| François Michel |
Most of us have never heard of him, which is a shame. Even though much has been said about Marc-Edouard Nabe, this writer remains a well-shrouded mystery. And despite being widely rejected by publishers and the media alike – it’s almost impossible to find his work in bookstores or libraries – Nabe is still considered by several prominent critics and a wide circle of fans to be one of the most important French writers alive today. He’s a deliberate provocateur, delightedly playing the role that the media has allotted him – that of the damned writer fighting censorship. Nabe – a French pseudonym for nabot or “dwarfish” – knows perfectly well what he’s playing at, and perversely appears to enjoy complaining about how soundly he’s rejected by publishers, readers, and television shows.
Without doubt, the man had it coming. Because of his radical posture towards the Israeli-Palestinian war (he has been accused of Anti-Semitism by several French associations), his occasionally useless political arguments can at times evolve into the ridiculous or even dangerously confusing. There remains little to say on the subject of Nabe himself or the surrounding controversy, and reading Nabe’s books is infinitely preferable to listening to him.
Unfortunately, after Céline, Rebatet and Drieu la Rochelle – three great writers who supported the German-controlled French Vichy regime during World War II, and whose novels still suffer today from the notoriety of their creators’ political sentiments – we know precisely how difficult it is to decisively separate author from work. And yet, in the similar if less notorious case of Nabe, it would be foolish to refuse to read him solely as a result of his political proclivities.
It would be foolish because some of his writing is truly remarkable. Since the debut of his writing career in the mid 1980s, Nabe has published an array of essays (Au régal des vermines, 1985, L’âme de Billie Holiday, 1986, or L’âge du Christ, 1992), short stories (K.O., 1999), diaries (Journal intime, published in three parts), and novels (including his last two books, L’homme qui arrêta d’écrire, 2010, and L’enculé, 2011). He has engaged in various forms of writing, but remained true to his own particular style: Nabe is undoubtedly old-school, a writer who values words over the shape of the story itself.
As a result, he tends to recycle the same ideas: the bitter narrator confronts a society where writers have become part of the system, where a tendency to dwell on the dark side of the human condition has replaced truly subversive art, where pleasure trumps all. But unlike most writers, Nabe turns his bitterness into anger and attempts to transcend both. He achieves this in part through rejection; a pompous and sometimes even grotesque rejection. In his essay Au régal des vermines, a violent and provocative manifesto, every part of society is disparaged with a relentless series of adjectives and an acid, almost surrealistic tone.
For Nabe, the answer to anger lies within the words themselves. It lies within the carefully crafted sentences and within a Dionysian approach to art, which is presented as an antidote to an all too depressing world. In L’âme de Billie Holliday, a compilation of short poems, thoughts and scenes about the great Lady Day, Nabe attempts to merge his writing with jazz; the score, the notes. The result is amazing – the reader is driven from music to literature and keeps both in mind long after the book is closed.
In a very different approach, Nabe’s last book, L’enculé (unsurprisingly, the word is an offensive one), is freely inspired by the recent tragicomedy of the rise and fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan, a French politician accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee in New York City. Courtesy of Strauss-Khan, Nabe has the chance to make every journalist’s dream come true : to tell the story of what happened in the Sofitel hotel through the eyes of the perp himself. Which is, in a sense, what literature is all about – to tell the truth when the truth is hidden, and to create art from an insignificant event.
Generally speaking, Nabe’s vision of the world is highly inspired by Nietzsche; optimistic and focused on art’s answer to life’s challenge. His novel L’homme qui arrêta d’écrire (“The Man Who Stopped Writing”), is a fascinating vision of modern-day Paris as related by an aging writer. This writer rediscovers, bitterly and with irony, the society in which he has been forced to live since he dropped his pen. Nabe amuses himself by drawing several rather hilarious portraits of a few well-known figures of the bonne société parisienne. Yes, Nabe’s themes have a specifically French tenor, yet aspects of his criticism are tantalizingly universal, particularly when he dissects empty, internet-based relationships on blogs and digital social networks.
Nobody really knows if Nabe is Céline’s heir apparent, although this accession is predicted by his fans. Nonetheless, Nabe is an indisputably fascinating figure, and a writer who believes words matter more than shallow ideas and are stronger than an oppressive reality. “Words are sacred,” Nabe once said, which tidily aphorises his belief in literature as a path to understanding. Considering the lackluster role allotted to contemporary art, it’s logical for a writer to reach understanding through anger and cynicism – a rebellion with no room for passivity.