The novelist, essayist, and filmmaker Virginie Despentes has written pornography reviews, feminist theory, and holistic punk rock social criticism. Her elaborately plotted fictions explore the origins, uses, and limits of human transgression. Published almost 30 years ago, the rape and revenge thriller Baise-Moi (1993) was a cause célèbre in her native France, not least for having been written by an author with firsthand experience of sex work and sexual violence. Despentes’ most recent work, the Vernon Subutex trilogy (2015–2017), has been made into a television series, which premiered on France’s Canal + in 2019. The novels offer a vivid panorama of a crumbling European society – a patchwork of populism, poverty, complacency, and terror told from the perspective of a man not in the limelight, but adjacent to it.
Interview: Helene Hegemann
In 2017, the political author Bini Adamczak published Beziehungsweise Revolution: 1917, 1968 und kommende. Translated into English – maybe, Relative Revolution: 1917, 1968, and Forthcoming – the title loses something of its German meaning. Adamczak describes the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a revolution of the state, and the revolution of 1968 as a revolution of the individual. The book asserts that the coming revolution must and will be a revolution of relations: a revolution of solidarity. This anti-capitalist thesis seems to stand in absolute contradiction to various present day phenomena: isolationist policy, selfies on Instagram, the resounding success of a self-help literature that no longer invites the reader to any concrete action, only to love himself more than anything or anyone else. This culture has little to do with relationships, and nothing to do with solidarity. But read a novel by Virginie Despentes and Adamczak’s thesis will start to make sense. As soon as you pick up her work, you get an idea of what an unprecedented new form of solidary, border-transgressing people could be capable of in the 21st century. Despentes’ recent trilogy is named for its main character, Vernon Subutex. The first 100 pages of Vernon Subutex read like the story of the inexorable decline of the western European middle class: Vernon Subutex is a record dealer in Paris, an entrepreneur who first loses his business, then his apartment. And because it takes place in “times like these,” when social relationships are becoming increasingly alienated, the practical consequence of these losses is that Subutex can’t end up anywhere but in the dirt. This may sound like a well-balanced social analysis, but critical reception of Despentes’ work often overlooks its most distinguishing feature: that it goes far beyond contemporary social commentary. Despentes does not do reportage. She has an incredible power of observation, but there is more at stake in these books. They contain a massive diversity of characters that represent every conceivable background and layer of society, every mentality or way of thinking. Her work neither attempts to unpack these differences nor seeks to locate their similarities. Despentes’ characters are vessels for a kind of humanity, vessels to be filled with our own experiences and emotions. Journalists like to ask which character contains the most of the author, but Despentes is in all of hers. That’s why we can find our-selves in them too: making the characters so different is the only way to do justice to the contradictions within a single person. Everyone in these novels is going through something extreme. Through them, we realize that every one of us is a fundamentalist Muslim, homeless, an overweight music critic, a malicious film producer, or a budding nazi – potentially, at least. Despentes communicates not through similarity, but through difference – in fact, it is difference, opposition, that makes communication possible. She gives the resurgence of the right and identity politics equal attention. She even intersects them. In Despentes, dialogue begins with disagreement. As a result, her work isn’t simply realistic; it is real. It would make sense to ask someone with as much analytical insight as Despentes about her assessment of the recent outbreaks of violence in Paris and the yellow vest movement, about how she sees Europe in ten years’ time, about her relationship to artificial intelligence. Fortunately, that’s already been done – and Despentes’ answers always surpass other observers’ in quality. I’ll let you google that on your own. I’m going to ask her about her dog. Virginie Despentes’ dog interests me more than World War III. Don’t ask me why – I don’t even know myself. The dog’s name is Philomene. She plays with a miniature plush pink ghetto blaster. The toy has a skull on it and a kind of handle. When the dog has it in her mouth, it looks like she’s strutting around the living room with an “it” bag.
You’ve never killed anyone. Why?
I don’t know.
Is your dog interested in other dogs?
No. Just toys, toys, toys. If you take her to the park,
she’ll want you to throw a ball. That’s it.
Yes. She’s a Rihanna. She absolutely is a Rihanna.
Do you eat meat?
Yes. Sometimes. Do you?
Yes. Can I ask you something?
Why is this metro station called “Stalingrad”?
I have no idea. Let’s google it.
It’s strange, no?
I took bus number 26 to Buttes-Chaumont, a park in Paris’ 19th arrondissement that appears in Vernon Subutex. I passed the Stalingrad metro station, named for the major Red Army victory that precipitated the end of World War II. As a German, I find this irritating. French people associate Stalingrad with the victory of communism over fascism, independent of Stalin’s dictatorship; in Germany, the term “Stalingrad” means death, death, death.
Why did you write to me that the 26 is the best bus line in town?
