Obsessions of a French writer

“In this world of lies, truth is forced to flee into the woods like a frightened white deer.”

Jean, the 50-year-old narrator of Yannick Haenel’s (1967-) Hold Fast Your Crown (first published in French in 2017 as Tiens ferme ta couronne) provides fair warning at the start: “At the time, I was crazy—let’s just say I was possessed—names, books, films, lines from books and films, were teeming, alive, inside my head, they planned bacchanals together, and there was nothing I could do to pull them apart.” Hold Fast details a period when, after publishing a few novels, he had completed and was trying to sell a 700-page (requiring a 14 hour running time) analytic biopic “to express what inhabits the solitude of a writer”, in particular, “the mystical honeycombed interior” of Herman Melville, a project “for which I had insanely abandoned my friends, my joy, the novels I was writing — in fact, life itself.”


Jean is pretty insouciant for someone with only 20 euros left: “I had already written the screenplay. I had nothing more to fear. What ruin could I dread? I had written novels, I could write more — I had a thousand ideas for novels in my head, but first I wanted to pursue the adventure of this screenplay to its end.”

Jean becomes convinced that one of his idols, American director Michael Cimino, is the person to direct his screenplay. Though Cimino had become a recluse after a series of commercial flops (and a second racist success in the 1985 “Year of the Dragon,” when Jean gets Cimino’s phone number and calls him, Cimino arranges to meet Jean at the Frick in New York City, so that he can get a book about Malraux not available in the US. (Cimino is thinking about trying to film Malraux’s La condition humaine/Man’s Fate). Jean spends hours in front of the (disputed) Rembrandt Polish Rider, waiting. After the museum closes, Cimino (in drag) finds Jean, reads 150 pages of the screenplay in Central Park, then decides they have to visit Ellis Island. It is nighttime and the (Staten Island) ferry only provides looks at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

I have failed to mention that both before his one-day round trip to NYC, Jean compulsively watches Cimino’s disastrous failure “Heaven’s Gate” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now, Redux). He also thinks a lot about Cimino’s great success, “The Deer Hunter,” particularly the scene in which Robert De Niro does not shoot the deer that is in his crosshairs. Other deer are important to the novel’s rambling plot. (I don’t know why Jean does not also screen Coppola’s Vietnam movie, “Gardens of Stone”—I guess it was not as obsessive. The other movie frequently alluded to by others but not watched by Jean, is Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (a particular favorite of mine). Plus there are many quotations from Melville.

Back in Paris, on his 50th birthday Jean dines with Isabelle Huppert (star of “Heaven’s Gate”), drinks himself into oblivious, begins a romance with Léna and manages to lose Sabbat, the Dalmatian entrusted to his care by Tot, a professional gambler whose apartment Jean is occupying, and whose houseplants he has allowed to die. There are also the victims of a terrorist attack that night plus a pair of African refugees Jean whisks away from a raid on an encampment of illegal immigrants to France.

After accompanying Léna to Colmar, where she delivers a God-challenging eulogy in front of her sister’s open casket in front of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum, he moves on to “Diana’s Pool,” Lake Nemi (where the goddess turned Actaeon into a stag who was quickly killed by her hunting dogs), a ways southeast of Rome, hopes that Léna will follow him, and writes the book we’ve been reading

(The book won the Prix Medicis, and was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. The title derives from Revelations 3:11, a warning from the Savior who says he is coming soon. Teresa Lavender Fagan did the English translation.).)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray



One thought on “Obsessions of a French writer”

  1. P.S. The book drove me to watch the nearly 4-hour Criterion Collection “Haven’s Gate.” I remain convinced that it is a bad movie. I can see why some think it is “great cinema. I don’t, though I think Vilmoz Zsigimond provided great )if very smokey) cinematography. I’ll still take Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs.Miller with more great Zsigmond cinematography eight days a week. or that matter, I prefer “Hell on Wheels” to “Heaven’s Gate.”


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