The Intellectual Situation
Foreign Report: French Sex Novel
I am depressed. Things are worse here than I thought. It’s a mess and what’s more it’s a provincial mess. But let me go back.
A brief history of 20th-century French fiction:
in the aughts and teens it was Catholicism, Conservatism, Dreyfus
in the twenties it was the Unconscious and Communism
in the thirties it was Anthropology and Communism
in the forties well, we don’t talk much about the forties, but it was a hard time to be a novelist and you can understand that one must make compromises
in the fifties it was language as structure
in the sixties it was language as destructure
in the seventies it was sex, sex, sex, and feminine writing
in the eighties it was still sex with some regrets and gay sex
in the nineties it was the free market, and some sex.
There are exceptions to this schematic, actually the canon of great 20th-century fiction is largely exceptional: Gide, Proust, Bernanos, Camus, Blanchot, Colette. In the second rank, though, form holds. Go through the library shelves for literature (roughly by decade and alphabetically) and you’ll find authors who fit oh so snugly. The French are classicizers and everything they touch becomes classicism, even pornography.
There are oddballs and Louis Calaferte’s Septentrion is one. He was a little ahead of the curve on sex. Septentrion is published in 1962: “Au début était le sexe” (In the beginning was sex) is its opening line. Almost its last, “le sexe est la mort et la resurrection” (sex is the resurrection and the death). In between, you’d expect a lot of sex, at least as much as Henry Miller. In this respect, it’s disappointing. Septentrion is a bildungsroman, the story of how a nameless working-class boy fails to become a writer in two hundred numbing pages. I haven’t read them all, but I challenge anyone to do so when they have better things to do. And I don’t. But still. There’s a twenty-page encomium to reading in public toilets and the joys of shitting. For a while it looks like autodidacticism will triumph over sex, but, no, sex wins in the end. The grand discovery of the working-class writer: the bourgeoisie are too uptight, and while they may write novels, they miss out on life.
“Writing is a tomb,” our narrator declares. The novel is confessional and the French confessional tradition is dangerous. Rousseau is an obvious model and still the best. Chateaubriand is a purer stylist, but he’s obsessed with religion and death. For French purposes, he invents the idea that writing is a kind of living death and that one writes when you’ve nothing better to do and suicide is not an option. However, I challenge anyone to read Chateaubriand’s Memoires d’outre-tombe and not be weepingly bored. Septentrion is very late French romantic, style Chateaubriand. Somehow the novel is too late and too early. Its main contribution to the tradition seems to have been its conversational tone, colloquial and also a mix of low and high.
It’s not until the ’70s that sex takes over completely and becomes the model for “pure writing.” The case of Pierre Guyotat is instructive. Son of Catholic resistants, Pierre deserts during his military service at the height of the Algerian war and is imprisoned and probably tortured. He emerges in Paris in the late ’60s as a left-wing idol. Then his second novel,Eden, Eden, Eden (1971), becomes the first banned book since Baudelaire. It’s a porno extravaganza. Written without punctuation, it’s a litany of rapes and S&M in a nameless war zone that resembles French Algeria in the ’50s. Guyotat, person, is anti-violence and despairs of the world as anything but a place where the powerful fuck the powerless. His visions are, in some way, probably very close to the truth of what it’s like to be in Algeria, or Bosnia, or Colombia. It’s a bit like Road Warrior without the satisfactions of the revenge plot—just 500 pages of serial rapes. Guyotat, writer, is championed by Tel Quel as the “real thing.” Pure writing at its impurest. All writing is control, rape, manipulation, the great doors of the unconscious have been fucked wide open. Guyotat believes his press, talks about writing while masturbating. Insists he only writes while masturbating.
There were clues. His first book, Tombeau pour cinq cents mille soldats (1967). It’s the same thing with a bit more narrative structure (revenge is suggested, and then coolly denied) and lots of vampirism and raw meat. Of note, the “enemy country” taking over the world is called “Septentrion” and in the title we hear the warnings of Calaferte’s narrator about writing and entombment. Is this irony? Coincidence? Critique? Next to Guyotat, Calaferte and Henry Miller are prudes. I’ll tell you that I find all this sex and violence disgusting. That’s the point. I’m properly bourgeois, bien sûr. But I’m amazed that Guyotat, who ought to have been treated as a polemical savage, was instead crowned as a liberatory genius. It’s his bad luck that he believed it. It’s as though French intellectuals discovered Darwinism late and erected biology into destiny and the replacement for dogmatic Catholicism, celebrating it as freedom and deploring it as tyranny at the same time.
Guyotat is still alive, he’s only 64, but he hasn’t really done anything of note since the ’70s. It seems like he’s working on a 3-part enormous book that someone could someday fail to read. He’s also become a campaigner for prostitutes’ rights. This a long way of saying this is not my taste in fiction.
How can I like Houellebecq then? Houellebecq is a model of positive restraint compared to what came before. He’s so much more open-minded than the absolutist ’68ers, especially Sollers. Houellebecq at least offers characters who are capable of dissent from dominant models in sex, politics, economics, and aesthetics. I tell you to read Houellebecq! The Elementary Particles offers two possible responses to the problem of sex and late capitalism—each developed through character, rather than style. Bruno finds love and tragedy, he couldn’t have known a degenerative illness meant all the spectacular S&M would break Christiane’s back. Michel stands on a gray cliff, scientifically eradicates the sexes through genetic engineering. And Houellebecq wants tragedy and utopia at once. Do you know what he says about Huxley? “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society.” Have you read Huxley lately? OK, it’s for kids, but still.
So coming from America, Houellebecq looks like the next great novelist a thèse. Approaching him from France, people find him an impure stylist, a bad writer, a popular hack. Do they see what’s right under their noses? Of course it would help if he wrote another masterpiece. Or stayed sober during interviews. Or does he just put that on for Americans, when he passes out in his soup?
I will keep looking, my friend. In the meantime, I embrace you . . . Yours, etc.
All that sex, to so little profit. We were just going to hop on the subway. But an embossed card is right next to the train pass. How long has it been there? We consider its message, again:
APPLICANTS NEEDED. ADVANCED DEGREES (PHD, MA). MEN AD WOMEN AGE 18-32. HEALTHY PAY.
In this world, only one place believes an intellectual is worth his or her weight in gold. And that’s the sperm and egg bank.
An hour later, we’re in the waiting room. Well, why not? Here they have cut flowers. Comfy chairs, reading lamps. And the latest issue of the London Review of Books.
Perhaps some infertile couple needs a child with bad eyesight, a tendency to melancholy, and a habit of reading? All our gametes did sit through lectures with us. If that’s what a banker and a lawyer want for their kid—are we going to stand in the way of happiness?
This may be the only way to keep the mutation alive. Intellectuals: reproduce! Honest means not required. Suddenly, we conceive a vision. Not one, two, or ten tykes, identical to us, but a hundred, a thousand! So adorable—if only we could see their faces—but they’ve all got their noses buried in books. It’s the Children’s Crusade. It’s the New York Public Library, Bibliothèque Nationale, and Bodleian Reading Room taken over by dwarves. But those dwarves are us! A million of us! We will singlehandedly keep Sartre in print! We will put the NYRB Classics on the bestseller list!
The nurse appears, the music swells. Immortality awaits.