Fr. David Muscat: Malta’s enfant terrible

Fr. David Muscat is in the news again. For many, he is in the news for the wrong reasons. This time round because of comments following the assassination of Paulina Dembska. Posts by Fr. Muscat on the subject are being considered homophobic and two government ministers have asked the Police Commissioner to take action against him which no doubt Commissioner Gafa will definitely do. The liberal media is all behind these ministers. All sense of liberty or liberality has been scattered to the four winds with the liberal media becoming the voice for the oppression of free speech!

I know there are those who will disagree with me. But providence wanted that while the news in Malta was focused on Fr. Muscat’s posts, the Daily Telegraph published an article about writers who had defied the status quo in their respective countries and are voices of dissent. This article was triggered by a story in France where one of her famous literary figures who in the past was persecuted for his writings and comments on Islam. He was liberal. But as a result of the reaction he received, he joined the extreme right. The author in question is Houellebecq. As Fr. David, Houellebecq is a provocatuer. This time round, Houellebcq has written a very provocative novel against President Macron. But France is not Malta. Provocateurs are appreciated. This is why their names make it to the international news. In Malta, we are still in the state where provocateurs are persecuted. The irony of it all is that those who were provocateurs in the past have today become part of the establishment all out to deny freedom of speech when it suits them. I am here referring to the gay and LGBTIQ community and some of our politicians who are dead set on overstepping the limits of common sense just as long as they get publicity and here one has to include our Archbishop who pandies to the gallery à la mode.  

The article about Houellebecq and other writers makes it interesting to read. It is an eye-opener to all those who want to understand twenty-first-century dynamics. Unfortunately, we in Malta are being influenced by the American cultural politics of cancellation which is a no-brainer, for however much one would like to succeed, one cannot annihilate history and people’s individual way of thinking. Personally, I prefer to stick to the French ideal, where provocative messages and provocateurs are appreciated as they challenge the cult of the self and keep matters in perspective. This is why provocateurs are termed as enfants terrible in French and this is what they are: naughty children in the good sense who make us reflect and use one’s own brain and do not allow bullying.

Faced with the return of provocateurs in French literature, The Daily Telegraph UK has rightly asked where are the British literary provocateurs?

On Friday, the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq will be published in France. Entitled Anéantir or ‘Destroy’ the novel is, among other things, a satire on President Macron, imagining a presidential election a few years in the future.

Houellebecq is a divisive figure. His meditations on love, sex and death contain shades of misogyny and misanthropy, and his politics in recent years have gone from a liberal leftism to something that suggests an infatuation with the Far Right. After the publication of Submission, which imagined France under a Muslim President, he faced accusations of Islamophobia and was forced to to go into hiding following death threats.

In fact, Houellebecq does not tie his political colours to any particular mast. He exudes an exhilarating nihilism and one feels that he often writes merely to provoke. The phrase “enfant terrible” lingered around him for longer than was strictly necessary (he is now 65).

The fact that Houellebecq continues to be a part of France’s news agenda shows that the country is still very much in thrall to the idea of a literary provocateur. Both here and in America attitudes are rather different.

The situation has come sharply into focus this week with the news that Penguin Random House in America rejected the decision to publish a set of Norman Mailer’s essays to mark the centenary of Mailer’s birth, partly due to staff objecting to one of its titles: The White Negro. It has now been picked up by the (much smaller) publisher Skyhorse. At the time that Mailer was at the height of his fame in the Sixties, you couldn’t move for literary provocateurs in the US – Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, William Styron, John Updike – men whose words barely contained their larger-than-life egos. 

American novelist and short story writer Philip Roth
American novelist and short story writer Philip Roth CREDIT: Reuters

In these times where cancellation is a constant risk, writers such as Bellow (a bit Right wing) and Updike (a bit sexist) face the same vituperation as Mailer. Any dodgy acts in their personal life (Mailer once nearly killed his wife after stabbing her with a penknife) are now inextricably linked to their actual output. 

Macho posturing is all very well for Americans but we have had very few similar examples of the literary provocateur in Britain. Actually, I wonder if we like our provocation to be a bit more genteel, perhaps even a bit more female, in this country. The continuing cult of Jane Austen has a lot to do with it; her observations are as piercingly sharp as they are elegant. Not for her the showboating style of the great American men of letters. 

Austen’s legacy is crystal clear in our literature, with provocation often coming from the least expected places, such as the works of Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym (even if a recent biography did reveal Pym was rather racy in real life, flirting with Nazism, and was very sexually successful while at Oxford). Both these writers go for the jugular, but do it in a subtle way, hiding their bite through a very British sense of failure.

Nevertheless there was a time when British literary lions had swagger (I mean, you could go right back to Christopher Marlowe, a writer who lived by the pen and died by the sword), and this idea seemed to reach its height in the Seventies when clubbable figures such as Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens ruled, perhaps bolstered by their becoming successful at a time when book advances were at a high, allowing authors to move out of their bleak garrets and into the private members’ clubs of Mayfair and Soho. 

British author and essayist Martin Amis
British author and essayist Martin Amis CREDIT: Getty

Much has been made of the rock and roll manner of such writers, but let’s not forget their writing could be pretty punchy, too. It seemed that there was a point when anyone was fair game for Hitchens – Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and even Mother Teresa. She “is less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs,” he wrote in 1995’s The Missionary Position.

Amis has attracted controversy in several quarters, though I would suggest that when it comes to the accusations of Islamophobia, his views have often been misinterpreted (his views in the wake of 9/11 were anti-Islamist not anti-Islam). He also authored one of the most fundamentally kind books I have ever read – Experience, written in response to the death of his father Kingsley. Yet the image of provocation, enhanced by a rather colourful private life and some very expensive dental surgery, remains.

In the current climate, it seems unlikely that literary provocateurs will find their voice (unless  they are sounding off in the culturally moribund Twittersphere, of course). 

If you look hard enough there are works out there which certainly don’t lack for punch. There’s Isabel Waidner, for example, whose latest novel Sterling Karat Gold is a surreal satire (anti-LGBT activists are allegorically transformed into bullfighters!), but she is published by the pioneering publishers Peninsula. I wonder if someone like Random House would produce something of such daring. Badly written autofiction now dominates, which means that the cult of the self is arguably as important as it was at the height of Amis’s fame. It’s just that now, in Britain at least, it’s a lot more dreary.

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