Pierre Guyotat; by John Taylor

 

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«A new book by Pierre Guyotat (b. 1940) is always an “event,” little matter whether one reads it. When Progénitures appeared in France, to the sort of consternated fanfare that has frequently greeted this writer’s output, one well-placed critic declared that neither he nor anyone else could, or would, read all eight hundred, bizarrely spelled, meticulously versified pages of this “novel” that is probably more akin to an extended Old Testament chronicle. This accusation of “unreadablenes,” attached to Guyotat’s strange and provocative work ever since (at least) the lexical and orthographic experiments of Prostitution (1975), is nonetheless qualified by the conciliatory observation that he is the “last” member of the French literary “avant-garde” of 1960s and 1970s to have kept the faith. According to such a view, a book like Progénitures can be celebrated as a memento of a bygone era. And who knows, such critics implicitly posit, perhaps an exegete will one day elucidate a phrase like “du, que, l’ chiambranl’, d’ dedans son poang qu’ a jiaté l’ rat ta fill’ lui mordr’ au bois…”
However, for most commentators, the chore of dipping into Guyotat’s books, let alone studying what the man is attempting to accomplish, or examining his ideas about “prostitutional” human relationships, is another matter. Their general viewpoint is usually rounded out as follows: the authors associated with the New Novel ended up betraying their original principles—notably their suspicions about “character”—by penning “memoirs” (e.g., Alain Robbe-Grillet and his Ghosts in the Mirror; Nathalie Sarraute and her Childhood; Claude Simon and his Georgics). Likewise, the next generation of experimenters — linked (as Guyotat was) with the review Tel Quel—cast off their rigor, sought out influential publishing-company responsibilities, and began producing best-sellers (Philippe Sollers’s career and evolution from Paradise to Women being the salient example). As this trend toward more “personal,” “direct” writing was getting underway, by the early 1980s, Guyotat remained by contrast—so the argument runs—pur et dur, his only concession to facility being Vivre (1984), a collection of interviews and sundry texts filling in the personal and literary background of Prostitution and his better-known novels, Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats (1967) and Eden, Eden, Eden (1970). Yet as far as his strictly literary writing was concerned, Guyotat—as he went on to compose Progénitures and to work on the (still unpublished) Histoires de Samora Machel—pursued, indeed radicalized, the path charted by his earlier books.
This critical consensus concerning Guyotat and the other writers mentioned above is singularly myopic. First of all, if one perceives Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Simon and other “New Novelists” as individuals, not as members of a “movement” (which, for the latter two authors, never existed in the first place), their respective writings exhibit an inner logic, or coherence, already evident in their first efforts, that inexorably leads to their “memoir-like” writing. (And one needs to specify what exactly, for each writer, is meant by “autobiography.”) For instance, Sarraute’s deepening of her pioneering notion of “Tropisms,” dating from the early-1930s, logically draws her ever closer to dialogue, and these two interconnected aspects of her oeuvre are rarely dissociated from her personal experiences, as recalled from the recent or distant past (whence Childhood but also Martereau). As to Simon, his participation in the Spanish Civil War and especially the Second World War informs nearly all his books, from Le Tricheur and La Corde raide to Le Jardin des plantes. The novelist’s obstination to perceive—in retrospect—what happened to him and others in his midst creates no essential differences between what he fictionalizes in one book and “personalizes” in another. More generally, much postwar French literature investigates the ontological, metaphysical, or—less interestingly—existential and social problematics of the self, a theme engaging the work of many more prose-writers (and poets) than those associated with the New Novel. This over-arching concern embraces the various, only seemingly contradictory, approaches adopted by an author while he revolves around this central question.

