Novelist, gadfly and rebel without a niche
PARIS: Benoît Duteurtre, novelist, music critic, radio personality, concert organizer and cultural bomb thrower, has taken a vow of abstinence by giving up his mobile telephone. In his most recent book, a semi-autobiographical exercise in satirical sci-fi, he describes the psychological destruction of the narrator by a tentacular company that in the spirit of the new capitalism has replaced most of its employees by talking machines. Press one for customer service, two for …
« Capitalism surged when the Wall fell, as a system that was better because of its efficiency, » Duteurtre said, discussing his novella « Service Clientèle » (Customer Service). « In fact, the cost-cutting reintroduces the system of queues that were so deplored in communist countries. Now you queue on the phone, since we’ve eliminated most of those jobs – thus a nightmarish system where only people with passes, with VIP cards, people in business class can escape. »
A paradoxical point of view from a man who has been attacked as a French neo-con, a promoter of old-fashioned music and, more extremely, has been compared to a Holocaust denier for a book about music.
In fact, Duteurtre, who is 43 and has misleadingly angelic looks, is part of a growing current among French artists and intellectuals that crosses lines of age, political affiliation and careers. This amorphous group doesn’t fall into the clichéd categories of right or left or, more topically, pro- or anti-American.
The common target is amorphous too – the bien-pensant politically correct « establishment, » cultural, educational, intellectual, political and so on, a loose grouping that despite sometimes advanced age and silly political pasts (Maoism, Trotskyism) seems convinced it represents the end of cultural history, the ultimate avant-garde. These people tend to be defenders of an artistically vibrant France that no longer exists, and knee-jerk signers of petitions for fashionable and sometimes contradictory causes.
Any critics of their power must be not only « reactionary » (or réac) but outright fascists. Duteurtre said, with a laugh, that some of the unwitting réacs have taken to invoking « réacpride, » in echo of course of the more politically correct « prides. »
Duteurtre’s novels have spoofed various aspects of French society, overturning the traditional tirade against the bourgeoisie. For after all, who are today’s bourgeois?
Written with a straightforward, sometimes camera-like look at modern life, from the highway overpass to the Internet, they listen in on the bastardized French spoken by the determinedly modern. They also show, without pathos, a nostalgia for a Paris where food stores hadn’t all been turned into expensive shoe stores, or the old and funky made into caricatures like La Coupole. The books are biting, but not hectoring, and often a character who sounds not a little like Duteurtre is made to look awkward and ridiculous as he desperately seeks or avoids love or work or even reality.
« These novels weren’t really understood at first, » he said. « It was a time when it was felt – it’s still felt – that French writing was about a formal search for style. Until the success of Michel Houellebecq, which I’m very pleased about because he’s a writer I love and a friend, it wasn’t really understood. Then all of a sudden there was a shift because of his success. It was noticed there was a whole stream of writers who had a more sarcastic eye on society. »
In 2001, Duteurtre won the Prix Médicis for « Le Voyage en France » (The Trip to France), centering on an American Candide who comes looking for Monet and artists’ cafés and finds a country ruled by reality TV and dubious « art. »
What got Duteurtre on the literary map, however, was an earlier book, « Gaieté parisienne, » the title a pun and the subject a spoof on French gay circles (Duteurtre himself is homosexual). « It divided the homosexual world, » he said. « The older, very political militants, did not accept that you could look at what had been their great cause, sexual liberation.
« For example, these homosexuals who run all sorts of institutions, who are the ‘accepted’ voices on the subject, have set themselves up in comfortable social positions but still consider themselves extremely subversive. So anyone who attacks their system will be seen as part of an old societal order that in fact doesn’t exist anymore.
« It’s true that I’m not very interested in debates on homosexual parenthood. For me that’s just more of the petit bourgeois attitude that wants to ape what is respectable. »
After writing, Duteurtre’s second love is music. He plays the piano and studied musicology. The piano helped him get by early in his career, he said, as he accompanied musical productions and in more dire times dance lessons while working as a freelance journalist (including French Playboy, until it went all-pictures, he said) and struggling to become a writer.
Although he loves French musique légère, he now spends a great deal of time helping contemporary music to get a hearing through an association he initially ran with the late Marcel Landowski, then one of the two 800-pound gorillas on the French music scene (the other being Pierre Boulez).
In 1995, Duteurtre published « Requiem pour une avant-garde, » which assailed what he feels are the rigid paths of French contemporary music and the large subsidies that go to institutions close to Boulez. It’s possible that one of his sins in this angry but funny and highly readable book was that he praised some American musicians. At any rate, he was compared to Faurisson, the revisionist historian, in a newspaper article.
Those battles have cooled, and Duteurtre has built a radio following with a program that specializes in everything from operettas to jazz. « I have kind of become M. Opérette in France, M. Musique Légère, an area that was in the doldrums because French good taste is turned toward the heavy, the serious.
« It’s a very Franco-American program, » he went on. « I’m fascinated by American musical comedy from the 20’s and 30’s, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter.
« The French are among the people who have been most interested in jazz, but French jazz criticism tends to be extremely purist and looks with contempt on white jazz and musical comedy as a kind of pillage of black genius by white commerce. »
Duteurtre was born (in a family that produced a French president, René Coty) in Le Havre, a city destroyed at the end of World War II, « entirely rebuilt in a rather severe architecture, with that big port where the last trans-Atlantic liners arrived when I was a child. I think I always had my eyes turned more toward England or America than the Continent. »
He first went to New York in 1990, when he fell in love with the city. « It made me think a lot about the way the two countries look at each other and notably how certain French people see America as responsible for all of France’s troubles and notably for the transformation of France into a kind of American province. In fact, I think the French are the most responsible for this transformation. We brought Eurodisney to France, we frenziedly imported a kind of low-quality America, and we end up believing that is America. »
« I want France to be very French, and America to be very American, but we cannot blame Americans for everything. »
« The more France disappears as a distinct society with all the magic that it had in some aspects, the more there is an emphasis on the French cultural exception, » he added. « French intellectuals have never shown so much arrogance and superiority in the way they perceive themselves as a fortress for art and culture threatened by American vulgarity, when it’s actually the opposite that is happening: France is evolving just like the rest of the world, and they’re not going to be able to stop that. »
Which is not to say he doesn’t miss much that is no more. « I love the modern spirit, I only really love modern music. For me the first years of the 20th century showed an extraordinary audaciousness and liberty, notably in the arts but also in the sciences, but sometimes I feel there are two eras in modernity. It’s the first I love, but modernity has a tendency to change into a nightmare when it just becomes a system to produce more and more. From the dream of flying or crossing the seas to the organization of mass tourism. »
In his next book, he has plotted a new way to skewer rebels who’ve lost their cause, « a society where everybody is a rebel. They’re all rebels, a society of rebels all well ensconced in their place in society.
« I’m rather cynical, » he said looking genuinely concerned that he might not have made this clear. « I may look very nice, but what I write is really pretty nasty. »