How can today’s young artists, writers and intellectuals recapture the ideals of those caught up in les evenements of May 1968 in Paris? Is it still possible to feel that sense of adventure, creativity and youth in a world where we struggle just to find enough money to feed ourselves, a world whose defining characteristics are insecurity and uncertainty?
Daphne Kauffmann’s first novel, Nos mots croises (“Our Crossed Words”, Editions Intervales, Paris, 2009) attempts to answer these questions. Kauffmann interleaves her experience as a young writer and musician struggling to make a career with the recollections of Michel Besmond, a soixante-huitard who continued the adventure into the seventies, travelling to Mexico and beyond.
Happily, Kauffmann concludes that adventure and creativity are still possible – but not before she catalogues the challenges artists face today, not least among which is earning a living. As Besmond notes in one of his italicised recollections, “for us, unemployment didn’t exist: it was perhaps 250,000 across France in 1968… it wasn’t a question of being able to find work, it was a question of whether or not one wanted to work – we had time to try, to test, to live…”
Compare that to today’s unemployment rate of around 11% in France and you get the picture in a hurry. Kauffmann’s haunting novel has affection for the ideals that shaped an earlier generation of romantics. Yet she does not hesitate to describe the unpaid bills, trips to the unemployment office and poorly-paid concerts in far-off venues that are the lot of the struggling musician. In the end, she takes strength from Besmond’s experiences, resolving to “keep believing, keep believing and going on.”
Kauffmann’s novel challenges us to reflect on the anxious age in which we live and recalls a better, vanished time when people were under less pressure to perform, in every sense, and could experiment without fear of failure. Uplifting and inspirational as this novel is, it may well be that Daphne Kauffmann is being too hard on herself and her own generation since she does not seem to lack the creativity and spirit of those who inspired her.
Perhaps this novel poses a bigger challenge for artists and writers today – if creativity and spirit aren’t the problem, then what is? Putting Kauffmann’s work to one side, I’d suggest that we’ve been tilting at the wrong windmills for years. If the protests of sixty-eight were about authoritarian rule and the imposition of draconian limits on intellectual life, then we ought to be out in the streets today fighting moral decay, low standards, gross materialism and corruption.
The real challenge we face as writers and artists today is that our enemy doesn’t wear a wig and gown, carry a truncheon or sport a military uniform – today’s enemy is everywhere and all around us. It is the lassitude that says it’s OK for an MP to claim a million pounds on expenses because hey, they’re all corrupt. It’s the cynicism that accepts that celebrities will get their books promoted on daytime TV while yet another publisher of poetry disappears, dead from neglect. And our challenge is to mobilise – to boot out the corrupt politicians. To buy the books of poetry and burn the celebrity cookbooks. And while doing all of that, unlike our elders, we’ll probably have to earn a living doing something we don’t like. But that’s OK – this is our 1968, fought with everything we do, every day, rather than by throwing rocks at a copper.