During a recent trip to Paris, I mentioned to various French publishers that in the UK, nostalgia for the underground movements of the last thirty years is flourishing. Yet despite the outpouring of books, films, documentaries, compilation CDs and exhibitions like the Vivienne Westwood, it is obvious to me that one side of the London-New York-Paris “golden triangle” has been overlooked. Between artists there is always a cross-fertilisation of ideas, and the effect of the Parisian underground remains influential. Grace Jones learned devices for subversive performance during her time at Fabrice Emaer’s legendary club, Le Palace — the Studio 54 of its day — and Madonna was backup singer and dancer for disco star Patrick Hernandez when his hit “Born To Be Alive” went global.
I argued that people who enjoy reading, and relish the likes of Michael Bracewell, Ben Myers, Jeff Noon and Robert Elms should be given a chance to check out their French counterparts. But I was told by the French publishers that English publishers are not interested in a certain type of French culture, and translation is seen as a risky venture, so to pitch offbeat or outrageous books considered to have limited sales potential would be a waste of time. Bonjour tristesse. From idea to bookstore the reader comes last in a long line of corporate decision-makers, in a game of blind man’s bluff.
So, fashionistas buy Jean Paul Gaultier in Knightsbridge, clubbers hear DJ Laurent Garnier in Clerkenwell, foodies sample French delights in London’s street markets, and football fans support teams radiating Gallic flair, but unorthodox French writers and their books stay firmly on the other side of the Channel, bar a lucky few… Frédéric Beigbeder, François Jonquet, the late Alain Pacadis and Paquita Paquin are a selection of wordsmiths who started out writing for the French style press and are superb storytellers, each in their subversive way.
François Jonquet immortalises a cabaret star of the 1970s and 1980s in Jenny Bel’Air: une créature. Very Parisian, with a New York undertow, it complements 24-hour Party People and Queer as Folk. A mosaic of voices paint a vibrant portrait of an era through the prism of volcanic transvestite, Jenny Bel’Air. S/he had an Oliver Twist childhood — a white father who did time with Papillon; a desperate Guyanese mother who died suddenly; a racist uncle… Described as being, “Arletty, Eartha Kitt and Sarah Bernhardt all rolled into one,” Jenny’s androgynous comedy show was the talk of the town. Roland Barthes and Serge Gainsbourg were fans and s/he ended up working for Fabrice Emaer. A friend comments: “Thanks to Jenny and the atmosphere of Le Palace, I rediscovered the magic and excess of Fellini, with whom I’d worked on Amarcord and Casanova. Fellini would have adored Jenny.”
The other star of this biography is Le Palace. Grace Jones’ rendition of “La vie en rose” in front of 2000 people on the opening night in 1978 has become the stuff of legend. Prince, Bette Midler and Divine all did shows; Jacques Morali, who created Village People with Henri Belolo, was friends with one of the DJs, Guy Cuevas. A gorgeous space, it was an international cultural crossroads where celebrities from the worlds of fashion, music, art, literature and politics converged to party alongside unknown cosmopolitan clubbers… Amanda Lear, Karl Lagerfeld, Diana Ross, Françoise Sagan, Sophia Loren, David Bowie, Mick & Bianca Jagger, Philippe Starck… Paquita Paquin ran the élitist club, Le Privilege, opened in 1980 in the basement of Le Palace. She turned to journalism after Fabrice Emaer died in 1983, and is now fashion editor of Libération. Her memoir Vingt ans sans dormir 1968-1983 (Twenty Years Not Sleeping) captures the funky, spunky glitter and chutzpah of the time.
François Jonquet’s book, Gilbert & George: Intimate Conversations, is the fruit of a ten-year cross-channel friendship. The world’s most controversial living artists, “Living Sculptures,” open up and talk candidly about their life and work. François Jonquet uses the Q&A format to capture G&G’s voices, expressions and humour. It feels as though you are sitting next to them. You are drawn into their world and vision.
They tell the truth how they see it: Gilbert’s childhood in Northern Italy and George’s in Devon; meeting at St Martins’ School of Art and the first “Human Sculptures” performances; renting a basement in Spitalfields (a dilapidated area overrun by tramps and hippies) then buying the whole house in 1975; how their ideas are born; the evolution of their work… You find yourself behind the microscope with them, and begin to see body fluids and urban detritus in a new way. Their tower blocks, old tramps, young boys and flowers radiate the colours of the rainbow. G&G discuss their collection of objets d’art — from the Arts & Crafts movement; Edmund Elton and Christopher Dresser pottery; Music Hall memorabilia… Their friendships with social rejects Nurul, a young schizophrenic, and David who died of AIDS are poignant.
