You know how it ends: everybody dies.' So begins the French writer Frdric Beigbeder's Windows on the World. His extraordinary novel-essay- memoir about 11 September 2001 and its cultural aftermath has won this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, in Frank Wynne's scintillating translation for Fourth Estate. Beigbeder and Wynne share the pounds 10,000 award, generously supported by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger. This time, we also decided to name an official runner-up: the Russian writer Irina Denezhkina's debut collection of stories, Give Me (Songs for Lovers), translated by Andrew Bromfield for Chatto & Windus.
To be exact, the line above is how half of Beigbeder's central narrative begins " after the introductory quotes from Walt Whitman, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson and Tom Wolfe that tell you so much about the author's loves and affinities, and after the dedications to his daughter Chlo and 'to the 2,749' who died in the Twin Towers on that blue Tuesday morning. Minute by minute, this part of the story ticks off the time in the top- floor restaurant of the World Trade Centre's North Tower from 8.30 to 10.28am. Here, on 11 September, a divorced, pleasure-seeking Texan real- estate dealer and his two sons have come for a breakfast treat, only to pass through a soul-shredding but " to such a fearless novelist " not- quite-unimaginable ordeal.
The other part gives us the character 'Frdric Beigbeder', a French dandy (but, crucially, one with much-admired American ancestors) " a trendy intellectual, narcissist and all-round poseur. He takes his own safe breakfast up in the Tour Montparnasse in Paris, picking over his pampered and blinkered past in a bid to explore how he, or anyone, might make sense of the event that has reshaped our world since that day.
This is a subject and a setting that, tackled with the urgency that it demands, might test to destruction the limits of conventional fiction. With his snatches of memoir, cultural commentary, polemic and even wild comedy, Beigbeder does more than relieve the intolerable pressure of a story set within the tower in the minutes before its collapse. He makes of that burnt and buckling glass and steel not just a window on our world but a damning mirror for Western dreams and delusions, and in particular for feckless children of affluence such as the narrator: 'Men with no instruction manual. Men with no solidity. Defective men.' For him, the vacant hedonism that hit its early-Seventies peak just as the WTC rose has now crumbled as completely as its towers. What endures " for Beigbeder, for the doomed family he creates, for all witnesses and survivors " is the ability to love. 'Love alone gives me the right to hope,' concludes his narrator. 'What will survive of us is love,' wrote Philip Larkin. How piquant to find the toast of hip literary Paris rhyming at last with the glum bard of Hull.
Last week, the New York Times passed this judgement on character, and author: 'a hipster nihilist, a publicity hound, a jerk, a self- impressed renegade'. But then, in an exemplary critique of this lacerating, exhilarating work, Stephen Metcalf went on to ask: 'How is it that in approaching so delicate a subject as 9/11,' Beigbeder 'has written so funny and moving a book'? …