Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Despentes is France’s most famous bad-girl author. A rape survivor who has worked as a prostitute and a housemaid, Despentes’ unapologetically feminist eye picks out the telling details of contemporary French society’s casual ennui and petty hypocrisies. Her “Vernon Subutex” series of novels — there are three — are critically acclaimed best-sellers in France. In Volume I, we meet the book’s eponymous hero, a fallen former record-store owner who has nothing left to his name except interview tapes of a recently deceased rock star that could be his ticket off the streets. ~New York Times

This is a tame synopsis of a novel which is making me feel increasingly like I need to take a bath.

For example, I wouldn’t call thievery, adultery, lying, drugs, or pornography “casual ennui and petty hypocrisies.” Let’s call it what it is: immorality.

Nor would I say that this is a “mind-blowing portrait of contemporary French society.” (Nellie Kaprielian, Inrocks) Of all the times I have been in France, and there have been many, I did not see or participate in such behavior. So maybe it portrays some level of French society, but to make that a blanket statement for all of France feels a bit extreme.

What Vernon Subutex 1 is, is an acerbic novel of a confused and lost group of people, who keep searching for meaning in their lives while it constantly eludes them. Because, I think, they are looking in the wrong places.

It is hard to read this novel and not feel a certain amount of empathy for Vernon. I see how lonely he is, how directionless and physically poor; a combination of things which can only lead to more despair unless he makes different choices.

For me, this is a novel about life spinning out of control for people who are living their lives based on selfish pleasure. Looking at the cover alone, you can see how much anguish is within its pages.

It has been included in the short list for the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and whether it will be declared the winner remains to be seen.

3 thoughts on “Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018)”

  1. It’s more the ‘state of a particular societal layer’ isn’t it – not state of the nation, so in that sense it’s similar to Martin Amis’s Money (which I was shocked to find myself enjoying when I read it a few years ago). As you know, I really enjoyed this novel, and am looking forward to the next two.


    1. The responses to this seem to be very polar; it is either loved or loathed. The reactions from the Shadow Jury are not the same, as one person even returned the novel to Amazon from whence it came for a full refund. Others say it is not as shocking as some claim. It is a compelling read, at least in the beginning to the half, but after awhile I tired of the incessant swearing, and then the immorality really began to weigh on me. How do people expect to be fulfilled when they are living such unbridled lives? It would make for a fascinating book group discussion, with all of us who have read it. I guess I’m surprised at how it has been a best seller in France; I can’t imagine the people embracing it. But, then again, I can’t imagine the people living such a lifestyle.

      It is hard for me to read without being judgmental, and for that I apologize as I cannot give an unbiased review.


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