and re-shelve products, making it even harder to move around. It is easy to feel for Xavier and feel his frustration too: he wants to go home to his daughter, but is stuck trying to pick produce with hundreds of over-worked Parisians instead.

Except that only a few paragraphs later, Xavier is shown to xenophobic, Islamophobic and homophobic. The type that feels persecuted by women and minorities at every turn, who thinks white men are the most vulnerable class of people. Despentes employs this technique often: someone is introduced, their problems laid bare (they may have lost their friends, their job) but it turns out they probably deserved it, and even if they didn’t, they are so awful that there is little place for pity. There is a tendency to ascribe awful behaviour and evil beliefs to something inhuman within us, but in describing the system of beliefs through which people like Xavier and Dopalet justify their actions, Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

With Subutex, Despentes succeeds where many have failed: at presenting far-right views without normalizing them. And she succeeds because the politics of these characters do not remain in an intellectual vacuum. A good portion of Vernon Subutex as a series is dedicated to the description of the consequences of these beliefs, as women and homeless people, but not only, fall victims to far-right violence. And it is easy, throughout it all, to feel discouraged: there is such violence at every corner, and those who inflict it never get their due. Instead, they tend to thrive, gathering more money and power exploiting the violence they helped cause.

And yet, Vernon Subutex also breaks tradition. Anger and violence are still there, their cycle still feels vicious, but in a turn that seems un-Despentes-like, this series is also more hopeful than her other works. While Vernon does not want to be helped, his friends look all over Paris for him and build around him a community of sorts. Even deeply loathsome characters like Patrice and Xavier are confronted with the extremity of their behaviours and beliefs through their proximity to the people they victimize. From King Kong Theory, to Pretty Things, and even to Vernon Subutex, Despentes has been a critic not simply of violence and misogyny, but capitalism at large and its pressures on individuals. Vernon Subutex is not only a rejection of anger as a way of life, but a manifesto for community over individualism, for community as a space for progress and healing. That is perhaps its most revolutionary message.

Barbara Halla is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania. Originally from Tirana, she currently resides in Paris where she works as a freelance editor and translator for French, Italian, and Albanian. She holds a BA in History from Harvard.


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