Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The collective will and the collective won't, or should Dominique Manotti say no to nostalgia?

A cover blurb on one of Jean-Patrick Manchette's novels once referred to the author's "post-1968 leftism."  It has taken several years and the work of another politically oriented French crime writer to make me realize that the phrase is more than an ungainly and vacuous neologism.

The novelist in question is Dominique Manotti, whose Escape includes the following:
"There was an initial forging of collective thinking and a collective will."
and
"`That open letter could be the starting point for a collective analysis. We need to read it and discuss it, together and with other left-wing organisations.'" 
The second bit is dialogue, if you can believe that anyone would ever talk, as opposed to write, like that. Sure, that's a character speaking, not the author. But Russel McLean's interview with Manotti suggests that Manotti's own nostalgia and regrets figure in the book. "We were passionate," she tells McLean, "and a large part of France's far left was influenced by the Italians." (Much of the novel's early action, at least, takes place among Italian political refugees in France.)

Having read Manotti's previous work, with its astringent observations about the depravity of the French elite and that elite's horrifying exploitation of migrant workers, and having found nothing in that work approaching the clumsy political speech sprinkled through the opening pages of Escape, I wonder if Manotti is better off sticking to dispassionate analysis and avoiding nostalgic recollection of her own activism.

That's where Jean-Patrick Manchette's "post-1968 leftism" comes in. The three latest of the four novels of his that have been translated into English, published in their original French between 1976 and 1981, have moved well beyond the possibility of talking seriously about collective anything. I don't recall the word struggle occurring in any of the books.

The earliest of Manchette's novels available in English, though the most recently translated, suggests, as does Escape, that nostalgia and politically pointed fiction do not always go well together. The novel is called The Mad and the Bad, and
"at the worst, it reads as a mildly nostalgic reminder of a time before the triumph of consumerism, corporations, celebrity, and "content" was complete, before a time when multibillion-dollar corporations like Facebook and Apple were considered cool."
But Manchette got the nostalgia out of his system, and 3 to Kill (original publication 1976), Fatale (1977), and The Prone Gunman (1981), are three dark, stark noir classics, the last of them in particular chilling for its dissection of how powerful elites can exploit, debase, and discard an individual no longer of use to them, an individual, that is, who has no recourse to collective action or the struggle.

And now, in a collective spirit, I turn the question to you, readers, and ask: Is sharp political crime fiction incompatible with authorial nostalgia?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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9 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Have you read Tony Judt's masterpiece Post War? As a man of the left the chapters on France in 1968 and post 1968 are a brilliant and clear sighted critique of that generation. You dont have to read the whole book but the France chapters are definitely worth a look.

August 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read that, but I have read some of his other work. Those chapters might make interesting strip of litmus paper for Manchette and Manotti.

What was Judt up to in 1968?

August 20, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I know he was in Paris very soon thereafter writing I think a dissertation on Vichy collaboration which wasnt a terribly popular subject.

Like Orwell in Catalonia some of the best critics of the left have come from the left.

August 20, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I'm just happy to see any kind of politically-informed writing in this genre, even if it does come off as a little polemical. The French seem to have the market cornered on political crime writing; one of my favorites is Didier Daeninckx. His Murder in Memoriam (my review ) is set just after World War One and manages to combine passionate, opinionated political history with some really entertaining prose.

August 20, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Oops. The title in the above comment should be A Very Profitable War.

August 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I just bought the book this afternoon, along with a small book on the big subject of the Byzantine empire that asks, among other things, whether it was really an empire. I have a hankering for opinionated books of grand sweep, and I'm afraid that if I read Jules Michelet, I would stand up and sing La Marseillaise in the middle of the night and disturb my neighbors.

I read as much of the Judt last night as was available on the Kindle free sample, and I'd say there may be more to the book that critiques of the French postwar left. (Yes, I browsed the book on Kindle, then bought a real book at a real bookshop. More readers should do this.)

August 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, right author, wrong book on your first comment. Jean-Claude Izzo was another French author of politics crime writing, but don't forget the Spanish, in the person of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, and the Italians, in the person of the genial, entraining Andrea Camilleri and the great Leonardo Sciascia.

I don't mind crime writing with a political slant as long as it does not descend into sloganeering and sentimentality. I have enjoyed all the writers mentioned above as well as two previous novels by Manotti and her short fiction. And, who knows, the passages I complained about in Escape may turn out to be critiques of sentimentality. I hope that is the case.

August 20, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I listened to it as an audiobook. It was something like 50 hours, but it was a great listen. I too later bought the actual book book.

August 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Do you listen to audio books when swimming? I haven't listened to one for years, probably because I have had an exceedingly short commute to work for years.

I was so impatient to read the book that I thought, briefly, about buying it for my Kindle last night. Fortunately I remembered that e-readers are worse than useless for anything with illustrations, maps, tables, and footnotes or end notes.

August 20, 2014  

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