Fictionalized memoirs garnered some of France’s top literary prizes last fall, the prix Médicis going to Mathieu Lindon (reviewed below) and the Renaudot to Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, while Delphine de Vigan’s paean to her mother, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit, topped the best-seller list Claude Arnaud’s Qu’as-tu fait de tes frères (also reviewed here) was shortlisted for every prize the year before. Autobiographical fiction is “in” and we historians will have to wrestle with the beast, sooner or later, as we strive to separate fact from fiction and ponder why this hybrid format proved so popular. The French, more given to literary genre-bending than Anglo-Americans, refer to it as “auto-fiction.” The tone of the two gay memoirs under review is confessional and reflective, underlining the fact that the form of the narration is as important as its content. As David Caron notes, Arnaud and Lindon’s struggles to forge their adult selves is inextricably tied to writing itself.
The two authors threw themselves headlong into 1970s counter-culture but focus on different years, even though they are exact contemporaries (born in 1955). Arnaud delves into his family dynamics from the mid-sixties onward, but his tale peters out in the late seventies when Mathieu Lindon’s begins. Lindon, whose father founded the Editions de Minuit grew up with a silver spoon and was a late-bloomer; Arnaud’s upbringing was more conventionally middle-class and he proved unnervingly precocious. By age 14, he was peddling Lutte ouvrière and had been initiated sexually by his incestuous older brother Philippe. Sexual identity was only confusing insofar as Arnaud catered both to his “feminine” and “masculine” sides, his endrogenous looks attracting both men and women. In the post-68 era of sexual experimentation, bisexuality, drugs, short-term cohabitations were par for the course.
Arnaud situates his family’s dynamics more sociologically than Lindon and thus offers a broader canvas of French society in the pre-and post-1968 era. His insights into left-wing politics (he joins a Trotskyite and then Maoist cell at the lycée) are amusing, for even in his most militant period he cannot adopt his older brothers’ ideological rigor. Towing the party line and participating in the march of History prove less appealing than the mindless hedonism of American counter-culture. This is the 1968 generation in a nutshell: hard-line political engagement on the one hand, a more perverse and self-destructive addiction to pleasure on the other.
Arnaud’s book follows his family’s descent into total dysfunctionality. The precipitants are both May 68 and his mother’s slow deterioration from leukemia. The father had ambitions for his sons who formed a close-knit rebellious fratrie (a much younger brother barely features in this narrative) and Claude worshipped the two older boys. They read voraciously, abhorred pretentiousness and cant, and grew into dogmatic adults whose image of the world was mediated by the texts they’d read. Things fall apart as the eldest brother, the promising Pierre, grows increasingly erratic and is diagnosed with schizophrenia. He disappears for long periods at a time only to surface as a clochard. He commits suicide in 1977 by jumping out of an asylum window and Claude is devastated. Pierre had fished him out of a pool when they were children and has now perished in his stead. His favorite brother, the brilliant and impetuous Philippe, has become a leftist militant and long refuses to compromise with existing society. Although he scribbles endlessly, he refuses to publish his ”inanities.” It would take years for him to land the perfect post at the French Cinemathèque and to allow his film commentaries to appear in print. When all seems finally to be going his way, he drowns in September 1996 off the coast of Corsica.
Eaten up with guilt — “What have you done with your brothers?” — Claude wonders whether the family is cursed. There are schizophrenics on his mother’s side (the beloved Corsican clan) but genetic explanations have gone out of style. Besides which, Claude has spent months in Félix Guattari’s entourage and been told that mental illness is a social construct. After experimenting with every drug known to man and allowing his mind to rot, Arnaud pulls himself up by his bootstraps, resuming his education and making his peace with the imperfections of the real world. His brothers’ rejection of capitalist society, their love-hate relationship with writing, their inability to assume their sexuality, have led him astray. Although he never comes full circle to bourgeois values, he realizes that to assert his own identity, he must write and publish.
Mathieu Lindon is more nostalgic about the pre-AIDS era when sex and drugs ruled the gay community. As he tells it, the most important event in his life was his encounter with Michel Foucault in 1978 and he focuses on the years when he and other beautiful young men squatted in Foucault’s apartment whenever the philosopher went abroad. He recounts in minute detail the rituals of their LSD trips, their choice of music and films to facilitate the journey. Foucault is presented as the cool, insightful and generous father-figure who would forever inspire Lindon. His father is at the other pole, competitive, undermining, diffident and obtuse (not least for objecting to poorly written navel-gazing fiction). Jérome Lindon has his own hero, his friend of many years Samuel Beckett near whose grave he chooses to be buried. Mathieu struggles to carve out his own literary and affective identities, distancing himself from his father and the networks that have been handed to him on a platter. The rebellion takes on a literary cast as Lindon favors his friend Hervé Guibert’s unpolished writing style, much to his father’s horror. The life-lessons he draws from Foucault enable him to reconcile with his father and overall to become more tolerant of others’ foibles and more empathetic. Although AIDS casts its shadow on his life, felling so many of his closest friends, as David Caron remarks the book avoids all bathos. Like Arnaud, although within a narrower time-frame, Mathieu Lindon brings an era of French history to life.