Michael Bracewell writes in Modern Painters: “Like both Warhol and Beuys before them, Gilbert & George make art which appeals to the vast audiences more usually claimed by rock stars.” Outrage expressed in UK tabloids over the years reflects the ebb and flow of prejudice and paranoia. Foreign reactions expose different social taboos: Russian galleries refuse to show nudity; Americans are terrified of exhibiting the “Shit” pictures. Publication of this book in France triggered a furore; Le Monde did a 15-page special supplement and the Mayor of Paris hosted a banquet in G&G’s honour. Not the case in Britain. Despite their phenomenal influence. Gilbert states: “At the moment you can not see one Gilbert and George picture in London.”
Winner of The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2005, Frédéric Beigbeder subverts by using words as weapons, with razor wit and self-deprecating charm. His latest offering, L’Egoiste romantique, is a diary which reads like a gossip column and a confessional. It is written by a fictional character, Oscar Dufresne. A dandy-about-town, he is an ambitious writer, a vivacious snob and a womanizer, prone to bouts of self doubt and loneliness. His life has remarkable parallels to Beigbeder’s. He swans around Europe to film festivals, swanky soirées, and hangs out in fashionable places. He knows the jet-set and café society whose names he drops as it is his world. He gets high and gets the blues. And desires Claire, or Penelope, or a myriad other lovelies, finally settling on Françoise, the occasional mistress of his married friend, Ludo. He defends himself cleverly: “I am the victim of feminine beauty in the same way that there exists the fashion victim. It’s not my fault if I am fickle and flighty. He to whom you refer as a ‘bastard’ is, to me, a ‘beauty victim’.“
At the turn of last century, Valéry Larbaud created the fictional character A.O.Barnabooth, a millionaire travelling around Europe, who wrote in his diary words which perfectly describe Oscar Dufresne: ‘My whole life is organised for egoism, and I seek only to please myself and I do not love myself and I love nobody.‘ Oscar’s diary is stuffed with literary observations, witticisms and wordplay. He produces bite-sized thoughts for the “I want it now” generation. Beigbeder mixes fact and fiction for maximum effect. Frequently it is his satirical voice, and not his alter ego’s, which shines through:
“Publishers don’t read books: they publish them.
Critics don’t read books: they skim through them.
Readers don’t read books: they buy them.
Conclusion: the only people who read books are writers.”
A superficial veneer belies a well-read individual who is passionate about literature. What Bridget Jones would make of Oscar Dufresne is anyone’s guess…
Beigbeder may typify le glam-trash littéraire, but the late Alain Pacadis excels at it. Nightclubber, writer for Libération and the style press, an iconic shooting star who was a master of self-destruction, Pacadis was strangled by his lover in 1986. He is emblematic of the cultural effervescence of the Parisian underground in the 1970s and 1980s. Pacadis immortalised Le Palace, the Bains-Douches and the capital’s glitzy soirées at which high bohemia and Le Tout Paris collided. His diary, Un jeune homme chic (A Chic Young Man), is written in breathless, electric prose. Pacadis chronicles his nocturnal excursions through the cultural revolution of the year 1976-1977 in the vibrant trinity of Paris-London-New York. The Damned, Sex Pistols, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Malcolm McLaren, The Clash, New York Dolls, Stinky Toys, Brion Gysin, Kanzai Yamomoto, Loulou de la Falaise, Ingrid Caven, David Hockney… feature alongside actual interviews with Patti Smith, Dave Edmunds, Serge Gainsbourg, Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop, Cherry Vanilla, Andy Warhol. And then there are the forgotten… Elodie Lauten, “the hyphen between Max’s in Kansas City and La Coupole“…and the dead, Hervé Guibert. A recently published collection of articles written by Pacadis, Nightclubbing 1973-1986, gives a magnificent overview and feel of this golden age.
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet, 2005 & 2017 for The BookBlast Diary. All rights reserved.
Frédéric Beigbeder L’Egoiste romantique (Grasset 2005, 400pp 18€)
François Jonquet Jenny Bel’Air: une créature (Fayard 2001, 336pp illus. 22€)
Gilbert & George: Intimate Conversations with François Jonquet / Gilbert & George: Intime conversation avec François Jonquet (Phaidon 2005, 360pp illus. £29.95 & Denoël 2004, 360pp illus. 47€)
Alain Pacadis Un jeune homme chic (Sagittaire 1978 & Denoël 2002, 252pp)
Alain Pacadis Nightclubbing (Denoël X-trème 2005, 836pp 28€)
Paquita Paquin Vingt ans sans dormir 1968-1983 (Denoël 2005, 206pp illus. 20€)
Modern Painters magazine (June, 2005)
“So Young but so Cold, Underground French Music 1977-1983” compilée par Marc Collin et le DJ Ivan Smagghe (Tigersushi, 2004)
“Les Années Palace” double compilation de Michael BIJAOUI (Sony music France, 2002)