The West

The best writer you don t know
Douglas Kennedy. Picture: Supplied.

On a visit to Paris a couple of years ago my friend Florence Charmasson was telling me about her favourite novelist - not a French writer but an American utterly adored by her countrymen. "Doog-lass Ken-ned-dee! He's amazing. Nobody writes better about women than Doog-lass Ken-ned-dee. And they made that Australian film from one of his books, Welcome to Woop Woop," she gushed.

Florence speaks perfect English but I had no idea who she was talking about. And why was the country which gave us Balzac and Flaubert, Proust and Camus so enamoured of a novelist little honoured in his own land and whose work spawned the 1997 Stephan Elliott atrocity about a bunch of cliched Aussie idiots?

Then late last year I started seeing the name Douglas Kennedy (yes, I worked it out a couple of cafe au laits later) popping up all over the place.

Two major movies based on his books were released - The Big Picture, starring Romain Duris and Catherine Deneuve, and The Woman in the Fifth with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas - and Kennedy's latest novel, The Moment, landed on my desk, his 10th since his debut in 1995 with the comic outback thriller The Dead Heart (the inspiration for Welcome to Woop Woop).

So I gave Doo-glass Ken-ned-dee a go (sorry, I can't help myself) and discovered Florence was on the money. Once he has you in his grip, which generally happens after just a couple of chapters, Kennedy will not let you go until you've raced through to the end, leaving you wondering how something so intellectually challenging could be so wildly entertaining.

Operating somewhere between superior pulp and readable literary fiction, Kennedy moves effortlessly from subject to subject - writing as well from a female point of view as the male, expertly evoking locales on both sides of the Atlantic and artfully meshing the narrative steeliness and propulsion of the thriller (male) with the emotional insight of the romance (female).

In The Pursuit of Happiness (2001) he brilliantly recreates the poisonous atmosphere of McCarthy-era America; in Temptation (2007) he plunges so deep inside Hollywood you can't believe he's never worked there; and his depiction of academia in Leaving the World (2009) is so convincing he holds his own against the great chroniclers of university life such as Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and Jeffrey Eugenides.

Kennedy's ability to evoke a specific time and place comes to the fore in his latest and best book, The Moment, a gripping, Berlin-set, Cold War-era romance-cum-spy novel about a young American travel writer who falls for a beautiful East German refugee and becomes enmeshed in a John le Carre-like web of intrigue.

While Kennedy sells well in the US and here, it's in France where he's a huge name - selling millions of books, routinely interviewed on classy book shows and, in 2007, joining likes of Clint Eastwood, Vaclav Havel and Bob Dylan as a member of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

So why is he so celebrated in France (and the rest of Europe) and so little known in his own country, a curiosity that prompted Time magazine to label him The Most Famous Writer You Have Never Heard Of? (He's not helped by schmaltzy book jackets that make him look like another Nicholas Sparks.)

Kennedy believes he is popular in France because his books are a happy marriage of big ideas and a very accessible storytelling style.

"French post-War literature is largely a theatre of ideas. My novels have appeal because they have the philosophical material - the debate about what it means to be human in a complex world - wrapped up in a big old-fashioned book," says Kennedy over the phone from London.

"The other reason for my popularity is that the French adore American writers and American literature. Even though I've lived in Europe for much of my writing career I'm still an American writer and my country is still an endless source of fascination to the French," he says.

The French also probably get a kick out of Kennedy's constant allusions to culture, high and popular. It's almost impossible to get through a page of a Douglas Kennedy novel without encountering another smarty-pants citation - to jazz and movies in The Pursuit of Happiness, to literature and movies in Leaving this World, to classical music and painting in The Moment.

While he's been criticised for wearing his learning on his sleeve, Kennedy says it comes naturally. "That's me. Last night I was at a concert in Wigmore Hall, the night before that I was seeing the musical Matilda, before that I was catching a retrospective at the British Film Institute," says Kennedy.

Kennedy shares his culture-vulture habits with the hero of The Moment, his most openly autobiographical novel.

"I never lived in Berlin in the 1980s (although I visited quite a bit) and, to the best of my knowledge, I never slept with an agent of the Stasi, but Thomas is based on my life growing up in Manhattan," explains the 57-year-old novelist.

"Like Thomas I escaped the tension in my family's apartment by getting out. I would go to the library and spend hours reading and go to concerts and movies. It was my refuge and it still is," says Kennedy.

Indeed, escape is one of the central themes of Kennedy, who began his literary career as a travel writer and continues to journey relentlessly. Indeed, he knows WA extremely well, setting The Dead Heart here and beginning Temptation while lying on a beach in Broome.

"I have homes in London, Paris, Berlin and Maine - and a girlfriend in Montreal. I've been in 64 countries and in Australia 13 times and driven all over your country. I love to move around and I have no trouble writing on the road. Travel still stimulates me and fuels my writing." <div class="endnote">


The West Australian

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