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Similarly, it is more enlightening to consider Guyotat’s oeuvre, not as exemplary of an “avant garde,” but rather as proceeding implacably, from his earliest fiction—Sur un cheval (1961) and Ashby (1964)—to Progénitures. Set in a Scottish castle, Ashby may at first seem conventional (if Sade-like), yet it amply reveals the most telltale characteristic of Guyotat’s mature style: the alignment of one action after another, with almost no intervening description. Committing no novice’s error in this respect, Guyotat increasingly—after Ashby—exaggerates this stylistic tendency, to an extent fostering both a kind of music and an epistemology. First, a music, because the novelist struggles to control rhythm by concentrating on active verbs and by severely restricting adjectives and adverbs. Second, an epistemology, because he obsessively focuses on a world so frenetically full of action—particularly, sexual action—that there is, rigorously, no “novelistic time” for recording additional or more complex sense impressions. Eden, Eden, Eden for instance, recounts one sexual scene—or “flash”—after another, every descriptive phrase designating either a form of sexual intercourse or a gesture immediately preceding such an act.
This descriptive asceticism—a logical consequence of the epic intentions of Guyotat’s writings—is already apparent in the title of which refers both to a “grave” for 500,000 soldiers and to a French poetic and musical genre similar to the eulogy. The narrator of this novel, which spins off allegorically from the Second World War and the Algerian War, simply does not experience time—its potentially elastic duration—in ways permitting him to elaborate descriptions. There is no rest, respite, reprieve. At the end of each action, a new action begins; nothing else can be perceived; nor can enveloping, generalizing concepts be accommodated. It is instructive to keep in mind that Yves Bonnefoy (b. 1923), a French poet at antipodes from Guyotat in outlook and sensibility, has likewise plunged deeply into this problem of “de-conceptualizing.” In French literature, this concern goes back at least as far as Mallarmé, whose pursuit of conceptual purity leads to an affirmation of language as our sole reality (whence the major stature attributed to him by poststructuralist philosophers). Guyotat, taking off from the a priori ideal of a strict, pure, materialism, arrives at the same results—and this is no paradox.

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Moreover, although a characteristic, breathless “tone” emanates from his novels (because of his action-oriented, materialistic, epic worldview), there is no room for extensive narrative or authorial “subjectivity,” at least in the common sense of the term. This is why Guyotat, too, seeks a form of “de-selfing,” a propensity visible in many postwar French writers and poets. Might an analogy be drawn between the incessant rapidity expressed by his prose and the concept of “Brownian movement”? Yet Guyotat regularly insists on the “logic,” not the “randomness,” of his narrations. In any case, by Ashby, the novelist is already moving toward the austere, frenetic physical materialism of Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats and Eden, Eden, Eden—a materialism conveyed not by narrative declarations or explanations (these subsist only in his oft fascinating and moving interviews), but rather by his meticulously preconceived, preregulated style. Like the artist Jean Dubuffet, who likewise toiled with “matter” and “texture,” Guyotat drags, prods, and sometimes gently eases language as close as possible to the brutest facts of existing. In his case, this first demands a close-focusing on the necessary locus of the self, the body—especially its secretions and excretions; second, a maniacal preoccupation with the minutest details of sound and rhythm. To the corporal materialism of Eden, Eden, Eden and Tombeau is thus added, in Prostitution and Progénitures, a “linguistic materialism” fanatically sensitive to the slightest phonetic or graphic phenomena. The result? A prolonged, repetitive, numbing, inebriating, dizzying and, it must be said, thoroughly exhausting linguistic dance—yet whose frenzy and especial ambition is unique in French literature.
Ashby recounts the sexual adventures of two cousins, Angus and Drusilla. Child-lovers, they are eventually separated, only to meet again as young adults. The novel thus prefigures the notorious, increasingly crude, use of sexuality typical of Guyotat’s later fiction—especially beginning with Eden, Eden, Eden, banned only one month after its appearance. (This story is recounted in Littérature interdite, a volume of interviews, reviews, and information concerning the petition—on Guyotat’s behalf—signed by French writers and intellectuals. Despite the petition, the book remained banned until December 30, 1981.) Yet also present in Ashby are statements mitigating, as it were, the provocative “obscenity” characterizing this book and, by extension, Guyotat’s subsequent fiction. Angus remarks, notably, that he is “not violent, but rather elegiac—without constraints.” How then should this and the other books be read, if they are “elegies,” albeit “without constraints”? Once the sexual violence is cast into this epicedial light, one can almost discern a hidden authorial appeal for some sort of redemption. What might its nature be?

