Frédéric Beigbeder is a person, whose sensibility lays down on multiple layers, whose depth of the soul can never be entirely seized. A day before my birthday, I had the pleasure to meet him and spend an hour with his recherché persona, trying to grasp a fragment of his multidimensional inner universe, a fragment of the memory of time. An introduction of him would be frankly unnecessary. The most amazing thing about Frédéric is his sincerity, exactly like his works. With him, nothing is superfluous, and nothing is of capital importance. It is light, including this interview. By the time I arrived for our tête-à-tête, he had been already drinking a glass of wine with his publisher, Arnaud, discussing the final details of his upcoming biography. Dark long hair, wide shoulders, slim elongated silhouette, this is how I recognized him. Approaching the table, looking at his expressive profile traits, and finally.. his pale blue eyes – the mirror of his cosmos. Frédéric is one of those people you can never get too little or too much of. The pleasure of him lays in absorbing his ephemeral presence, his delicate sensibility, his self-sufficiency, which can hardly evaporate from the thought with time. After a meeting like this, you stay electrified for a long time, and this is where his enigma rests - you can never discover all, you can never submerge deeper. It is a mystery worth not discovering. There is a phrase in Auster's The Invention of Solitude I’ve always liked:
“Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.”
This interview is devoted to all people possessing an ultimate freedom within.
Portrait of Frédéric Beigbeder
Illustrated by Katarzyna Jagielnicka for Noir Catcher
Beigbeder at a drink in La Palette, a little hip café in the Sixth arrondissement, Paris, September 2016.
Mr. Beigbeder, what is the adventure of being a writer?
I guess in the world there are many adventures that are more brave or more spectacular. I never jumped from a plane with or without a parachute, I never climbed the Himalayas. So, is it really an adventure to take a pen and a paper and write down a sentence? I’m not sure. Maybe you become a writer because you are not Indiana Jones.
Is writing for you an attempt to recapture memory, to confess, to clean your mind or simply to escape?
I think the three first are right for me. I try to confess, I try to get rid of, and clean my mind and also to remember. I have no memory but when I write suddenly images come back. It is really a mystery. I don’t understand why, but writing is connected with the souvenir, the past.. Putting words about your life and moments, it is a kind of pleasure.. It gives you a reason to live. I don’t know why I am here and I’m alive, I feel useless.. but when I write sometimes I understand why I am here. I mean, even though I’m not sure if it is important, it gives me a reason to live. About escaping… I wish I could escape but I don’t. I am always talking about reality. For example, I am very jealous of someone like J.K. Rowling. She started telling the story of Harry Potter to her son, she had no money and no job. She started putting her son to sleep by inventing this story of a sorcerer on a broom et cetera. In a way she was escaping her life. Like Tolkien and all these writers with great imagination.. I am always a little bit jealous. I envy these people because I write only about having a glass of wine with a girl in Paris. It’s great of course, it is beautiful.. but I wish I could tell a story of a guy, who has a glass of wine with a girl in Paris and suddenly they start to fly above the street and they go to the moon and back. I wish I can do that, and obviously I can not.
How do you feel exposing your naked soul in the confessional nature of your works?
It is like a striptease. I am like literally Chip & Dale. Sometimes it is weird. For example, I was speaking about that with Arnaud, he wrote my biography, which is crazy, and he tells all the details about my sentimental life, and I’m worried what my wife will think about it… He talks about my past and all of my love stories. It is kind of embaracing. But I love to read that. I love to read confessions. Rousseau, Montaigne. Great French writers did that. André Gide. They are talking about everything. Every detail of their personal life. In a way it is moving, you feel it. You are part of it. You are in the brain of this person. And you know it is true, so there is a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, looking into the secret life of someone. It is a kind of perversion. I know I’m crazy - half exhibitionist, half voyeur.
Speaking of craziness, do you try to control your madness or you let it flow?
It depends. I had different periods in my life. In some periods I was really crazy with my health, I was putting myself in danger, going out every night, never sleeping, taking drugs, everything… During those periods I was writing very classical books, for example A French Novel or Love Lasts Three Years. It is strange but the opposite is also true, when I was very quiet in my life I wrote my craziest works – 99 francs, L’Ideal or L’Egoïste Romantique. It is like I need to write something different from my life. I write about my life but when I am quiet I need danger and when I am in danger I need tranquility.
