The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.
In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.
She has been, more or less consistently, since the publication of her explosive first novel, Baise-moi, in 1993, made her the enfant terrible of the French literary world, loved and loathed in equal measure. A onetime sex worker and rock critic, Despentes does not write the bourgeois family studies usually found in French fiction. Her characters are strippers, slackers, rappers, porn stars, people who crack wise, who listen to heavy metal, who do drugs, who do any kind of shit job they have to do in order to get along. Her work is so far outside the model of French literature that critics trying to describe it tend to fall back on adjectival anglicisms—trash, or rock, or even destroy, all of which mean more or less what you’d think: edgy, provocative, in “aggressively bad taste,” as the Larousse dictionary puts it. Her publishers carefully promote this image, giving her books comic-book covers that look like the doodles of a disaffected high school student or the artwork you’d find on a thrashcore album. A typical author photograph shows her in a Motörhead tank top, a cigarette dangling from her lips.
None of which has stopped her from becoming a bona fide icon in France. In fact, it’s probably helped. At the moment, what is trash is cool. Where Michel Houellebecq was the angry prophet of the early years of Big Tech, Despentes is the perfect rebel for our overly connected era, a queer woman to Houellebecq’s straight man, collective-minded where he is an individualist, utopian where he is a nihilist, a heroine for our moment. Over the past two decades, she has conquered her country’s conservative and tight-knit cultural elite. In 2016, she joined the jury of the Académie Goncourt—there is no surer sign of success apart from winning the prize itself.
It is, to some degree, thanks to Despentes’s talent, charm, and grit that she can break all the rules and still succeed, but it also says something about French culture, which periodically welcomes a carefully selected outsider—Jean Genet, Serge Gainsbourg—if only to fetishize the margins. But as she’s accumulated money and prizes and clout, and since she turned fifty this past June, many people here have been asking: Is Virginie Despentes still a badass punk, or has she been tamed?
It isn’t just her age or her success that prompts the question; her work itself has evolved noticeably in the past few years. Her most recent books, the Vernon Subutex trilogy, are so comprehensive in their view of French society that they have won Despentes comparisons with Balzac and Zola. Where her earlier novels often felt (deliberately) cartoonish, the world of this later work is more developed, the pathos better earned. The stark neo-modernist detachment of Baise-moi has given way to sweeping naturalist majesty. In the earlier novels, Despentes often presents her characters, their situations, and their shining, unholy wrath from an external perspective, even on the rare occasions when she writes in the first person. In Vernon Subutex, she delves into these psyches, in the manner of more traditional literary novels, though she thinks with her characters rather than for them, inhabiting a mind for one chapter before moving on to another in the next.
If Despentes has been domesticated by success, it doesn’t seem to have done much for her behavior. She’s difficult to get hold of, and she won’t do anything she doesn’t want to do. She’s been known to back out of an international tour if she doesn’t feel like going. She doesn’t kiss anyone’s ass; they kiss hers. This is not divaesque behavior acquired with fame, her editor, Olivier Nora, tells me: she’s always been this way, no matter who’s come calling. This makes her a challenge to work with, Nora admits. Several other people I speak with ask whether I’ve been able to meet her, as if I’ve been trying to get a sit-down with the president, and when I say I have, raise their eyebrows in approval.
Now, Despentes welcomes me in, dressed in a white T-shirt and black trousers that may or may not have been yoga pants. I can tell that I am not in the apartment of someone who is trying to impress her visitors with her taste. It’s perfectly lovely and comfortable, but utterly lacking in that curated sense you get from some people’s homes, with their rattan chairs and succulents. It’s bohemian minus the self-consciousness: Chinese posters on the walls, a painted wooden desk, loads and loads of books and CDs. I’m disappointed not to be able to scrutinize her collection, as Despentes seats me with my back to the shelves, but at least this way I can better focus on what she’s saying, distracted only by Philomène, a little black-and-white Boston terrier who occasionally comes over to lick her mistress’s tattooed forearm. Despentes rolls her own cigarettes and talks very quickly, in a low, textured voice, une voix rauque, wearing a wry, amused expression. The lines on her face are the ones the beauty industry and the women’s magazines train you to fear and fight, but on her they’re something to aspire to: this is the face of a woman who has learned to look askance at bullshit.
