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LIVE REPORT: Jean-Louis Aubert & Michel Houellebecq
Russell Williams , September 25th, 2014 06:58

"Downright strangeness": Russell Williams attends a meeting of music and literature in Paris. Photo writer's own.

You can't really imagine it happening anywhere else but Paris: a fading pop star from the 80s credibly sharing a stage with one of the world's highest-profile contemporary novelists. Boy George treading the boards alongside Martin Amis in London? Jon Bon Jovi earnestly collaborating with Philip Roth somewhere in NYC? I'd love to watch both, but I can't quite picture what we'd end up with. Add the fact that the novelist concerned is Michel Houellebecq, noted as a purveyor of pessimistic, miserable and, occasionally, pornographic prose, known as much for his Islamophobic and misogynistic provocations as his lyrical prose, then the whole affair seems all the more improbable, but they do do things differently on the other side of the channel.

The star concerned is Jean-Louis Aubert, formerly frontman of the iconic French pop rockers Téléphone. Téléphone's profile in the UK is negligible, save for a generation of thirty-and-forty-somethings for whom Tricolore French textbooks were a frequent source of perplexing Gallic cultural references ("Ce weekend, Bruno, je vais acheter le nouveau disque de Téléphone"). The group actually penned arguably one of the greatest French pop songs ever in 'Ça (C'est Vraiment Toi)' and retains a small, but devoted hard-core following in France. Aubert's career has never really hit the same heights as his early 80s heyday, but is still a familiar face on French variety TV spectaculars.

Houellebecq, of course, has gone from strength to strength since emerging as a writer at the end of the 1990s, when he published his first poems. His stock has never been higher than it is at the moment and Houellebecq has even emerged as the star of this year's rentrée littéraire, France's annual autumnal literary season, without actually publishing a new book. His next novel, a closely guarded secret for now, is out in January, but he is the star of two new films: The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq (out now in the UK) and Near Death Experience and his collaboration with Aubert has been well received too.

The unlikely pairing reportedly came about after Aubert chanced upon a copy of the latter's latest book of poems, Configuration Du Dernier rivage while out buying cigarettes. It's not hard to see what Aubert saw in the volume, an alternately affecting and caustically funny male perspective on love, loss and ageing. Aubert was inspired to arrange an album around Houellebecq's words, and Aubert Chante Houellebecq was born earlier this year. It may be a little unfair to suggest that this was a cynical move from Aubert, riding Houellebeq's coattails back into the spotlight, but the album has loitered near the top of the French hit parade and received more heavy mainstream radio rotation than Aubert might have anticipated at this point in his career.

Tonight at Paris' intimate Maison de la Poésie, a venue more used to hosting highfalutin verse readings rather than acoustic rock combos, is billed as a live celebration of the project and, with Aubert having already scheduled a modest tour of French mid-sized venues in support of the record, half a warm-up, half promotional affair. Aubert and Houellebecq met up to discuss the album in its early stages and, apparently, have become firm friends, deciding to share the stage tonight. Houellebecq, of course, has form in musical circles – he fronted Bertrand Burgalat's band and provided a laconic Gainsbourgian drawl on the album Présence Humaine (2000) and the subsequent French tour. But what should we expect from the Aubert/Houellebecq bromance?

The biggest relief is that, as with the album, it's Aubert that does the singing. Houellebecq's contributions tonight are restricted to reading his poems over Aubert's strumming between songs and shaking his hips stage right. Whereas Houellebecq is often difficult to follow, hesitant and shambolic in media interviews, it is striking to see the poised delivery of his poems, which include pieces from Configuration and stretch back to his earliest work, the majority of which are delivered from memory. For a writer who has had well-documented battles with booze and depression, this is pleasing to see: he's in good form.

Aubert's performance is as assured as you would expect from a seasoned rocker: his voice is strong and he hits the high notes all right, but it possesses a strange pseudo-naïve, even annoyingly childish, quality that results in an unusual mismatch with the despairingly beautiful bleakness of many of Houellebecq's poems. Aubert's onstage personality and song writing comes over as innately cheery in a way that feels at odds with the bleak melancholia of Houellebecq's work (lest we forget that two of his novels – Les Particules Élémentaires and La Possibilité D’une Île – have imagined the complete extinction of humanity as we know it). The album's standout track, 'Isolement' [Isolation] is a case in point. As a printed poem, the mood is one of existential longing: Houellebecq asks: "Where am I/Who are you?/ What am I doing here?/ Take me away – everywhere, but away from here". As sung by Aubert on record and on stage, this becomes a jolly betrayal of the poem's poignancy – tonight transforming a moment of genuine pathos into a singalongaclapathon from the Téléphone fans crammed into the stalls.

This isn't the only moment when Houellebecq's delicate, maudlin words are undermined by Aubert's delivery. Indeed, whereas the writer's oeuvre is mostly concerned with descent, deflation and disappointment, Aubert's stadium tendencies repeatedly see him deploying ever-ascending chord changes – essentially taking his work in the opposition direction to Houellebecq's – towards transcendence, rather than the poet's nihilistic lows. His retooling of Houellbecq's HMT, "Deep down, I always knew that I would find love, and that it would be a moment before my death", also becomes a cheery cabaret number rather than a profound consideration of love in the face of death and oblivion. Equally, Aubert risks sabotaging Houellebecq's reading of one of his most moving poems, 'Dernier Temps', which evokes a poet in the grip of depression, "crying stupidly, both arms on the table", "life suspended, holding only by a thread": the backing vocals and guitar twiddling regrettably turn the end product into sentimental twee.

Despite such fleeting moments, however, this is a deeply enjoyable evening, one that apparently bodes well for Aubert's upcoming French tour. There is no word, yet, though, on Houellebecq's presence at these shows, but the extent to which he seemed to be enjoying himself on stage, you'd think he'd be tempted. Tonight will remain long in the memory, mostly for its overarching atypicality – even downright strangeness. Aubert and Houellebecq are an odd match on stage: Houellebecq deceptively tall and Aubert surprisingly diminutive; Aubert channelling a Jagger-esque presence, Houellebecq – hair long and wearing an ill-advised tight, low-necked t-shirt – radiating an odd androgyny. The overall vibe of the show, too, was different and difficult to pin down – halfway between poetry reading and acoustic gig – you can't see it working on a Tuesday night in a Camden pub, but it just about worked in the middle of Paris tonight.

Perhaps inevitably, though, the event eventually turned to into a more traditional rock out as the pair slouched back on stage swigging from cans of lager and smoking cigarettes to kick off the encores, including the rocker 'Face B'. At the evening's climax, the houselights came up, Aubert launched into 'New York avec toi', another solid gold Téléphone classic. Houellebecq, who had started the evening looking a little uncomfortable – like, well, a poet at a rock gig – was into the swing of things, dancing around the stage. Houellebecq is undoubtedly a more convincing writer than he is a rock star, and Aubert's rendition of Houellebecq's poems don't always do justice to the material, but their collaboration is engaging, interesting and, most importantly, entertaining. If it encourages a Houellebecq fan to check out an early Téléphone record or, better still, an Aubert fan to flick through a Houellebecq book, all's the better. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel, over to you: I hear George Michael and Madonna are waiting in the wings.