Marie Darrieussecq: Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes (Men)
The opening statement of this book – even before the title and author – is Une femme rencontre un homme. Coup de foudre. L’homme est noir, la femme est blanche. Et alors ? [A woman meets a man. Love at first sight. The man is black, the woman white. So what?] This gives us an idea of what the book is about. The title comes from La Vie matérielle : Marguerite Duras parle à Jérôme Beaujour, an interview with Duras where she states Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup, beaucoup. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible, on ne peut pas les supporter.[You should love men a lot. A lot, a lot. Love them a lot to love them. If you don’t, it is not possible, you cannot bear them.]
Solange, a French woman whom we have already met in Darrieussecq’s previous novel Clèves (translated into English as All the Way, is now older and working as an actress in Hollywood. Though she can, she claims, do a good American accent, her roles tend to be that of the French woman. She is currently making a film with Matt Damon for example. She will be shot while lying in his arms and will utter her only lines as she is dying – See you on the other side – which, fortunately, perhaps, happen to be the title of the film. She goes to a party at George’s house. George is never given a surname, but we are meant to assume it is George Clooney just as the other film people she meets tend to only have first names such as Steven (Soderbergh), Jen (Aniston), Kate (Winslow or Hudson) and Colin (Farrell). She also meets the black man she is going to fall for. She assumes that he is American but is not sure but then learns that he is Canadian. She later learns that he is originally from anglophone Cameroon (she was not even aware that Cameroon had an anglophone part). By looking at his work on YouTube, she finds that his name is, more or less, Kouhouesso Nwokam – more or less because there are variant spellings of the name. (She later finds out, by looking at his passport, that his full name is Kouhouesso Fulgence Modeste Brejnev Victory Nwokam-Martin.) He gets many of the token black roles – boxer or drug dealer, for example.
They start an affair, passionate for her, less so for him. Indeed, one of the key themes is related to the Duras quote above. She spends a lot of time waiting for him to phone her or text her or come and see her. She arranges her schedule to suit him. She gets worried when he does not contact her (I was busy), though he is generally glad to see her (and sleep with her.) She learns that he wants to make a film of Heart of Darkness but a film told from the African point of view rather than something like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. He also wants to make a musical about Miriam Makeba but that is for later. Much of the book is about how he sets up this film, as seen from Solange’s perspective. Getting funding is, naturally, difficult, as studios will be reluctant to give money to a black man who has never made a film before. He wants to make the film in the Congo which puts them off even more, because of security and insurance issues. But he perseveres, getting help from George and then Oprah. The other issue is casting. Who is to play Marlow? Sean Penn? And who will play Kurtz? George? And what about Marlow’s Intended? He immediately wants to cast Gwyneth Paltrow but Solange, who wants the part, considers Gwyneth Paltrow to be too skinny. She is somewhat concerned when she sees on his computer a remark Gwyneth Paltrow nude.
All of this discussion and the meetings with the Hollywood glitterati are told against the background of Solange’s not entirely reciprocated passion for Kouhouesso, his life (he lives with Jessie, another (male) black actor, who will have a role in the film) and, in particular, racism. From his difficulty with funding to being stopped by the cops in LA when the couple are having a row, from Olga, the costume lady, who is Uighur, continually being called the Chinese woman, which she really hates to Olga herself commenting on Kouhouesso when Solange tells Olga about him Did he have a big one?, racism is never far away. Her (and others’) ignorance of Africa is also key. L’Afrique ça n’existe pas [Africa does not exist]], he states, going on to explain L’Afrique est une fiction d’ethnologue. Il y a des Afriques. Idem pour la couleur noire : une invention. Les Africains ne sont pas noirs, ils sont bantous et bakas, nilotes et mandingues, khoïkhoïs et swahilis. [Africa is a fiction of ethnologists. There are Africas. Same thing for the black colour. An invention. Africans are not black, they are Bantu and Bakas, Nilotes and Mandinka, Khoikhoi and Swahilis.] But the film does get made and Solange does get the part and they head off to Africa, where she is confronted with the unpleasant reality of Africa – the heat, the insects, the diseases and, of course, the culture difference. She hardly ever sees Kouhouesso while the film is being made and things do not turn out too well for her but she survives.
This brief summary cannot do justice to what is another superb novel from Darrieussecq. She subtly mocks the Hollywood glitterati, Solange’s dependence and the pervasive racism but without making too much of it. She shows the difficulties of a relationship between a black man and white woman, both in LA and when they visit France but, again, without making too much of it. And she tells her story well, even though we do not really learn how the film is different from the white version of Heart of Darkness and what makes it African. This book confirms Darrieussecq as one of the foremost living French writers.
First published in French in 2013 by P.O.L
Translated by Penny Hueston
First English publication in 2016 by The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne