Arts Benoit Astonishes Me
posted by June 7 at 15:13 PMon
I just want to salute Paul Constant on his wee review of The Little Girl and the Cigarette, which I also read and loved:
The Little Girl and the Cigarette
by Benoit Duteurtre
(Melville House) $ 14.95
You’ve got to hand it to the French. Benoit Duteurtre is a young satirist who’s written 10 books, and Milan Kundera has sung his praises. Duteurtre has a reputation as a rabble-rouser and provocateur, so what do the French do? They give him his own TV show, called Astonish Me Benoit. Imagine if we did the same in the U.S.—the mind reels at the thought of a 1970s variety show called That’s So Vonnegut.
The Little Girl and the Cigarette is the first of Duteurtre’s books to be translated into English, and luckily the satire translates as smoothly as the language. A man sneaks a forbidden cigarette in a bathroom, when a child walks in on him. The little girl screams bloody murder, and soon enough, the smoker is on trial for pedophilia—corruption of a minor, don’tcha know—while a cold-blooded killer on death row starts spouting Deepak Chopra–like platitudes and the masses scream for his release. Like most satires, the ending is a little weak (can you really remember how Gulliver’s Travels ends?) but the novel goes down swinging—it gets its excited jabs in at everything from the nanny state to the way that children rule the adult world like tiny tyrants. PAUL CONSTANT
Paul Constant, I salute you!
More about Benoit:
•This is his first book translated into English. Which is a fucking shame.
•He was discovered and mentored by Samuel Beckett.
•Astonish Me Benoit is actually a radio show (no fault of Paul’s—it was wrong on the press release) on which he plays light opera, Brian Eno, Offenbach, Spike Jones, and whatever else he wants.
•In 1995, he wrote Requiem pour une avant-garde, an attack on the institutionalized “avant-garde” in French music. It made him famous. (He also studied music with György Ligeti and palled around with Iannis Xenakis.)
•You will be hearing more about this guy. He is 47 years old and he’s incredibly smart.
You should read The Little Girl and the Cigarette, even though I have a feeling it isn’t his best work. It’s slim and can be read in a single day in the sun. And it’s got funny, grim scenes, like the terrorist group called John Wayne’s Conscience that kidnaps internationals for ransom and puts on an internet TV show called A Martyr Idol—the hostages have to sing karaoke, dance, answer trivia questions, etc. Viewers can vote and the contestant who gets the fewest is beheaded.
And it has a beautiful cover:
I liked the book so much I wrote to Benoit, though his publisher, and he responded. The complete exchange follows the jump, but here are some bits:
As for poor John Wayne, it’s not really about him—but it is interesting to me that the Islamic terrorists lay claim to an American model that fascinates them in many respects.
The dominant cultural model today is American, and no longer European. And we are partly responsible: in France, for example, the avant-garde of the ‘50s (the “Nouveau Roman”) had a very tedious idea of what was avant-garde literature. For a long time, I myself preferred American novels, because they were about more interesting things about modern life.
Ligeti was the most remarkable, because he had such a free spirit, and we would talk equally about Schumann, the Marx Brothers or Astor Paizzola.
Question: The first page of the novel contains this sentence: “Obviously, the idea of defending the health of a man condemned to death could be considered puzzling, unless you viewed it as a refinement of cruelty.” The book is, basically, about the refinement of the worst parts of life—bureaucracy, terrorism, the worship of the juvenile. Are we all falling more deeply in love with the worst parts of ourselves?
Answer: Yes, certainly.
The whole damn thing follows the jump.
Dear Brendan Kiley,
I am truly delighted that my book made you want to know more about me, and to read more of my books in English. (Someday soon, I hope!) In the meantime, here are a few responses to your questions.
Why is your first book to be translated into English? Which other French authors should we demand translations of?
Today, the United States translates very few European novels—I think it’s a shame. In Europe they translate a lot of American literature. It is an obvious historical change: the dominant cultural model today is American, and no longer European. And we are partly responsible: in France, for example, the avant-garde of the ‘50s (the “Nouveau Roman”) had a very tedious idea of what was avant-garde literature.
