Sept. 11, the Novel: Possible or Not?

Two years after the attacks that plunged America into mourning, two French writers have published novels about this historic tragedy. Le Nouvel Observateur invited them to sit down and discuss their contrasting viewpoints. How do you write today about an event that dominated the front pages of the world’s media for months? Frédéric Beigbeder threw himself into the scalding bath of Windows on the World, published by Grasset, an electric novel that mingles fiction and autobiography, humor and despair, satire and scorn.

The fiction? The final moments of a father and his two children trapped in the restaurant atop one of the World Trade towers. The autobiography? A tranquil childhood in Paris, trips to New York, a love of literature, all of this interspersed with bouts of self-loathing. The reader emerges from this churning torrent annoyed by Beigbeder’s flood of narcissism but won over by his atomic energy.

Luc Lang, for his part, took a more sophisticated approach. His 11 Septembre mon amour (Sept. 11, My Love) published by Stock, is a “road movie” that takes the spectator into the heart of Montana’s awe-inspiring landscape, to an Indian reservation, which is in fact where the novelist heard the news of Sept. 11. Starting with the gap between the tragedy he saw on a TV screen and his frustration at not being able to learn about Indian history as planned, Luc Lang elaborates his vision of America, denouncing its excesses, its violence. He also pays tribute to the victims by evoking their last messages to their near and dear. Lang, refusing to play the fiction game, presents a furious, despairing account of Sept. 11.

Where were you on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001?
Frédéric Beigbeder: I was at [the French publishing house] Grasset, giving an interview much like this one. When the first plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, we thought it was an accident and we kept on with the interview. But when the second plane hit the south tower, we were faced with a sudden new equation: One plane equals an accident, two planes equals no accident. We all crowded around the TV set....People were stunned by the scope of the disaster.

Luc Lang: The previous evening, Sept. 10, I had arrived on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana. It was a very important trip for me, with something quite personal and intimate at stake. I was hosted by an Indian and his wife, a young German woman....The morning after my arrival, my host got a phone call from a friend telling him that terrible things were happening in New York. He switched on the TV and tuned to CNN. We were broadsided by the images, and we found ourselves horrified and fascinated at the same time. For me, the situation was completely out of synch: Even if I did manage to get some idea of life on an Indian reservation...the issue that was on my mind disappeared utterly in the face of this immense catastrophe. I had come to meet Indians, to talk about their history, and there all of a sudden, right in the midst of the Indians, the only thing that mattered was Sept. 11.

At what point did you start thinking about writing a book about the day?
Beigbeder: I started taking notes at once. Then I systematically collected all the articles I could ferret out. For me, it was clear: Sept. 11 was the first historic event in my lifetime, as I was born in 1965.

Lang: The idea for a book came to me two months later, in November....I had read articles in the American press that compared Sept. 11 to Pearl Harbor. It was crazy! Pearl Harbor was a military operation aimed at a military target. If you were going to talk about World War II and Japan, you had to think about the civilian victims! When I returned to France, I saw that Le Monde was echoing that comparison, which made me furious. The image that came to me when thinking about Japan was of the victims of Hiroshima. And so I thought that if I were to write a book, it could only be called “Sept. 11, My Love” [referencing the 1959 Alain Resnais-Marguerite Duras film, Hiroshima, mon amour]. At that time, though, I had the working title and nothing else.

You used two very different kinds of narration...
I don’t think it’s possible to write pure fiction about Sept. 11; the personal perspective of the writer is important, too. In my novel, I switch back and forth between fiction—that’s the tale of the final moments of a father and his two children trapped in Windows on the World...and autobiography—which I wrote in Ciel de Paris, the restaurant on the 56th floor of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris. The novel is a very accommodating genre—you can do anything with it—so I mixed elements of the newspaper article, the pamphlet, the novel, and the essay. The rest is simply a question of construction, of structure....By the way, we aren’t the first people to have written about Sept. 11; there are already thousands of books on it. Almost all of them have tried to answer the question: Why? Very few wondered: How? And so I wanted to invent what might have gone on, to imagine it.

