Though not the perfect gift for a friend suffering from depression, The Weight of the World is a bracing tonic if you have drunk too much New Labour champagne. Our masters insist all will be well if only people get jobs, take risks, and behave well as husbands and wives. Pierre Bourdieu and his colleagues show how hard it is to do so.
This is a book of interviews, some of which have the precision and depth of short stories. Bourdieu, a sociologist at the College de France (a French cousin of Oxford's All Souls, minus the silver and the port), is a gifted listener to immigrant labourers, lower middle-class men trapped in dead-end jobs, mothers coping with kids on drugs. He has trained in turn a generation of students to listen closely to ordinary people, and this book is in part the result: a collective portrait of France's bottom half, with a dash of Chicago and Harlem thrown in, at the beginning of the 1990s.
The interviews aim at being something other than just photographs of everyday life. That larger aim is why we in Britain can read The Weight of the World with profit if not with pleasure. We may think of France as a country with a stronger, more supportive state than modern, do-it- yourself Britain; but this is a misleading cliche. Bourdieu and his colleagues have focused on the ways the French state a generation ago abandoned or betrayed ordinary people struggling to get by.
The first, in some ways most emblematic, interviews to appear in this immense book occur in "Jonquil Street", a decaying suburb close to a shrinking steel factory near an unnamed French city. Bourdieu goes to interview two men who live on opposite sides of the street: M. Leblond, one of the last native French workers in the neighbourhood, and M. Amezzine, an occasional labourer originally from Algeria.
The economic heart of their community died when it became more profitable to make steel in Asia than in Europe. M. Leblond has kept his job in the faltering local plant, M. Amezzine has no hope of getting in. Neither man whinges about his fate, but just tries to figure out how to cope from month to month.
The economic trauma facing both has not brought them together as neighbours; rather, it drives them ever more inward. Though these middle-aged men try to manage cultural differences in the community peaceably, leaving each other alone, the younger generation - particularly M. Amezzine's sons - are angry and sometimes violent, knowing their futures are bleak.
Jonquil Street, you might think, is more a story about global capitalism than the French state. Government can't, after all, dictate the price of steel. Yet Bourdieu wants us to understand how the institutions of society mesh with this "free-market" story of social exclusion.
The local schools seem to M. Amezzine to have given up on his children, while Mme. Leblond, a traditional and deferential companion to her husband, lashes out at the slights she imagines these same schools make to children of her sort - by coddling the Algerian migrants, for instance, during Ramadan.
Neither side of the street has been well-served by the urban planners, who destroyed a nearby high-rise and privatised the remaining houses. Having "modernised" the community, they then ceased providing it much in the way of services.
The originality of The Weight of the World is the refusal of its authors simply to weep crocodile tears over places like Jonquil Street. …