And I’m a little nervous about Despentes thinking I’m bullshit: in a million years, no one would ever mistake me for a punk (though I did have a grunge phase in the Nineties, of which I am proud). I’m not alone in feeling a weird neediness in her presence. I’ve heard she’s swarmed by fans every time she does an event: shyly smiling young women wanting to talk to her about sex and feminism while she signs their copies of her 2006 manifesto, King Kong Theory. No wonder she was able to write Vernon Subutex, which is about a seductive former record-store owner who becomes the center of a cult in which people’s minds are altered not through drugs or alcohol but through music and dancing; in Despentes’s real life, the cult is fueled by slangy, slouchy, feminist anger.
I came late to her work; for a long time, it rubbed me the wrong way. I figured I wasn’t cool enough to get it. But since reading Vernon Subutex and King Kong Theory, I’ve become keenly interested in what she’s up to—in the political project of an anti-aesthetic I’d previously dismissed: these stories about women lashing out at the world are actually a radical rejection of the hetero-patriarchal imperatives that motivate a certain performance of femininity.
I’ve come to see her now because the first volume of Vernon Subutex is about to be published in the United States, after becoming a bestseller in France (where it won several prizes), appearing in many translations across the world, being shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, and getting adapted for television earlier this year. This could be the moment for Despentes to connect with an American audience that has yet to find her.
Despentes writes in a French vernacular that is notoriously hard to translate. Her language is terse, muscular; she’s uninterested in making beautiful sentences. She has an affinity for words that clash and pop, for insult, for litotes, the kind of sarcastic understatement the French do so well. Despentes herself has described her writing as “really just rap and punk applied in a literary form.” Emma Ramadan, who is responsible for the only great translation of Despentes’s work currently available (Pretty Things for Feminist Press), said the amount of argot in her writing was the most difficult part of bringing it over to English. “She uses it so perfectly to make these characters,” Ramadan told me. “You really hear their voices; it sounds so natural and gritty and raw.” The challenge, she said, was to avoid using slang so excessively that it became cringey and wrong. Ramadan and her editor spent hours reading the text aloud to each other to make sure the dialogue sounded the way people really talk.
Then there are the cultural barriers. Despite the cultural homogenization of globalism, some figures who are major stars in France remain utterly unknown outside it, people like Johnny Hallyday or Jean d’Ormesson. There is, perhaps, something so deeply French about their appeal that it cannot be exported. And this may be the case with Despentes. American readers are not used to encountering the marginal French culture from which she emerged and about which she writes. She doesn’t fit our idea of what a French woman should be. She isn’t telling us how to tie our scarves or raise our children or keep from gaining weight. That is to say, she isn’t aspirational, except to a fraction of the reading public—the Twitter feminists, bless them, who already know her and love her, largely thanks to King Kong Theory, which came out in the United States in 2010.
Iheard a rumor,” I tell her, “that by the time you were three you could sing the ‘Internationale,’ ” referring to the stirring revolutionary song composed just after the Paris Commune, a hymn to the power of the collective. “C’est la lutte finale / Groupons-nous, et demain / L’Internationale / sera le genre humain.” (It’s the final struggle / Let us come together, and tomorrow / the International / will be the entire human race.) It’s true, she says. Her parents didn’t keep a lot of books around, mostly just newspapers, some special issues of magazines devoted to geopolitics, and some Karl Marx. Novels were seen as a “waste of time. They weren’t for us.”
The only child of postal workers and C.G.T. (Confédération générale du travail) unionists, Despentes had a politically active childhood, full of meetings and demonstrations. Her father ran in the local municipal elections and lost, while Despentes herself was elected several times to the student council. But she was not some kind of Goody Two-Shoes: she tried to use her political power, such as it was, to lead the other students in uprisings against the teachers, whom she found reactionary and useless.
She started frequenting the tiny local library, and within a year she had borrowed all the books it contained; her father then started driving her to all the other libraries in the region. She read everything she could get her hands on, and by the time she was seventeen she had started writing short stories. Charles Bukowski was a big inspiration, and Baise-moi came right out of reading Kathy Acker: “I had never read a woman who wrote about sex so crudely,” she says. “She wrote”—or at least Despentes remembers her writing—“ ‘I want you to fuck me, I want you to fuck me twice,’ and yet there was a poetry to it.”