You also say in your novel that you are fed up with anti-Americanism. So it’s a defense of things American?
I’ve been very influenced by American film and American novels, and to complicate things further, I have an American grandmother. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, I was very annoyed by reactions like, “After all, they asked for it.” I really don’t like this Frenchy-French aspect of anti-Americanism. I think you can absolutely criticize capitalism without criticizing the Americans. This is where I disagree with Luc Lang’s book. The word “amerloque” [disparaging slang meaning an American person or people] comes up frequently in his narration, and his argument about George Bush’s “coup d’etat” is too close to that of Michael Moore. For my part, I use illuminating quotes from both Walt Whitman...and Kurt Cobain, who wrote several years before Sept. 11, “Kill the Rockefellers”!

Lang: I disagree completely with Frédéric’s book. I think it’s not possible to create fiction out of an event of this kind. You just can’t take over the voices of people who are dead. I couldn’t start writing my book before putting together what I call “The Voices,” the section that is a tribute to the victims. I wanted my aim to be very clear: This book is in no way anti-American, but it does attack the American administration. I want to point out that at the end of my book, I write, “Fortunately, there are Americans.” And I quote Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fante, and many others who are writers of reference for me. What gave me the most trouble was trying to describe the pictures I saw on TV. The challenge was this: Can I give them the same force by writing about them? But what really shook me up was the technological aspect of the horror: These are voices we’ve heard on recordings, like voices from beyond the grave speaking to their families and friends, to say goodbye. I don’t think it’s possible to speak for these departed ones. When I read Frédéric’s novel, I feel as though I’m in the middle of a big Hollywood production, in an advertising campaign.

Beigbeder: And your title, that’s not an ad? You could just as easily have written “Sabra and Shatila, my sweetie,” or “Srebrenica, my darling”! There’s some stuff you write that I don’t agree with, either. When you compare the Americans to the Nazis, for instance.

Lang: That’s not what I wrote at all! I merely pointed out that during the occupation of Japan in 1945, the Americans imposed such a heavy censorship that in some areas the Japanese didn’t know what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Beigbeder: And you compare Ariel Sharon to Gen. Custer! As if you could put the extermination of the American Indians and the Palestinian question in the same bag—you’re going way too far there!

Lang: No, but you can compare the policy of sending civilians to occupy territory, creating an inextricable situation.

Just the same, your two books have a lot in common.
That’s to be expected inasmuch as we had access to the same documents. I see that both of us quote from Albert Camus as well. And I think one of our common themes is the eruption of an unprecedented violence in the heart of the air-conditioned, sterile world of America.

Lang: Yes, but when I read in your book, “Windows on the World was a high-class gas chamber,” I can’t let that go by. How can you utter such an expression, high-class gas chamber? When I read that phrase, my hair stands on end.

Beigbeder: That’s what I was trying to do! But you have to read the paragraph through to the end. I write: “They deserve to be remembered.” It’s not the same thing! In any case, I didn’t write this novel to give my opinion about Sept. 11. People don’t care what I think about it.

So then why did you write the novel?
To be honest with you, I don’t know. Maybe because I didn’t see anything else worth talking about. Taboos are the only interesting subjects; you have to write about the forbidden. French literature is one long story of disobedience. Today, books must go where TV doesn’t, they must show the invisible, say the unsayable. Literature is a “mission impossible.” In my books, I spend my time afraid of what I’m writing, ashamed, guilty, questioning the obscenity of what I’m in the process of doing....It’s interesting to be a little schizoid, interesting to write complicated books, books that are contradictory and even unbearable. The novel is truly the highest realm of freedom.

Lang: I don’t believe you’re exercising freedom when you resort, as you do, to techniques that have been used and abused in disaster movies for the past 40 years. We’re all sick of seeing mutilated bodies on TV or in the movies. Personally, I salute the American networks, which refused, unlike their European counterparts, to show pictures of people jumping from the windows of the World Trade Center.

How do you see Sept. 11 today?
I’d say that the story of that day hasn’t ended. It’s a continuing story.

Lang: In my mind, Sept. 11 was a beginning.