Erik Martiny

Marion Messina on ‘Monstrous’ Novels

Marion Messina is a high-profile French journalist who writes for Marianne and other newspapers. She made headlines with her debut novel Faux Départ (False Start) in 2017. The novel recounts the professional and amorous tribulations of a young woman who aspires to climb the social ladder only to find that her country is less meritocratic than it seems. Several critics hailed her as a female Michel Houellebecq.

She’s published by Le Dilettante, a publisher known for its prescient talent-spotting, having launched the careers of French literary stars such as Anna Gavalda, Serge Joncour and Romain Puértolas, to mention but a few.

The start of your first novel Faux Départ (False Start) foregrounds the unromantic sexual habits of your male anti-hero. Were you not afraid that such an opening might alienate publishers?

It’s a question that no writer should ever consider. Publication and readership are of course vital but authors should write exclusively for themselves. It goes with the feeling of solitude that accompanies composition. I think my opening actually helped to catch my publisher’s attention.

Contemporary life is such that literature can only deal with spineless, irresponsible, unlikeable characters. This pleads in favour of the natural world which you can render as sublime as you like, hence the success of novels that deal with the North American wilderness.

Would you say your writing is on the periphery of the French literary market?

Yes, even if saying that makes me sound a bit like a complacent pop singer who thinks she’s a rebel by saying that all politicians are corrupt, without naming a single one of them. My writing is acerbic, but not excessively bleak. It’s all in the details that I highlight. I tend to dwell on characters who lead absurd, uprooted, disembodied lives. The feeling of solitude that very sociable people have and the impression of being absorbed in fake, futile, superficial pursuits. I explore the lives of those who blather nonsense, those who destroy deep feeling in the name of mawkishness, those who trample down introverts and crush all aspirations to genuine freedom. A totalitarian world that resembles what Pasolini said about consumer society: that it’s more harmful than fascism itself. A society in which it’s suddenly deemed heroic to denounce your neighbours to the cops. A petty and cowardly world that demands predetermined, scripted social interactions.

In France, books are still mostly about depressive bourgeois women who have lost the keys to their holiday homes. You have the autobiographies of low-brow starlets or fake social novels that very complacently adopt poor style, rather irritatingly shitty syntax – as if speaking about the underprivileged meant that you had to write badly when actually nothing is more beautiful than using a refined style to describe the despair of the masses. There’s also an obsession, fostered by woke culture, for the descendants of immigrants, the suburbs of the big cities, sexual minorities. I’d like a modern version of The People of the Abyss, a French George Orwell or a Jack London.

It’s been said you’re a female Michel Houellebecq. In what ways does your writing differ from Houellebecq’s?

I appreciate the comparison between False Start and Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever), two novels by outsiders who cast a cold eye like coroners on the system that has imprisoned and crushed them to use them as cannon fodder. After that book, Houellebecq started adopting a middle-class outlook, opting for a certain complacency with regard to his time: he now praises polygamy, Islamic theocracy (only those who haven’t read Submission think it’s an Islamophobic or racist novel), sex tourism, idleness (his protagonist in Serotonin would prefer to die rather than to have to take over his best friend’s farm), comfort, home-delivered food, etc. This smugness is absent from my books because I’m from the other side of the social divide: on the side of the guys who deliver sushi to those who are too lazy to cook pasta. I’m on the side of the single mother who has to become a sex worker to make ends meet, on the side of the farmer who would shoot himself in the head if his debts started to overwhelm him. I don’t give lessons, but I don’t go into ecstasy in front of shit either. Houellebecq’s style is also different to mine. His writing is straightforward but a little neutral, which is its charm, but I favour semi-colons, the imperfect subjunctive, complex past tenses and complex if archetypal, characters. I also think there’s a large generation gap between me and Houellebecq: the depressive, neurotic, middle-aged civil servant, raised by a night-reveller of a mother – that’s not for me.

Some sentences in Faux Départ could have been written by Houellebecq (e.g. ‘there was always a photo of a bimbo with silicone enhancements and straight hair falling under her breasts’). Does your satire of ‘fun culture’ push you to adopt the male gaze when describing women?

