Laurent Mauvignier’s home invasion novel offers a compelling but flawed allegory for France’s far right problem.
People walk past election campaign posters that show presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron on 10 April 2017 in Paris, France. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)
Originally published in Paris in 2020, Laurent Mauvignier’s Birthday Party is a kidnap novel set in present-day France, a country currently being held hostage by an investment banker who compares himself to the god Jupiter and a woman who runs an organisation founded by Holocaust deniers, Vichy apologists and old school Hitler fans. Between Macron and Le Pen, French voters have had a knife held to them since 2017, by turns threatened by both the far right and a president determined to provide his opponent fertile ground by disempowering unions, slashing labour laws and attacking pensions. Amid this folie à deux, Mauvignier’s third novel in English, his thirteenth in France, offers an allegory befitting this scene, one that also confronts the violence implicit in it. The question is, does it do it justice?
The answer: almost—but not quite. It’s not that it’s irredeemably bad. In many ways, there’s much about this formally ambitious 500-page French thriller to admire. It’s that it doesn’t quite fulfil these intentions, becoming instead preoccupied by stylistic flourishes that, while they ostensibly have radical purposes, are in fact partially ornamental. Before convincing of you of this, however, let’s talk about how the book works, as if it were a machine. What is initially striking about The Birthday Party’s is its imposing mechanics, i.e. the way its words fit together and do things. Murderers might, as per Nabokov’s celebrated sex offender Humbert Humbert, have flashy prose styles, but crime writers are typically more conservative. Mauvignier, conversely, goes the other way, rendering his novel’s story about a rural family and their artist neighbour taken captive by three men, told as a day unfolds, in Faulkner-esque prose.
In it, the voice of his third-person narrator floats in and out of its characters’ dialogue and thoughts, keeping the reader guessing who is ‘speaking’. Take, for instance, the opening to Chapter 26:
Colours, at night, when they are exposed to artificial lights, are drowned in a world where they lose all depth and power they naturally accommodate in the light of day.
What a sentence. And it doesn’t mean anything. Or does it? Don’t give up painting for a writing career, he’d have like to tell her.
He closed the notebook and tossed it back onto the work table carelessly.
Until the last passage—where it’s clarified that the ‘he’ (in this case Stutter, one of the captors) has been reading a notebook belonging to the family’s artist-neighbour, and that the preceding text is a quote from her diary, followed by Stutter’s interior monologue—the scene is ambiguous. What’s more, the self-referential ‘What a sentence’ foregrounds the novel’s materiality, its wordiness, creating the anxiety that the text itself might just be a collection of mute letters that don’t ‘mean anything’. Instead of a whodunnit, then, The Birthday Party’s ambivalent parts fashion a ‘whodoesit’, prompting the reader to play literary sleuth in order to discern what’s happening.
Of course, novels aren’t just machines, they also say things too—stories, narratives. Despite this, Mauvignier has previously described his literary works as if they were storyless; as attempts to delineate ‘the unspeakable, the limits of saying’, a sentiment similar to Samuel Beckett, published in France by Mauvignier’s publisher Éditions de Minuit, who, in a 1937 letter to a German pen pal, once fantasised about wanting to ‘bore holes into language’. The trouble with such enterprises is that, as Beckett knew (but sometimes purposefully couldn’t resist), if you go too far you risk boring your readers to death as well. Seemingly conscious of this, The Birthday Party balances its abstruse form with a thriller narrative, plainly setting out its real-world ire.
Once upon a time in a hamlet in La Bassée, a rural area with such ‘a banal name that four or five other places have it too’, live a dysfunctional family of three. The father, Patrice Bergogne, is a dairy farmer; his wife, Marion, works at a printers, and their daughter, Ida, is at school. Unhappy with his sexless marriage and neurotically obsessed with his middle-aged physique (occasionally flatteringly comparing himself to a ‘rural Depardieu’, a familiar ruse for men of certain vintage), Patrice has taken to paying ‘very young African women’ for intercourse in a nearby town. Pissed off with her lazy older husband and sexist boss, Marion rage-smokes in her car listening to Nirvana. Next door lives Christine, a bourgeois Parisian artist who treats the Bergognes’ issues ‘like a problem to solve’.
Now here’s the twist. With Marion’s 40th approaching, Patrice organises a surprise party, inviting their nosey neighbour and two of his wife’s colleagues. All goes well until three brothers from Marion’s past, Denis, Christophe and Stutter, gate-crash, holding everyone hostage. Slowly, the kidnappers reveal details of Marion’s previous life, painting her as a thieving ‘whore’, a ‘drugged-up slut’, hoping to sew discontent among her family. Having been abandoned as a little girl by her alcoholic ‘dingbat mother’, it transpires that Marion fell into Denis’s clutches, a small-time crook from some nowhere town, who abuses her in every possible way. Pregnant, she eventually escapes after Denis is sent down for assault, boarding ‘the first train leaving for anywhere’, later quickly entering into a relationship with Patrice via a dating site, who is seemingly unaware of Ida’s paternity. With no secrets left to tell, a bloodbath ensues, with Christophe and Stutter dead and the rest either in shock or wounded except Ida, who emerges unscathed having taken Patrice’s rifle to Denis as the sirens of the ‘firemen and the police’ approach. Fin.
What Mauvignier’s Birthday Party-machine constructs, then, is an extended metaphor for the hostage standoff of French democracy. On one side, there’s Patrice Bergogne, an emblem of Macron-era liberal arrogance and complacency: middle class, hypocritical and wilfully oblivious to his own prejudices and perversions as well as the imminent danger surrounding him. On the other, there’s the lumpenproletarian brothers who hail from the type of neglected places where Le Pen has triumphed, and whose socially atomised rage, fuelled by intolerance and a sense of betrayal, has become manifest in a reactionary attempt to seize power and inflict revenge. Stuck in the middle there’s Marion, a symbol of the demos, whose own account of the horrors inflicted upon her is never allowed to be properly recounted. This unspoken histoire is instead performed by the text’s mechanics itself, whose guessing game of ‘who speaks?’ enacts the ineffability of both Marion’s past and the deadly politics being wielded against French voters today.
Given this, it is tempting to ascribe to Mauvignier’s novel a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, a distancing or alienation effect, produced via the content of this political allegory and the interplay of its prose, whose difficulty disrupts the narrative’s world-making, reminding the reader that the novel exists in a society struggling with the problems it depicts. Enticing though that is, the narrative is too conventional to support it. Unlike Beckett, who in the end didn’t just tear apart words but stories as well, Mauvignier lets his reader off the hook with a cathartic ending as old as time itself: the triumph of good over evil and the restoration of the social order. As Ida is shown ‘pulling the trigger and letting the gunshot explode in a roar’ while the cops roll in, the discomfort one may have felt melts into air, replaced by familiar reassurances that all’s well that ends well. As a result, the novel’s intricate writing is revealed to be in part baroque—an exercise in style that reformulates the means of storytelling but not the story itself.
Indeed, if this sounds like the formulaic plot of a Canal+ crime series or movie picked up by Netflix or BBC4, that’s because it might have been: in a September 2020 interview with Diacritik, The Birthday Party’s author noted that his novel was originally a film script derived from the ‘home invasion’ thriller subgenre. Probing the limits of the unspeakable, Mauvignier has, with undeniable skill, encountered what has already been said before.
Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.Original post