“Have you seen her sex tape?” I ask, referring to the art film she made in 1974 with her then boyfriend, Alan Sondheim. “No!” Despentes answers, her eyes widening. “Is it a real sex tape?”
“It’s a sex tape à la Kathy Acker . . . her boyfriend is philosophizing about time and the self and she’s in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, sucking him off.” I make a note to send her a link after our interview. But now, having made a good show of being Acker-acquainted, I have to confess that I’m not an admirer of hers, a way of broaching the subject of the anti-aesthetic that scared me off of Despentes’s work for so long. “I’ve always been turned off by writers like Kathy Acker or Michel Houellebecq. Especially Houellebecq,” I say. “I’ve started a few of his books, and I always end up throwing them against the wall.”
“Ah,” she says, as if this is a confession she hears often. “You should start with [his poetry collection] Rester vivant, which is from before he was famous. If you want. It’s not mandatory,” she adds, as though my skepticism is evident on my face. “You have to read Houellebecq like you read—well, for example, I’ve just read White by Bret Easton Ellis. I really liked it; it was really interesting. I didn’t agree with any of what he said, but it was worth reading, just to see the points he makes and the way he constructs a dissenting argument. Houellebecq is sort of doing the same thing. When we read, we shouldn’t try to agree with an author.”
“But I think young women find themselves in a quandary, because after being force-fed books about boys all their lives, it’s very difficult not to want to find writers who represent experiences they can identify with.”
“It’s true for any young reader,” she responds. “You can’t look for someone who’s going to be a continuation of your own voice. If you’re looking for someone who responds serenely [to your questions], that’s not going to be Houellebecq. He’s decided to represent . . . to become Michel Houellebecq. Readers created Michel Houellebecq, and he’s elected to become this character.”
That she sees writers as playing roles that readers invent for them strikes me as telling, for “Virginie Despentes” is someone she has become. Her real name is Virginie Daget; Despentes is a pen name she borrowed from her old neighborhood in Lyon, a hilly district called La Croix-Rousse: pente is French for “hill.” When she published Baise-moi, she immediately became a figure in the media and, she says, the name helped her to keep some distance from that. “Readers have an idea of me that doesn’t coincide with who I am—it’s me, but it also surpasses who I am.”
She took a pen name to give her family the choice as to whether they wanted to be affiliated, publicly, with the person who wrote Baise-moi. Written in a frenzied three weeks while Despentes stayed at her parents’ house, Baise-moi is a tightly wound story of two young women, Manu and Nadine, who embark on a bloody road trip through France, killing indiscriminately and having a lot of sex with strangers. They lash out at a society that leaves them feeling powerless and frustrated, that quite literally holds them down and fucks them (les baise, quoi). It’s not a revenge story, however; the people they kill bear no personal responsibility, except, perhaps, in the sense that no one escapes complicity under capitalism. The crudeness of the language and the unhinged violence—at one point Nadine shoots a three-year-old—shocked the literary establishment, which, Despentes has said, wasn’t used to reading this kind of thing from a woman. Thanks to the support of television personalities such as Thierry Ardisson, the novel became a bestseller.
The girl who wrote Baise-moi was a fierce creature. A punk from the age of thirteen, she was briefly institutionalized against her will when she was fifteen and left home at seventeen to move to Lyon, where she worked in a record shop, studied cinema, and had a number of low-wage jobs—at a supermarket, as a house cleaner, and as a massage-parlor hostess—before becoming a prostitute for two years, an experience she describes as a mostly happy one. While she acknowledges her privilege in choosing to undertake that line of work (and choosing when to stop), she says she found sex work empowering. The “impact” she had on the men she encountered was addictive and involved a total change in status, being transformed from the girl with the short hair and the dirty sneakers to this goddess with “heel-lengthened legs.” You didn’t have to be good at sex to be a prostitute. What was challenging, however, was handling the “individual loneliness” of the men, their weaknesses. “In my small experience, the clients were heavy with humanity, fragility, distress. And it hung around afterward, stuck on me like remorse.” For the future novelist, this would prove invaluable training in developing an almost unbearable sense of empathy.
