Pierre Guyotat: Accursed and Celebrated

Over the centuries, French literature has at first decried, and then boasted, a host of transgressive poètes maudits—Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet… The list goes on.

Members of this pantheon of accursed outsiders share the fact that—sooner or later—howls of execration against their affronts turn into paeans to their daring.

It seems that in France, reviled writers either go into exile, as Genet did, or come to be embraced by intellectual culture, says Stephen Barber, a professor of visual and material culture at Kingston University London: “You reach a certain age, and you become quite a celebrated figure. That doesn’t happen in other European countries.”

Certainly, he says, that has been the fate of Pierre Guyotat, whose 2006 book, Coma, has recently been released in Noura Wedell’s English translation by Semiotext(e), distributed by MIT Press.

Guyotat, born in 1940, is still alive, although rather miraculously, judging by Coma. The book presents a hallucinatory, often ecstatic report from a man who is so hell-bent on his literary experimentalism that he stops eating and slides into unconsciousness. This is Guyotat’s story of his own experience as a young man in a mental asylum, where hospital workers had to rescue him from near death.

He has been described as the heir of the Marquis de Sade, Rimbaud, and other poètes maudits, and any summary of his output reveals why. In books like Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats (Gallimard, 1967), the highly acclaimed Eden, Eden, Eden (Gallimard, 1970), and Prostitution (Gallimard, 1975), Guyotat unleashed a torrent of brutality and obscenity, wading into realms of slavery, prostitution, and humiliation while also tearing the French language apart grammatically, semantically, and orthographically.

Guyotat drew on his experiences as a volunteer French soldier in the Algerian war of colonial liberation—in which he was imprisoned for his support of the rebels—and on later trips to Africa where he witnessed the depravities of battlefields, wastelands, and brothels, says Barber, who has contributed introductions to two English translations of Guyotat: Tomb For 500,000 Soldiers (Solar Books, 2002), and Eden, Eden, Eden (Solar Books, 2008). The latter’s one sentence ran to 163 pages.

Despite including prefaces by leading French intellectuals—Michel Leiris, Roland Barthes, and Philippe Sollers—French authorities banned the sale of Eden, Eden, Eden to anyone under 18, which provoked protests from a who’s who of Continental contrarians—they included Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Boulez, Jean Genet, Maurice Blanchot, Max Ernst, Italo Calvino, and Simone de Beauvoir—and even the political leaders François Mitterrand and Georges Pompidou.

The rebellious students who manned the barricades during the May 1968 street riots in Paris had already shown their support for Guyotat by embracing his writing, says Barber.

The translation and teaching history of Guyotat’s work has been spotty. Barber says that a few years ago while teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, he became aware that the author now appears on French literature and creative-writing syllabi on several U.S. campuses.

In translation, Coma has enjoyed clearer sailing than other Guyotat books. Soon after its French publication, Prostitution stumped at least three commissioned English-language translators due to such features as its idiosyncratic syntax and punctuation and its muddle of French, Arabic, and various argots. Says Barber: “It’s clearly an extremely grueling project to take on, and I’m not surprised that translators came to grief with it.”

That has been something of a pattern, with Guyotat translations, he says. In the United States, Grove Press commissioned one for Tomb in the early 1970s, from a prominent translator, the late Helen Lane, but the project so exhausted her that—or so the story goes—she eventually destroyed her completed manuscript.

Nonetheless, Guyotat’s star may continue to rise in the English-speaking world, as it has in France, where Coma has won a major literary prize and the national library is digitizing his manuscripts. And at least one more English translation—of his 2010 work, Arrière-fond (Background)—is anticipated. It evokes the sexual hallucinations Guyotat experienced as a youth when he traveled in 1955 to northeast England.—Peter Monaghan

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