No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2011/25: Hallucinating Foucault -- Patricia Duncker

"Are you asking me if I am a lonely man? Or are you asking me to tell you some more about my writing?"
I realised that the two, which I had always held in my mind distinct and apart, were now no longer separate. Paul Michel and the hidden drama lived in his texts were utterly and terribly fused. And this process was not of his making, but mine. He was the end of my quest, my goal, my grail. He had himself become the book. Now I was asking the book to yield up all its secrets. (p. 112)

A short, somewhat disquieting novel about love in many guises: especially, and pivotally, the bond between an author and the person for whom they write.

The narrator is twenty-two, a Cambridge post-grad consumed by his thesis on once-famous French writer Paul Michel, when he falls in love with 'the Germanist'. (Many of the characters in this novel remain nameless: the Germanist refers to her father as 'the Bank of England', though his male partner, a doctor, does merit a full name.) The Germanist turns out to know more than a little about Michel, former enfant terrible of French literature who shared an intimate reader/writer bond -- as well as a very public homosexuality, and the 'outsider' mentality which our narrator thinks intrinsic to that sexual nature -- with Michel Foucault. Paul Michel, we learn, was a schizophrenic who was subject to fits of violence, and is now incarcerated in a mental hospital outside Paris.

Prompted by the Germanist, the narrator seeks out his subject, and wins his trust; wins, too, the trust of the staff at Sainte-Anne, who permit him to take Michel out for the day, and eventually to take him away for the summer, to the Midi.

In the blazing heat of the South of France, Michel seems quite restored: he wins over his would-be biographer, tantalisingly revealing a series of insights into the nature of art, writing for, writing against. Both Michel and the narrator are driven by forms of madness: but what tips the balance is Michel's account of meeting a child on a beach, and the narrator's realisation that he's really nothing more than a go-between.

The novel (written in 1996, set in 1993) feels remarkably dated -- not a criticism, but perhaps a sign of verisimilitude, of how well it evokes the time in which it's set. The Bank of England (the Germanist's father, not the institution) is clearly wealthy and tech-savvy, as evidenced by his car-phone; there's no such thing as the Internet or Google; the Germanist bought her Cambridge flat for £27K.

I don't think I like anyone in this novel, with the possible exception of the Bank of England and his partner. But it's a fascinating, chilling, emotionally overwhelming read, and left me with a lingering sense of hidden complexities, unsuspected connections, and untrustworthy accounts. Hallucinating Foucault begins with, to put it kindly, a misperception: I suspect the rest of the novel teems with them.

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