November 2010

Christopher Merkel

fiction

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia, translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein

Who doesn't appreciate a good controversy? And what book lover can resist when the controversy surrounds a breakout new author -- especially when that author is French? Francophile or not, it's easy to ascribe an ascendance to the French literary arts -- belle lettres, anyone? -- and it was very much by the allure of that sentiment that I pursued Tristan Garcia's Hate: A Romance.

Garcia, a philosopher by training, won the the Prix de Flore for young authors in 2008 for Hate, and no doubt it was both the prize and the book's notoriety that won it translation into English. As it goes. (No doubt there's plenty of French drivel that stays in the country, which should dispel any illusions I maintain regarding the magic of the French novel.) And who knows? Had the book come out under a more literal casting of its original title, La meilleure part des hommes ("The Best of Men"), I might not have given it a first thought.

Regardless, I read it, and it wasn't hard to understand the controversy it caused. The book has all the easy makings of a sensational debut: radical politics, sex (gay sex in particular), betrayal (political, sexual and on the grounds of sexual politics) -- even (mon dieu!) a questioning of the fundamental integrity of the Republic -- all of it told on account of a ruined love affair. With Hate, Garcia delivers an utterly human take on the novel of ideas, a book about the often ugly personal motivations that underpin our most high-minded and heavy-handed intellectual convictions.

The story of Hate is the story of four lives and their intersections over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. William Miller, the youngest and the first to be introduced, is the product of a solitary childhood in the provinces who, after a stint in sales training, makes his Paris debut in 1989 as a derelict, pontificating street kid. Dominique Rossi, a fixture of the Communist party in the seventies, trades politics for the flourishing gay nightlife of Paris in the late seventies and early eighties, during which time he falls victim to HIV and emerges as a major AIDS activist. Jean-Michel Leibowitz is a professor, philosopher and lapsed champion of the left, who finds himself constantly torn between the worlds of academia and action. Our narrator, Elizabeth Levallois, is a journalist. In her own words, she’s “Willie’s friend, Doumé’s colleague, Leibo’s lover,” and from that privileged personal and professional vantage she gives us their stories -- and her own.

Leibo and Dominique know each other from academic circles, a shared history on the left. Dominique and Elizabeth work together as writers for a magazine called Libération (a fictive extension, I assume, of the monthly New Left magazine that ended its run in 1977). Elizabeth takes Willie in from off the streets after meeting him at a party. She helps him publish some articles on culture. Willie meets Dominique. They love and fuck for five years in the early nineties. Then it ends. Paris takes sides. Willie is infected. Elizabeth sleeps with Leibo, whom she's known since her days as his student. Leibo also sleeps with Sara, his wife. And Leibo, in and out of league with Dominique and Elizabeth's constant cultural foil, is an essential contrarian (a flip-flopper in modern American parlance), or, "in other words," as Elizabeth puts it, "he was an intellectual."

The central action of Hate surrounds the falling out of Willie and Dominique, after which Dominique, leader of the gay rights and prevention organization Stand, fights Willie, the upstart novelist and prevention opponent (in Willie's casting, the condom is a normalizing tool of the hetero-normative state), both in public and in the press. Leibo rails against whatever and whomever as suits him. His enemy is whatever happens to be the prevailing zeitgeist of the moment.

The intellectual scope of Hate is impressively wide, and, as a result, it's impossible to treat it successfully in description with any brevity. But to be necessarily brief (everyone in Hate gets the benefit of contradiction, why shouldn't I?), I suspect that Garcia himself supports the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in schools, is on the fence about Israel and Palestine (it's an intellectual exercise more than an issue) and considers Spinoza adolescent but remains enamored of Derrida and Deleuze (really, this book is all over the place). I look through my haphazard notes and read an "urge to write my review in the polemics of the articles in the text." Consider yourselves spared.

Surely there are recent historical persons from which the personalities of the characters in Hate were collected. The political and ideological conflicts described in the book are real. Thankfully, Garcia exonerates readers of having to investigate analogs between his characters and any real life persons in a short introductory disclaimer. If we might happen to see in Willie, Dominique, Leibo or Elizabeth similarities with anyone real or imagined from the last half century, it's "simply because other persons or characters would behave no differently under similar circumstances."

And that's the point. Hate is a gripping narrative of ideas in the early information age and, in particular, of sexual liberation and the AIDS crisis. This was the exciting age of cultural freedom and ironic for-the-record redactions that somehow saw the old left brought into the fold of a new conservatism. American readers will inevitably draw comparisons with the neoliberalism that consumed our intellectual and political discourse during that same time. But ultimately, Hate is a personal novel. It's hate after all, and love and sex; and by extension, in Garcia's telling, that's politics. As Spinoza wrote, hate is nothing but sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause. And so Garcia's characters move, and the success of his novel is in its deft inquiry into whether our commitments to ideas and their associated public causes aren't just the result of circumstance, nurture and the vendettas of lost love.

To his credit, Garcia chose to narrate his novel in a female voice. Elizabeth is smart, aware and convincing. Her voice (and the novel as a result) is sympathetic and compelling. As narrative structure goes, Garcia's effort is impressive. Elizabeth tells nothing more than she could know, and refrains from speculation on the motivations of her friend, her colleague and her lover. She is, however, in an unfortunate irony, the only (permit me) intellectually castrated character, as Garcia allows her only the role of the stereotypical nurturer, the only of the four principles who isn't permitted the dubiously arrived at convictions that she investigates in her intimates. In all of his incisive insights into his other characters, Garcia relegates Elizabeth to a passive role. Despite her admirable sympathy and equanimity -- believe me, she's a comforting companion when the novel gets heavy, Elizabeth is wanting as a woman in a novel about the tumult of the socially and politically dispossessed.

Still, Garcia deserves his notoriety, and not just for his controversial themes. Hate succeeds not just for his deep and studied familiarity with his subjects, but also because of his keen understanding of the human conditions that drive our conflicts of ideas. Hate is a sad romance, and maybe the ability to step back from ourselves and admit that uncomplimentary truth is really the best of man. Or maybe I'm just incredibly uninformed; maybe I missed something essential. But, as Elizabeth, resigned, says at one point: "I'm the one telling this story, so I get to have the last word." Get it?

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia, translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein
Faber & Faber
ISBN: 0865479119
288 Pages