At the start of every year, France conducts a kind of literary lottery. More than 600 new novels are tipped on to the shelves of French bookshops. One or two sell. Most vanish without trace.
A debate is raging this year about the future of the novel in France. Why are so many of them unreadable beyond the 11th page?
A series of essays suggests that the problem is that too many French authors write about their favourite subject: themselves. They have given up on plots and characters. Instead, they write in adoring detail about their own lives. This genre is called "auto fiction", a kind of interminable blogging in print. There is also, however, a thriving genre of French thrillers or livres noirs. They have characters and plots. Daringly, the story is sometimes set outside the literary ghettos of central Paris. Travelling to Brest, at the far western end of Brittany, I looked for material on a town that I scarcely knew. I stumbled on a short thriller, published a couple of weeks ago: Last Exit to Brest by Claude Bathany (Metailie, [euro]7).
This is a gripping, dark - and funny - story of murder, theft, rock music and provincial life. The narrator anti-hero, Alban Le Gall, is placid, gay, fortysomething and a nightclub bouncer, built like a fridge-freezer. He becomes the manager of a middle-aged rock group called Last Exit to Brest. He is determined to look after the band like a mother, even when their drum kit becomes - literally - tangled up in banditry and revenge killings.
As in all good thrillers, there is an overwhelming sense of place. Brest, a once-beautiful and mythical port flattened by Allied bombing and shelling in 1944, is a character - maybe the principal character - in the book. The town was rebuilt in the late 1940s into what Bathany calls "neo-Soviet" style. He describes Brest, once his home town, as a "sombre" gouache painting, a "study in monocrome", brightened by "the grey wings of seagulls".
The depressive guitarist of the group learns five chords. …