Yannick Haenel’s ‘Hold Fast Your Crown’ is French literature at its finest


There is a difficulty that I always encounter when I speak of contemporary French literature, which is due to the fact that the country has emerged, relatively recently, from a literary golden age. From the works of Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire to Albert Camus and Simone De Beauvoir, the French have spent more than a century unpacking one literary masterpiece after another, honoring and renewing their reputation for sophistication and taste.

Unfortunately, their literary production has not been so important on a global scale since the post-war period, with the country’s most famous intellectuals (Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida) devoting themselves instead to postmodern philosophy. I admit that my research on contemporary French writers has been more casual than methodical, but personally I had never found a contemporary French novelist or poet who marked me like their ancestors. (Yes, I read Michel Houellebecq, and no, I was not particularly impressed).

All this was true until now, because Yannick Haenelit’s Hold your crown tight, Translated by Therese Lavender Fagan, This is exactly the kind of novel I’ve been waiting for so long. I wanted something that challenges me, and Hold your crown tight does this to such an extent that I’m even challenged to describe its plot. At first, it seems to be the story of an anonymous Parisian writer who wants to produce an ambitious screenplay. Then said writer has to take care of his neighbor’s dog and the story seems to take a tangent, except from there that’s all – the plot continues to unfold tangent after tangent, juggling a handful of repetitions of themes, symbols, and imagery, but never giving you a proper narrative thread to hold on to.

The result is undeniably a mess, and yet it works, thanks in large part to Haenel’s weird and haunting prose. Here, for example, is how the author describes a trip to New York: “Outside the sky was pink, and all the green of Central Park shimmered like a gently burning bush. I inhaled the scent of wisteria, honeysuckle climbing along the front door of the museum, and all the petals flew, little yellow and purple words in the dusty history saturated New York air . The vocabulary and arguably even the style is relatively simple, but there’s a lot going on here, from the color of the imagery to the vaguely metatextual quality of the composite metaphor.

Besides being messy in terms of plot, Hold your crown tight is everywhere as far as its intertextual library is concerned. The backbone of the story seems to be the protagonist’s quest for truth (the kind you spell with a capital T), which is symbolically represented by a deer. But the deer is most often seen by the protagonist in artwork rather than real life, so much of the novel is just about the main character watching movies and reading books while he smokes and drinks. more than anyone should. He seems to develop a particular obsession with Herman Melville and director Michael Cimino (who directed, of course, the 1978 films The deer hunter), but he also often refers to other works, tracing a bibliography ranging from the work of Ovid Metamorphoses to the Altarpiece of Issenheim and which has little or no thematic coherence.

All of this chaos is enough to make the book a maddening read, but what will really drive any reader into the walls is that the havoc extends to — and even culminates in — the book’s philosophical perspective. If you like thoughtful and thought-provoking literature, then Hold your crown tight will give you what you’re looking for in spades: the protagonist seems unable to simply see a kite or drink a glass of wine without raving about some deep existential aspect of life, and yet those ramblings are as unreliable and unstable as the plot itself. I’ll quote a long passage, simply because there’s no better way to convey the effect than by sampling it:

“But in the end, what does failure really mean? I do not have believe in check. Melville’s was proportional to the demands that motivated it: it indicated a secret glory. The company sticks the label of failure on anything that doesn’t meet its requirements. He denies success to anything beyond his established criteria. I wasn’t really impressed by society’s idea of ​​literature. What does he know? Nothing. Everyone thinks they know what literature is, but no one knows anything. And that morning, with my twenty euros, my dizziness, my slight hangover, and my irrepressible desire to see Revelation nowthis morning and every morning of my happy, coarse existence, and every evening and every night, not only did it seem to me that I knew what literature was, but that in a sense I has been Literature.”

Here the speaker begins with a seemingly relatable critique of society’s criteria for determining success and failure, but then spirals into wild generalizations like “no one knows anything” and ends with the outlandish statement “I has been Literature’. I find this passage as beautiful and memorable as I find it frustrating and unreasonable.

Due to its contradictory qualities, Hold your crown tight is not a book for everyone. I can well imagine some readers being annoyed by the wandering plot or irritated by the madness of the narrator (and the madness is undeniable – indeed, the opening line of the book is “Back then I was mad” ). That said, I can’t help but feel that the novel is heavy by design and there’s an order underlying the chaos. A long passage seems hypocritical to the point of being almost unbearable, as the protagonist sits down with a film producer and two actresses, and they laugh at oppression and exploitation while eating oysters and laughing. drunk on champagne. And yet, the author (unlike the narrator) seems very aware of what is going on, leaving plenty of clues that suggest the reader is being played (the waiter in this scene, for example, is compared to French President Emmanuel Macron, a statesman frequently accused of classism and elitism).

With regard to interpretation, Hold your crown tight defeated me. I would need close and repeated readings, fleshing out the various passages of prose, for me to find the threads that would make sense of this sublime mess. And maybe there isn’t, and it’s all just a quack’s hollow nonsense. I must also foresee this possibility, and it is in any case the kind of doubt that the first critics of Gustave Flaubert or Stéphane Mallarmé must have nurtured.

Time has provided these writers with the answers that I cannot provide to Haenel. Hold your crown tight. I can’t say what it means, I can’t say if it’s good or bad, and I certainly can’t say for sure if it’s a “great” novel or not. But it shocked me, excited me, angered me, compelled me, delighted me more than any French book I’ve read that’s been written in the last 50 years, and as far as I’m concerned , that’s all I have to highly recommend Haenel’s book.


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