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Surely this is the most troubling aspects of these writings: the possibility that what, interpretatively, seems exceedingly “closed,” is nonetheless slightly “open,” even somehow strangely spiritual. On the one hand, the novelist overwhelmingly implies that physical cruelty and mechanical, emotionless, unpleasurable sex constitute all there is. On the other hand, these two fundamental features of our biological existence, as depicted by Guyotat, arguably perhaps conceal a positive, underlying, ultimately redeeming “aspiration.” Yet one can deduce this hypothetical aspiration only by a reductio ad absurdum: everything is so unmitigatedly evil, violent, sexual, factual (etc.), that a contradiction must be lurking, implying a (partial) refutation of the initial premise. Does such reasoning constitute a self-illusion that the reader himself introduces into the text? Is not Guyotat’s vision completely nontranscendental?
In his interviews, he nevertheless insists on the lasting influence of his Catholic-seminary education; he originally destined himself for the priesthood. Christian allusions occur in the work, not least of all in the very title of Eden, Eden, Eden—which incites the reader to reflect on the spiritual nature of this wildly infernal, systematically copulatory, thrice-decried “paradise,” not to mention on whatever emotions (if any) might link a putative “God” to His libidinous protagonists. In this respect, Guyotat’s novel not only builds on the Book of Genesis, but also furnishes a commentary, the sordid details “correcting” the ambience of divine benevolence which, retrospectively, envelops Old Testament stories once Christly grace and mercy are taken into account. By extension, Tombeau, Prostitution and Progénitures (also a Genesis-related title, evidently) seemingly also depict an allegorical Hell or a “Hellish” Eden that is at once prehistoric (even almost pre-Homo sapiens), contemporary (as witness omnipresent “blue-jeans”), and “foreseeable” (as if the characters constituted a society of survivors of, say, a nuclear holocaust). “This is how beasts and people live,” writes Guyotat bluntly in Tombeau. Are we those people?
These sociotheological considerations aside, Guyotat—in “Langage du corps,” surely one of the most truthful, self-elucidating texts ever written by an author—explains at length how his bodily functions and acts relate to his writing. His elucidations particularly deal with masturbation. This tense interdependence between the human condition in its most rudimentary manifestations—our search for pleasure or at least physical (self) contact because we are doomed to die—and writing, a solitary endeavor aspiring to transcend annihilation, thematically vibrates at the heart of all of Guyotat’s books. His style simply imposes itself too forcibly and consistently to be otherwise. Or, once again, does Guyotat’s writing—in contrast to that of nearly all other writers—aspire to nothing more than the evocation of matter and its multifarious “movements”?
At any rate, this interdependence between the body and writing, at once conflictual and mutually nourishing, raises the question of what “personal reality” might be brought forth in Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats, Eden, Eden, Eden, Prostitution and Progénitures. Do the “plots” of such books stem from murky “psychological depths”? Are they collages of the most salacious subconscious imaginings? Does Guyotat in this respect quite courageously use his own mind and body as a medium, thereby picking up where Sade, Dostoyevsky and Freud left off? Is he getting things “out of his system,” as countless references to secretions and excretions such as “sperm,” “shit,” “piss,” “sweat,” or “spit” literally suggest? In “Les Yeux de Dieu,” an important text written in 1981, Guyotat remarks that

this contradiction . . . has always traversed me—the body, Writing. [It] originates in my . . . mutually-antagonistic visions of humanness. On the one hand, I see, I desire a humanity that is relatively happy . . . presentable, a species that is well-defined, neat, limpid, community-oriented (but presentable to whom, for whom, for what Eye). On the other hand, what emerges from me, when I write, and constructs itself infinitely thereafter, is a human organization of an unspecified species—grimy-black, as filthy-black as possible, thus already bright, indeed gilded in its bright blackness, racked above all by the cruelty of man against man . . . by war, hunger, torture, massacre, prostitution.“

Such avowals not only reveal the complex ambiguity behind his work, but also point to the source of its “epic” nature, wherein “lofty deeds” are replaced by the most lowly acts. Compared to a historical chronicle or a diary, an epic has a supreme literary aim; a psychoanalytical outpouring is never reworked with the obsessive, rigorous artistry applied, by Guyotat, to his “material” (whatever its source may be); nor is Time incarnated similarly in these disparate genres. For these reasons, there is something not entirely satisfactory about perceiving Guyotat’s work exclusively as a “mirror held up to reality” (as Stendhal famously phrased it), little matter how bestial our world is, little matter how firmly and relentlessly the author keeps our faces pressed down into our own mud (to use an euphemism). If Guyotat’s writing pushes to unbearable limits Terence’s remark, “I am a man: nothing human is alien to me,” he simultaneously constructs a fictional world that cannot be mapped, one-to-one, on to reality as we normally perceive it. His “timeless” epic world, perhaps symbolic of, yet at any rate temporally independent of our specific past, present, and future, allegorizes the notions of “bought sex,” “inhumanness,” “inhumaneness,” and “coming to humanness.” The key characters—many of them “prostitutes”—sometimes even resemble Christ-like figures. A fundamental moral ambivalence thereby haunts Guyotat’s theoretically “amoral” fiction. As in the case of Jean Genet, what indeed is the referential intention of this no-holds-barred aesthetic of cruelty, brute sex, blunt violence? What especially distinguishes Guyotat’s writing from literary realism (as it is habitually defined) is, of course, his excruciatingly precise labors with language. As early as 1972, in a “Note” written about his play, Bond en avant, Guyotat justifies his suppression of “relatives and possessives . . . as well as all anthropocentric naming or designating.” These preestablished, systematically-applied rules lead to the increasingly nervous sentences of Tombeau, then to the high-strung short phrases of Eden, Eden, Eden, which are each, one after the other, separated by semicolons, creating one (unending) sentence running on for 270 pages.
After Eden, Eden, Eden, Guyotat’s maniacal prose comes even closer to resembling a “prose poetry” of the most extravagant kind. “Style” becomes too weak a word for this meticulously crafted langue à relief, as he puts it, the word “relief” being understood here in its sculptural and geological senses: a “language made up of reliefs.” In Explications (2000), an absorbing book length interview with Marianne Alphant, Guyotat reveals—and a close look confirms—that the versets (“verses,” in the Biblical sense) of Progénitures are “syllabically calculated.” More importantly, he declares that the “necessities of meter often engage the meaning of, even the direction taken by, the fiction.” In this respect, although he maintains his earlier focus on the specific ways in which prostitution, slavery, and marketplace relationships are expressed in the (male) body, Guyotat increasingly concentrates on the very structures of the French language. This linguistic overhaul, involving both sledgehammering and microsurgical interventions, is undertaken in the name of “restoring [to French] its profound eloquence without inventing another [distinct] language.” Guyotat becomes a poet in the strictest (Greek) sense of the term.

