Le Vingtième siècle by Aurélien Bellanger
Walter Benjamin, The BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France), Charles Baudelaire, George Bataille’s secret society, the gilets jaunes… What do they all have in common? All of these figures overlap and intersect in Aurélien Bellanger’s latest and sixth novel, Le Vingtième siècle (Gallimard 2023). Using Benjamin as his fil conducteur, Bellanger crafts a new kind of novel – a hodgepodge of 20th century fragments in the form of concocted letters, journal publications, and student thesis excerpts and poems.
If you’re looking for an easy read with a straightforward plot, you won’t find it here. Le Vingtième siècle entangles the lives of his fictional characters – a small group of leftists between the ages of 18 to 40 belonging to a Benjamin research group – with those of Benjamin’s network. When one of the researchers, a poet and fellow Benjamin scholar, commits suicide during a conference at the BnF, the fictional Benjamin researchers seek to find the dead poet’s manuscript. The reader joins them on a Babelian journey, navigating various journal excerpts and enigmatic letters along the way.
Rather than reproducing dialogue and letters from actual archives, Bellanger imagines them through his own extensive research as a reader of Benjamin, a philosopher, and a past bookseller. Le Vingtième siècle is impressively thorough despite its fragmented form: The epistolary exchanges are so convincing that Bellanger will have you wondering if what you’re reading is real or fiction. The novel combines imagined letters from 20th century German philosophers Adorno and Heidegger with exchanges between Benjamin’s family, including his blood relative, German psychologist and philosopher Wilhem Stern (inventor of the IQ test).
Le Vingtième siècle isn’t just for Benjamin enthusiasts – though aficionados will appreciate the endless allusions to the German-Jewish critic and his inner circle – it’s also for those seeking something different that resists formulaic novel writing. Le Vingtième siècle is no 20th century novel… but it’s not really one from our time, either.
Le Vingtième siècle by Aurélien Bellanger, Gallimard
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