Because it is. The 26 is a good line. Where did you come from?
Gare du Nord.
Fine. But coming from the other direction is better. It’s fantastic. I’ll say it again: best line in town.
The magic line.
I think there’s a magic line in Berlin too. The M29.
Berlin seems difficult.
What did you do in Berlin?
Not nothing. We walked a lot. On the first night I went to a party. And everyone talked to me about World War II.
World War II. The nazis.
The first thing the Germans talked to you about was World War II?
Yes. World War II. Nazis. And then they talked about communism, about the wall. A lot of cynical jokes about Jews who never came back. Jokes about their own brutal history. Probably because they’re constantly dealing with their historical trauma. In France, we basically hide everything that wasn’t cool. The Germans don’t. Of course they don’t. Maybe that’s the reason I felt a sensation of harshness in Berlin. We walked a lot. We walked to I don’t know where. And the Uber drivers were nothing but sad, sad, sad. Compared to German Uber drivers, the Uber drivers in Paris seem to be excessively enthusiastic. I don’t know. I’ve got great memories of Berlin in the 1980s. I only spent one week there but it was magic. This time it felt like the city has not forgiven itself. You see it and you feel it and you think, “Wow.” It hasn’t forgiven itself, its own history.
I don’t think so. I think it just doesn’t forgive the people who live there for what the city is now. Berlin did everything wrong. Anything was possible in the 1990s. Berlin was a wasteland, new and old at the same time. It could have become the ultimate utopia. Imagine being a teenager in the 90s in Berlin. You’re 14 or 15, you start going out and you start falling in love, and you start to conquer the city you were born in. And suddenly the wall comes down and the city gets bigger. I imagine this as one of the greatest experiences you could have as a teenager. And they could have built something out of that experience. But what happened is that Berlin became a cheap fake of 30 other cities. Berlin had the potential to become a city unlike any other. Now this possibility is completely gone. Well, not completely. But almost.
Over Despentes’ sofa hang framed A3 pictures of Chinese heads of state onto which an artist from Barcelona has scribbled fragments of a breakup story. Despentes has a hard time remembering faces. She eats chocolate by breaking it into pieces of equal size. She speaks fluent Spanish. She doesn’t like English any more than I do. Describing her face sounds different in English than in German, so I’m not going to do it: it’s schön und cool. When she’s thinking about something, sometimes you can tell what she looked like as a child. She gets a message on her cell phone. I think it’s about a prize she’s been awarded.
Holy shit. More money. I’m glorified every day.
Do you like it?
I’m starting to doubt. I loved it. And now I’m starting to think – I don’t know. It’s cool, but it’s strange.
Can I ask you something else?
What’s your concept of an enemy? Your enemy-image? Because when I read your work, it feels like you don’t have any – like you’re not able to see someone as an enemy. You’re too occupied with trying to understand people. Or to find yourself in them. But you must have enemies; you’re not a hippie. And I want a precise description.
I hate a lot of people – most of them I consider enemies. Really any person who dreams and fights for a political system where he or she could have me jailed or locked up or killed because I am a former slut or a feminist or a dyke, etc. Any person who is politically interested in reestablishing religious laws or authoritarian systems. I don’t have to choose them as enemies. They chose me as a particularly good target decades ago: I represent a lot of things they hate or fear. Anyone who wishes he could shoot me in the glorious name of his morality is an enemy. Which doesn’t mean I’m not interested, as a writer, in understanding how things work in their heads. The thoughts of a rapist, of a terrorist, of an antisemite, of a homophobe, of a racist – that’s interesting material for fiction. For example, I am fascinated by the fact that rich people around me feel so comfortable with extreme right tendencies. I try to understand how this works.
It seems like you do understand. That’s crazy. Do you sometimes think that the world is not sensitive enough to understand the contradictions in your work? That most people don’t really try to understand it, but instead just categorize or classify it? And if so, are they insensitive, or are they just lazy?
I feel some people are really sensitive to my work – I’m less sensitive to my own work than many people are. I sincerely believe that once it’s published, your work is done and the readers’ work begins. The readers are the ones who are truly doing the work. Their capacity of perception makes it worthwhile or not. And I can’t say that readers haven’t done good work on my books.
Are you lazy?
I am overly lazy. My favorite occupation is doing nothing. I might say that is my most unique and precious quality. No joke. The fact that I am able to do absolutely nothing and feel fine might be the only really subversive aspect of my personality. I hate work. I hate work more than I love money. I’d say that saved me from many dark temptations.
I’m lazy too. Do you really believe there could be a profound religion in 2,000 years based on rock music?
I hope humanity won’t exist in 2,000 years. I don’t feel we are a good species. Any type of fish is more interesting than we are, any flying animal has more grace and utility than we do – we are crap.
