Benoit Duteurtre, Drôle de temps, John L. Brown, World Literature Today, Winter 98

WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW: FRENCH

 

Fiction

Benoit Duteurtre. Drôle de temps. Paris. Gallimard (Schoenhof, distr.). 1997. 161 pages. 80 F.
ISBN 2-07-074808-1.

After the success of Gaité parisienne (1996; see WLT 71:1, p. 103), Benoit Duteurtre is hailed as one of the outstanding younger writers of the 1990s. His most recent work, Drôle de temps, a
series of six unrelated, fragmentary texts, characterized by the author as « scenes, » attempts to
capture the paradoxical atmosphere of « the funny time » we are living, to present a bitter and
disconnected vision of twentieth-century France. Several of these scenes are truly bizarre: a
businessman locked in a public toilet; aimless roaming in a Turkish bath; the inauguration of a
public parking lot; and, most notably, Le Havre, Duteurtre’s native city, devastated from the
pollution caused by a giant waste-disposal plant. In a recent interview, he remarks that these
scenes are « without hope or despair, » their emptiness typical of our time. And the anonymous
characters, passive and indifferent, resemble those of Gaite parisienne. « I like passive, detached people, » he says.

Duteurtre believes that he has evolved beyond the avant-garde in literature, which has become
« dogmatique, academique, institutionnel, » a point of view he defends in his Requiem pour une
avant-garde (1995; see WLT 60:3, p. 659). His approach to literature is « antiliterary »: « L’ecriture
doit s’effacer. » He desires to record the banality, the « day by day » of this « drôle de temps. » The
first fragment, « Scenes de la vie–1, » describes incidents from a day in the life of a young man
(anonymous), beginning with a detailed account of his breakfast, then continuing with notes on a cocktail party, a train ride beside « a blonde wearing jeans made in Korea, » a conversation with an artist friend about their last « rave party, » and random thoughts about science fiction and
witchcraft, inspired while smoking « a joint. » We also get a self-portrait: « indecis, influencable,
insincere. »

The following scene, « Dans la sanisette, » introduces a businessman who needs to empty his
bladder. He heads for one of the « comfort stations » which have replaced the traditional pissotieres once found everywhere in Paris. His problem? He doesn’t have the change to get in, but he manages to borrow some from a passer-by. Inside, he ecstatically relieves himself, only to
discover that he can’t get out and is in real danger of drowning when the automatic cleansing
system is turned on. He finally manages to kick the door open, and as he emerges he imagines
that he is greeted by the developer of the sanisette, who cordially shakes hands with his
customer.

The next two episodes, « La plage du Havre » and « Zone nature protégée, » lament the ruin of the
author’s once unspoiled native city by « development, » especially by the enormous waste-disposal plant located at the edge of the sea, which has polluted the air, the water, and the soil. Night and day, huge trucks roar down the newly constructed roads, delivering tons of garbage to the incinerator. A small group of ecologists protest, but in vain, for most of the population, especially the peasants, rejoice that the plant has provided jobs and thus enabled them to buy cars and television sets and designer jeans, luxuries which have allowed them to enter the modern world and which they were never able to afford when they were tilling the soil. « Zone nature protegee » describes new roads and parking lots designed to attract tourists, and the waste-disposal plant is praised for paying the taxes necessary to finance them. These « ecological » interludes provide the only evidence that the narrator can feel something about anything, can renounce the passivity of an indifferent observer.

In an interview, Duteurtre recalls the influence which a few American writers, « les vrais, » have had on him. He singles out especially Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, an « imaginative
reportage » on Ken Kesey’s « Acid Commune, » as having a considerable impact on him. He also
expresses admiration for Bruce Benderson, but he dismisses Jay McInerny as a mere journalist.

By John L Brown Washington, D.C.

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