No matter what you write about, inside you expose the real you through your style – the mirror of the artistic sensibility, which I believe is more important than the content…
It is true. What I really prefer when I read is emotion. I like to laugh, cry, be angry, be sad. It is more than sensibility, it is hyper-sensibility, hyper-fragility.. You have to be in a state of.. Hmm.When I am normal I do not want to write, when I am happy I want to drink, but when I write it is always because there is a problem. For example, I am annoyed by something, I feel bad, I feel melancholic.. It is like a fuel for the writer when you feel like sh*t. [Laughs.]
So anger as stimulus for writing is still valid for you today?
Many things make me angry. I do not understand this world. As I get older, there are more stuff that I find absurd.
[Motorbike passing loudly.]
For example this motorbike, which makes a lot of noise on the street. What is the problem with that guy?! He has a small penis maybe, and he creates a lot of noise.. Is it more masculine.. I don’t know.. [Laughs.] I like to be angry but it is also a revolt. I hate many things, for example these stuff.. [Pointing at the recorder and the iPhone.] I do have one. I hate the fact that this is destroying our private life, deciding what we want with an algorithm. The world today is governed by geeks. And I am not one. I like pleasure, I like life, I like literature and cinema. I am not a geek in front of a screen since I was born. I think geeks are more dangerous than they seem. They look like guys with glasses and computers. They own the world and we don’t have to accept that. We can refuse it.
I agree, Paris and life would be much pleasant as this Sunday, the day without cars. A slow-down of the city’s overstimulation. Is your work a defensive cocoon of this excessive stimulation?
It is possible. It is a refusion. I think that when you really think what is this strange activity of reading a book – it is a form of resistance. If you really want to read something important like Lawrence or Proust you have to turn off the TV and your computer. You need silence, you need, yes… a cocoon! Like a bunker. [Laughs.] It is a difficult decision, less and less people are able to make that decision. My daughter, for example, she doesn’t like to read. She likes to call her friends. I think we are addicted to new media, social networks et cetera. If you make this decision of refusing everything..
[Glasses loudly breaking on next table.]
and be with the great spiritual writer and spend time with someone dead hundred years ago, he talks to you. I think it is worth the effort. You will feel great. You will feel bigger than life, than yourself.
“When you really think what is this strange activity of reading a book - it is a form of resistance..”
© Sylvie Lancrenon
How can we bring back that culture and though, the intellectual charge?
Everything in this world is organized in a way to destroy thinking. When people think too much they criticize the power, analyze life and they want to make a change. It is not cool for the government. Everything is organized in a way people never think. You don’t have to think. You just obey. That is what I tried to explain in 99 francs and L’Ideal. It started after the World War II.
The world is also organized in a way that after every extreme period, there is a counter balance one. Do you think in this age of mass consumption and moral degradation, there is a light in the tunnel for the near future, an upcoming neo-Enlightment?
I hope so. I hate to be pessimistic. I don’t like old guys to say “it was better before”. I hope you are right. I don’t see it coming, I don’t see any reasons to be optimistic... Some young people know this life is crazy, they want to escape, live in the countryside and have a simple life. They refuse to obey. There is also a big movement of ecology and environment fight against the destruction of the planet. There are some people who are aware. I hope in the future there will be millions of them... [A great breathing out from himself.]
What about the lost respect for the author, the literature person, the intellectual? Sadly, I have heard too many times that to be a writer is not a proper job… Too often people do not perceive it as something essential, more spirited and significant than anything else, something feeding the soul..
First of all, what you are doing, this magazine, is like a way of resisting, a refusing this stupid life in an office. You have created your own media, you choose the people you would like to see and this is wonderful to do. People think only for money. Especially in Central Europe, because of the Communist past, now everybody is obsessed with money, how much money do you have, do you have a big car, a big house, does your wife look like a top model.. This is as you said a balance after the Communism to an extreme capitalism. But when I travel to Bulgaria and other ex-communist countries, I find that they are really curious about art and literature, maybe even more than in France or in America. It is both. Also in Russia, they love literature. They feel guilty because they don’t read, but they know it’s bad. They want to make money and they think maybe one day they will have time to read. Still this guilt do exist. Maybe that is the reason – the guiltiness of people who don’t read. When someone says “Oh, you wanna be a writer..?” like a homeless on the street.. but inside they are dreaming of doing the same, I am sure.. deep down, they know you are free and they are not. [Wondering.]
