A mirror for mad times
Boyd Tonkin

Frédéric BeigbederFrédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, an extraordinary novel-essay-memoir about September 11, 2001, and its cultural aftermath, has won this year’s £ 10,000 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in Frank Wynne’s scintillating translation.

Half of Beigbeder’s central narrative begins after the introductory quotes from the likes of Walt Whitman and Kurt Cobain that tell you so much about the author’s loves and affinities, and after the dedications to his daughter, Chloe, and "to the 2,749" who died in the Twin Towers on that blue Tuesday morning. Minute by minute, this part of the story ticks off the time in the top-floor restaurant of the World Trade Centre’s North Tower from 8.30 am to 10.28 am.

Here, on September 11, a divorced, pleasure-seeking Texan real-estate dealer and his two sons have come for a breakfast treat, only to pass through a soul-shredding, but not-quite-unimaginable ordeal.

The other part gives us the character "Frédéric Beigbeder", a French dandy (but, crucially, one with much-admired American ancestors), trendy intellectual, narcissist and all-round poseur. He takes his own safe breakfast up in the Tour Montparnasse in Paris, picking over his pampered and blinkered past in a bid to explore how he, or anyone, might make sense of the event that has reshaped our world since that day.

This is a subject and a setting that, tackled with the urgency that it demands, might test to destruction the limits of conventional fiction. With his snatches of memoir, cultural commentary, polemic and even wild comedy, Beigbeder relieves the intolerable pressure of a story set within the tower in the minutes before its collapse. He makes of that burnt and buckling glass and steel not just a window on our world, but a damning mirror for Western dreams and delusions, and in particular for feckless children of affluence such as the narrator. For him, the vacant hedonism that hit its early-1970s peak just as the WTC rose has now crumbled as completely as its towers. What endures for Beigbeder and the doomed family he creates, for all witnesses and survivors, is the ability to love.

"How is it that in approaching so delicate a subject as 9/11, Beigbeder has written so funny and moving a book?" Perhaps the very arrogance and ambition of his project breaks through into depths of compassion that a more modest or "tasteful" treatment could never touch.

Fortune in fiction may favour not just the brave, but also the downright foolhardy. So it is with Windows on the World. In the mid-1990s, this 39-year-old son of a successful head-hunter and of a translator of romantic novels, bounced out of the world of Parisian advertising into fiction, journalism and publishing. For a decade, Beigbeder has thrilled, shocked and vexed the French literary scene. Beigbeder’s a star in the firmament. He excites, he provokes, he divides. The Independent