Posts featuring Virginie Despentes

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.

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Sex, Drugs, and Identity :Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things in Review

This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine.

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, The Feminist Press, 2018. 

Anglophone fans of Virginie Despentes are celebrating the release of Pretty Things, the fourth of her novels to be published by The Feminist Press, but the first translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Ramadan, a long-time fan of Despentes, says in an interview we conducted with her this summer, that she accessed her raw vernacular parlance by speaking sentences out loud, watching French soap operas, and simply being a young, ambitious 20-something-year-old woman (much like many Despentes protagonists). It worked. This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine. Where public and private, self and sister, butt heads. It’s a novel of desire and fear, love and insecurity, a woman trying not to allow other people’s expectations to mire her in the muck of society’s ugliest pathologies.

Pauline and Claudine are twins. They’re identical, but there’s no way to mistake one for the other. They have the type of beauty that’s fashionable at the moment, and Claudine learned as soon as she hit puberty to harness her beauty’s enormous power through her own objectification. Pauline finds it disgusting, this shallow game of power and submission, and makes a surly public display of her dissent. They don’t get along. Claudine, having recently moved to Paris to try to make it big, ropes Pauline into making a record with her. Pauline’s voice and Claudine’s personality are meant to equal one perfect pop star. The night of their first concert, while Pauline is on stage, Claudine jumps out her apartment window. Pauline, arriving at the scene after an evening of impersonating her sister, simply continues to do so, thus committing her own sort of suicide. Both sort of dead and in one living body, they start to suture the split that occurred between them in the womb.

While Pauline started with a plan to be half a woman, she spends the rest of the novel integrating two halves into a stronger whole. “Equilibrium needs to be restored. It was constructed opposite her sister, a force exerted on another. She has a clear image in her mind: two little women in a bubble, each pushing with her forehead against the other’s. If one of the two little women is removed, the other immediately topples over, falls into the other’s domain.” She learns to convincingly pass as Claudine. For two weeks, with the help of their friend and manager Nicolas, she locks herself in the apartment and learns to apply makeup, shave her legs, and walk in heels. When she finally emerges, she’s shocked to realize not only how people treated her sister, but also what it feels like to be treated that way. Simply presenting herself differently makes her vulnerable to scrutiny, jealousy, greed, and desire. She can empathize with Claudine for the first time—the whiff of sexual power also tempts her to sacrifice things like genuine human connection and self-respect, even as loneliness and self-disgust take their place. She doesn’t exactly miss her sister, but perhaps instead mourns a life spent too isolated to truly know except by inhabiting it.

The text yields dramatically different readings if one considers Pauline and Claudine to be more one or more two; autonomous individuals influenced by their relationship to each other, or solely a set of relations to each other—neither character whole unto herself. And yet both readings are not just valid, the ambiguity is crucial. On one hand, if both sisters are fully realized individuals, Pauline’s nonconformity is the stronger, more successful choice. It indicates her inherent intelligence and builds in her the strength to withstand the same conditions that wore away at Claudine until she jumped out her window. Claudine ends up dead and Pauline ends up… well, I won’t spoil the ending. But just as the music industry feels entitled to her body, she feels entitled to their money. On the other hand, Pauline and Claudine are the thesis and antithesis of a dialectical concerning femininity in society. Two sides of one coin. In this scenario, Pauline killed a part of herself the same night that Claudine did—and kept a part of both of them alive. By the end of the novel she represents the resolution of the two not into some transcendent, separate, enlightened woman, but a sort of balance of the two pre-existing options. There is no right way for a woman to behave in the face of social expectations, but each mini personal revolution yields a bit of progress. The reader is left with simultaneous, contradictory truths.