But there was one event during her years of following bands that would inspire her first novel and make her a very particular kind of writer. When Despentes was seventeen, she and a friend were gang-raped while hitchhiking home from a gig. Her rape, she writes in King Kong Theory, was “a founding event. Of who I am as a writer, and as a woman who is no longer quite a woman.” Astonishingly, she reveals, throughout the assault she had a switchblade in her pocket, but she didn’t use it on her rapists. She was too afraid. They were stronger; she was “vulnerable,” she had been socialized to believe, though she knew how to use it and is not a slight woman. “I am furious,” she wrote later,
with a society that has educated me without ever teaching me to injure a man if he pulls my thighs apart against my will, when that same society has taught me that this is a crime from which I will never recover.
The way Despentes writes about rape in Baise-moi rejects this “female emasculation” and offers a powerful method of anti-victimization. Early in the novel, Manu and a friend are gang-raped. (This does not read as an excuse or a justification for the bloodshed that follows; it’s more about establishing a culture of violence from which Manu and Nadine emerge.) Manu’s steely response to her rape is unlike any I’ve ever come across. She regards her body as
like a car that you park in the projects, you don’t leave anything valuable in it ’cause you can’t keep it from being broken into. I can’t keep assholes from getting into my pussy, so I haven’t left anything valuable there.
This is not the average woman’s response to trauma, Despentes knows; it was inspired in part by reading an article by Camille Paglia in a 1991 issue of Spin magazine. Paglia writes about the “warlike” masculinity of football players on a field, and somehow makes the connection to rape, calling it (in Despentes’s recollection from King Kong Theory):
an inevitable danger, a danger that women need to take into account and run the risk of encountering, if they want to leave their homes and move around freely. If it happens to you then pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and move on. If that’s too scary for you, then you’d better stay at home with mommy and manicure your nails.
At first Despentes was “disgusted,” “sick with refusal.” But the more she thought about it, the more important it seemed. “For the first time,” she wrote, “someone was valuing the ability to get over it, instead of lying down obligingly in the anthology of trauma.” Paglia helped her think of rape as a “political circumstance.”
I ask her about this passage, telling her I was surprised to see a reference to such a notoriously anti-feminist feminist. She is ready for me. “What Paglia added to the conversation was the idea of being at war. That you could be raped and then get past it—it was like getting hit with a bullet on the field of battle. We are, effectively, at war,” she says, looking me right in the eye, with great decisiveness. “We’re asking part of the population to give up privileges they still enjoy. And they’re not just going to give them up [snaps her fingers], like that.”
“It’s a war on a global scale,” she goes on. “There’s something extremely painful in realizing that we all have our own stories to tell, that when we tell them they always involve some version of ‘I felt powerless, degraded, ashamed not to know how to react.’ You very rarely hear a woman say, in response to a man who does something inappropriate, ‘So I punched him in the face.’ It’s almost always ‘I didn’t know how to react, so I went home, feeling really bad.’”
I tell her there’s been a lot of talk about anger in the United States recently, mentioning the journalist Rebecca Traister’s recent book Good and Mad, in which she argues that most of the advances feminists have made have been driven by fury. “I’m very angry—I have fits of rage,” Despentes says. “But at a certain point, anger destroys everything it touches and becomes deadly. It doesn’t create anything interesting, it doesn’t change anyone’s opinion, it only consumes people.” It strikes me that this is a hard-won perspective for Despentes, who is legendary in the publishing world for having, let’s say, vented her anger on journalists a few times. “Anger in a woman is always perceived badly,” she tells me, “as a sign of obvious mental weakness, whereas with a man, up to a point, it’s seen as a sign of strength. And that is a problem for feminists, because feminism, up to this point, hasn’t been violent. Maybe it will be in the future.”
Something that was missing from the #MeToo movement, she says, was “the voice of women saying, ‘We want to be loose women, we want to be whores.’ I want to see an uprising of loose women. It’s really important to give voice to people practicing a sexuality that isn’t quite—correct,” she adds. “I hope we’re going to hear from women who will have disconcerting things to tell us.”