So, I wanted to tell you about a friend of mine. He’s kind of a Vernon. Well, a bit older than Vernon. He’s 70, a very talented musician – cello – but he was never able to fit into an orchestra or follow the rules in general. He just couldn’t; he didn’t fit in. No drug problems. Decent guy. But he has no money at all. If he wants to buy your book for ten euros, he knows he’ll have to eat less for three days. I gave him the trilogy and he said it’s the best thing he’s ever read in his whole life. Specifically the monologue of Alex Bleach on the audiotape. Which is also the MacGuffin in the story, right? I mean, everyone wants those audiotapes without knowing what’s on them. It’s the center of the story somehow. So I really wonder how you wrote it, what your process was. If you maybe even wrote it before you started with the trilogy.
Honestly, I wrote the whole book part by part, outside of the final chronology – so this text was written god knows when. But I knew what I wanted to try to express, and it was really personal. I had a very strong belief in the life I was living when I was a young person – I really felt I entered punk rock like other people might enter a religion. It meant everything to me, to us – and it took a long, cold time to give up that unique sensation. A lot of people I meet today are spontaneously convinced that my experience of life was difficult because I did not study and did not think I belonged to the elite. But I feel really lucky to have had the youth I had.
Scorsese or Coppola?
Scorsese. No hesitation. I love Coppola’s cinema, but it did not have the impact Scorsese had on me – as a filmmaker and as a personality.
I totally agree. Madonna or Patti Smith?
Madonna, obviously. She’s still the boss.
Beyoncé or Obama?
Both, definitely. But how great was Beyoncé’s clip in the Louvre?
I’d say Beyoncé. Andy Warhol or Steve Jobs?
Andy Warhol. Ten years from now: China or USA?
The UK. My favorite country.
1920s or 1960s?
War or prison?
Prison. It’s the only institution in which I’d feel luckier to be a woman than to have been born a man.
I’d say war – as long as it didn’t mean that everyone else who didn’t say “war” would have to experience a war because of me. Balzac or Céline?
Balzac. I like the humor of Céline but I’m not a big fan of his work.
Would you rather die or live on as a healthy animal? And what kind of animal?
I’d love to be an animal. Any kind.
Are you scared of people who are poorer than you are?
I am scared of misery. In France, we chose to not address any refugees, so they have been living in the streets in sheer misery for years. I don’t see what could prevent them from killing all of us tomorrow. And they would be absolutely right to do so. So yes, I am scared because I feel they should attack me as a white person who allowed what is happening now. When you feel guilty, you are scared. Or you are stupid. The next question is a variation on a questionnaire that Max Frisch developed. It’s a bit complicated.
What do you think is most essential for friendship between two persons? You have to choose one:
a) Liking the other’s face
b) Trusting the person to keep your secrets
c) Having similar political views
d) Being able to put the other in a state of hope
just by calling or writing or being there
f) Having the courage to fight
–without intentionally hurting the other one
g) Allowing the other to have secrets
h) A similar ability to be euphoric
i) Sharing memories that would be worthless
if they weren’t shared
I suppose D. But I would add:
k) Someone you can laugh with
What’s the biggest acceptable age difference in a friendship?
I am learning now what it is like to approach being 50, so I am learning how it feels to meet friends who are young enough to be your children. Age difference does not seem as difficult as class or race difference.
Do you believe in biology?
I believe in drugs. So I believe in biology, yes.
Last one, on provocation: have you ever consciously tried to be provocative? I ask you that because I think describing someone’s work as “provocative” is often a form of invalidation. If people scream something and you neutralize them as provocative trouble-makers, you don’t actually have to listen to what they’re screaming about, or at least you don’t have to try to understand it. I feel like a lot of what I’ve tried to say in public has been neutralized this way. So I’ve pretended that provocation was never my intention. But it probably was at a certain point. I just never knew what I was trying to provoke.
When you describe someone’s work as provocative, it means that you are convinced that this person was aiming at you when they wrote something. That there is no text, no movie, no music created that is not directed at you. Describing something as provocative is generally a bourgeois assumption. Because the bourgeoisie – in the western world at least – is convinced that it is a universal receptor. That the world is built around its views, its culture, its language. It is sincerely difficult for the bourgeoisie to imagine a cul- tural medium that does not address it directly. So the answer is no, I never go into something just to be provocative. Because I don’t think of the straight bourgeoisie as my first readers. If I’m writing a book or directing a movie, I think of people who would understand where I take things from – and where I’m trying to take them. I think of people who have a punk rock background, who have had life experiences outside of university, who have experienced working for money, who have experienced rejection. What I do want to provoke – what I myself search for when I read or listen to artists – is a feeling of: “You are not alone. You are not crazy.”