I was brought up short by this remark by the French President, François Hollande, on Michel Houellebecq’s controversial new novel, Soumission, which imagines a near-future France under an Islamic government.
“I’ll read the novel,” he said, talking in a special interview on the French radio station France Inter, “because it is part of a debate.” (I’m translating this from a transcription on the Lesinrocks website, and it’s a tricky line to translate. “Parce qu’il fait débat”: because it’s making debate, forming debate, is worth debating.
Firstly, I was pretty stunned to hear a national leader saying they were going to read a novel, and this in the same week as Mark Zuckerberg’s book-a-fortnight resolution (which I’m not at all sniffy about: I think a book a fortnight for someone in his position is an admirable and, more importantly, achievable aim).
Well done, Hollande, I thought. Could you imagine David Cameron saying the same?
But then, in fact, Hollande goes on to talk further (this was in a two-hour special interview in which he took questions from the host, journalists and listeners):
What one tends to think of as a literary provocation (audace) is only ever a repetition. For centuries there has been this allure of the decadent, of the sense of decline, of addictive pessimism, of this need to question oneself. [Houellebecq] is part of this beguiling tradition. I don’t know if you want it, or fear it, but you certainly enjoy it. But this is literature, and I leave it to authors to express themselves as they see fit, it’s not my job to label a text good or bad.
Apologies again for my inept, rushed translation, but irrespective of what I think about Houellebecq’s book (I’m a fan, but I’m scared), I think that’s a wonderful thing to hear a politician talk like this about literature. I think it’s indicative of the difference between the French cultural climate and ours here. We’re the poorer for it.