French Studies

Interventions 2020 by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Andrew Brown

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May 2022, no. 442

Michel Houellebecq has never been one to hide his light under a bushel. Since the publication of his second and best-known novel, Atomised, in 1998 (the same year some of the pieces included in Interventions 2020 were originally published in French), Houellebecq has established himself as the enfant terrible of French letters, primarily through his provocative and at times incendiary remarks. Indeed, there is a certain expectation that Houellebecq will live up to his reputation, something he notes in his reflections on paedophilia: ‘Through the wording of your questions, I feel I am subtly being asked to say something politically incorrect.’ Rarely does he disappoint.

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The French Dispatch 

Searchlight Pictures
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06 December 2021

Devotees of Wes Anderson know what to expect, and they certainly get it in spades in The French Dispatch. Those who sensed that the American director lost his way with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), may feel he has strayed even further from the simplicity of the works that made him famous, such as the understated Bottle Rocket (1996), the quirky and endearing Rushmore (1998), and that masterpiece of whimsy, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s homage to Stefan Zweig set in a European alpine resort, has much in common with his latest film; an episodic, phantasmagorical, excessive, and, at times, indulgent work.  It met with mixed reviews and was described as ‘kitschy’ and ‘curiously weightless’, epithets which might apply equally to his The French Dispatch, largely for its overlong zany scenes which appear arbitrary in relation to the action.

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Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside

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December 2019, no. 417

Serotonin is Michel Houellebecq’s eighth novel and appears four years after the scandalous and critically successful Submission (2015), a dystopian novel that depicts France under sharia law. In Serotonin, we are again presented with the standard Houellebecquian narrator: white, middle-aged, and middle class, seemingly in the throes of some mid-life crisis of a predominantly – but not exclusively – sexual nature.

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Have the French thought themselves to death? This is the question that Sudhir Hazareesingh poses in this erudite and stimulating book. His concluding chapter is a piece of diplomatic fence-sitting, but, notwithstanding the claim of the subtitle's affection, much of the analysis points to a national culture in terminal decline, inward-looking, nostalgic for past glor ...

Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Jan Owen

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January-February 2016, no. 378

The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal, 1857) is the most celebrated and most influential collection of verse in the history of modern French poetry. Its author, Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), is seen as the embodiment of a sensibility we regard as 'modern'. T.S. Eliot called him 'the greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language'.

Ba ...

'It is hard to imagine a more challenging scholarly task than composing, in under three hundred pages, an introduction to a field as vast and variegated as French literature. From the fabliaux, mystery plays and chansons de geste of medieval times to such figures as the present-day Nobel Prize-winning novelists Le Clézio and Modiano, it embraces n ...

Patti Miller has written four books of or about memoir, one of which, The Mind of a Thief (UQP, 2012) won the New South Wales Premier’s History Award, and she has taught life writing for more than twenty years. Yet her most recent publication, Ransacking Paris, while enjoyable at one level, is disappointing at another. There is a serious mismatch bet ...

In 1798, during the revolutionary wars on the European mainland, the Irish rebelled. Though they were supported militarily by the French Republic, it was the ideas heralded by the Revolution that gave real strength to their cause. A decade later, in Dublin, William Hallaran argued in his An Enquiry Into the Causes Producing the Extraordinary Addition to the Number of Insane that much of the increase should be attributed to the rebellion. Fifteen per cent of cases where causes could be identified were linked directly with the rebellion, but its effects were writ large in the rest of the catalogue: loss of property, drunkenness, religious zeal, disappointment, and grief.

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As the maker of the nine-and-a-half hour film Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann created a work of major and enduring historical importance. Through its electrifyingly tense interviews with victims and perpetrators, it opens an indispensable, if harrowing, dimension to our understanding of Hitler’s Final Solution. A work that unrelentingly has as its subject death rather than survival, it will always confront and resist any temptation to forget the terrible specificity of the concerted extermination of millions of European Jews, or to repress the knowledge that this was the work of human beings. Towards the end of The Patagonian Hare, a hundred or so pages are devoted to the genesis and making of Shoah.

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Napoleon came to power as First Consul in 1799 after a coup d’état, having recently returned from invading Egypt, his defeat there by the British spin-doctored into a victory back in Paris. Five years later he had himself made emperor, crowning himself in Notre Dame surrounded with panoply reminiscent of the ancien régime and inspired by fantasies of Roman Antiquity. Bonaparte’s armies occupied much of Western Europe, overthrowing governments, installing his brothers and brothers-in-law as kings, and imposing French laws and taxation. Napoleon’s wars killed three million soldiers, with the death rate on the Russian campaign – mostly of starvation, cold, and exhaustion – among the highest in modern military history. The emperor pillaged the art collections of conquered Europe to create his Musée Napoléon. In 1802 he reversed a decree of the revolutionary government in order to re-establish slavery in the French colonies. The famous Napoleonic Code of laws made women second-class citizens; a woman’s husband, for instance, had legal control of her property. The emperor unceremoniously dumped Joséphine to take a wife who could bear a child and, he dreamed, secure his dynasty. Napoleon’s opponents were imprisoned or driven into exile.

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