SEX, DRUGS AND LITERATURE
University of Michigan
Of the recent developments to come out, so to speak, of the growing visibility of homosexuality in the West, one of the most pleasant has been the fact that gay men who write—and some still do—no longer write so much about how painful their early years were. Instead, they often cut to the chase and prefer to tell stories about how much sex and drugs they’ve had. We should all be thankful for that; turpitude is a lot more fun than torment. And think of the horrors to come: memoirs about married life and gay dysfunctional families? Or what a relief it now is to be able to kill Muslims halfway around the world without fearing a dishonorable discharge for homosexuality? It isn’t long before we’ll start missing stories of troubled adolescence, I’m telling you, so let’s seize our lucky moment while it lasts.
And still, in spite of all the sleeping around and all the getting high, the memoir remains a melancholy genre, even and perhaps especially if it recalls happy times. Many of the people you meet as you read along will be dead by the end of the book, youth gone forever. In the case of recent gay memoirs, the sadness can reach deafening levels of resonance as the death of so many friends came in the form of AIDS. And when it is a time whose loss is mourned, an era really, you may feel doubly devastated. Claude Arnaud’s Qu’as-tu fait de tes frères? and Mathieu Lindon’s Ce qu’aimer veut dire, two moving new memoirs, focus mostly on different periods. Arnaud grew up in the 1960s and his life was forever shaped by years of youthful activism leading to the upheaval of May ’68. Lindon’s book spends much of its time in the early 80s. Both memoirs are about men, although not necessarily in the way you think, and both are unmistakably, profoundly about literariness: that which defines all at once a person’s temperament or education, a Zeitgeist gone by and the appeal of the object you’re reading.
Mathieu Lindon, of course, is a novelist and the son of Jerôme, the famed director of the Editions de Minuit, who died in 2001. Sam (that would be Beckett) is a regular dinner guest at the Lindons, and the Nouveau Roman crowd keeps popping up now and then, especially Alain Robbe-Grillet. Whether such a privileged childhood makes it easier or tougher for Mathieu to become a writer in his own right occupies much of the book, as you’d expect, but most of this memoir, written not so long after the death of the father, is devoted to the loss of another father of sorts—Michel Foucault, with whom Mathieu Lindon enjoyed a close if all too brief friendship. The more recent disappearance triggers reflections on those that occurred before. There are other people you’ll recognize, chief among them Mathieu’s best friend and fellow author Hervé Guibert and Lindon’s current partner Rachid O, also a writer. But Lindon père and Foucault stand out as the two male figures that tower over the book and provide it with its emotional core as well as its most profound insights.
Not that you’ll learn much about these people, really. Their personalities remain elusive in spite of the author’s obvious love for both these men. The portrait of Foucault, in particular, brings out the man’s kindness and generosity, but in the end the book is about his Left-Bank apartment rue de Vaugirard. Or rather, it is about the parties, the boys, Mahler, misadventures with household appliances and quantities of LSD so astronomical you can’t help but wonder how Lindon remembers anything at all. (In all fairness, I find that other people’s drugs of choice are a bit like their sexual fetishes; if they happen to stray too far from your own, stories about them can get old pretty fast.) Read as a trope, however, the apartment provides more than a stage for the shenanigans of a bunch of gay kids who move in every time their famous friend goes away for extended periods of time. (Spoiler alert: The plants don’t make it.) Foucault’s home gives Lindon the opportunity to anchor what his book really aims at: a rethinking of what constitutes our bonds with others and a reminder that collective friendship belongs at the heart of queer lives. Then comes AIDS, and that part of the story hasn’t been made any easier to face with time passing. Foucault dies in 1984, his partner Daniel Defert founds the advocacy group AIDES that same year and, as the book’s focus shifts to Guibert, some of the characters that people Lindon’s memoir become characters in his friend’s own novels until Guibert, too, dies, adding layer upon layer of literariness to the sort of life writing that asks how one writes life. Lindon’s answer? With an energetic blend of love and disrespect for the French language.