Despentes has devoted her career to giving voice to disconcerting women. After Baise-moi, she wrote a series of novels about angry young women, “lost girls” who rage and break things, who steal for no reason they can understand, the kind of women who certainly would punch a man in the face if he did something to piss them off. Les Chiennes savantes (1996) is a novel about exotic dancers in Lyon. Pretty Things (1998) takes on a pair of female twins—one becomes a porn star, the other a pop singer—and tries to get at the essence of the relationship between performances of femininity, sex, and power. One of Despentes’s most personal books, Bye Bye Blondie, draws on her experience of having been institutionalized by her parents when she was fifteen (she adapted it for a 2012 film starring Béatrice Dalle and Emmanuelle Béart). And 2010’s Renaudot Prize–winning Apocalypse Baby gives a heartfelt, astonishing portrait of a young girl desperate enough to commit unthinkable violence.
But before Vernon Subutex, she was perhaps best known for King Kong Theory. Part memoir, part critical treatise on masculinity and power, with reference to rape, pornography, and prostitution, it is the kind of book you want to place in the hands of everyone you know. It is arresting from the very first lines; there’s something aggressively incantatory about it, a kind of battle-rap braggadocio. “I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones,” it begins, “the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick.” She makes explicit connections—some obvious, some not—between masculinity and violence, between pornography and desire, and between anger and empathy, connections she further develops in Vernon Subutex. Anger and empathy: a curious pair, the one so virile and aggressive, the other so ostensibly female. The tension they create is what drives Despentes’s work. And as we all get angrier and angrier, and feel completely unable to understand anything about the people with whom we disagree, we could do worse than to take note of what Despentes has to tell us about this relationship.
King Kong Theory’s incisive critique of masculinity and power is more relevant than ever for Americans, as we grapple with the presidency of Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement, an increase in violence against women, and the rise of white supremacy. The gender theorist Paul B. Preciado, who is also Despentes’s former partner, calls the book the “prequel” to #MeToo, the “first feminist popular text in which a well-known author talks about her rape, stepping outside of the victim narrative, claiming her right to pleasure, to sex work and to knowledge and action.” The work achieved, he told me, “a unique queer feminist radical voice that has been crucial to the transformation both of fiction writing and political action in the 2010s.”
So why, after a career of writing about women, has Despentes chosen to write her most ambitious work about a man? At one point Vernon was a woman, she tells me. “I don’t remember when I changed it. But the minute I did, it became more coherent.” Critics, she says, were pretty harsh toward her earlier female characters. “But no one has said anything judgmental about what Vernon does. Because he’s a male character, everything he does is legitimate.” With a male character, she says, witheringly, the trilogy becomes “political.”
But it’s more than just the main character that makes these books political (though of course, no more so than her earlier work). It’s the collectivity of her large cast. The perspective of the angry young woman has expanded to reflect a range of social classes in the years following the dot-com boom and the financial crisis. Vernon, a former record-store owner, is being evicted from his apartment. It’s been a few years since his shop closed, a casualty of the dematerialization of the music industry, but he has been keeping himself afloat through a combination of welfare benefits, odd jobs, eBay sales, and the support of an old friend, Alex Bleach, who’s now a big rock star. When his unemployment is cut off and his celebrity benefactor kills himself, he’s out on the street. Word of Vernon’s difficulties spreads among his social circle via Facebook, and his old friends take turns letting him crash on their sofas.
The work is essentially a collection of portraits of people around Vernon—his friends from the record-shop days, the homeless people he meets in the park, an unscrupulous film producer, a Marxist wife-beater (“It was only by scaring the shit out of people that he got what he was entitled to”), a rock critic, a private detective called the Hyena, a young Muslim girl who wears the veil and whose mother was a porn star. The core group of old friends are all turning fifty, and they examine the effects of the years on one another. But everyone is an unreliable narrator because they are each, in their own way, lying to themselves. Despentes zooms in on their self-doubts, their crystallized moments of crisis, then moves on. A few scenes later we see how they have dealt with their problems, but indirectly, through the lens of someone else’s story.
Vernon brings us uncomfortably close to characters we’d ordinarily like to keep at a distance. Take Xavier, the once promising screenwriter who, when we first meet him, is fuming in the aisles of Monoprix, the ubiquitous French retail chain, because the people who work there unload the deliveries at the busiest time of day. One moment you’re with him, sympathizing—his cantankerousness is hilarious, like a French Larry David—and then he sneaks in something super racist, and you recoil. Over the course of the three novels, Xavier develops to the point that it’s a shock to recall how repugnant he was at the outset, but though he redeems himself in some ways, he never fully transcends his earlier limitations. He’s not a good guy, but he’s not a bad guy either. He’s just a guy.
