Sunday, December 28, 2003

To Celebrate Love Between A Writer and A Reader
Edwin Irvanus

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker, Paperback, Publisher: Vintage, Published: 1996, Pages: 173

How much is the love between a writer with their readers? Here it comes, a novel about the relationship between the author and his reader, about the responsibility of the reader to love the writer - that sounds potentially captivating. Every writer writes for a reader. Every writer sends a voice out, hoping to reach the person who can answer. The relationship may be acknowledged or not, it doesn't matter-it exists. Hallucinating Foucault, Patricia Duncker's first novel, is an exploration into the intangible intimacy that binds together the writers of words and the person who reads them. When reader and the writer meet their relationship changes. Does it culminate? Consummate? Unfold? Does it destroy them? Patricia Duncker's Hallucinating Foucault is smart about the seductions of reading, writing and sad fact about fantasy realized, the difficulties of love lived in the flesh.
In this spellbinding novel, Duncker explores a love more mysterious and treacherous than any other: the romantic love between a writer and a reader. The young, nameless narrator of Hallucinating Foucault is a graduate male student of Cambridge University who is writing a dissertation on the work of that French novelist, Paul Michel. Paul Michel is a writer, an enfant terrible of the French literary world, homosexual, anarchic and mad. He is Brilliant, beautiful, and gay with vengeance, Michel scandalized his society with his transgressive fiction and his audacious life. Paul Michel has some ambiguous connections to the real-life author of Histoire de la Sexualité, L'Archéologie du Savoir and many other books, Michel Foucault -the French philosopher who died of AIDS in 1984-' not least that he was taken into custody for berserkly vandalizing a graveyard less than a week after Michel Foucault's death in 1984. For Michel, Foucault was his Muse, his reader, and, when Foucault died, he went mad. Michel's violent despair caused him to be legally restrained by the State in a mental hospital. He has not been seen in public for over nine years-but Duncker's narrator decides to find him.
In this complex novel, readers try to declare their hopeless love for writers. It is one of many fitting ironies in this intricate novel. Its central authorial figure is incarcerated in an insane asylum, incommunicado except for his literary works. Yet the nameless Cambridge graduate student who narrates this elaborate book is at first merely interested in reading Michel's subtly transgressive novels, not in going on a post-modern ''Aspern Papers'' chase. It is only after being goaded by his girlfriend, a Germanist so passionate about her studies that she writes love letters to Schiller, that he starts tracking down the sequestered author. But a little disturbance in the first part of this novel is about relationship between Narrator and his icy girlfriend is painfully contrived. Our young Narrator seems more impressed by literary passion than by any other human characteristics.
Duncker writes for an educated reader and her characters are clever and challenging but not always completely human. Partly, this is deliberate. Her narrator tends to apply bitter labels to others in his story rather than name them. His depiction of "The Germanist", the woman who seduces him and leads him into finding Paul Michel for motives of her own, verges on caricature. As does his picture of her gay father, known throughout his story as "The Bank of England". In contrast to these, Paul Michel is disturbingly alive and human. And the narrator's experience of Michel's madness, which is often a deliberate flouting of normal conventions, (rather reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's zany madness in the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is exceptionally well conveyed.
Duncker litters the trail with clues and surprises. ''You ask me what I fear most,'' Michel writes in an unsent letter to Foucault, which the narrator finds in a Paris archive. ''You know already or you would not ask. It is the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write.'' Foucault metamorphoses from an ''Oedipal ogre'' into Michel's ideal reader.
In exploring the mysterious bond between writer and reader, Ms. Duncker sets up tantalizing parallels between her fictional author and Foucault. Both are drawn to society's margins, both are preoccupied with madness and desire, and both use their writing as a means of rebellion. But while Foucault had at one time wanted to write fiction, Michel writes nothing else. And while Foucault's academic career began at Clermont-Ferrand, Michel ends up there as a patient in a closed ward.
When the narrator at last meets Michel, he introduces himself to the writer simply as ''your English reader.'' With that declaration, they begin their own weirdly intimate writer-reader relationship. As Michel's psychiatrist puts it, the narrator has arrived ''courting him like a lover.'' However elegantly composed his novels are, in person the amoral and sarcastic Michel disconcertingly resembles Jean Genet. Despite -- or because of -- his abrasive behavior, he manages to enthrall the narrator more intensely in the flesh than he ever did on paper. Defying easy diagnosis, Michel seems to feign both sanity and madness. ''I found that I had been writing -- on my knees, on my hands, on the inside of my right arm. When I saw the writing I knew I was mad,'' he lucidly explains to the narrator. He has suffered from hallucinations and paranoia, been drugged and forcibly restrained, and escaped several times from the asylum.
In spite of Michel's own warnings and his psychiatrist's misgivings, the narrator naively plots to rescue the writer, securing a temporary release for him in the south of France. Although the narrator does not realize its significance, the vagabond Michel has already spent time there; he met his first love on the region's rocky beaches. Hinted at in his novel ''Midi,'' the secret of this love gives the climax of the labyrinthian ''Hallucinating Foucault'' a final, 180-degree plot twist.
''The love between a writer and a reader is never celebrated. It can never be proved to exist,'' Michel tells the narrator after they have begun their peculiar affair. The readers in ''Hallucinating Foucault'' nonetheless try to declare their hopeless love, though it may lead to disaster or become idealized into obsession. Even Michel's secret relationship with Foucault rests only on Michel's dubious testimony and whatever the fixated narrator reads into the two men's works.
Intriguing title, which continued in the book in terms of the plot. Very direct style that has immediacy. The Style absorbed me from the beginning. Once finished I had to re-read it to enjoy the working out of the plot. An absorbing intelligent reading about what it means to be a 'reader'. After a dull start I was gripped by the 'hero's' passionate quest and moved by the uneasy outcome. An unusual and unlikely story, but so convincingly told that I could have believed it to be autobiographical rather than a first novel. Dealing with a student's obsession with a French writer, this novel is a must for anyone who has researched a writer's life. It would not appeal to everyone, as homosexuality and insanity are two of the subjects involved in the book. P. Duncker takes us into a world of students and writers, culminating in an unwise relationship between a young man and a middle aged author who has been certified insane. A good lesson on how love is not necessarily gender based - accepting and loving someone for who they are rather than male or female. Very real characters, fast moving story.
Patricia Duncker was born in the West Indies. She teaches writing, literature and feminist theory at the University of Wales and lives for part of the year in France. Hallucinating Foucault, her first work of fiction, won the 1997 Dillons First Fiction Award. Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, a collection of short stories, is also available from Serpent's Tail.
Duncker, for all these paradoxes, is fervent about the intimacy the act of reading can evoke. A fierce intellectual passion transfuses her cool, spare prose and her shifting characterizations in a fascinating drama of knowledge and power, reason and desire. Amid the mind games and power plays of this austere, romantic novel, the ideal reader could risk an ideal hallucination. Duncker's strength is her compassion for the disturbed, her sympathy for the outsider, the maverick. The novel's premise is certainly noteworthy, that the privilege of readership demands the love of the reader. Duncker draws out the tensions between the youth and the middle-aged, the mad and the sane, the writer and his reader with clear, unornamented prose. And while the story is dark and sometimes disturbing, it is throughout touched with humour, compassion, and a curious kind of hope. Duncker skillfully layers the relationships between writers and their readers. Her use of fictionalized articles and letters makes us part of the narrator's process of research and discovery, and when we finally do meet the truly mad, entirely unpredictable and fascinatingly hilarious Paul Michel, we have invested as much into the relationship as he has.
Quite simply, Hallucinating Foucault has become one of my few favourite books.