Claude Arnaud is also a writer but he didn’t grow up in the world of publishing. Less remarkably, he and his two older brothers used to devour literary classics under the sheets with flashlights long past their bedtime. Intelligent, impeccably cultured, and living just on the edge of Paris’s most elegant XVIth arrondissement, it isn’t that they showed great promise exactly; rather they were all set to follow the expected path of Parisian bourgeois boys from posh lycée to grandes écoles to a place among the country’s elite—the promise, like all social promises, fulfilled in advance and ready to be endlessly reproduced and passed on in orderly bourgeois fashion. But nothing goes quite as planned. The mother dies, two of the brothers turn out to be gay (or something like that; it’s France), the eldest descends into madness, and the father just doesn’t know what hit him. Needless to say, May ’68 didn’t help either. Claude’s life takes him from one leftist group, and one pseudonym, to another, providing Arnaud with an opportunity to give us an inside look into the various political movements of the seventies, followed by the growing disillusion that led to the rather pathetic, mercantile and AIDS-ravaged 1980s. Along the way, we meet famous people. Claude, as it happens, tells briefly of an evening, rue de Vaugirard, where he encounters Foucault, Guibert and Lindon. Guattari (as in “Deleuze and”) is a recurring presence in the book, and there are a few lovely pages on Roland Barthes, another homo who liked to read, lecturing at the Collège de France. But other than that, this part of the book is the least compelling. We get to spend much time at the Sept, the Palace and other famous Parisian nightspots of the era in the company of beautiful people, and Arnaud has a tendency to drop names as casually as Lindon dropped acid. This too gets tiresome. Unless, of course, the plan was to convey his own creeping boredom with the whole thing.
The story picks up again when the seventies come to a close and the family reappears on the other side of all the turmoil. Madness, it turns out, had been a narrative thread all along, from the Corsican uncle roaming carefree in the mother’s village, to Guattari’s utopian antipsychiatry experiments, to Claude’s brother Pierre’s slow but brutal unraveling in a world that, when all is said and done, remains unforgiving to its misfits. It is often sad, as you can imagine, but in the end it was the people you don’t know, not the famous ones, you grew attached to—the brothers and their increasingly confused father. When narrative and narrator alike wander aimlessly through the late seventies, you can’t wait for both to come home somehow—not to some idealized childhood home, of course, but to one pared down by life itself until all that is left is what truly matters. This happens when Claude reaches that fateful tipping point after which life is no longer defined by accretion but by gradual losses. As was the case with Lindon’s story, the feeling you get for a given place and time—the leftist years or the AIDS years in Paris—becomes ultimately more palpable thanks to the author’s affection for the people he depicts. (These two memoirs are strikingly devoid of meanness, I must say.)
Memoirs (good memoirs, the kind that dig deep and then stir) have become something of an old-fashioned genre of late. They stand out as oddities next to their lesser if more ubiquitous competitors, the tell-all books that say nothing or the meticulous accounts of stuff that happened to you but nobody else cares about. (You used to drink too much? Your dog died? You cooked for a whole year? Like, wow!) Good memoirs are textual misfits nowadays because they deal with topics, people and events that matter (and whether these people and events are big or small is irrelevant) but do so in a world where all things are supposed to matter and, as a result, none really do. One of these things is writing itself, an endeavor at once essential and futile.That both these books should flaunt their literariness is thus a pleasure. Claude Arnaud writes with the impeccable propriety of the Parisian bourgeois that he is; Mathieu Lindon writes with the provocative impropriety of the Parisian bourgeois that he is. Neither author, then, solely mourns his youth, his friends, his brothers or parents; by foregrounding how written their memoirs are, they both turn to the past in order to hold on stubbornly, if not quite campily (camp isn’t French), to a culture in which literariness itself mattered. As a result, both texts are eminently teachable as texts. Arnaud’s poignant depiction of the post-68 years as a sort of heyday of intellectualism would also constitute a valuable teaching tool. The educational merits of Lindon’s book, however, may be less obvious. Having gay sex, doing drugs and writing in mangled French are things at which my students excel without my help, thank you very much. As Americans they may, however, have a more difficult time figuring out why these French gay guys sleep with women so often. In the end, though, teaching our students that literariness can be a way of life—be it in print or online, it doesn’t matter—would be the real and worthwhile challenge.
(When I was contacted to write this review, I was kindly encouraged to take the opportunity to plug my own book, My Father and I: The Marais and the Queerness of the Community, in the hope that you’d rush to your local bookstore to buy it. I would never do such a thing, naturally. Or rather, I would never do such a thing naturally. And besides, you probably don’t have a local bookstore anymore.)
Claude Arnaud, Qu’as-tu fait de tes frères? Paris: Grasset, 2010.
Mathieu Lindon, Ce qu’aimer veut dire. Paris : P.O.L., 2011.