by Adrian Tahourdin
Proust once contributed articles to it, but Le Figaro is not a newspaper I've ever been in the habit of looking at. Yet I couldn't help noticing recently that it was running something entitled "Ces Livres qui ont fait scandale", a 24-part series on books that created a stir when they first appeared.
This must be the Figaro's equivalent of its great rival Le Monde's imaginative ploys to fill its summer pages.
For example: last summer Le Monde published an entertaining long-running fictionalized account of Jacques Chirac's time as president.
Le Figaro's scandalous books series is confined to the 20th century, and kicks off with Lolita - turned down by four publishers in the US but taken up by Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press in Paris.
Girodias also had a hand in the publication of Histoire d'O. As Mohammed Aissaoui reminds us, the true identity of its pseudonymous author Pauline Réage was only revealed in 1994 as Anne Desclos, who had earlier published an anthology of religious poetry. Histoire d'O was made into a film in 1975 by the aptly named Just Jaeckin.
Dominique Guiou takes us through the scandal surrounding the publication of Michel Houellebecq's Plateforme which appeared in August 2001: not only did the novel depict, in graphic detail, scenes of sex tourism in Thailand, but in an interview with the magazine Lire at the time of publication the author made some offensive remarks about Islam, which landed him in court. Houellebecq was found not guilty in October 2002 of "provoking hatred".
Blaise De Chabalier writes about Boris Vian's J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (translated as I Spit on Your Graves), a pastiche of American noir thrillers which Vian published under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan in 1946. The court case that followed helped turn it into a bestseller. Vian died of a heart attack during the first screening of a film version (which he didn't like) of the novel in 1959. I never saw that film but I did see an American video-nasty version loosely based on the book, in the 80s - didn't pack the punch of the novel.
Inevitably there is a political angle to the series: a pamphlet attacking de Gaulle that appeared during the 1964 presidential campaign and was condemned for causing offence to the head of state. Stéphane Courtois's Black Book of Communism is featured - not surprising in the right-leaning Figaro.
Anne Fulda takes us through the dramatic and life-changing events surrounding the publication in 1988 of The Satanic Verses (1988). When the fatwa on Salman Rushdie was pronounced by the Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989 George Steiner appeared on the news, ringingly invoking Voltaire's defence of the writer to publish and offend. Steiner also had it on good authority that the book was "unreadable". The unfortunate adjective seemed to attach itself to the novel, yet it was far from being the case: dense yes, multi-layered and playful, but far from unreadable. In the words of Robert Irwin, writing in the TLS, it was "several of the best novels Rushdie has ever written".
The series continues, most recently with Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, published in 1992. It's striking how many of the books featured went on to become bestsellers. And the Figaro has gained a new reader.