I like to think that my way of perceiving people is neutral; I’m able to see the image of a bimbo and sense what she represents for a greenhorn, for frustrated males, for accomplished men who might find her grotesque, as well as what she might symbolize to an insecure woman or, on the contrary, to a self-assured woman who is slightly saddened by women who exhibit their charms to elicit the envy of unsophisticated men. I don’t feel that my way of seeing the world is gender-specific. I’m lucky enough to be able to view situations, images and stories from several different angles. I’m certain that this ability comes to me from the fact that I’m autistic: I observe others the way an entomologist might. The thing that excites my brain is understanding, finding a logic, the mathematical formula that underlies all interactions. I often find that at the heart of the human algorithm, there is pride and fear, a neurotic desire to please that autists who accept themselves are entirely free of.

Have you never been scared?

I have, but rarely. The only fear I have is reaching the age of fifty in a state that would make the child I felt ashamed.

How would you define your relationship to feminism?

I’m of course in favour of equal rights for men and women. With equal competence and similar working hours, there shouldn’t be a pay gap. Women should be able to study, drive, vote, own property and have equal access to medical treatment. But mindless misandry annoys me. The new obsession with menses, the vulva and the clitoris – as if reducing women to their genitals was a step forward – is utterly counterproductive and ugly. I don’t see how stencilling a clitoris on the walls of the city improves the condition of women. I also refuse to go on the principle that men are nothing more than repressed rapists or manipulative perverts. The difficulties contemporary women have in their heterosexual relationships are due in my view more to economic and social realities than to men’s loutish natures. These days, individuals tend to be stripped of their responsibilities. New technologies allow you to skip having to leave someone for good. The loss of roots prevents young people from settling and finding someone to love in a durable way. Couples tear each other apart because of new job opportunities and because they’re posted out to other cities. Nobody talks about that kind of thing. You just hear that men are hogs, and nobody dares to criticize the Tinder supermarket or the pigsty of porn.

Certains humorous passages in Faux Départ reminded me of Brigit Jones. What do you think of the Anglo-Saxon genre of chick-lit?

Absolutely nothing. You know, my favourite film is Fight Club and at the moment I’m reading The Divine Comedy. I’ve always hated being talked to ‘as a girl’.

A few days before the Yellow Vest Movement in France, you co-signed an article in Le Monde to denounce the literary dominance of what you call ‘reality show novels’ and ‘costumed historical fiction’. In what ways is your first novel different from the genre of autofiction as it is practised in France today?

My novel is a work of fiction; I can assure you it’s not an autobiography. Aurélie is a little like what my former classmates have become, a milieu I fled. It’s a projection, a uchronic vision of myself, but it has nothing to do with autofiction, a genre that intrigued me in Annie Ernaux’s work, but which I know abhor. I detest hyper-narcissism masquerading as art. In France, there are strong echoes of the court of Louis XIV: anyone who is able to string two words together thinks he’s a thinker whose excreta think for the rest of the world. The publishing world is a circle of court flatterers who congratulate each other all day long. People might indulge in less Netflix streaming if there weren’t so many self-satisfied, indigestible, ridiculous, soul-destroying books.

The article you co-signed was called ‘To express our monstrous era you need monstrous novels’. Will your next novel be more ‘monstrous’ than your first one?

It’s of the same nature as the first – of my nature that is: frank, sensitive, potentially nettling, if not downright unbearable. After the spring lockdown of 2020, after having had the opportunity of fleeing my fellow contemporaries for two months, I realized that almost all the people in my social circle were unhappy. They dragged their lives like a ball and chain: the psychic distress of young adults intrigued me. And especially the structural reasons behind this collective misery.

In Faux Départ, your heroine Aurélie says that she has always detested Zola, maybe because she doesn’t want to feel bogged down in the kind of determinism operating in naturalist novels. Do you also detest Zola or on the contrary are you consciously carrying his work with your own personal touch into the twenty-first century?

The older I get, the more I like Zola. For a long time, I found his style hard to digest compared to Balzac’s. These days, I’m fascinated by the delicacy of his touch, his empathy, his attention to detail, his ability to describe gritty interiors without stooping to condescension or excessive bleakness. He’s an incredible man of letters! As I get daily confirmation that meritocracy is a lure, especially since the end of the thirty post-war boom years in France, I get immense intellectual pleasure from rediscovering Zola’s depiction of social determinism at work.   

Would you be tempted to write a speculative novel or a historical novel?

Absolutely! In my wildest dreams, I try out every genre: a play, a film script, a hyper-documented period novel, a dystopia, science fiction… I’m not the kind of cook who prepares the same menu every day.

If you had to choose one single thing to bring on a trip to the moon what would it be?

A computer with recordings of Bach’s entire opus.

Interview by Erik Martiny.

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