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Is it possible to imagine how his method might be applied to English? He quasi-systematically elides, for example, the mute “e” at the end of words. The word for “father,” père, thus becomes pèr’, and so on. These elisions—except in certain cases that he also enumerates—induce a great number of apostrophes for the eye and, for the ear, a vigorously consonantal patois, at once bewildering and familiar, that simultaneously bares etymological roots or mimics the vowel-less transcriptions of Semitic languages (notably Arabic, with all its political connotations for the French). In the Gallimard edition of Progénitures, a CD-recording of Guyotat reading the first few pages is included, giving one a vivid idea of how such verses should be recited.
Guyotat also “re-accentuates” words (either by reinforcing stress or annulling it). He contends that “a letter is also an image, a ‘relief element’ of language. A new accent can thus reinforce this image, and thus the meaning of the word.” This new accentual emphasis sometimes stems from a mere cedilla. His neologism suçée, based on the verb sucer, “to suck” and perhaps echoing suçon, “love-bite,” illustrates this effort. Prepositions are also often suppressed, as well as coordinating conjunctions; definite or indefinite articles sometimes vanish so that nouns can stand forth naked, more forcibly, making Guyotat’s French seem at times a sort of literal translation from the Chinese. In this relentless endeavor to “physicalize” language, he also uses—once again, rather like Chinese—the infinitive, unconjugated, form of verbs. As he toys with sexual connotations, masculine words are sometimes feminized, and vice versa. This is not to forget his many neologisms, a few of which are defined in the “glossary” appended to Progénitures. Some have sarcastic political connotations, such as a Pétain, meaning a French “coin,” while several express Guyotat’s efforts to get, once again, as close as possible to “facts.” Mouchiassat, for instance, is based on a contraction of mouches, “flies,” chier, “to shit,” and chasser, “drive off.” The word refers to hoards of “shit-flies” that one constantly needs to shoo away.
Fortunately, Wanted: Female (1996), a rare bibliophilic album consisting of seven aquatints by the late Sam Francis and a long-poem by Guyotat, gives one a compelling impression of what the French novelist can sound like in English. This poem-album, which exists in only forty-five deluxe copies, brings together all of Guyotat’s sexual and theological preoccupations. Here is a section from the opening passage, in Michael Taylor’s translation:

“but how soon, Father God, my belly grows t’ward the wall where You tense Your toes better to thrust in me!
but which of us, You or me between my kneelin’ knees, You shakin’ me from behind,
me tremblin’ the first time,
the great thunder drummin’ its far reply, me the first you lov’d so hugely
for life ‘mong all the blesséd children, You or me, the cradle brought out with Our babe, who’ll pull the progeny into the sun?
who’ll lick the menstrual blood, You, me? who’ll eat the placenta, who’ll sell it? whose teeth’ll cut the cord, whose nails’ll scrape the ‘Arth to bury it deeper than deepest fang?“

It is doubtful that many writers have gone as far “to force, to dislocate . . . language into its meaning” (as T. S. Eliot formulates it), all while—pace Eliot—not being “allusive,” “indirect.” Guyotat’s writings cannot please. They are intentionally, indeed overinsistently, scabrous; and they are conscientiously repetitious in their linear, timeless design. Yet it is nevertheless well worth one’s effort to examine the new, terrible beauty born of this author’s thoroughly disturbing “eloquence,” a language alarmingly akin to some primordial, vivacious, at once guttural and sibilant French taking us back to awesome “origins” we had never suspected.»

 

Images by Eric Rondepierre

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