You are French. You are the author of several successful novels. You have written an impractical 700-page screenplay about “the mystical honeycombed interior” of Herman Melville’s mind. You are 50 years old, have a net worth of 20 euros and are about to be evicted from your apartment.
What now? If you are the narrator of French novelist Yannick Haenel’s “Hold Fast Your Crown,” a story of madness, art, alcohol and creativity, you repair to your bedroom with a six-pack to watch one of your favorite movies, “Apocalypse Now,” while musing on its significance to you and perhaps to life itself.
“Every time I see the beginning of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ it seems I am witnessing a lamb being sacrificed,” Haenel writes. “I always rewind and rewatch the first 10 minutes of the film, in which a hidden liturgy seems to be seeking a follower. Does the path that passes through crime exist? The silent path that goes beyond massacre and leads you to innocence?”
“Hold Fast Your Crown” has been elegantly translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. How much readers enjoy it will depend on whether they are charmed or irritated by its narrator’s aversion to the practicalities of daily life, and how far they are prepared to go in admiring the drunken vicissitudes of his busy, elusive and allusive intellect. “Back then, I was crazy,” his story starts, and it’s a boast as much as a warning.
The novel concerns itself with a surreal period in the life of the narrator. Having unsurprisingly failed to interest anyone in his screenplay, “The Great Melville,” which explains (among other things) how a true writer is someone “whose solitude reveals a relationship with truth, and who at every moment devotes himself to it, even if that moment comes out of minor tribulation, even if that truth escapes him and seems obscure, even insane,” the narrator decides that only one person is capable of bringing his vision to life: American director Michael Cimino.
Cimino, as you might know, directed not only “The Deer Hunter,” whose symbolic use of a deer as prey resonates throughout Haenel’s novel, but also “Heaven’s Gate,” that magnificent debacle that all but ended his success as a filmmaker.
“He embodied in American film what Melville had embodied in American literature,” Haenel writes of Cimino; “he was the last great American film director.” Discuss. (Or not.) Both men experienced triumph and then melted into obscurity; both “approached the very truth there is in failure, and probably began to no longer separate failure from truth.”
Through a well-connected agent friend, the narrator gets hold of Cimino’s phone number and contrives to meet him in New York, where the two get royally drunk, debate film, literature, immigration and other matters and try, unsuccessfully, to visit Ellis Island. The narrator concludes that Cimino has moved beyond conventional film to direct scenes inside his head, which is how it should be. “The days of films projected on a screen would soon be over,” he writes.
Cimino is not the only famous person who wanders into the story. Back in Paris and invited to meet the agent at a restaurant, the narrator finds actress Isabelle Huppert at their table. She orders “raw meat, a sort of steak tartar,” and scarfs it down with “stupefying gusto.” She talks about “Heaven’s Gate,” which she acted in, playing a madam.
The narrator is a pessimist, at least in this scene, during which he posits that the artistic flame that used to illuminate the world has now gone out. Huppert disagrees.
“The world, I don’t know, maybe you’re right, maybe it is dead,” she says. But there are incredible people still left. “With them, believe me, your fire, even if it is invisible, will never go out.”
The novel is stuffed with incidents. There is a dog, a menacing neighbor, a private museum devoted to hunting, two mysterious mustachioed men, a waiter who resembles Emmanuel Macron, a funeral, a terrorist attack, a stolen car, several sexual encounters, and endless discussions of art and the meaning of existence. Some of the more abstruse passages in the novel made sense to me; others did not, even when I reread them several times. Maybe it helps to be French. (The book won the Prix Medicis, and was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt.)
We never get to hear exactly what happens in “The Great Melville,” and it’s fair to say that no one will ever make it into a movie — especially not Cimino, whose death is reported in the course of the novel (in real life, he died in 2016). The narrator’s screenplay is a MacGuffin, and we might consider the plot as a series of vivid set pieces, a loose scaffolding upon which the author can hang his grand philosophies.
There are times that the novel seems to be making its way, however discursively, toward some profound, possibly whale-size, revelation. You decide. As the narrator begins his tale, he remarks that if he tells us all his thoughts, “and how and why they occur to me, if I tell you about their simultaneity, this story will go on forever.”
Please, no, the reader thinks. But maybe the exhaustion and occasional exhilaration of being exposed to so many ideas all at once is a reward in itself, a step closer to whatever truth, or consolation, or cosmic understanding, Haenel believes we all yearn for. Or maybe, as he writes, “literature didn’t need any other fulfillment than itself.”
“Hold Fast Your Crown”
By Yannick Haenel
Translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan
332 pages. Other Press. $17.99.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.