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  ->  Novels & Short stories  

The Center of the Universe
Frédéric Beigbeder   Windows on the World
 / 304 pages
ISBN : 1401352235

Original Title: Windows on the World

Publisher: Hyperion

List Price: $24.95


There are two periods in the career of author Frédéric Beigbeder. Before 99 francs, his all time best seller (soon to be made into a movie by Antoine de Caunes with Edouard Baer in the leading role) this likeable advertising agent tried his hand at publishing some elegantly somber novels, trashy as they may have been. Two of these were Vacances dans le coma and L’Amour dure trois ans; narcissistic, if well arranged portraits, of a rich, disenchanted youth of debauchery.

Since his entry into the select circle of best selling authors, Beigbeder has gained status and launched into the publication of literary works such as his infamous Inventaire avant liquidation, which was – as it turns out – a complete flop. The particularity of Windows on the World is the narration – in real time – of the two hours that changed both America as well as a part of the world (yes, only a part): September 11, 2001 from 8:30 to 10:29 am.

Beigbeder puts himself in the shoes of a wealthy divorced Texan who, on the fateful date, takes his two sons to Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the second to collapse. Along side this minute by minute drama, the novel doubles as a “modest autobiography” of Beigbeder, a privileged jetsetter who, in this part of the book, faces up to his wanderings: past, present and future. The majority of his work is done from Le Ciel de Paris, the restaurant at the top of Paris’ Montparnasse tower. The rest is written in New York. An inward look at one’s self, the strangeness of parallel trajectories and of tragic destinies, reflections on loss – of beings and ideologies – sex, errors, writing, and at last the derision of all of this are sprinkled throughout this bipartite novel.

So let’s get to the crux of the matter. It’s courageous of Frédéric Beigbeder to want to take on the task of describing the indescribable in a novel, a literary genre in itself pioneered by Holocaust survivors such as Primo Levi and Jorge Semprun among others; a genre which is underscored by the following reflection : can one write about that which cannot be recounted? The problem is that Beigbeder isn’t Primo Levi, and his attempt to penetrate into the secrets of horror, panic and the pain of charred corpses plummeting to the sidewalks of New York is a total failure. In the same way, Beigbeder isn’t Bret Easton Ellis and his description of a hip New York with its swinger clubs and chic night clubs and of his fascinated observations of a hedonistic metropolis is not convincing.

This leaves the other face of the novel, the one in which Beigbeder takes an autobiographical approach, describing himself – rather honestly – as a man, a man who thinks, who loves, who remembers. This is a much more successful, even moving part of the novel – which, let us admit, is still unfortunate, since this former ad agent never does succeed in escaping his obsessive self-compulsion, a veritable gangrene of modern literature.

In short, Beigbeder deplores the fact that his status as a rich, famous man prevents his revolutionary objective, that his notoriety has “disqualified his rebellion”. The problem is that once he’s said this, what’s next? What then is his infamous revolutionary objective? And then to us to pose ourselves the question: should you necessarily write an ambitious novel when you don’t have anything of much consequence to say, once you’ve realized you’re not the center of the universe?

Caroline Bee / Translated from the French par Edward C Hollo
( Mis en ligne le 18/05/2005 )

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