I have not read a lot in the last few months as I’m finishing The Grey Country, my novel about language and identity and I do not have a lot of time, but I wanted to go back to a book (actually two) from Virginie Despentes I read last autumn.
Virginie Despentes made her debut as a writer with Fuck me , a book I did not read, but saw its film version in Christchurch at the Film Festival many years ago (but I left before the end). This book tells the story of a girl raped by three men and her revenge (mostly). Virginie Despentes herself was a victim of rape in her youth (but instead of feeling victim, she rather felt anger). She has been a prostitute for a while, was a porn film reviewer, and identifies as a lesbian and a feminist.
Vernon Subutex (spoilers alert !!) was released in 2015 as a part of a trilogy. I read the first volume in English (a good translation) and the second in French. This is the story of a record store owner who becomes homeless (volume 1) then guru (more or less, in volume 2), as well as the story of people around him. I wanted to read the first volume, because it was talked a lot when it came out and polarised opinions.
In French, reviewers who liked the book focused on her style (which is sometimes compared to that of Balzac) and the authenticity of the voices. I quite agree with these critics. I rather liked reading the first volume. The pace is sharp and the characters compelling (except the final delirium of Vernon Subutex). I enjoyed it enough to continue reading the second volume, where the density is lost, the characters are less convincing, and the story drags. The episode of the girl who « tattoos » the man she believes to be responsible for the death of her mother is a little too much like the scene from The Girl with a golden tatoo to convince me.
Those who did not like the book found the thread of the story a little thin (I quite agree with them, but that was not the goal of Despentes, I think) and did not like the characters animated by hatred and power struggles (and I quite agree with them too), which is true but probably corresponds to a certain humanity, probably far from ideal but perhaps a more realistic one. English language reviewers seemed to like it more, perhaps because, for once, they are presented with something other than the Parisian intelligentsia and a France, which perhaps corresponds more to the one they know. And perhaps for the same reason, some Parisian intelligentsia did not like Despentes’s book. Or it depicts human beings who are rather ordinary, from the point of view of their character, who may look a little too much like we are : not always noble, sometimes mean, etc. This is probably not the book to read for those who need to regain confidence in humanity. The Irish Times particularly liked Vernon Subutex 1 and even goes so far as to say that Despentes leaves Houellebecq far behind, quite a compliment, given his international prestige. As for me, the second volume disappointed me enough not to make me want to read the third right now, but I may come back to it one day or the other.