There was an interesting moment in my conversation with Despentes’s editor, Olivier Nora, when he said that although she employs this kind of empathy brilliantly in her fiction, she often offends even him in her non-fiction and incidental writing. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Despentes courted controversy with an op-ed she published in Les Inrockuptibles, in which she said that she felt love for her neighbors and for the victims, but also for the terrorists, “the ones who made their victims stand up and say their names before shooting them in the face.” She put herself in their position and ventriloquized their anger, their despair,
their way of saying—you want nothing to do with me, you don’t want to see me, you think I’m going to live my life squatting in a ghetto while putting up with your hostility without coming to ruin your sales shopping or your round of golf—I am going to explode into your fucking realities that I hate because not only do they exclude me but they throw me in jail and condemn everyone I love to dishonor.
I’m reminded of Susan Sontag, who mere days after September 11 wrote in The New Yorker that the terrorists’ crime was not one of cowardice. But unlike Sontag, who called for “a few shreds of historical awareness,” Despentes demanded a novelistic ability to put ourselves in the precarious position of the Kouachi brothers, something many readers refused to do. If this turned a lot of people’s stomachs, including mine, was it a question of style? Or were these kinds of reflections better off in the pages of a novel, where they raise questions of voice and perspective, instead of the pages of a magazine, passing for cultural criticism, where they come across as too schematic? Nora told me it’s one of the central Despentean contradictions that she can be so sophisticated and nuanced in her fiction and still produce this kind of “Manichaean” non-fiction: “She must live in a pretty extreme state of tension, between an adherence to the system and a rejection of it. I think that whenever she feels ensnared in the system, she experiences a kind of return of the repressed, and making these really radical statements must help her to regain some distance from it.” Despentes took a more aesthetic—or is it a more ethical?—line when she defended herself, explaining that “if the girl who wrote Baise-moi at twenty-three couldn’t ask herself these kinds of questions, [it would mean] there was something wrong with me.” It seems clear that after years of flexing her empathy muscle, it was going to be, perhaps, a little overdeveloped. After all, as her American editor, Jeremy Davies, put it, “Loving the unlovable and speaking the unspeakable is precisely the job” of the writer.
Reading the op-ed after meeting her brought back something she had said during our interview—that we shouldn’t read authors to agree with them. It’s a critical cliché to say that we read fiction to enlarge our sense of the human, or to claim that difficult books are good for you. Certainly, it is easier to uphold this kind of readerly generosity when we know we’re holding a novel in our hands than it is when we’re faced with something the writer has said or done outside of fiction that strikes us as monstrous. Despentes’s stylecru, especially when applied to non-fiction, unsettles all of our easy ideas about ourselves as sophisticated readers.
When I leave Despentes’s flat, we make plans to meet up again for dinner. I don’t hold out much hope; it’s summer, and people are scattering from Paris, or at least making themselves less available. She tells me to get in touch when she’s back from vacation in three weeks. When I do, she doesn’t reply. I follow up; nothing. I don’t want to spook her by going through her publicist, so I try one last time, offering to come by her place with takeout for her and her girlfriend, and finally she writes to tell me she hasn’t come back to Paris, but she’d be happy to continue answering questions via email. I’m disappointed; we were only just starting to get comfortable with each other, but I’ll take what I can get.
Over email I try to make my questions both specific and suggestive. I’ve been wondering about a new translation of King Kong Theoryforthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K. The translator is Frank Wynne, who did Vernon Subutex (and also some novels by Houellebecq). It strikes me as odd for a man to translate this feminist call to arms. Despentes tells me that the earlier translation was “too well behaved, too obedient.” As for the choice of Wynne, she replies:
I don’t think the concept of gender has much to do with a translation. A bourgeois woman with a graduate degree who is heterosexual and a mother will be less prepared to understand the language of King Kong Theory than a young working-class queer who loved punk rock and hung out in the underground.
