There is a difficulty I always encounter when discussing contemporary French literature, which has to do with the fact that the country has, only relatively recently, emerged from a literary golden age. From the works of Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire all the way down to Albert Camus and Simone De Beauvoir, the French have gone more than a century shelling out one literary masterpiece after another, both honouring and renovating their reputation for sophistication and taste.
Unfortunately, their literary production has not been as globally prominent since the post-war period, with the country’s most famous intellectuals (Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida) devoting themselves instead to postmodern philosophy. I’ll admit that my research into French contemporary writers has been more casual than methodical, but personally I had never found a contemporary French novelist or a poet who struck me the way their forebears did. (Yes, I have read Michel Houellebecq, and no, I was not particularly impressed).
All of that held true until now, as Yannick Haenel‘s Hold Fast Your Crown, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, is exactly the sort of novel that I had been awaiting for such a long time. I wanted something that challenged me, and Hold Fast Your Crown does that to such a point that I am challenged even to describe its plot. At the beginning, this seems to be the story of an unnamed Parisian writer who wants to get an ambitious screenplay produced. Then, said writer has to take care of his neighbour’s dog and the story appears to go off on a tangent, except that from there on, that’s all that happens – the plot just keeps going off on tangent after tangent, juggling a handful of recurring themes, symbols and images, but never giving you a proper narrative thread to hold onto.
The result is undeniably a mess, and yet it works, in no small measure thanks to Haenel’s strange and haunting prose. This, for example, is how the author describes a trip to New York: “Outside, the sky was pink, and all the green in Central Park was glimmering like a softly burning bush. I breathed in the scent of wisteria, of the honeysuckle that climbed along the main door of the museum, and all the petals flew around, little yellow and purple words in the dusty and saturated story of the New York air.” The vocabulary and arguably even the style are relatively simple, yet there is a lot going on here, from the colourfulness of the imagery to the vaguely metatextual quality of the composite metaphor.
In addition to being disorderly in terms of plot, Hold Fast Your Crown is all over the place as far as its intertextual library goes. The backbone of the story appears to be the protagonist’s quest for Truth (of the sort you spell with a capital T), which is represented symbolically as a deer. But the deer is most often glimpsed by the protagonist in works of art rather than in real life, so a lot of the novel is simply about the main character watching films and reading books while he smokes and drinks more than anyone should. He appears to develop a particular obsession with Herman Melville and film director Michael Cimino (who directed, of course, 1978’s The Deer Hunter), but he frequently references other works as well, plotting a bibliography that ranges from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the Isenheim Altarpiece and which has little or nothing in the way of thematic coherence.
All of this chaos is sufficient to make the book an infuriating read, but what will really drive any reader up the walls is that the havoc extends to – even culminates in – the book’s philosophical outlook. If you like literature that is reflective and stimulating, then Hold Fast Your Crown will give you what you are looking for in spades: the protagonist seems unable to just see a kite or drink a glass of wine without rambling about some deep existential aspect of life, and yet these ramblings are as unreliable and unstable as the plot itself. I will quote one extensive passage, simply because there is no better way to convey the effect than by sampling it:
“But in the end, what does a failure really mean? I didn’t believe in failure. Melville’s was proportional to the demands that motivated him: it indicated a secret glory. Society slaps the label of failure on anything that doesn’t respond to its demands. It denies success to anything that surpasses its set criteria. I wasn’t really impressed with society’s idea of literature. What does it know about it? Nothing. Everyone thinks they know what literature is, but no one knows anything. And that morning, with my twenty euros, my vertigo, my mild hangover, and my irrepressible desire to see Apocalypse Now, that morning and every morning of my happy and crude existence, as well as every evening and every night, not only did it seem to me that I knew what literature was, but that in a sense I was literature.”
Here, the speaker starts off with a seemingly relatable critique of society’s criteria to determine success and failure, but then flies off into wild generalisations like ‘no one knows anything’ and ends up with the outlandish statement ‘I was literature’. I find this passage as beautiful and memorable as I find it frustrating and unreasonable.
Because of its contradictory qualities, Hold Fast Your Crown is not a book for everyone. I can very well imagine some readers being bored by the wandering plot or angered by the madness of the narrator (and the madness is undeniable – indeed, the book’s opening sentence is ‘Back then, I was crazy’). Having said that, I cannot help but feel that the novel is unwieldy by design, and that there is an order subtending the chaos. One long passage comes across as hypocritical to the point of being almost unbearable, as the protagonist sits with a film producer and two actresses, and they rail against oppression and exploitation while dining on oysters and getting drunk on champagne. And yet the author (unlike the narrator) seems very aware of what is happening, leaving plenty of clues that suggest the reader is being played with (the waiter in that scene, for example, is likened to French president Emmanuel Macron, a statesman frequently accused of classism and elitism).
As far as interpretation goes, Hold Fast Your Crown defeated me. It would take close, repeated readings, fleshing out the various passages of prose, for me to find the threads to make sense of this sublime mess. And maybe there aren’t any, and the whole thing is just the hollow nonsense of a charlatan. I must allow for this possibility as well, and in any case it is the sort of doubt that the first critics of a Gustave Flaubert or a Stéphane Mallarmé must have nurtured.
Time has provided for those writers the answers that I cannot provide for Haenel’s Hold Fast Your Crown. I cannot say what it means, I cannot say if it is good or bad, and I certainly cannot say for sure whether it is or isn’t a “great” novel. But it shocked me, excited me, angered me, compelled me, delighted me more than any French book I’ve read that has been written in the last 50 years, and as far as I’m concerned that’s all I need to highly recommend Haenel’s book.