There are too many rules. We need love, we need justice, we need structure…
Speaking of rules, what about the notion of boundaries?
Ah, I don’t like that.. I like the idea that all the problems are worldwide. It is absolutely stupid to have countries. It is good to have differences, different cultures and languages but countries… Wednesday I will be in Sofia, I feel at home. I hope you feel at home in Pairs. It is not a problem. Nationalism makes people very stupid. For example, where there is the world cup of football, everybody goes really mad. They look like they want to kill each other. Maybe I am not a good patriot. Did I choose to be French? No. I was just born here, so I am French but nobody asked me “Frédéric, do you want to be French, or English or German or Bulgarian?” No… I just came to this world and I was French.
So you don’t consider yourself as very French?
I have a history here. I have places and memories here. But I don’t want to die for being French. I am not proud because I was born here. I didn’t do anything for being French. Some of my grandparents came here, they came from Syria, they crossed the Mediterranean Sea and
there was still life... They crossed Greece, they crossed Germany and arrived in France. They wanted to be French much more than me. I was just born like that. In a way, the people who choose to be in a country they should be welcomed because maybe they really love this country. Many people brave so many things and go trough so much danger to stay here. I didn’t do anything, just my father f*cked my mother, that’s all.. [Laughs.] and then left…. [Laughs louder.]
I have always wanted to write but I am very shy and modest. Do you think writing and establishing yourself as an author goes hand in hand with self-confidence and supreme vanity? What about Céline, whose only wish was to be ignored?
I think all writers are shy. They are always afraid. They don’t like to talk, they don’t like to give interviews. Real writers they are not able to live, they are not social people.. They like to stay in a room and write. It is like being a handicapped. They are sick people. To be a writer is like being sick. It is a sickness, a disease. Instead of making love to beautiful people, you prefer to stay at home, read and write. You have a problem when you a writer. It is true. To write in a way you need a confidence. When you don’t.. I use wine, it is true sometimes if you drink a beer or wine, not vodka - its too strong, the shyness can go away. You can feel a little bit weird and may start writing. Also, humility or vanity.. it is difficult to decide. I think it is really very pretentious to be a writer. It is like “Oh, I have something to tell.” It is really very self-confident but if you have a library at home and if you have a few books then you become very modest. When you compare yourself to history of literature you see that you are a small worm, a little insect [Smiling.] But when you are in front of the white page, this needs a little bit of confidence. It is a paradox. For me every time I look at my library I feel crushed, I feel really desperate, destroyed when I know I will never ever achieve anything compared to Dostoyevsky or Flaubert. You must not think about that. You know what, I have many friends who are writers. Many writers are stupid. It is good to be a little bit stupid. Not thinking too much. Just start with a sentence, then you put another one and continue.. Not thinking about people reading it or criticizing it. You must be stupid.
“A good reason to write is because you have this crazy feeling you have something to say, and you think you can say it in a different way than others. That is a good reason to write, everything else is bad... it is a prostitution...”
“If life is only eating , drinking, fucking, sleeping, dying... it is not enough for me. This is maybe the reason I write.”
What about writing without wanting to share it. How does a writer overcome this or does he?
I think the good writers don’t write for the public, they write for themselves: If you write for someone else, it is because you want to seduce, because you want to sell books or because you want to be someone important. That is the wrong reason. Good reason is because you have this crazy feeling you have something to say, and you think you can say it in a different way than others. That is a good reason to write, everything else is bad It is a prostitution. Writers who want to please, they are prostitutes. For example, 50 Shades of Grey.. There is no sincerity. For me it is not a literature, it is a product. It can succeed but you know when you read it that the writer did not put her soul in the work, there is nothing personal, it is always exactly as you would write something to please the mass. What I like in books is the details, the mistakes, the charm, the mystery. Why Nabokov talks about the mouth of Lolita like a cherry, why does it look like a cherry? All the details.. This is literature. There are many books with big success, which are not writing. There is no writing. There is no personality. You do not see anything human. In 50 Shades of Grey or in The Hunger Games et cetera. The characters are empty. There is no humanity. For me what moves me when I read is all the small details. The music.. Sometimes things that are pointless, useless.. For example in the Catcher in the Rye, your magazine is called Noir Catcher, I suppose there is a reason... when he brings this record to his little sister Phoebe and it is broken. What does he do with the story is not very important… why does she wear a blue coat… it is not important… but it is important [Laughs.] In fact is the only thing that you will remember – the blue coat and the broken record.
