Frederic Beigbeder: The world is getting more stupid every day
They call him the enfant terrible of French literature due to his no-mercy approach to the evils of modern society, unmasking them with sparkling humour and satire. We talked to writer, literary critic, TV presenter, and film director, Frederic Beigbeder.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Frederic Beigbeder, it's really nice to have you with us today. It’s been a while we wanted to have an interview with you. What a chance that you're here in Moscow! I want to start with Beigbeder collection. That's a new project, that's gonna come out in six months. It's sort of a compilation of French writers. You're not in it, you're a producer and editor of this thing. And it's supposed to show the French way on eternal matters. Am I correct?
Frederic Beigbeder: Exactly!
SS: So what are these matters?
FB: Yeah, it's a crazy idea that Russian writer - famous Andrei Gelasimov - had to ask me to choose my favourite books of contemporary writers and put my name on the cover instead of theirs. But no, I will ask that my name is smaller than the name of the authors. It's just that I will present my favourite novels of the last ten years. Novels about today, about the world, how it's changing so quickly and so weirdly. We are working on the list. We are working on the translations. We didn't choose everything. But I'm very glad. And I think it's a beautiful idea because we need ideas to put closer our two cultures. France and Russia - we were very close in the 19th century, and now less.
SS: Two crazy nations - I’ll give you that much.
FB: Exactly. Two crazy...
SS: In a good way.
FB: In a good way. We like to criticise everything, we like to complain.
SS: Very subjective.
FB: We like parties. We like to go out. We like seduction.
SS: Yes. You like beautiful women. Russian men like beautiful women. It's all about that. But do I understand correctly that in this new book that's coming out it's going to be only French writers or?...
FB: I cannot tell you definitely because we are working. But I hope there will be two American novels that I loved recently. But the problem is we didn't sign the contract yet. So it's possible that the books that I want to translate are already sold to another publishing company.
SS: So I'm asking because to me and for many people who know a little bit French culture you are as French as it gets as a character, as a writer - like you're very French. But for those who aren't familiar with the French literature and French culture, I figured like you were choosing French writers in your book so that they would show the French way and French point of view on life in general. What makes in your own words French literature French, besides the language?
FB: Well, the pleasure, the fact that we like a certain way of life. Not too crazy about working all day long but more taking time to eat, drink…
SS: Irreverent sarcasm? No?
SS: Irreverent sarcasm.
FB: Yes, yes. Way of... We like this… criticising the power, all kinds of powers.
SS: Not accepting taboos.
FB: Exactly, exactly. Fighting for freedom. So, you know in this world that is changing so fast maybe France is one of the places trying to resist this change, to stay able to have a certain quality of life.
SS: That's very good that you say that because I've been observing everything that is going on after Charlie Hebdo, after the Bataclan, and I mean when something like this happens, no matter how safe you feel afterwards, life just can't be the same. It's like…
SS: It can't be the same but somehow French people just managed in your face to just continue living the way they live. Like many other people would have closed down…
FB: It's very true, it's very interesting because Moscow is changing. It's the first time I come since a few years, and I saw a real change because there was this huge city party. So everything was closed, and everybody was outside. It was very sunny. The weather was beautiful, and there was a lot of crowd in the streets but not only because of these concerts but because there are lots of terraces outside cafes, people who take a glass of wine sitting in the street. This didn't exist 20 years ago. I don't remember seeing Russians like this with tables and chairs in the street, taking time to drink a glass of wine. So what I'm saying is the Parisian way of life now is Russian. So this is cool. And this is very good news because this is the way of life that was attacked in November 2015 in Paris. Not only the Bataclan but people just sitting outside having a drink - this way of life is considered a crime by some people who want to kill because you deserve death when you have a drink. So in a way if Moscow people are sitting outside having a drink - it's a political gesture, it's resisting. It's cool, it's fun and it's nice but it's also very important morally and politically. It's important.
SS: But talk to me a little bit about how that resistance is portrayed in the literature, in the modern literature. I would like to talk about French literature or the national character because it's something that interests me very much. Like for instance, the way French perceive French literature and the people outside France is very different. Like, for instance, Dostoevsky that everyone reads from, I don't know, Paris to Mexico City - they're convinced that this is a genius who embodies the Russian psychology. And for people at home this is genius, a guy with enormous talent who was just very weird and has nothing to do with national psyche. Do you know what I mean?
SS: So when you write books that, you think, are French or you choose your writers in your almanach to be French, how do you make the difference between what really is French and the stereotype that people have for French is?
FB: I'm not really that clever because when I choose a book, I just choose a book that makes me laugh, or cry, or makes me angry or just shook me provocatively, created a reaction. It doesn't mean I'm not thinking if this book can please the Russian or the French people, I just react in a way that I think: “Oh, this guy's great! This is great! I want to translate it! I want to transmit this virus to foreign readers! Why not?” But I don't say... I think your question is excellent, but you are maybe too intellectual. For me, literature is very simple. Dostoyevsky sometimes makes me cry. I don't really analyse why. It's true that, for example, Raskolnikov with all his contradictions, he's like totally tortured inside and in the end he finds a sort of redemption. And for us, French people, we think all Russians are like these: tortured people that find a solution to their problems, or people who drink too much, or people who gamble too much. And finally maybe there is an issue because they find God, for example. I'm doing something really simple too.
