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Cultural Exchange: French writers look beyond Paris

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François Bon knows about the hidden cemetery just behind the Grande Arche, a minimalist monument to modernity that looms over France's version of Wall Street, or La Défense. The decision to surround the office buildings in one of Europe's largest financial hubs with headstones was later viewed as distasteful, and trees were planted to cover them. Now, some employees says Bon, eat sandwiches while sitting on the tombs.

Nearby, Bon also knows where to take an elevator that will leave a person lost in an endless expanse of deserted parking lots eight stories below ground. He knows that at the end of every weekday, thousands of white-collar workers are replaced by another "population." They are janitors, "who have black skin," he says.

Bon, a 58-year-old novelist, immersed himself in La Défense for what he calls a "laboratory" of experience for his future fiction and as part of a residency at this year's "Paris en Toutes Lettres" ( literary festival. He has taken snapshots, interviewed employees, visitors, security guards and residents in this pocket of "money churners," as he calls the firms concentrated in the western outskirt of Paris. Although building height is strictly regulated in the center of the city, here skyscrapers have free rein, and so it seems, do the companies whose names — Areva, Total, Societe Generale — crown their offices.

The district is an outsized petri dish for the potent issues facing modern France — in short, a literary gold mine for socially conscious writers like Bon and others. Indeed, today more French novelists are drawing inspiration from their social, economic and political surroundings in a new phenomenon observers are calling literature "of the real."

Until the 1980s, more common literary topics were "man and nature, the writer in Montmartre," said novelist Jean-Pierre Ostende, whose new book about an audit firm, "Et voraces ils couraient dans la nuit" (Voracious, They Ran in the Night), is another example of the shift. "You were not supposed to write about telephone poles or the decorations in an airport." Instead, French fiction focused on creating literary forms and "literature for literature's sake" and avoided stories with the so-called nouveau roman (new novel) or honed in on the inner world of the writer.

"It was a little hard to talk about reality," said Dominique Viart, who teaches at the University of Lille 3. "Literature of the '60s and '70s talked about itself," he said.

But increasingly visible today, "the story is back," said Viart. "French literature is no longer self-absorbed at all. It talks as much about the problems of Rwanda, globalization, the great questions of society. And not just the little world of Paris and the little world of writers. François Bon was one of the first to write about the world of the worker, and since then it hasn't stopped."

Bon's 2004 novel, "Daewoo," on the broken lives of laid-off factory workers, won considerable critical acclaim. Rarely translated into English, thus limiting their influence outside of France, other popular novelists addressing everyday life include Leslie Kaplan, Annie Ernaux and Marie NDiaye, whose "Trois femmes puissantes" (Three Powerful Women) (2009) won the Goncourt Prize, France's top literary prize for prose.

Bon doesn't see himself as part of a trend and is wary of trying to identify "one single literature … otherwise, we're doing sociology." But he has no doubt that all aspects of the society he comes in contact with remain his source of inspiration. "If we want to talk about the world," he says, "if we want writing to serve to improve life, then we have to understand this thing," he adds, referring to the mysteries of La Défense and the seemingly unliterary topic of the financial market.

His better-known works include "Sortie d'usine," literally "Exit From the Factory," as well as biographies of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. A childhood fascination with new technology and mechanics, shared by his parents (his father was a garage mechanic), led to a short career in electron beam welding and strongly influenced his writing. Today he advocates for online forms of literature (he created "publie.net," an online publisher) and teaches creative writing workshops, despite the French literary establishment's general skepticism of both domains.

On a Sunday afternoon at La Défense, deserted from weekday workers, the place feels like a manicured museum park for skyscrapers. Gusts of wind blow through empty corridors between buildings.

As he walks briskly across the central square, his unkempt white hair blowing in every direction, he stops in his tracks to excitedly photograph an outdated, broken parking meter, or "urban ruin," as he calls it. Bon says workers don't last here. Most arrive in their 20s and, like the wind blowing through the place, move on after three or four years. Later, while wandering through an electronic goods store, he says, "I don't want my world to stop and start at the world of money, or power." And with a wide grin, and not the slightest sign of hesitating, he pushes open an unmarked door for employees only.

His curiosity appears to be shared among many French fiction writers. French literature from Baudelaire to Balzac, Zola and the surrealists has a lofty tradition of focusing on the subject of contemporary society. But as in other parts of Europe by the 1950s, similar attention to realism was suspected of merely repeating what masters had done better, said Viart.

Now, "I can see that something is shifting," says novelist Anne-Marie Garat, who addresses the topic of globalization in her novel-triology that spans the 20th century until 2010, "Dans la main du diable" (In the Hand of the Devil), "L'Enfant des ténèbres" (The Child of Darkness) and "Pense à demain" (Think of Tomorrow).

"We see the return, and not just in France, but in Italy, Spain, etc. … the return of the novel that asks — not just about reality — but history, and memory...." Because of the economic crisis, and "all these tensions … we are forced to be accountable to this world," she says.

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