Even the text’s imagery is ambiguous on the extent to which they are one or two. For example, the novel describes the gender dynamic between the girls’ parents. Their father is aggressive and self-centered. Their mother exists only as an auxiliary appendage. Until their mother gets a job that she’s good at and begins to gain confidence and independence. The twins were conceived in response to his fury: “From that day on, he started fucking her like he was nailing something into the ground, all the way inside so she would get a fat stomach and stay put.” Two twins from one “nail.” But then, while their mother is pregnant, the parents argue about names. They decide to each choose one. “And so it was done, her stomach ripped in two.” Separate. We don’t learn much more on the topic until Pauline begins to take over Claudine’s life. In some ways she seems truly alien, trying to comprehend a way of being entirely foreign. For example, during a phone conversation with one Claudine’s lover/colleagues:

“She [Pauline] listens to him a little distantly, makes little agreeable sounds, trying to get it through her skull that he’s talking to a girl [Claudine] that he watches on all fours, and filmed from behind doing things like pretending to be a cat, whenever he wants.”

But when her guard is down, she’s simply existing, their mutual friend observes, “Familiar silhouette, he likes to watch it move. Intact shreds of a lost being, obsolete traces that he finds bewitching.”

Two of the novel’s male figures in particular further nuance the portrait of gender dynamics at the heart of this novel. The twins’ father pits them against each other from childhood, ensuring their dependence on his affection by bestowing it upon only one of them at a time—and subjecting the other to repulsive cruelty. During a flashback, Pauline watches their father beat Claudine. Afterward, she reaches out:

“When he hits you I swear I feel it too.” Claudine stood up, turned to face her, grabbed her by the hair. Pauline didn’t scream so that her parents wouldn’t come. Claudine dragged her down onto the bed. “You’re sure you feel it?”  . . .  To really hurt her, she had taken the pillow and held it down against her sister’s face with both hands. To be absolutely sure she heard, she started to scream, “That’s weird because, when he kisses you, I feel nothing.”

The violence of a man ensures enmity between two women who (as young Pauline demonstrates) could instead have loved and supported each other. The second is Pauline’s boyfriend Sébastien, the only man to ever choose her over Claudine. They’ve built a loving, trusting relationship exactly on her refusal to look and act “feminine.” But a series of events calls into question the extent to which opposing the status quo really separates them from it. Having witnessed her transformation, he leaves her with these words:

“You never treated me disrespectfully, you never demeaned yourself. I was proud of you, as soon as I saw some bitch on the street I thought of you, I was so fucking proud. But now, look at yourself, look at how you’re dressed, look at how you walk… And who’s boning you, over there? Is it a bunch of guys? . . . Is it good, do they screw you how you like? I respect you too much, you don’t respect yourself at all anymore.”

We discover that his love and respect for her was never unconditional, but was just as possessive and ugly as her father’s and just as informed by social expectation as any other man’s.

The characters in the novel are both vivid and allegorical (as perhaps are people). In this way, the post-mortem reconciliation of the sisters demonstrates, however imperfectly, a way out of the dialectical thesis/antithesis model of femininity. The status quo and what’s against the status quo validate and perpetuate each other. Just as a woman degrading herself for a man gives her power over him. But discovering empathy for her sister at least gives Pauline enough distance to learn to use the system for her own benefit, rather than letting it destroy her. It’s far from a utopic path, but I suppose this is the same world in which little girls defend themselves from abusive fathers by crossing their frail little arms over their heads. It was never going to be perfect.

Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.

*****

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Spring 2012: Why Asymptote Matters

I say this from experience, because Asymptote has helped to get a number of the authors I translate into print.

Asymptote is featured in the January/February 2012 issue of Poets & Writers and mentioned for the first time at The Millions—we are given the fond nickname, “The Audible Antipodal,” I suppose, in a nod to our multimedia offerings? (Said multimedia offerings recently expanded to include full-screen immersive slideshows in all Visual articles at a whopping cost of USD1,100, out of pocket.) Dalkey Archive approaches me with an offer to edit the inaugural Best Asian Fiction Anthology, modeled after their Best European Fiction Anthology. But there’s a catch: I have to find a sponsor for the series (who would be willing to part with $85,000 per annum), and I would only get $5,000 for the editing gig. Given how hopeless I am at fundraising, then, this is not going to happen. One detail from our discussion sticks, however. Given the state of China-Taiwan relations, Dalkey Archive thinks Taiwan will be “tricky,” just as Macedonia was eventually dropped because Cypress did not want to be included in the same lineup as Macedonia (with its current name) in the European counterpart. Ah, politics. Here to introduce the Spring 2012 issue is contributing editor Adrian Nathan West.