SS: That's actually very deep.
FB: I mean, summing up Dostoyevsky in one sentence - it's not really easy, but when you're a foreigner, you look at Russians like this. You think these people are... They have many temptations of... many kinds of money, fame... I don't know... beautiful girls or killing yourself with drugs and alcohol, but then they turn to something more beautiful which can be nature, it can be family or it can be God... or Putin, I don't know. But anyway, it's good when literature is a trip, it's a trip. You're not the same at the end of the book as you were when you started the book.
SS: Now that you're editor would you choose yourself?...
FB: Would I publish myself?...
SS: If you read yourself for the first time.
FB: I have to think about this.
SS: Take your time.
FB: ...because I'm always very, very mean to myself. So maybe I would say…
FB: ...who is this arrogant bastard?
SS: Are you really mean to yourself?
FB: No, I mean I don't really love what I do, and I would love to correct my old books. When I reread myself I'm ashamed, so I don't know if I would publish me. But it's important to be able to admire others. When you write, you don't write ex nihilo. You always write from somewhere: from the love of the great books that you have read when you were a child or adolescent. And so for me, it's important to admire young writers, new writers. But for myself, I'm very very severe.
SS: You might find this question deep, but I think it's like a really important question because you're a writer and this is your bread. This makes you live and your family. Do you feel like books today and writers today aren’t supposed to actually tell people how to live? Because like in old times that's what it was. We didn't have mass media. We didn't have internet. Like you only had religious texts or writers. So you would take a book and “oh, I should do this, or I should behave like this, or my problem solution is here”. What about now? Do you feel like?... What to do when books in general, literature in general, is something that dictates truth?
FB: There are two questions in your question, because now there is a trend of manual of self-development. Many writers and many readers think that literature is mode d'emploi, it has to show you and tell you how to live. And they don't like that. I think, there is a mission in literature, but it's not exactly that. It's when you read all those stories, millions of stories it helps you to know how to love how to accept ageing, how to behave when something horrible happens, because you have read all those stories and maybe you're prepared for death of someone you love, for example, or catastrophes like that. So I'm thinking it's not self-development, it's not a writer telling you how to live but in another way, in a strange, mysterious way they teach us how to live. In a different way. So that's what my answer. I don't know if it's too complicated.
SS: No, it's actually very deep. You're telling me you're not deep enough, you're actually there.
FB: No, no. There is another mission I see in novels, because we are in a world where there is a lot of images: television, your phone, and not enough time for yourself. And when you read a book, you turn off your computer, turn off your smartphone, you turn off the TV, and you are with yourself and with the soul of the writer. This miracle... This is very important, I think. And this is only in books. You don't have this anywhere else. And the world now is more and more stupid every day because people read less.
SS: Since you're saying that books is the only way to another person's soul or to your soul, let's talk about the eternal life. I mean you're saying, you don't take yourself too seriously and you're very critical of what you write. But, I mean, the title “The Eternal life” is something that so many people before you have tackled.
SS: Just in simple words: what have you find out about immortality that all these philosophers, writers, scientists haven't before you?
FB: That science now is close to really changing mankind. And this has never happened before. The situation now of our species, the Homo sapiens, is that some scientists some doctors in China, in America,in Russia, everywhere are working on improving us as animals. So this is new. This is really very strange. Immortality and eternal life is the most old subject of literature. The first novel ever found, maybe five thousand years ago, is Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a story of a guy who doesn't want to die. And then you have Jesus who talked about eternal life. And then you have hundreds and thousands of books: Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, Dracula - many many books talking about this. The only thing that I did in my little one is that I met many scientists all over the world that are really actually working on how to make us live longer...
SS: Would you want that for yourself, if you had a choice between this healthy, good looking, happy, with a family Frederic Beigbeder and you getting old gradually and seeing your kids grow or stopping...
FB: ...or living five hundred years?
SS: A hundred and fifty, not even five hundred.
FB: Hundred and fifty - we almost can do it now because Jeanne Calment was almost this age even though there is debate about Jeanne Calment. Well, I answer in the book that if it's possible to save the lives of all the people I love and stay healthy and good looking, then why not? Why not? Why refuse it? Because we already have changed. In the Middle Ages we would be dead now: after 25 or 30 you are dead. Now we can live 60, 70 or 80 years old. So we have doubled our length. Already! We did! So it's possible to double again, maybe triple and maybe we would love it. But what are the conditions? What is the price to pay? That's the question that I'm asking in the book.
SS: Wouldn’t the idea of actual immortality scare you? But if you think about immortality, the obsession of humankind of being immortal…
FB: Obsession - that’s since forever.
SS: But that's the driving force behind everything: literature, philosophy, technology, science. I mean...
FB: To beat death...
SS: If we actually achieve that - it's almost like there's no evolution. It's sort of like we're a different race. We're not humans anymore.
