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France’s Unlikely Literary Rebel

Earlier this year, in the French weekly magazine Le Point, Richard Millet, an editor at Gallimard who has been nominated for a Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, called the writing style of Maylis de Kerangal “ideological and aesthetic candyfloss,” and described her readership as “thousands of imbeciles” who hail from the “international, de-cultured petite bourgeoisie.”

As for why Millet, who once referred to himself as “one of the most hated authors in France,” singled out de Kerangal for his scorn illuminates the way that de Kerangal is threatening a segment of the French literary establishment — and questioning what it means to be a fiction writer in France.

De Kerangal’s books delight in a lexical mix. Sometimes in her fiction, as in her conversation, de Kerangal vacillates between French and English. In one sentence, a surfer sees a “houle;” in the next, he’s regarding a “swell.” So too, her linguistic register shifts without pause. In one sentence, she is describing Staphylococcus aureus and mononucleosis; in another, she is weighing the moodiness of the 20th-century French rock ‘n’ roll singer Alain Bashung. “I don’t think a language can contain reality,” she said to me in French recently, “but I think by using all kinds of languages I can approach reality.”
Her novels have been met with increasing success and acclaim in France. In 2010, Naissance d’un pont (Birth of a Bridge in the United States) received both the Prix Medicis and the Prix Franz Hassel. Three years later, Réparer les vivants — translated by Sam Taylor and published recently as The Heart in the United States — made her a veritable literary star, selling more than a quarter of a million copies. She has become a household name in France; it was no stretch when Le Figaro branded her “the new literary phenomenon.”

De Kerangal did not grow up wanting to be a novelist — not exactly. “I imagined myself perhaps in reporting, in something that dealt with the universe of information, like being an ethnographer or anthropologist,” she said. She liked storytelling but did not think of herself as a “writer.” “I never dreamed of becoming a writer, but I dreamed of writing novels.”

This ambition may seem less odd to American readers than it does to some of the critics in de Kerangal’s native France, where serious writers are generally expected to be writers and nothing more — not journalists, not editors, not even writing professors. “Writers are often university professors in the United States,” de Kerangal, who has been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “This is not at all the case in France.”

De Kerangal, who was born in Toulon in 1967, studied history and philosophy in Rouen and Paris. She then worked as a children’s book editor at Gallimard Jeunesse, and, in 1997, left to visit the United States, where she started what would become her first book, Je marche sous un ciel de traîne, while living briefly in Golden, Colo. A year later, she returned to Paris and got another social science degree at the prestigious École des hautes études en sciences sociales and joined an important literary and philosophical review called Inculte.

As it happens, once de Kerangal started publishing novels — Je marche sous un ciel de traîne appeared in 2000 and has been followed by a new book every couple of years since then — she became a full-time writer after all. She has since pushed the limits of what it means to be a writer in France: in the past five years she has brought the language of blue-collar laborers and bridge construction (The Birth of a Bridge) and of medicine and of philosophy (The Heart) into her fiction, along with a fascination with popular culture and a flirtation with journalism. It is this linguistic mix, perhaps more than anything else, that most frustrates Millet and his ilk.

Classically respected literature, in France but also in the United States, tends to prize a specific hierarchy of language: a certain vocabulary and array of themes. Novels that use language borrowed from pop culture and medicine and use the investigative techniques of journalism, as The Heartdoes, tend to be viewed not as great literature but as either niche reading or lowbrow page-turners (for those “thousands of imbeciles”). The frustration therefore stems from the belief that respectable literature is being co-opted, that themes like death — central to The Heart” — must be dealt with in a certain way: allusions to rock ‘n’ roll artists and pages upon pages of medical jargon (for which de Kerangal tirelessly consulted physicians and specialists) simply don’t meet those standards. The argument is that de Kerangal is trying to mix too much and in doing so dilutes the fiction form.

In de Kerangal’s view, however, “Language and writing must incorporate as much poetic writing as…science, history, economy, geography, dreams, psychology. Writing must be like the texture of the world, having the form of the world. For me, that which is the heart of fiction, it’s the language.” She added, “Literature must be in dialogue with the contemporary world.”

In The Heart, that world is a dark one. At the beginning of the novel, 19-year-old Simon Limbres is killed in a car accident. (“Limbes” means purgatory in French; Jessica Moore, the translator of the British version, changes Simon’s surname to “Limbeau” to reveal the point to non-Francophones; Taylor’s American version lets the name stand.) His brain stops, but his heart continues to beat. We meet Marianne, his mother, who causally ignores the telephone before going back to sleep, unknowingly enjoying the final moments before she learns of her son’s fate; when she does find out, she must tell her husband, Sean. She is painfully aware that the moments before she tells him will be the last of his blissful ignorance: “it was the voice of life before.” We then meet Révol, the doctor, and the organ-coordination nurse; both are eccentrics who have come to view these kinds of horrors as tragic but also as common as parking and swiping their key cards while going to work each morning.

Together, these characters orbit around the enigmatic Simon and his still-beating heart, with philosophical questions of death and earnest inquiries into the ethics and history of organ donation arising, creating fissures in the characters’ lives, narrative propulsion derived from how they choose to confront the realization that a young man is technically dead — Simon’s brain has stopped — but his heart continues to beat. What does it really mean — in theory but also in practice — for a dead teenager to give another human an extended or better life via organ donation? In her most impressive stylistic success, it is de Kerangal’s unnamed narrator who must modulate these scenes and grand questions with an omniscience combined with poetic humanity, coolly explaining the details of death while maintaining an underlying understanding of its tragedy: a “mix of poetic materialism and materialist lyricism,” de Kerangal called it.

Recently, de Kerangal was in New York on a reading tour for The Heart, where she spoke at Albertine, the bookstore inside the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue, and at the Maison Française at NYU. At NYU, she noted that “there is no hierarchy between the different forms of language.” De Kerangal has proven that serious themes don’t have to be dealt with in the grave, straightforward manner beloved by the likes of Millet; rather, she shows that a novel comes alive when it is unconstrained by a single tone or linguistic register.

Perhaps de Kerangal’s most meaningful achievement has been to chip away at what it means to be a fiction writer in France, a concept she has struggled with since her adolescence. She has escaped the prescriptive definition of “writer” as narrow and elitist, and in doing so, has created novels that connect with a wider audience. “It is the sign of the profound nature of a book that is not written for the literary world,” she said, “that it is regarded, ultimately, as something more universal.”

This article first appeared on The Millions.

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