Is there a constant conscious struggle to find bigness outside, a bigness of perception, to create an objective Magnum Opus?
There is a quote by Fernando Pessoa, a great Portuguese poet, he said: “I write because life is not enough.” I think for me life – wake up in the morning, have breakfast, brush your teeth an then drink coffee et cetera, et cetera.... is not enough. There must be something else. For me it is not God, I don’t believe in him. I don’t know why it is like that. I just think we live and we die and there is nothing else. If life is only eating, drinking, fucking, sleeping and dying... it is not enough for me. This is maybe the reason why I write. It is not that there is something great or superior but there is, I hope, something more than life.
Throughout the process of expressing yourself, is writing blundering your way towards wider consciousness? With time, do you feel you discover deeper layers of your soul?
This is very ambitious. I never thought of it that way. But it is true that knowing yourself better, putting your problems in words, understanding why you are here, understanding who you love, why you love, did your parents love you, what makes you suffer.. all these questions.. and making something beautiful, something funny, something sad, creating a work of art… I don’t know if writing makes me more conscious, but it makes me feel worth living. Maybe the real dream is to never die. When I say life is not enough... [Thinking]...
Let’s cut the bullsh*t. All writers want to be immortal. That’s the big thing... It is very very mad and very megalomaniac and egocentric and it is really something we should not be proud of, but it is true. All writers, if you really question them they would say “no, no, no..” but this is the true reason why they do write. They want to be eternal. They want to never die.
After our conversation, Beigbeder, who had been sitting throughout the interview in a classic French rattan bistro chair, signed the Polaroids I took of him with “BEFORE” and “AFTER” and stood up with a warm smile, preparing to leave..
Aren’t we all literary thieves? My ideas are based on the ideas of someone else, subconsciously.. and the ideas of others are deeply rooted within me, within you and the people around. The world of ideas that we can not perceive..
Like Plato said that there is a world of ideas and we do not see it. We are in a cave. It is true. I hope you are right.. We are just like continuing a long very old story, and then we will disappear and some other people will continue it. They will start reading your magazine or my novels and they will start all over again the same stories.. It is kind of beautiful. In fact, we are like Houellebecq said in The Elementary Particles, we are atoms. Atoms of ideas. That’s cool. [Laughs.]
“I am curious. This is why I don’t want to die.. Curiosity keeps me alive.”
If you could pick a different epoch, who is your utopian avatar?
I read Casanova. He had a great time in Venice in the XVIII Century. It seems that this place was a really beautiful one - excellent music, good food, beautiful girls.. It is like a dream when you read it. A story of my life by Casanova. Maybe yes, Venice in the XVIII Century. Paris compared to that is nothing. I would also love to see the XXIII and the XXIV century if there are still gonna be human beings and if we are going to be replaced by robots or by computers. I am curious. That is why I don’t want to die.. Curiosity keeps me alive. I want to see what will happen. In fact, I am jealous of my daughter, I have a little baby, she is 11 months old and she will see and live through the XXII century. I am jealous of that. I would love to see how Pairs or Milan will look in 100 years.
May you recommend me a particular place to visit in Paris?
The bookstore Shakespeare & Co, and also Un Regard Moderne on 10 rue gît le Coeur. It is really very small and there are books everywhere. Very trendy and underground, very close to here in the 6ème. It’s an incredible place. [Writes down the address in my journal.]
As being a contemporary critic, what is your constructive criticism for this interview?
You can drink another glass or two or more of wine.. and the questions might be different. But in fact, in this world everyone wants to be funny and tell jokes, and it is good to stop joking sometimes. In Paris people always ask me superficial questions and for me it is an honour to have a deeper conversation.
He left me wondering, feeling like one of those flaneurs in the novels…