No sanctimony here

A key scene in Abel Quentin’s second novel takes place in the Café de Flore in St-Germain-des-Prés, when the sexagenarian narrator, Jean Roscoff, overhears a young couple arguing over an Instagram post in the fabled existentialist hangout. “Leave it”, grumbles the girl. “How can I pretend to be Simone de Beauvoir when I don’t know who she is?” Quentin was awarded the Prix de Flore last year, one of France’s most significant literary prize, for his book, hailed by the country’s more conservative press as an attack on cancel culture. Readers in search of comforting dismissals of the extremes of identity politics may, however, find themselves disappointed. Le Voyant d’Étampes certainly presents an unflinching confrontation between generational ideologies, but the switchback complexities of this breathtakingly impressive novel reach far beyond the simplicity of “woke” versus “anti-woke”.

Roscoff is divorced, despairing and drunk, serving out his time in the backwaters of academia teaching Cold War history to students who were in nappies when the Berlin Wall came down. His one claim to political engagement is his involvement with SOS Racisme in the mid-1980s, but his recollections of the glory days of the “March des Beurs” cut no ice with his daughter, Léonie, and her éveillee (or “woke”) partner, Jeanne. Roscoff’s misalignment with contemporary certainties is skewered in the opening scene, in a restaurant called Renaissance, where no-one has heard of his preferred aperitif, Suze, a traditional drink made from gentian root. Roots – what they consist of, who has the right to claim them and the concomitant claim on not only ideas, but facts – are at the heart of the book. Roscoff is bewildered: by Léonie’s job as a corporate responsibility coach, by Jeanne’s career in internet solutions, by his cucumber cocktail, by the anglicized “novlangue” of the “New Powers”, by the slick realignments of his friend Marc’s beliefs and successful by the Brazil-shaped damp patch on the kitchen wall of his apartment. Nonetheless, he is a man on a quest, the scholarly redemption of a neglected American writer, Robert Willow.

Willow is figured as an intellectual refugee, first from the persecution of McCarthyism, then from the existentialist circles of “Harlem-sur-Seine”, the St-Germain of the 1950s, which embraces then dismisses him when he retreats to the countryside to produce mystical, medieval-style verse: “His poetry left New Orleans for Orléans”. Willow exchanged the rhythms of jazz for those of courtly love and made himself an outcast in the process; he is ghosted by Sartre and the Flore circle. (When he dies in a car crash, a contemporary comments: “At least Camus died in a sports car. But a Peugeot 404, really.”) Intensely invested in the concept of the poet as visionary, Roscoff dreams that his biography of Willow will rehabilitate not only the writer’s reputation, but also his own, yet he pays scant attention to what Jeanne’s generations considers the most salient aspect of Willow’s identity, his race.

Parallels are drawn between the 1950s, the 1980s and the present, all decades that demanded “lucid engagement” from those concerned with the ultimate Sartrean goal of authenticity, yet Roscoff finds himself entangled in the same ideological snare as his subject. Willow has apparently resisted Sartre’s dictum that the duty of the Black writer is to “sing the black soul”, yet when Roscoff points out that this was a rebellion against a white writer dictating a Black writer’s subject, he is doubly censured. His failure to address Willow’s race as central to his art is compounded by his refusal to admit that as a white middle-class man he has no business discussing it. However, Quentin is far too intelligent a writer to stop at a complacent delineation of this paradox. What Roscoff and Jeanne share is the burning clarity of the pre-rational, the spirit of Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orleans. If Jeanne represents the terrifying intolerance of coherence, then Roscoff’s self-pity, analytical cowardice and laziness of thought are equally mercilessly exposed. Roscoff, however, learns to question his own arrogance and entitlement, and this is where Le Voyant d’Étampes becomes properly subversive.