For a long time, I myself preferred American novels, because they were about more interesting things about modern life. Happily, the image of French literature has begun to change—notably, with the international success of my friend Michel Houellbecq.
I’m especially sorry that Requiem pour une avant-garde isn’t available in English. Could you tell me a bit about that essay?
It is also about the same question of the avant-garde that I treat in my book, but in regards to music. I discuss how audacious Modernism, so insolent at the beginning of the 20th C. (like that of Stravinsky, Schonberg, Bartok) was transfored into an academic system, an “official” Modernism sustained by a specialized press and the universities, but without any relation to the public.
Notably, in the book, I attack Pierre Boulez and several other representatives of the “academic avant-garde”—who are particularly entrenched in France, because of the importance of the State in funding the arts. But, like in literature, there are huge talents in contemporary French music (Hersant, Florentz, Escaich); and I love the American school, from Steve Reich and John Adams.
You studied with Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis, right? Do you play an instrument?
I play piano, I have composed a little, and I’ve spent many years studying music, it’s my passion. I never thought of becoming a composer—I only wanted to be a writer—but I could not concieve of a life without music. I know many contemporary composers, and I have studied with some of them (Xenakis, Stockhausen) but Ligeti was the most remarkable, because he had such a free spirit, and we would talk equally about Schumann, the Marx Brothers or Astor Paizzola.
Astonish Me, Benoit is a great title for a radio show.
It’s about my other passion: Light opera, musical comedy,and comedic songs. The show is very successful, partly because I broadcast music that you can hear nowhere else: from Offenbach to Spike Jones, from the accordian to the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra and Brian Eno.
The inside jacket of The Little Girl and the Cigarette says you were discovered by Samuel Beckett. Where did he find you? How did he find you? What happened?
It was more I who searched him out. When I was twenty, he was the writer I most admired — not only his plays but his novels like Molloy and stories like First Love. Beckett was, in fact, avant-garde, but above all I loved his sense of humor, and his way of showing how characters drift along, and the adventures they have.
Anyway, I read everything he wrote, and sent him my very first writing. He sent me a very nice response, with kind words, and told me to show my work, using his name, to the editor of the review, Minuit (who was also his editor.) And over several years, he followed my work and continued to encourage me in my writing. That’s all. I never met him. But for a young, unknown writer, completely out of it, (at that time I was working in a department store warehouse), it was extremely important.
One of my favorite passages in the novel is the fake newspaper excerpt about the terrorist group, John Wayne’s Conscience, and their mission to finance “quality terrorism” with a game show—a conflation of American culture and Islamo-terrorism which, in your book, don’t seem so far apart.
Everything in that passage, it’s my feeling, is firstly fantasy. I wrote it because I thought it was funny: but sometimes, our fantasies make more sense than we realize.
My idea at the beginning was inspired by the TV game show called “Star Academy” (American Idol in the US, I belive), because there is, I think, in the television reality shows, an obscene element based on cruelty, the humiliation of the contestants and the sadism of the audience. I wanted to push that logic to its most extreme (meaning the execution of the contestants) by imagining “Martyr Idol.” As for poor John Wayne, it’s not really about him—but it is interesting to me that the Islamic terrorists lay claim to an American model that fascinates them in many respects. You could say that everyone is acting in the same absurd, destructive Western, along with Reagan, George Bush and gun supporters!
The first page of the novel contains this sentence: “Obviously, the idea of defending the health of a man condemned to death could be considered puzzling, unless you viewed it as a refinement of cruelty.” The book is, basically, about the refinement of the worst parts of life—bureaucracy, terrorism, the worship of the juvenile. Are we all falling more deeply in love with the worst parts of ourselves?
Yes, certainly. But I would say that what also interests me, in the book, is to show how these positive values (health, the protection of childhood, the news media, etc.) can be transformed, in their turn, into a tyranny, almost as violent as earlier forms of opression. How violence, which was used yesterday in the name of power and domination, can be excerised today in the name of good and justice. I think that it is one of the characteristics of our epoch.
Tell me about some of your other novels.
Let us wait until they appear in English. I’ll briefly mention the one that had the most success in France (Le Voyage en France)—it tells the story of a young American who visits the Europe of today, and discovers that it doesn’t much look like an Impressionist painting.