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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Hold Fast Your Crown

Yannick Haenel

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To purchase Hold Fast Your Crown

Title: Hold Fast Your Crown
Author: Yannick Haenel
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 332 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Hold Fast Your Crown - US
Hold Fast Your Crown - UK
Hold Fast Your Crown - Canada
Tiens ferme ta couronne - Canada
Tiens ferme ta couronne - France
Tieni ferma la tua corona - Italia
  • French title: Tiens ferme ta couronne
  • Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

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Our Assessment:

B : some clever ideas, but ultimately trods too familiar territory, too familiarly

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 20/5/2019 .
The NY Times . 27/3/2019 Sarah Lyall
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/5/2019 Nancy Kline
TLS . 8/3/2019 Tadzio Koelb
Wall St. Journal . 5/4/2019 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book’s charm lies in its determination to take outlandish risks, piling on great-art references and philosophical musings almost, but not quite, to the point of disastrous overload." - The New Yorker

  • "How much readers enjoy it will depend on whether they are charmed or irritated by its narrator’s aversion to the practicalities of daily life, and how far they are prepared to go in admiring the drunken vicissitudes of his busy, elusive and allusive intellect. (...) Some of the more abstruse passages in the novel made sense to me; others did not, even when I reread them several times. Maybe it helps to be French." - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

  • "Indefatigably translated by Fagan, Hold Fast Your Crown, with its biblical title (see Revelation 3:11), is an occasionally entertaining rant, larded with pages of philosophizing, long plot summaries of other people’s films and paraphrases of other people’s remarks. Moby-Dick it isn’t." - Nancy Kline, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This observational mode doesn’t provide much narrative momentum. (...) It is one of many false assertions in a novel that rests entirely on people telling stories (in films, novels and screenplays, but also to each other) yet repeatedly implies, seemingly despite itself, that words and stories have no real effect." - Tadzio Koelb, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hold Fast Your Crown is narrated by Jean, a modestly successful author just turning fifty who is currently on a down-and-out trajectory, left with essentially no money, few belongings -- he's been selling them off --, and, soon, no apartment. (Jean is apparently again Jean Deichel, a Haenel stand-in from several of his previous works.) Instead of buckling down and working on something publishable, Jean has been devoting his time to: "something for which I had insanely abandoned my friends, my joy, the novels I was writing -- in fact, life itself". What on the face of it perhaps doesn't sound entirely outrageous -- a screenplay about Moby-Dick-author Herman Melville, written: "to express what inhabits the solitude of a writer" -- in fact is: The Great Melville is, at seven hundred pages, a basically unfilmable (and certainly uncommercial) screenplay. (The screenplay rule of thumb is about a minute of film-time per page, and most are in the not-much-over-100-page range; even Jean-Paul Sartre's (unfilmed) would-be John Huston project, The Freud Scenario, came in at a lot shorter than this.) He's not fooling himself, either: he does understand that: "The Great Melville was a failure, a formidable failure".
       Jean is pretty happy-go-lucky -- and, as he notes when the novel opens:

