DECEMBER 26, 2019
ON THE EVENING of January 6, 2015, in Paris, the journalist and cultural critic Philippe Lançon went to the theater to see Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with a female friend. This friend happened to be Jewish, her father a renowned French translator of Philip Roth. Lançon was looking forward to leaving France for a time to teach at Princeton. The evening was pleasant, perfectly ordinary, a bit on the cold side. After the show, he returned to his shambolic, book-lined apartment, where he lived alone. The next morning, he rode his bicycle to work, headed to an editorial meeting, where he discussed Soumission, the new Michel Houellebecq novel, with a colleague. In his shoulder bag was a favorite book of black-and-white photographs of jazz musicians who had recorded for the Blue Note label, which he had brought to show another colleague. The writers and cartoonists at the table were talking, arguing, laughing, just as you or I would be doing in a similar setting.
Their anodyne gathering — coffee, pastries, conversation — was interrupted when a pair of Islamic terrorists — brothers, wearing hoods and carrying rifles — burst in and opened fire, murdering 12 people and leaving 11 others, including Lançon, grievously wounded. The publication the victims worked for was the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The gunmen were angry about some cartoons the journal had published depicting the prophet Muhammad. Disturbance is Lançon’s remarkable account of the tragedy and its aftermath, in which he chronicles, in the most granular way imaginable, his physical and psychological travails.
The moment I became aware of this book’s existence, I had to get my hands on an advance copy. When the killing occurred, I was sickened, of course, but riveted too. Until Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons of Muhammad, I had been only dimly aware of the publication’s existence. I knew it as an exemplar of what was routinely described as a “French” form of satire, though I was uncertain what was particularly French about it. It could often be crude, and, as with all satire, some people found it offensive, even deeply so. Along with a cross-section of prominent officials, the journal mocked Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and other groups whose beliefs its editors and writers considered to be counter to the secularism of the French state. As someone who has trafficked in satire, I was sympathetic to their mission, so when a debate ensued among writers in the United States, in the wake of the massacre, about whether Charlie Hebdo had gone too far (and several prominent figures, most notably Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame, believed this to be the case and signed a petition to that effect), my reaction was visceral — Je Suis Charlie, in the language of the day. The names of the cartoonists Charb, Cabu, Tignous, Wolinski — martyrs to comedy, of all things — became etched in my memory. They died an arm’s length from Lançon. This book would be, I thought, a testament to their world. And it is.
But it is also something entirely different. Imagine a man who survives a scene of violence out of a Tarantino fever dream: a staccato fusillade of bullets, ear-splitting noise, blood, fear, pain, and disorientation. Miraculously, he lives and, over months and months, surgery after surgery, is pieced together in a series of hospitals like a broken ragdoll. Now, imbue that individual with a finely tuned sensibility, a gift for evoking the subtle shifts in his moment-to-moment consciousness, an eye for the essence of people with whom he comes into contact — parents, brother, girlfriend (it’s complicated), the police officers, male and female, who guard him 24 hours a day at the behest of the French government, friends, other patients, and, perhaps most memorably, his surgeon, on whom he pins all his hopes since the lower third of his face has been blown off in the attack and it is her task to reconstruct it. That astonishing and compelling scenario is the story Lançon tells here.
Of the politics that led the killers to his place of employment that day, Lançon says little. Coincidentally, earlier in his career he worked as a journalist in the Middle East, and his own politics, as far as I can tell, seem standard-issue progressive. He has no overriding problem with Muslims, although he develops a fear of young Muslim men in the wake of the slaughter, and the recognition of this fear troubles him. He does, however, discuss his affinity for Michel Houellebecq (who makes a curious cameo appearance late in the narrative), an author whose problems with Muslims are well documented. Of the killers, he says even less, other than noting that they are “imbeciles.” He names them once, afterward calling them simply “the brothers” or “the killers.” Of Islam itself, he says next to nothing.
Since Lançon’s wounds prohibit him from speaking, he is driven inward, ever deeper, his muteness prompting meditations on his own interiority. His interactions with his interlocuters are conducted via hand signals and with the help of a whiteboard; in essence, this hyper-articulate man is reduced to expressing himself in the equivalent of cartoon balloons. Remarkably, he is not particularly bitter about what has befallen him, and if he is angry, he does not express this openly. Lançon mostly resists sentimentality and entirely refuses to be inspirational. When his girlfriend, a South American living in New York City with whom he FaceTimes, suggests various healing modalities, displaying what he calls “desperate optimism,” Lançon tells us:
I’m entirely closed to positive thinking and meditation. She told me about a guy whose arm had been eaten by a shark, and another who had been seriously burned in an accident. Both had written exemplary books in the American style, to recount their “battles,” to celebrate will, and explain how much stronger the ordeal had made them while making life more beautiful. The books were, of course, dedicated to their families without whom, etc. etc. American podiums and televisions were full of these survivors who transformed a disaster overcome into an evangelical show.
This approach, for Lançon, is just so much merde and he will have none of it. Here is a reference he might appreciate: The Wages of Fear is a great 1955 French-Italian film, based on a novel by Georges Arnaud and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; in it, a trucker ferries a cargo of explosives over a mountain range, and much of the film is spent watching him navigate a treacherous road. Just when you think he’s going to make it, the truck explodes, killing this character whom the viewer has grown to sympathize with over the past two hours. The movie was remade, by director William Friedkin, as Sorcerer, in 1977, and I probably don’t have to tell you that, in the American version, the trucker completes his mission without blowing himself up, then goes home and celebrates Christmas with his family. All right, the part about Christmas is a joke, but you get the idea. Lançon’s voice in this memoir is the equivalent of the fatalistic “Gallic shrug” of the French film.
During his prolonged convalescence, Lançon reaches for authors who have sustained him in the past — Kafka, because Gregor Samsa’s condition in The Metamorphosis reminds him of his own; Thomas Mann, in whose Magic Mountain, a novel populated by characters living in isolation and struggling to regain their health, he finds refuge; and, most consistently, Proust, to whom he returns again and again, obsessively rereading the scene of the grandmother’s death before his multiple surgeries, as if in preparation for his own. Proust is in his bones, to the point where much of the dense prose of Disturbance suggests an author who could teach a seminar on the literary techniques employed in the composition of In Search of Lost Time. Threaded through the narrative are less Proustian aspects, such as his volatile relationship with his girlfriend, his anxious attachment to his female surgeon, and his slow but determined reintegration into the world.
Although Lançon eschews overt sentiment, his memoir is nonetheless inspirational in its depiction of his tentative recovery and his resumption of work (amazingly, a short time after the attack, and while still hospitalized). By the end of the book, he is well enough to travel to visit his girlfriend in New York, where he learns that 90 people have just been murdered by Islamic terrorists at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris. In choosing to frame his achingly humane narrative with these two horrific attacks, Lançon tips his hand. His book is subtly political, after all. One wonders if the American writers who signed the petition condemning Charlie Hebdo will worry that Disturbance, too, might offend someone.