Friday, November 12, 2010

Tristan Garcia writes about the effect of AIDS on Paris intellectuals in the 80s and 90s.

I read a review of this novel, which has been celebrated in France, and could not wait to read it. I am teaching a course on AIDS Literature this term, and I wish I had known about this book before I set the syllabus.

Hate: A Romance

Hate (283 pages, Faber and Faber, $24) is translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein. It is Tristan Garcia’s first novel, which in French is called The Best of Men. The story, told by Liz (Elizabeth Lavallois), a child of the eighties, concerns three men. Two are Parisian intellectuals who trace their roots back to the heady days of 1968, while the third younger man, is handsome and far more elemental than the others.

Will, or Willie, Miller, the younger man, from Amiens, trades on his good looks and disrupts the world of Dominique Rossi, an openly gay writer and thinker, originally from Corsica. Dominique has confronted the horrors of AIDS and begun a “safe sex” program that is supported by the largest and most powerful gay organizations in France.

Jean-Michel Liebowitz, the second intellectual, is a deeply committed Jewish leftist who, in the course of the novel, comes to seem more like a neo-con, both in his politics and in his personal style.

Liz is close to all these men. Indeed she is having an affair with the married Jean-Michel for most of the novel. She is friendly with Dominique, or Doum, and Will, when they are lovers, and she carries a torch for the handsome Will, as so many other characters in the novel do.

The novel is brilliant in its presentation of the vagaries of Parisian intellectual life. At times almost heady with Marxist and post-structuralist ideas, Garcia, who is himself trained in philosophy, seems happiest when he is diagnosing the in-breeding of French thought in the late twentieth-century. But he also tells a riveting tale of sexual transgression, personal confrontation, and generational catastrophe.

Will finds himself at odds with Dominique, first within their relationship, which we see only briefly, but vividly; and then, after they split, everywhere else. Will's obsession with the man, with whom he was clearly in love, leads him to go after him publicly where he is most vulnerable. Because Doum’s most visible public cause is his “safe sex” program, Will becomes the avatar of unsafe sex. Attacking Doum and his cronies as the old men who want to destroy sex for the young, Will starts a barebacking campaign that has great success with the young.

“Prevention=Repression,” his t-shirts and bill-boards say, and without anyone quite knowing how, Willie Miller becomes the man of the moment. He writes a diatribe against Doum and the older gay leaders, and he becomes the man of the hour.

Garcia is spectacular at depicting the heady world of those who are defying AIDS, claiming that it is a grand conspiracy and even, a "Jewish conspiracy." Willie angers all the old guard, on the left, on the right, and in between.

One sleeping giant this activity angers is Jean-Michel Liebowitz, who comes out swinging; and in fighting the younger terror, he and Dominique meet up and try to call in all their cards in order to deal Will the final blow. They want to crush the young man, and they know exactly how to do that. They publish an interview about the "history of AIDS," as a way of reclaiming their position in it.

It seems, however, that Will’s physical breakdown will do even more than they can do with their timely publications. Garcia is great at depicting the gradual and then sudden breakdown that is typical of AIDS, and it is painfully ironic that we see the defiant young firebrand and many of his friends nearly wasting away.

Liz, the narrator, brings us in and out of these characters lives, and she offers her own assessments along the way. What Garcia is doing, though, besides giving us these three portraits—or four, really including Liz—is to give us a breathtakingly clear portrait of an entire age. These figures may not represent specific historical individuals, but they remind one of everything that was happening, politically and culturally, around the issue of AIDS in the later twentieth century.

I think this is one of the great novels to have emerged from this hideous history. I know it will be on my syllabus the next time I teach this course.

Tristan Garcia

Get a copy of Hate: A Romance at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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