Saturday, May 22, 2010

Harvey Milk Day + Translation: Guillaume Dustan

Happy Harvey Milk Day!


Five years back, after learning of his death, I wrote about Guillaume Dustan (1965-2005), the enfant terrible of late 20th century French gay male literature. I won't restate all of that here, except to note that around the age of 30, he began publishing a series of novels, drawn directly from his life, that placed him squarely at the center of the French autofiction movement, in which autobiography and fiction are so closely merged that they unsettle the question of genre. Dustan published 8 or 9 books, most of them fiction but several works of philosophical essays, especially on the topic of queerness, before his death, from an accidental drug overdose. He was also an editor for Balland's now extinct Rayon Gay line--which I also wrote about on here, and which is how I first learned about and had a brief email exchange with him, getting clearance for a translation--and a film producer and actor. Dustan's first three books, only one of which, Dans ma chambre (In My Room) from 1996, has been translated, are pulse-like accounts of his very active sex-and-love life, but they are also shorn of sentimentality; the concise, speedy, casual prose paints a rich picture, often full of feeling, without evoking affect in the usual ways. In 1999, he published the novel Nicolas Pages, which was somewhat of a departure. Denser, more full of anecdotes, digressions, and self-analysis and philosophizing, it takes up Dustan's pursuit of and relationship with the eponymous, younger author and conceptual artist,
Nicolas Pages (1970-, at right), who had only a few years before, in 1997, published his first book, Je mange un oeuf, which I've I translated a portion of.  I subsequently did translate some of Dustan's novel, and realized this week, while teaching a unit on conceptual writing and rereading the works of Kenneth Goldsmith, Rob Fitterman, and Tan Lin, that one way to think about Pages' first novel, and a good deal of the more chronologically-grounded, stylistically flat or affectless, verisimilitudinous works like Pages, would be as a form of documentary realism, or conceptual fiction. Pages, as I noted is a conceptual artist, but as far as I can tell, I haven't seen that link made in US criticism, though Pages and Dustan are frequently linked to Bret Easton Ellis, whose influence is evident in their work, and whom both approvingly cite repeatedly. (Other writers whose names have been evoked in relation to both are Renaud Camus, Hervé Guibert, Céline, and the American queer master Dennis Cooper.) One great aspect of reading and translating Dustan's Nicolas Pages was seeing his appreciation of Pages' first book stated so clearly and forcefully in the opening pages of the novel; I have long wondered if it was just me who saw validity in what Pages was doing. Now that Goldsmith and company are big, perhaps there will be more appreciation for at least some of their counterparts, especially Pages and the late Dustan, overseas.

Here's a little snippet from Nicolas Pages (Éditions Balland, 1999, winner of the 1999 Prix de Flore), which gives a flavor of the jagged, sometimes snaky qualities of the prose (the infelicities of the rough translation are all mine), and the self-referentiality of the narrative:

It happened like this. He was late getting to FNAC Saint-Lazare for an FG radio blah-blah with Alain Royer and Gwen Fauchois. Then we figured that he couldn't be far away, his bags were already there, set up. We had to start. I'd put on my wig, to get myself together, to make an impression too. I found it comical to put a wig to go on the radio. I took a small jog around the book display gondola--on casters--sitting at the entrance to the room (my choice: my girlfriends' gay books from the press). And then there he was. First the head and the top of his usual soft T-shirt neither too wide nor too tight, up to this point black or blue, today green, atop the black mesh. The hair was a little longer than in Liège, but still short and you could see that although he had left a longer strip, one end of the crown was higher on the right, or perhaps on the left. His eyes were still brilliant too. His face so expressive, but reserved. I also still found it gorgeous. Everything happened very quickly. I was happy to have the wig, it gave me a little distance. We got to work. I spoke about why the wig ("for a peaceful coexistence between the male and female in the same person"). He read a passage from my book, the one where I cite "Sweet Dreams." I thanked him. I read a passage from his, I don't know which one, I had just gotten up to go look for an example in the stacks he'd left here for FNAC, this cunt still hasn't faxed me his invoice sheets, it's the hugest rush right now, he's going to move to in New York on July 11th, it's June 29th now, I settle on the Mykonos trip, I read, I hear his voice speaking the text, it drives me crazy, it drives me as crazy as in Mykonos, contrary to my memory, he doesn't stop fucking, I'm jealous, I'm jealous even when he speaks about people that I do not know of, from a time when I did not know him, I am really blown away, I am serious. I said that I thought that his book was the most important book since American Psycho (besides mine, I thought). That's really what I think. He thanked me. He spoke. He only spoke of things he was sure about. I appreciated his smarts. I removed my wig so as not to hold the public's attention during his time. After, we placed his book at FNAC, while drinking champagne with Alain, Gwen and some people in the bar, nice people. Nicolas likes to drink. He drinks but he maintains control. It's because of that that I started to like him. He brought back to me my proud youth. I was someone beautiful before I lost my principles. He's handsome like a cowboy, like Rahan, like Doctor Justice (two nights later, at Dispatch, where he's at the bar, ordering—he goes all the time to order drinks and he rolls pretty good joints also, more than me but it's normal since he sees what I have to do, he says nothing. He's hovering before me, the back of his black Adidas top two centimeters above. I touch him thinking that it's maybe not a good thing. I touch him thinking that I'm against public touching, except in the case of an obvious emergency. He looks at me with an air a bit near neutral which means I'm afraid. I think about Quentin who was always feeling me up at the gallery. Nicolas is upstanding. He's 27 years old. I'm 32. We don't have the same history. But no big deal, seeing as though everyone has the same one. I hope that we'll have enough points in common. Up to the age of 24 I never made any effort. I had the power to not want to please anyone. I no longer said the obvious things. Only a half-word, if anything).

Copyright © Guillaume Dustan, from Nicolas Pages, Éditions Balland, 1999, 2010. Translation, John Keene, 2003, 2010. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Really very relavant artical with the topic it is good work.