Philippe Djian, an All-American French Writer

Philippe Djian worked as a freelance journalist for the tabloid press and as a warehouse clerk for Gallimard. He interviewed Lucette Destouches, the widow of writer Céline, and conducted Henry de Montherlant’s final interview. Born in Paris in 1949, Djian published his first book at 32 and shot to fame with Betty Blue, later adapted for the cinema by Jean-Jacques Beineix. As the author of some 20 successful novels including Elle, made into a movie by Paul Verhoeven, he has always drawn inspiration from America and honed his craft reading leading names such as Salinger, Carver, and Brautigan. His latest work, 2030, will be published in France in September, while Marlene (2017) has just been published in the United States.
Philippe Djian in his house near Fitou, in the Aude département, 1981. © Jack Garofalo/Paris Match/Getty Images

At the age of 19, Philippe Djian dreamed of taking a cargo ship to America, following in the footsteps of Blaise Cendrars. He traveled to the port of Le Havre and found work as a longshoreman, hoping that a captain would be kind enough to allow him aboard. Finding himself confined to dry land, he instead took the plane like everyone else. He was aiming to make it to Colombia, where he wanted to infiltrate and photograph a guerrilla group with no other credentials than a vague recommendation from Paris Match magazine. Upon arriving in New York, he was “totally shocked” and felt “incredibly free,” and spent three months working in the basement-level offices of the former Librairie de France bookshop at Rockefeller Center. As luck would have it, he found Cendrars’ poem Easter in New York, under his bed at his hostel. “When I finished reading […], I went to Battery Park and sat on a bench to watch the sun rise,” he writes in Ardoise (2002), a tribute to the (mostly American) writers who changed his life.

Growing up in an aging, post-war France in the shadow of General de Gaulle, Djian started reading to escape boredom and discovered American cinema, music, and literature. “We wanted to be like the American writers,” he said in an interview with Décapage magazine, which will publish a special feature about him in its fall-winter 2020 issue. “Every encounter I had brought me closer.” At 18, he discovered J. D. Salinger. “I felt a sort of terrible fear when I finished The Catcher in the Rye,” he writes in Ardoise. “I started shaking, thinking that I could have missed out on such an experience. I reread it immediately to make sure I hadn’t dreamed it.” Between the ages of 20 and 30, he discovered Selby, Bukowski, Brautigan, Carver, Kerouac, and Miller, who offered new hori-zons, novel sounds, and a fresh syntax.

A Warehouse Clerk at Gallimard

Djian first experienced writing in high school, where his friend Jérôme Equer encouraged him to write letters and record what he had done during the day. He earned a living working as a warehouse clerk in the basement of Gallimard, the holy grail of French literature, which became his publisher in 1993. This is where he handed in his first manuscript, a collection of short stories written while working night shifts as a highway toll booth attendant. The review panel told him, “you deliberately place yourself outside of literature,” while also recognizing the quality of his work. The collection 50 contre un (1981), his first book, was later published by BFB.

Béatrice Dalle in the film Betty Blue by Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986. © 20th Century Fox Distribution/Alive Films/New Yorker Films

As a free spirit shunning the codes of the literary sphere, Djian avoided Paris and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and only contacted his publisher to manage his payments. The publication of Betty Blue (1985), adapted for the cinema by Jean-Jacques Beineix and translated into countless languages, drew the attention of both the press and the public. In an effort to escape this commotion, he moved to the United States with his wife, Année, a painter, and their two children. They settled in Boston, regularly visited Martha’s Vineyard in memory of Melville and Moby Dick, and traveled around the country with the Boston Ballet. Djian spent 18 months in America before returning to France, then, pursuing his nomadic lifestyle, lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Biarritz.

Writing “Down to the Bone”

Some 40 years after he began his career, Djian still clings to his childhood dreams. His friends are painters and musicians, and he is close with a number of writers such as Virginie Despentes, Régis Jauffret, and Jean Echenoz. He has also had the same agent for thirty years, François Samuelson (described by Michel Houellebecq as “007”), whom he met in New York in the 1980s. Like the American authors he admires so much, he does not believe in inspiration and considers literature “hard labor,” a form of artisanry: “A book is a sentence after a sentence after a sentence, a question of putting the right stone in the right place.” He also writes songs, performed by Swiss singer and composer Stephan Eicher, and believes that writing style, musicality, and voice are more important than the story. Marlene, a novel in which a desperate, toxic young woman wreaks havoc in the lives of two special forces veterans, is no exception. Djian’s readers will discover a familiar world with an atmosphere reminiscent of the roman noir genre, melancholic men grappling with their demons, family life teetering on the brink, dangerous women, murderous ambushes, a “down to the bone” writing style, and a stark orality that, as in Céline’s works, is the result of patient research.

Philippe Djian in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 2002. © Manuel Litran/Paris Match/Getty Images

After trying his hand at the narrative television style in his books ten years ago (Doggy Bag, a six-season literary series), he has just published a slightly futuristic novel, 2030, with his new house, Flammarion. This may be the start of a new cycle. When teaching writing workshops at La Nouvelle Revue Française, he suggests that his students “step on the tiger’s tail (wake up what is sleeping)” and passes down the lesson he learned from Carver’s teacher, John Gardner: “Use ordinary language, as few words as possible to say what you have to say, proofread, and correct exhaustively.” Convinced that it is much harder to cut out than to add on, Djian remains his own harshest critic.

Article published in the September 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.