Nicolas Mathieu’s France: In Spite of Despair, an Ode to Life
Nicolas Mathieu’s second novel And Their Children After Them (Fr: Leurs enfants après eux) earned him the Prix Goncourt in 2018. It unforgivingly explores the bleakness of a lower middle-class existence in contemporary France.
Contemporary French literature scholar Étienne Achille has noticed that contemporary fiction in France is lately more and more focusing in the stories of “average folks” in France — by “average” we mean the masses of large, ethnic French people living outside the major cities — than ever before. One can trace this trend to two twentieth century figures. The first, Pierre Bourdieu, was a sociologist who explored the link between social class and aesthetics with the goal of advocating for the poor, among other things. He also more discreetly could have aided invent autotheory when he wrote a “self-analysis” with the help of his own theories (this was only published posthumously). The second is Annie Ernaux, a writer whose brief, simple accounts of what her life before achieving success as a writer looked like took the French literary scene by storm. Anxieties surrounding how to categorize her work arose instantly, with some critics questioning whether she could ever be part of the literary canon or if she should instead be seen as social sciences scholarship (some have argued that by refusing to settle in either category she is helping dismantle the idea of genre altogether). Bourdieu and Ernaux have inspired a new generation of French intellectuals such as Didier Eribon and Édouard Louis, two writers who have similarly engaged in writing about to self in order to advocate for compassion for poor and working-class French people. Another equally prolific person associated with this trend is the Nancy-based writer Nicolas Mathieu, whose debut novel Aux animaux la guerre was successfully turned into a TV show. His second novel has earned him a bigger audience as well as an English translation. Is this buzz deserved? Is Mathieu simply yet another disciple of Bourdieu and Ernaux?
It’s hard to say no after reading And Their Children After Them (French: Leurs enfants après eux). The novel is not precisely autobiographical, but it certainly draws from the realities of people residing in postindustrial Eastern France in the 1990s. We get to meet Anthony and his (unnamed) cousin, two teenage boys who get into all kinds of hilarious and troublesome situations in their village. Then, we meet Anthony’s parents, Patrick and Hélène, whose fragile marriage eventually ends in divorce with rather unfortunate outcomes for Patrick, who doesn’t know what to do with himself without a nuclear family. The vignettes of Patrick’s life certainly make a compelling case for the vulnerabilities of the French working-class: Patrick isn’t ever starving or homeless, but he never achieves financial stability either. After the local factories close down, he holds a variety of menial, unsatisfying jobs and becomes an alcoholic. The situation worsens after his divorce, and he dies rather tragically by drowning in a nearby lake during local festivities for Bastille Day. Reading the pages detailing Patrick’s decline was particularly moving because even though he is not necessarily a character who inspires much sympathy, Mathieu still emphasizes that he exists in a time and place that does not value his life. The growing influence of neoliberalism in France and the decay of community living has turned tons of people into hopeless machines. One cannot avoid a comparison to Michel Houellebecq’s work about the despair of the neoliberal era.
Interestingly, Mathieu introduces also Hacine, a second-generation Moroccan immigrant who lives in public housing and who struggles financially and socially, too. Hacine’s presence and backstory certainly capture the specific set of concerns children of immigrants in France go through. When he goes to Morocco with his father during the summer, he seizes an opportunity to partake in drug trafficking, which quickly earns him a sizable fortune. However, he eventually chooses to stay away from crime, get a 9-to-5 job and settle down with Coralie, a French girl for whom he initially feels infinite love and later, after she gives birth to their daughter, he feels nothing but contempt. Here, Mathieu shows that while a family provides structure and support to many people, it does just the opposite in cases such as Hacine’s. Hacine quickly comes to miss his youth when he realizes he has to get up early five days a week for the next two decades of his life to support his daughter. Impulse-purchasing a motorcycle seems to alleviate his stress for a second, but overall simple pleasures such as those are but a band-aid in a big wound.
The last major character is Steph Chaussoy, the daughter of a well-off family who lives in the same town as Anthony and Hacine and who used to hook up with the former when they were teenagers. Her life had been quite comfortable until she graduated high school and had to decide what to do with the rest of her life. A stay in Paris for preparatory school showed her that while she stood out in her Eastern French village, Paris was a total different game. She initially fell defeated by the big city but soon realized that she was especially good at math and would do whatever it took to become an important person, someone who knew what was going on behind the scenes in France and the world. By the end, it appears Steph plans to immigrate to Canada and therefore it is unclear if she ever became as powerful as she planned. In spite of this open-ended ending, Steph’s case contributes a lot to the narrative. It investigates what are the stakes for someone who belongs to the bourgeoisie of the provinces. It is true that Steph had no need to flee to Paris to live comfortably, but she grew up thinking that she deserved the best and was not going to stop until getting there. Mathieu successfully shows that even the upper middle-class has its existential crises in the neoliberal era: life is perhaps too easy and challenges arise out of people’s own desires to rise above the rest.
Overall, Mathieu’s novel stays close to the aims of Bourdieu and Ernaux — it successfully gives voices to individuals who otherwise are not part of the French literary canon while criticizing the current sociopolitical situation in his native country. However, one could argue that it goes beyond a simple critique of neoliberalism. Mathieu is very invested in the individual; the abundance of hilarious anecdotes and sex scenes, for instance, make it clear that he wants to explore the highs of life along with the lows. The presence of these highs suggests that in spite of how complicated life is, it is worth living. Mathieu’s novel is nothing short of an ode to life as most of us know it.