I had already written the screenplay. I had nothing more to fear. What ruin could I dread ? I had written novels, I could write more -- I had a thousand ideas for novels in my head, but first I wanted to pursue the adventure of this screenplay to its end.
       He's helped in this by wealthy film producer Pointel. Jean gets it into his head that the ideal reader for his screenplay is Michael Cimino, the director of The Deer Hunter and one of Hollywood's most famous failures, the 1980 Heaven's Gate, a man who: "embodied in American film what Melville had embodied in American literature". Conveniently, Pointel is an old friend of Cimino's, and he passes on the now-reclusive director's telephone number: "If you manage to wake up Michael: jackpot !"
       Jean does hit the jackpot, of sorts: he reaches Cimino, Cimino is intrigued, and they arrange to meet in New York. They meet, and Cimino is at least open to the screenplay, and they wander around town for the night -- an extended encounter that Jean describes piecemeal, spread across the rest of the novel. Cimino is an odd, shadowy figure, but Jean is certainly in his thrall for that time -- though the cinematic realization of The Great Melville remains as far off as ever.
       Jean reflects a lot on Cimino's films, as well as Apocalypse Now, and draws comparisons between his experiences and these extreme films. He's not putting his life together as he proceeds, however -- obsessed and sucked in by the madness behind these grand visions, and allowing his life to continue to go what appears to be off the rails. His neighbor, Tot, is another extreme figure -- though conveniently he's (mysteriously, as is his wont) out of the way for much of the story. For a while Jean shows some sense of responsibility in taking care of Tot's dog, Sabbat, in his absence (and less in then losing said dog, or keeping up with the watering of Tot's plants ...), but when he's invited to dine with Pointel -- and celebrates his fiftieth birthday -- things go further south.
       Haenel falls back on relying too much on alcohol-induced haziness, Jean caught up in a swirl of events (that feels very much swirl, drunken and otherwise ...) -- and that against the backdrop of celebrating his birthday the night of the Paris attacks that saw so many killed, in the Bataclan theater and elsewhere (though his condition and preöccupations allow him to take relatively little notice of these). Isabelle Huppert -- who had, of course, acted for Cimino -- joins them for dinner, as does another woman whom Jean then hooks up with.
       In the extended aftermath, Jen spends quite a bit of time more or less aimlessly looking for the dog, Sabbat, who has (also) gone missing -- but can't find much more than a few refugees whom he swoops in to help out (itself yet just another brief episode). Among other adventures, Jean goes to a funeral, when the sister of his new love, Léna, dies -- with a very dramatic eulogy (of sorts) in front of the Isenheim Altarpiece. And eventually, his lease up at his apartment, he moves on: "A novel, I said: I'm going to write a novel". Because of course that's what this has all been leading up to. And, yes, of course it's this novel .....
       Hold Fast Your Crown is full of reflections on evil, truth, and art. There are repeated hunting scenes, cinematic and otherwise -- not least, quite a bit about the mythical story of Diana and Actaeon. There's a hunting expedition Jean joins Tot on -- and a woman on a bridge-ledge he means to save. And, of course, there are the attempts at grand, impossible art: the later Melville whom Jean is so drawn to, and Jean's own impossible screenplay, itself so freighted with meaning ("The Great Melville was above all a mystical poem on evil", he says at one point; "my screenplay, which, itself, spoke only of death", at another).
       Hold Fast Your Crown sputters along unevenly, with Haenel's reliance on and resorting to Jean's drunken confusion and blackouts particularly annoying. So also, it's not enough that he is facing losing the roof over his head, he actually manages to lock himself out of his apartment just before he has to move out anyway; so also, he has no difficulties finding a roof once he has to leave. The parallels between Jean's Melville-obsessed struggles and the Hollywood drama around Cimino as well as Apocalypse Now would easily have been enough to sustain the sort of story he seems to have been going after, but he weighs it down and dilutes it with ultimately far too many local layers, too.
       The Great Melville itself remains unconvincing, teased out but never really taking any shape beyond as a fat manuscript "printed in red, in homage to the publications of the Communist International". And yet, of course, its subject-matter and its bloat are enough to make it sound intriguing -- more so, often, than the novel it is stuck in .....
       Jean claims:
     Yes, since my passion for Herman Melville had obliterated everything in its path, my days unfolded in the delight of a revelation whose subject was the end, the idea of the end, the watermark -- inside every moment -- of an interminable end that reframes the world.
       There is quite a bit of end-reflection to Hold Fast Your Crown, but it all comes at the tail end of Jean's obliteration phase -- too often even literally the hang-over -- and one suspects that the writing of the screenplay period might have been more interesting than this (leading to the) writing of the novel period covered here. As is, yes, Jean's endings can at times feel a bit interminable .....
       A decidedly mixed bag.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 May 2019

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Hold Fast Your Crown: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Yannick Haenel was born in 1967.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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