Sartre’s Reflexions sur la question juive, issued in full in 1946, is frequently referenced by Roscoff, not least because the emperor of existentialism was as keen on telling Jewish people how to behave like Jews as he was on telling Black writers how to write about being Black. The central basis for Sartre’s postwar intellectual authority, the elemental truth of his “authenticity” was his involvement with the Resistance, an involvement revealed to have been a pusillanimous façade by Gilbert Joseph in his book Une si Douce Occupation (1991). Sartre was a fraud, Reflexions was published long after the trains left Drancy, and the great philosopher compounded his cowardice by the persistent mendacity of his pronouncements on the Soviet Union. Quentin’s creation becomes a Sartrean hero in the way that Sartre never was, since he confesses to the superficiality of the real motivation behind his enthusiasm for the Marche des Beurs: sex. In an admission that he knows his earnest, idealistic daughter would never pardon, Roscoff concedes that “I saw the fight against racism as a chance for my own sexual flourishing”. SOS Racisme is Roscoff’s elemental truth, his recourse against Jeanne’s “fearful puritanism”, yet the root of his commitment was the chance to get laid, and his ability to be honest about it become in turn the root of a conversion that is neither cynical nor abject, but triumphant.

Le Voyant d’Étampes plunges into other big themes – the simplicity of identity politics as opposed to the injustices of capitalism, the attack on Enlightenment reasoning, the facility with whichs become conservatives at the sight of a tax bill – but there is nothing sanctimonious about Quentin’s approach. He has been described as a disciple of Michel Houellebecq, whose realist works are a sarcastic, vengeful examination of the decline of the French mind, but the clarity of his writing is tempered by both the joyful lyricism of the poems he creates for Robert Willow and an acute sense of bathos. Roscoff’s retirement from academia is feasted with industrial pâté and Monster Munch. Léonie happily announces that her Bookstagram of Willow’s biography, featuring her cat, has received a whole seven “likes”. Insights into post-divorce coupledom, the gentrification of Paris, male friendship and the semiotics of guest-bathroom decoration are as sly and sharp as they are tender and troubling. The final “revelation” about Willow’s identity adds another layer to a novel whose resistance to categorization is as genuinely challenging as Quentin’s impressive range.

Identity has also posed intriguing challenges for the author, as, like Robert Willow, Abel Quentin is not quite what he seems. In August 2021 Quentin was awarded the Prix Maison Rouge, but ran into difficulties when he had to admit that he couldn’t cash his €5,000 cheque because his real name is in fact Albéric de Gayardon, the same Maître Albéric de Gayardon who a month later appeared for the defense at the sentencing hearings for those accused of the terrorist attacks of November 2015. In a subsequent interview with Vanity Fair, Quentin explained that delays due to the pandemic led to the sitting of the assize court coincidence with the release of his novel, which was also tipped for the Goncourt and Renaudot prizes. Gayardon’s membership of a three-attorney team defending Farid Kharkhach, accused of providing false identity papers to the suicide bombers in a lengthy hearing, has rendered his exposure as one of France’s most distinguished young novelists complicated, to say the least, obliging him to disclose more than he wished about his personal life. In France he has nonetheless maintained a fairly strict distinction between his professional personae, revealing little more than an engagingly chaotic backstory (as a junior lawyer he had no office, receiving clients in a cafe and pretending he had the builders in; the manuscript of his first novel, Soeurwas lost in the back of a taxi), but the subject matter of Le Voyant d’Étampes has remained relatively uncontentious beyond literary circles – in a nation where only 6 per cent of people claim to know the meaning of “woke”. One wonders what will happen when this conservative examination of wokeness is translated and read by the more politically sensitive English-speaking world. Despite the extravagant plaudits offered by the critics, Quentin maintains that the book, initially inspired by James Baldwin’s time in St-Paul de Vence, is a farce in the manner of Bouvard et Pécuchet, “a novel about stupidity”. Whose stupidity, he doesn’t say.

Lisa Hilton is a historian and novelist. Her latest novel, Les Femmes de mes amantswas published this month

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