FB: Exactly. You said the answer. The problem is if we succeed we will not be humans anymore.
SS: And that doesn't bother you?
FB: No, no, it worries me. I like to be a human - limited person with desires that are impossible to satisfy. No, no! But really when I talk to all these scientists especially in Harvard Medical School, I understood that to become eternal, we have to become partly robots, partly mutants. We have to become creatures like in Iron Man or all the superhero movies. Then I don't think I want. I don't think I want. I don't want to be algorithm or… I don't want to be…
SS: So we're talking about the human evolution. But literature like anything else, like a living organism also evolves and you're saying people are reading less and less. You have three kids. I've heard you say somewhere they don't read. They chat with their friends on Internet mostly...
FB: Not the little ones because they are too young to have portable phones. And I'm gonna fight. I hope I'm gonna fight. But with my 20-year-old daughter I lost the battle completely when she was 13.
SS: But does it scare you? Do you feel like you're part of a dying breed because people aren't going to read it anymore?
FB: No, she reads, she reads but she doesn't read what I tell her to read - and that's normal. But she does read and I think they have a new way of using language and writing because they spend a lot of time on social media but they're writing. It is writing even though they use too much smileys. So, I don't know if I understand this next generation. And I think it's normal - it's just because I'm an old guy.
SS: But do you think about what's going to happen to books and literature? For instance, with TV and the visuals? Like before when Dumas used to write Three Musketeers it would be one chapter every week. And then people would wait for it, like cliffhangers, and then you have HBO, Netflix...
FB: It’s the same.
SS: Exactly the same! And the stuff they do is good.
FB: It’s good.
SS: It doesn't take you for a fool, it digs. It's like really good stuff. It's actually like new literature. Do you feel like it’s replacing you?
FB: I agree totally and we cannot compete with such great work. So one hope is that literature will find new ways to become interesting again. And it's not storytelling. To tell only a story, it's much better to be “Breaking bad”. Shows like that are so much efficient, and they have such impact. “Game of Thrones”... But literature has another way to attract and seduce: style, emotions, something deeper like meeting someone who has the same problems you have, or someone telling his life with maximum honesty, taking the time. I said, you have to turn off everything, be with yourself, sitting in a chair maybe with a glass of old whiskey and you're suddenly with silence and solitude you have access to something superior maybe superior to cinema and television, even great shows. It's something else. Makes you feel very human. And so that's what I'm fighting for now.
SS: But it must also somehow affect the storytelling, because it certainly affects the language.
FB: I don't think we will read books to have stories. We will read books for something else. One of the books I want to translate in Russia is called “The gas station”, and for 200 pages you are only in this gas station, and the guy who is a cashier, he's taking notes, looking at the clients, looking at the cars, smelling the smell of petrol, burning petrol that is killing the nature around. He's just taking notes. There is no story. It's just observations of every day people coming to this gas station. And I think this is kind of the future for novels.
SS: More observation rather than storytelling?
FB: Observation of the details and making you understand the world and look at the world, look at ordinary things like they are not normal. Everything you think is normal is mad.
SS: So you're saying storytelling is so much better done now on TV that you should or people of your profession...
FB: There are still incredible stories in novels. Thank God, there are! But it's a difficult battle, and I would choose to fight in another field.
SS: So you don't see yourself as a storyteller?
FB: For me for example, no, I don't think I'm really a storyteller. I think, I do partly autobiographical books and partly caricature, satire to make people laugh about advertising or about top-models. But I never really told an incredible story or something really completely original like the great writers I love. I know I'm not in this category, and it doesn't bother me.
SS: But I've heard you also say once that you have to be somewhat not depressed but like on the downside to actually write a book. Because when everything is good you just want to have a drink. I hear you’re on that one. But is it really like that though? Stephen King said that life is not supposed to be a life-support for the art, it’s another way way around.
FB: Very often great poets or great artists are sad people that had problems when they were young. The girls didn't want to kiss them, so they wanted to become a genius. Yes, it's true. And then, now that I'm mostly happy, it's a problem. And I have noticed that some of my latest books written when I was happy are very sad, and so maybe when I write now... I have a happy life but when I write, I become depressed again. It's strange, it's a strange thing to write. I put myself in the state where I was when I was frustrated and angry adolescent. So, I go back to this hate that I had inside my head. Not hate but rage, the rage to put this sentence on paper.
SS: So, imagine like if you had to choose because you're saying “I'm almost all the time happy right now”. Right? And that's a good thing. So if you had a choice to live that happy life and never ever write a book because you can't write when you're happy, or actually become unhappy to write a chef-d’oeuvre?
FB: First one. I take the happiness. Of course. I take the happiness. No, no, no. I don't want to go back to the misery and melancholy. But maybe when I go out and get really wasted, it's because I'm looking for this state. And often I write very late when I'm lonely, and destroyed. So maybe that's the solution to drink too much.
SS: Well it looks to me like you find of perfect harmony between the two. So good luck with everything.
FB: Thank you very much.
SS: Thanks for this talk.