Even a casual reader who spends time overseas will notice something odd about English-language publishing. Just recently, at my favorite bookstore, La Central in Barcelona’s Raval, I saw, set out on shelf displays or on tables, books by Virginie Despentes, Mircea Cartarescu, and Han Kang—all available in Spanish and Catalan translation. In the US and UK, in places where bookstores still exist, translation is treated, at best, as a genre—though many talented independent bookstores are trying to change this. The figure 3% is often bandied about as the proportion of translated books published in English; this is bad enough, but the figure may well be optimistic (the figures for poetry and fiction are available at the translation database at Three Percent). Those masochistic enough to read reviews at Amazon or goodreads will see the same absurd prejudices against translated literature crop up over and over again; while professional translators cannot help but be dismayed at the inveterate willingness of large publishers to fork over lavish advances to plodding has-beens while keeping at arm’s length writers of undeniable stature from other countries. The stereotype persists—translated literature doesn’t sell—and neither Knausgaard nor Ferrante have done much to change it.

Nor do journals and magazines provide much of a haven for readers who want to know what is happening elsewhere. While a cornucopia of poorly funded, university-based journals offers prospective writers and translators next-to-no visibility, more famous outlets, many of which state in their masthead a willingness to publish the new, the daring, and the uncategorizable, go on cranking out one mind-numbing workshop story after another. Then, up in the ether, are the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and their ilk, at the gates of which the translator lingers like poor K. before the portal of Kafka’s castle.     READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to France, Brazil, and Argentina.

It’s never a slow news day on Fridays at Asymptote. This week we bring you the latest publications, events, and news from France, Brazil, and Argentina.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France

Is it perhaps time to talk about a renaissance for French literature in English translation? More classic French literature has always had an audience in the English-speaking world, but in the past few months new authors are taking the literary world by storm. Édouard Louis is only twenty-five but already a public figure in France. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical work, History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein) was published to great acclaim in late June. Alison L. Strayer translated for Seven Stories Press Annie Ernaux’s The Years (published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions), an innovative collective autobiography that is both memoir and social critique of our times. To continue the trend, in June came also the publication of Gaël Faye Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone), a coming-of-age story that tackles hard issues, including the Rwandan genocide and Civil War in Burundi. The Guardian went so far as to call Faye “the next Elena Ferrante.”

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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

These writers' views of the world, it's like they see something none of us do, but as soon as they tell us, we understand it.

­­­Emma Ramadan has earned acclaim for her translations from the French of such diverse works as Morrocan Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Oulipian Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and more. Her second Anne Garréta translation, Not One Day, recently won the 2018 Albertine Prize. Her forthcoming novel, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, is due for publication by the Feminist Press on August 15th. Together with her partner, Tom Roberge, Ramadan opened the bookshop-bar Riffraff in December, where she promotes her favorite texts and discovers what a sustainable life for a young female translator might look like. Here, Ramadan speaks with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Portugal, Lindsay Semel, about French slang, gender in life and art, and what makes her love a text enough to translate it.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I’d like to start by talking about Riffraff. What inspired you to open the place?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Well, I always had this idea in my head that I wanted to do a bookstore-bar. There’s a couple of bookstore bars spread around the country and it just seemed like a really vibrant gathering spot and something that was working both financially and for customers. It felt like this distant, far-off project until I met my co-owner and partner Tom, who was also involved in the translation world. Providence came up almost immediately. There is a welcoming literary community because of the universities, but there is also a really great local business community. The west side of Providence, which is where we are, is basically all independent businesses. There aren’t any chains, there aren’t any giant stores, it’s kind of just this really lovely haven of local people fulfilling their passions and trying to make it work and it seemed like we would fit right in here.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to five different countries.

