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Virginie Despentes's Novels of Bohemian Connection and Fragmentation


French writer, theorist, and filmmaker Virginie Despentes published a trilogy of novels between 2013 and 2017 collectively entitled Vernon Subutex. They trace the fortunes of a former record-shop owner as his private life and bohemian social world fragment in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. At Public Books, Michael Lucey examines the formal innovations and ethnographic ambitions of Despentes’s trilogy, after the first volume, which was translated into English last year, was recently shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. As Lucey writes, Despentes’s achievement is as much sociological as literary, insofar as she shows how a multiplicity of characters are brought together and then torn apart by larger social forces. Here’s an excerpt from Lucey’s piece:

In interviews, Despentes has emphasized one aspect of her chosen narrative technique: by moving from one point of view to another, Vernon Subutex offers no unifying perspective from which to examine her characters. Her activity during the writing of the novel, she has said, was a practice of listening, collecting manners of speaking, learning to inhabit different voices. When she began writing, she would read deeply for a day or two in a certain author’s works, then write a chapter in one voice, read for a day or two in another author’s works, and then write in a different voice. “It’s bizarre, because you don’t at all find the author I was reading [in what I wrote], but I felt that each time it produced a kind of rhythmic effect.” We learn the contours of the world she offers by learning to hear the different voices she produces. Her effort as a novelist has been to understand how producing salient differences between voices and between points of view could produce an image of a social world …

Such multiperspectivalism was important, Bourdieu insisted, because what made living together difficult in many circumstances then, as now, were the “clashing interests, orientations, and lifestyles” that arise within the social contexts in which many of us are obliged to exist.6 Bourdieu and Despentes are dealing with different moments in the history of what we might call neoliberal-induced precarity, and both are interested in how people forced into various forms of precarity understand what has happened to them, and how it affects their ability to live alongside the people around them.

Image of Virginie Despentes via