As a bourgeois heterosexual mother with a Ph.D. who often works as a translator, I couldn’t help taking this as, in some way, pointed. Well, there’s me told, I thought. And yet, the more I mulled it over, the more it seemed inconsistent with Despentes’s own project in Vernon Subutex. I didn’t address this in my reply, because I don’t have a lot of faith in the email form to produce a worthy discussion, but it seemed as though Despentes was enacting the very reasons I had thought her work wasn’t for me from the outset. Those descriptors do not capture the complexity of my life, or my rebellions, or my proclivities and experiences. They certainly do not demarcate the limits of what I can understand as a reader, or convey as a writer or a translator. And in any case, isn’t the whole project of Vernon Subutex for her to explore contemporary France from as many perspectives as would fit in twelve hundred pages? By that logic, not only is my original supposition wrong; so is her counterargument.
Perhaps I’m overemphasizing content, when Despentes is concerned with style. Her work, she insisted, is infused with “punk rock and hip-hop”:
I have borrowed more from Bukowski and Calaferte than from Duras and Sagan (whom I love, incidentally, but I don’t write in their language, and their sound is not what I’m looking for).
However, though she may be looking for certain affiliations of sound or style, she can’t fend off the affinities her readers feel with her or the ways we choose to read her. Her political convictions will inevitably clash with our own, and that’s okay. If we can’t read to be in agreement with the author, likewise we can’t write expecting our readers to agree with us.
Something else Nora said comes back to me. One of the first observations he made was that “on paper, I am everything she should loathe: patrician, bourgeois, a straight man. I don’t know by what miracle she doesn’t see me that way.” Then, as we were wrapping up, he said, with reference to the Inrocks op-ed, “There is a radical quality that doesn’t fit with the person I know. Someone who thinks the things she says can’t possibly think well of someone like me, and yet I think she does think well of me.”
I recognize my own insecurities in what he says, and I think about how complicated this thing is—publishing writers, interviewing writers. We want Despentes to love us the way we love her, yet if she were as punk as we make her out to be, she would necessarily hate us and everything we stand for. But that’s not how life works; that’s not how art works. It’s easy to attribute her contradictions to her punk ethos, but this doesn’t account for the blips, where things don’t align as they should. As Greil Marcus writes in Lipstick Traces, punk consisted of “the thrill of speaking out loud driven by its own danger.” But literature consists of something else.
So is Virginie Despentes still the badass punk she was at twenty-three? Well, no. She’s softened. But she’s not pretending otherwise. “I’m no longer the pissed-off precarious little prostitute punk who wants to kill the whole world,” she told me. “I’ve become someone else.” Some in the French literary milieu wonder what Despentes might do next. How can she stay marginal from her table at Drouant, the restaurant where the Goncourt jury gathers? Can you write Baise-moi from the center of a culture?
Preciado rejected this worry as “based on a class bias”:
She is not having trouble paying her rent anymore and she can afford a vacation. What do they want, that she keeps working at the supermarket while writing masterpieces in her free time? Come on!! As for her being part of the Goncourt Jury, I hope more writers like Virginie will come into these institutions and transform them. We need non-white, women, and trans people becoming part of the institution that decides what is canonized in French literature. This is not gentrification, it’s social and political transformation.
Perhaps this is a good moment for Despentes to be reintroduced in the United States; American readers may be more ready than they have been in the past for an idiosyncratically French author who expands their sense of what a French writer can be—a radical, paradigm-shifting feminist. Either way, Despentes doesn’t much mind. “It’s always nice to be translated, and so many of [my] influences have come from America. But it’s not the same as it was twenty years ago, when we all lived in a kind of faraway suburb of the U.S. It’s still the land of the boss, of the dominant, but it no longer fascinates Europeans.”
Despentes is working on something right now, Nora assures me; there’s even talk of a follow-up to King Kong Theory. She has been accumulating material about #MeToo, by which she was very inspired. When I ask her about this, Despentes assures me that she said everything she had to say about feminism, in King Kong Theory, and then in the next breath, Gemini-like, concedes that “so many things have happened over the past ten years that seem crucial to me and that I would like to comment on.” But, she warns, “I so love not working that I don’t end up writing very much.” Perhaps the most punk thing would be just to quit. But my guess is that Despentes is not as punk as all that.