Woah! It has apparently been a busy week in world literature. Today we bring you news from not just one, not two, but five different countries: Iran, Morocco, Spain, Argentina, and France. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor at Large, reporting from Iran:

The 31st Tehran International Book Fair was held from May 2nd to May 12th, 2018, in Tehran, Iran.

In this year’s fair, a much-awaited novel by Iran’s foremost novelist, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, was finally offered to readers. طریق بسمل‌ شدن , a novel about the Iran-Iraq war, had been awaiting a publication permit from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for ten years. The book has, however, already been offered to English readers, under the title Thirst, translated by Martin E. Weir and published by Melville House in 2014. (You can read a review of Thirst here.) (You can also read a piece by Dowlatabadi in Asymptote’s special feature on the Muslim ban here.)

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The 2018 Man Booker International Shortlist: the Subjective Nature of Literary Merit

"Fiction at its finest”, as the Man Booker tagline describes its self-imposed mission.

“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.

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The Man Booker International 2018 Longlist: At the Boundaries of Fiction

"Non-European works included in the longlist come highly recommended by readers and critics alike."

The 2018 Oscars may be over, but the awards season for the literary world has barely begun, with the Man Booker International Prize receiving the most international attention. In the world of translated fiction, the Man Booker International holds a prestige similar to the Oscars, which explains the pomp and excitement surrounding the announcement of this year’s longlist, made public March 12. The longlist includes thirteen books from ten countries in eight languages, from Argentina to Taiwan.

The MBI used to be a career-prize akin to the Nobel, awarded to a non-British author for his or her entire body of work every two years. Since its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize its format has changed. Now the Prize seeks to honor the author and translator of the best book (“in the opinion of the judges”) translated into English and published in the UK for the eligible period. For 2018, all eligible submission were novels or short story collections published between May 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Much like its sister prize (known simply as the Man Booker Prize), the winner of the MBI tends to garner much attention and sees a boom in book sales. Its history accounts for its prestige, but just as importantly, the MBI is one of the few prizes out there that splits the monetary value of its prize between the writer and translator.

Part of the MBI’s unofficial mission is to raise the profile of translated fiction and translators in the English-speaking world and provide a fair snapshot of world literature. What does this year’s longlist tell us about the MBI’s ability to achieve that goal? Progress has been made from past years, especially with regard to gender equality: six of the thirteen nominated authors and seven of the fifteen translators are women. Unfortunately, issues arise when taking into account the linguistic and regional diversity of the prize not only this year, but with previous lists as well. For 2018, only four of the thirteen books come from non-European authors, with no titles from North and Central America or Africa. This is an issue that plagued the IFFP before it merged with the MBI and marks even the Nobel Prize for literature, as detailed by Sam Carter in his essay “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass.”

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My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…

In Review: Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

It is imbued with the passionate discontent of the punk movement, thought to be dead, but clearly still bubbling under our collective surface.

‘Volatile’ isn’t a strong enough adjective for Gloria, the protagonist of Virginie Despentes’ novel, Bye Bye Blondie. This post-punk love story shocks and devastates with its disquieting exploration of personhood, womanhood, and human connection through Gloria’s manic gaze.

We meet Gloria in her middle age, newly homeless after the latest in a string of exes becomes fed up with her bottomless capacity for anger and violent outbursts. She begins making her way to the local bar. She’d smashed her phone against a wall in her final fight with her ex, but even if she had some change to call a friend for help, she realizes there are very few left willing to put up with her. But even in these first pages of the novel, her despair doesn’t quite seem isolated. She wanders her dreary town, passing by posters for vapid films and the sterile bubblegum storefronts of international chains. Her ferocity takes on the flavor of rebellion in the context of the anaesthetized materialism of her surroundings.

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